The Adirondack region of central upstate New York is a land of rolling hills with lakes tucked in their pockets. In the winter, blizzards smother highways and countryside, then whisk on, leaving a skier’s paradise behind.
But by mid-January of the winter of 1980, the blizzards had still not come. What little snow had fallen stretched like a crust of dried frosting on the ground, shrinking from the sun to the shadows of the quiet, gray trees. Clouds hovered overhead but never released the hoped-for relief.
Resort operators were frantic. Skiers were disappointed. At Lake Placid, Winter Olympic stars worried about competing on runs with man-made snow. An international television audience lamented the lack of powder on the slopes.
For the young people of the Syracuse New York Stake, however, it was a time of anticipation and excitement. Each year the youth in the stake plan a Winter Weekend, and snow or no snow, they decided to hold their activity. While the Lake Placid ground crews were churning out artificial snow, youth chairmen and committees were busy churning out ideas for alternative activities in case the usual downhill skiing, snow-shoeing, and snow sculpturing had to be scrapped. They knew they were headed for the Star Lake Campus of the University of New York, and that was enough for starters. They’d make their own fun when they got there!
“On the night we arrived, it was raining like crazy,” Steve Beenfield, a 17-year-old priest in the Syracuse Second Ward, said. “But we knew there would be something fun to do anyway.” As everyone registered, chess and checkers tournaments and backgammon, Parcheesi, and other games kept those waiting occupied.
“It was cold outside, but indoors the games were nice, because we got to sit and talk and know people and find out why they believe in the Church and that they do believe in it,” said Mary Jane Morgan, a 15-year-old nonmember who accompanied her friend Sherry Jenkins of the Oneida Branch.
A letter-writing campaign was initiated, too, to encourage each participant to send a note of appreciation to his or her parents. Stationery and stamps were furnished by the youth leaders. “The letter-writing was planned as a way to let some of the kids open up communication with their parents,” said Shelley Moran, 17, chairman of the youth committee that planned the entire outing. “In fact, the whole theme of the talks and firesides seemed to be communication—how to get along with friends, parents, and Church members, how to share feelings with those you’re close to.”
The rain kept pouring. But inside the main lodge it was warm and dry and time for a dance. Chairs and tables were moved to the side of the hall, and soon the beat and the melodies chased away any blues brought on by lack of snow. Even the chaperones joined in the fun, twirling and swirling over the hardwood.
Committee members realized that their peers probably wouldn’t be eager to go straight to bed, so they planned a post-dance fireside to create a reflective mood. Bishop Parry A. Rasmusson of the Syracuse First Ward spoke about peer pressure, and Sister Gail Skinner, stake Laurel adviser, talked about maintaining quality in dating relationships. “The bishop gave some hints about avoiding negative peer pressure that I think will help me in a situation with one of my friends,” Elizabeth Chamberlain, a 16-year-old member of his ward, said.
As the young ladies filed off to the dormitory at the rear of the lodge and the young men rushed through the rain to various cabins where they were housed, the topics of the firesides were discussed over and over. Once the young people were in their bunks, only a pillow fight or two disturbed the silence until the weary young Saints succumbed to sleep.
While they were sleeping, a transformation took place outside. For the first time in weeks, flakes floated from the clouds to the hard-packed surface on the ground. It wasn’t a major storm, just enough of a flurry to build some fluff at foot level. But for the snow-starved New Yorkers, it was ample cause for celebration. When they awoke the next morning and saw powder, they could hardly rush through breakfast fast enough to get outside.
“We couldn’t believe it had really snowed,” said Susan Richards, 17, of the Syracuse First Ward. “But it sure was good to see it.”
Unfortunately, the snow wasn’t deep enough for downhill skiing or for snow sculpturing. Snowshoeing plans were abandoned; so were plans for classes about building snow structures. But every pair of cross-country skis furnished by the camp was used sometime during the day. One of the adult supervisors organized an orienteering class that sent compass watchers wandering in search of markers all through the area. Downhill sliding on toboggans, coats, sacks, plastic, and parkas marked a path down a nearby slope. And when someone found a soccer ball in a car trunk, most of the male population of the conference hurried to a local field for a marathon football match. (So what if the ball was round?)
And of course there were snowball fights. Not just run-of-the-mill skirmishes, but full-fledged attacks and counter-attacks. There was just one difficulty—the snow was too dry to pack. So instead of flinging iceballs at each other, the snowballers threw white puffs that inflicted no damage more severe than a wet face or fogged glasses.
Despite fierce headwinds, many of the conference-goers listed the skiing as their favorite activity. One group ventured out on the hard, thick Star Lake ice, thinking skiing would be simple on the level, slippery surface. Going one way, the wind almost pushed them along. Going the other, its force nearly lifted them off the ice. No matter which direction they went, a powder of ice crystals whipped through the air.
“I’m so skinny I was afraid I’d blow away,” said Karen Kerns, 14, an investigator attending the Fulton Ward. “I leaned on my poles to hold myself up and let the wind move me across the lake.”
