Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Five Ponds Wilderness: The Wilderness Lakes Tract

Small island on Evergreen LakeAreas ideally suitable for a novice bushwhacker are not common in the northwestern Adirondacks. Plentiful blowdowns, extensive wetland complexes and thousands of acres of unbroken forests can appear insurmountable to the uninitiated.

Typically, the best areas for an inexperienced bushwhacker contain many prominent features, such as trail networks, old logging roads, lakes, ponds and small wetlands, which increase the opportunities to orient oneself in the landscape.

One such area is the Wilderness Lakes Tract in the southwest corner of the Five Ponds Wilderness, just north of Stillwater Reservoir.

The Wilderness Lakes Tract is a rather recent addition to the State Forest Preserve. It was acquired by the state in 1982, but the original owner, a timber company, retained the rights to lumber it until 1990. And apparently they did so aggressively for those eight years. The network of old logging roads remain a testament, especially in the eastern portion of the tract, where they weave a web of access to many of the more striking water bodies in this area. These roads remain today, in a wide array of conditions, from the nearly overgrown to wide open grassy lanes, providing a convenient way to explore the area’s many gems.

Access to the Wilderness Lakes Tract is from the hamlet of Stillwater Reservoir at the end of Necessary Dam Road, where a gated bridge over the Beaver River provides limited access to Raven Lake Road. Raven Lake Road is a well-maintained dirt road, but it is not open to public vehicular travel. The lack of motorized vehicles is a boon for those enjoying a pleasant hike, as the road winds its way through the deep forest with the Pepperbox Wilderness Area to the west and the Five Ponds Wilderness to the east.

Raven Lake Road’s primary purpose is to provide access to a small in-holding on the eponymous lake’s southeast shore. After about two miles, just passed the side road to the in-holding, Raven Lake Road abruptly ends at a line of boulders, shrouded in saplings at the base of a steep hill. Beyond this point, the unmaintained and unmarked trail ascends the ridge, where it functions as the gateway to the tract via a network of old logging roads beyond.

Other than the old logging roads, only a scant few marked trails penetrate into the wilderness here. These few trails function as canoe carries that connect several of the more prominent water bodies together. These carries (often called portages outside the Adirondacks) allow for an extended canoe trip deep into the tract, but they also play the dual role of functioning as a bushwhacking destination since they are unconnected to any other trail network.

The canoe carries start at Stillwater Reservoir, near campsite #1 in Kettlehole Bay located northeast of the dam. This is the longest and most arduous carry of the bunch, as it is a consistent climb through mostly hardwood forest for a little over half a mile to Raven Lake Road. The only consolation of the arduous climb is the numerous waterfalls along the way, which should distract the mind off the aching of the thighs.

Just half a mile up the road, the canoe carry begins anew with a short jaunt to Shallow Pond. From this tiny pond, one can continue via a channel to Raven Lake, one of the larger water bodies of the area. Other than the small inholding, with its attractive camp along the southern shore, the remainder of the shoreline is wild and remote. Near its northernmost point lies the next canoe carry to Lyon Lake.

These next three canoe carries connect Raven Lake, Lyon Lake, Bear Pond and Diana Pond, each carry shorter than the next. These carries allow any intrepid canoe adventurer access to the deep interior of the tract. Gaining access to any of the other water bodies of the area, which are unconnected via the carries, requires an entirely different approach however.

Trees growing in on old logging roadGaining access to the tract’s more remote interior water bodies requires some bushwhacking, at least in principle. Thanks to the pillaging of the timber resources prior to the tract’s full inclusion into the Forest Preserve, a network of old logging roads penetrate deep into the forest in this area, making access to the numerous lakes and ponds easier than would otherwise be possible. Novice bushwhacking explorers will embrace this feature; experienced ones though, not so much, as the old roads act as a distraction and ever present temptation.

The main logging road extends from the end of Raven Lake Road, northeast, undulating around an occasional wetland, before slowly fizzling out after crossing through the narrow spit of land separating Bear and Diana Ponds. From this main logging road, numerous other logging roads permeate into the adjacent forest like fine roots from a central stem. These side roads offer a means to access the canoe carry trails, as well as many of the surrounding ponds and lakes, including Muskrat Pond, Ginger Pond, Slim Pond and Evergreen Lake. The possible adventures here are nearly limitless, constrained only by one’s imagination, navigation skills and time.

Every year makes following the old logging roads more of a challenge, however. In some places, the forest canopy has already closed over the old roads, albeit mostly by young saplings. While in other places, the roads remain nearly as obvious as they were when newly abandoned. These conditions can be a welcome crutch for beginning bushwhackers, while at the same time, a constant source of confusion. Although these old roads often ease travel through the second growth forest, they can also make it more frustrating, as it is difficult to discern the roads ultimate destination, which can often be at odds with your own.