But for Mike Dippold, a 17-year-old in the Syracuse First Ward, the football game was the highlight of the outdoor sports. “I’ve never seen such sportsmanship!” Mike said. “It was a hard-fought game, but no one got mad.”
Fred Pappa, 15, of the Fulton Ward, agreed. “I’ve been playing football for five years, and I’ve never been in a game where everyone was courteous like they were out there today. One of the counselors said it was the best game for sportsmanship he’d ever seen.”
Fred said he felt the same attitude extended to other activities of the weekend. “The camp directors always like our group,” he continued. “We take an interest in them and ask questions about what’s going on. And they’re impressed by our language and the way we act. We don’t mess everything up; we take good care of things. We’ve been coming to Star Lake for years, and the only thing ever damaged was a pillow.”
The camp director remains impressed by the young Mormons. He and his wife spent more than an hour discussing the Church with adult leaders. A Book of Mormon received during earlier visits with full-time missionaries was opened again and passages reread. During testimony meetings, he and his wife listened attentively to the sincere emotions of their teenage friends.
In between all of the outdoor sport activities, there were hot chocolate breaks and lunches, then finally dinner, and the second night featured another dance, followed by an adventure movie about John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River.
Before the movie began, some of the youths shared their feelings about the conference, about being young Latter-day Saints in New York, about missionary work, and about families.
“It’s good to see a big group of Mormons like this and know you’re not the only one,” Elizabeth said. “At my high school there are only five of us. We hang around together, and the other kids know we’re LDS. It’s nice to have them keep an eye on me, and I keep an eye on them. There are an awful lot of temptations, so I need them. My main friends are in the Church. Our lockers are in the same area; we get together before we go home and talk things over. But here at the conference there were a lot of us. It was good to see so many others who are trying to live the standards of the Church.”
Shelley talked about the difficulties she faces being a cheerleader in her high school, as well as being one of only three young people in her ward. “It’s hard to stay involved in planning Church activities when there’s so much going on at school, too. But the Church activities are important. I rely on the other committee members in the stake to do their jobs, and they count on me to do the same.
“My friends used to tease me about being a Church member,” she continued. “But they don’t bother me anymore.” She also said that anyone she dates meets her parents first, and that she goes on a lot of group dates.
Karen said she thought writing to her parents and sharing her experiences at the conference with them was a good idea. They aren’t members of the Church, and she wanted to share some of her enjoyment with them. She was first introduced to the Church by her next-door neighbors, who invited her to a home evening, then to worship services. “Now I go to church every Sunday, even though I’m not a member yet,” she said. “I do my seminary, too. Having friends who are members has given me a place to turn for support.”
Tim Halstead, 14, of the Fulton Ward, said he had learned something by obeying the camp regulations. “If you live a rule for a day or so,” he said, “it gets easier. Once you’re used to it, it’s not so hard to do.”
Dan Barker, 14, of the Watertown Ward, said he felt closer to the others at the conference because “we had a chance to get to know each other better.”
Jackie Biggs, 17, from the Syracuse First Ward, said the discussions at the conference had helped her understand ways in which she could improve her relationship with her parents. “Sometimes it seems like lessons don’t apply, but this one did. Sometimes I forget my parents are human, too.”
Jackie’s sentiments reflected feelings a lot of others shared, both during a testimony meeting and during an early morning seminary session.
“After the seminary lesson on parent-child relationships, my mother (who, as stake Young Women president, was at the conference) told me that she loved me,” Sherry said. “My back was to her and I didn’t hear her for sure. I thought maybe I was just wishing. Then turned around and saw her.”
Mike said his brother recently left for college and his sister got married, and he didn’t realize until they were both gone how much his parents meant to him. “I’ll try to learn from them from now on instead of just brushing it off,” he said.
President Ronald L. Scholl, second counselor in the stake presidency, was so impressed by the letter-writing idea that he promised he would write home to his mother. Other adults promised to do the same thing and to express their feelings to their children as well.
Susan said that for her the best part of the conference was the testimony meeting. “Everybody grows a little closer to the Savior during a testimony meeting. And your testimony grows stronger each time you bear it,” she said.
Margo White, 15, of the Tully Branch, said she enjoyed holding seminary as a stake group. “There are only four of us in the branch seminary,” she said. “We usually have our class on Sunday.”
Jackie was a fan of the scripture chase contest. “It helps me to learn scriptures that I might not otherwise learn. I need a little bit of encouragement, and scripture chase provides it.”
Star Lake 1980 wasn’t the usual Winter Weekend for the New York Syracuse Stake. Drifts weren’t deep enough to swallow cars whole. But it seemed fairly evident to everyone there that there was the same amount, if not more, of the spirit of fellowship and learning that has made the annual affair a lasting memory in the minds of the youth of the central upstate area of New York.
The banner the non-Mormon camp director taped to the front of the lodge welcoming the Latter-day Saints to the conference seemed to indicate he enjoys having them here. And a note from an anonymous teenager, scribbled in chalk on a blackboard, let the director know that the Mormons felt the same way and that they would be back next year.
“‘Bye Star Lake,” it said. “You were great! From the LDS youth.’”