The Wilderness Lakes Tract was a frequent destination when I was training to become a bushwhacker. My first foray to the area was on my very first Birdathon adventure in May 1998. After birding throughout central New York, I finished the day by hiking along Raven Lake Road to the lake to stay the night. The allure of the road continuing into the unknown wilderness as a more wild version of its former self beyond the barrier, combined with subsequent researching of the area, drew me back for many subsequent adventures.

My past adventures in the Wilderness Lakes Tract ranged from a single night in the rain at Slim Pond, to multi-day adventures exploring many of the interior lakes. For one such trip, the tract was merely used to access the many lakes and ponds of the southern Five Ponds Wilderness, such as Dismal Pond, Hawk Pond, Willys Lake, Walker Lake and the Higby Twin Ponds. Once reaching the Red Horse Trail on that trip, I spent a night at the Trout Pond lean-to, before I turned-tail and returned to the tract by hopping from one unnamed pond to another just north of Stillwater Reservoir.

Earlier this year, I once again journeyed into the Wilderness Lakes Tract. Not because I needed a refresher course in beginning bushwhacking, instead it acted as a reconnaissance mission on the viability of using the area during next year’s Birdathon. After spending the last few years birding and bushwhacking through the Pepperbox Wilderness with less than stellar results, I thought I might take a chance on somewhere new.

For this latest trip, I spent only three days in the area, hiking the old logging road to the south shore of Evergreen Lake for the first night, followed by Peaked Mountain and Hidden Lake the next day, before ending up around Ginger Pond wetland complex for the second night. The trip was very similar to one of the first extended bushwhacking trips I took years ago, except on that past trip I continued north to Huckleberry Pond and Diana Pond before exiting via the main logging road.

Very little seemed to have changed since my last trip many years ago, but I knew that to be an illusion. In many places, the logging roads had probably grown in slightly, leaving the evidence of human impact slightly less apparent. Despite the small changes, the main logging road remained obvious and mostly clear of debris in most places, at least as far as the Slim Pond turnoff. The turnoff was still obvious, as it apparently gets plenty of use, plus a small, contorted Scots pine acts as sentry at the intersection. This small pine was not the only exotic species in the area, as many herbaceous plants from other continents grew along the old road, including dandelions.

The side logging road descended to Slim Pond’s outlet, where several fire rings in varying states of disrepair lay right in the middle of old road. This was where I spent a wet evening once, with my one-person tent set up in the old road; luckily no fast moving wild life ran over it. Like the fire rings, the beaver dam straddled the middle of the old road; apparently, an industrious aquatic rodent took lessons from these past campers, or vice versa.

Old logging road through Wilderness Lakes TractShortly after I crossed the beaver dam, the old road led to a large open area, with logging roads that went east to Ginger Pond and south around the western end of Evergreen Lake. To the south, the tree canopy closed in, with more wet spots and ruts, where it resembled an old skidder road or Jeep trail. The road had enough use that a well-defined footpath weaved its way down the center. The trail eventually led to a large, well-used campsite, at least based on the lack of vegetation and amount of litter strewn about.

A tricky water crossing soon followed, which required me to head downstream a short distance to a thin beaver dam. The crossing was precarious, but I managed without getting wet or injured. The flooding here was one of the few major changes since my last foray, as last time it was dry but muddy. Obviously, the beavers had been busy during my absence.

Frequent small clearing lay along what remains of the old road along the southern shore of Evergreen Lake. Ferns and herbaceous vegetation grew thickly within each of the openings, which often obscured piles and pits of metal cans and glass bottles, remnants of past human occupation. This was hardly unexpected, as an old topographic map indicated there used to be several structures along the shoreline here.

My choice for a campsite was a little farther on, with a nondescript trail veering off down toward the lake. The campsite showed little changes from previous visits; cinder blocks remained in the same place, an old mattress spring and other random pieces of metal still protruded from the ground and an old metal teakettle lie discarded near the fire pit. Even the outstanding view of a small island remained unobstructed and as beautiful as I remembered it. A few scattered open areas allowed for at least two or three tents comfortably, a couple in the main clearing and another one a short distance off into the woods.

After staying the first night at the campsite overlooking Evergreen Lake, I left the old road behind and headed to a large wetland west of Peaked Mountain Lake, which required the use of my compass for the first time. The route chosen allowed for avoiding climbing anything but the shoulder of the eponymous mountain and gave me the opportunity to check out the wetland for birdlife. Although I stepped into an occasional small garbage pit near the old road, the only evidence of human activity later on was the numerous stumps scattered about and near the wetland, the remnants of another old woods road.

From the eastern tip of the wetland, I headed directly to the western shore of Peaked Mountain Lake. The lake was large and pristine looking, except for some toilet paper, a beer can and other miscellaneous refuse. A scan of the shoreline yielded what looked like an old wooden dock along the northern shore, another relic of the age of human impact. A peninsula of rock jutted out from the opposite shore, with numerous boulders positioned atop it in a straight line as if they placed there purposely. Another human impact, or just coincidence, it was impossible to say.

The northern shore was a steep slope covered in middle-aged conifers, just like most other wilderness water bodies in the area. Farther upslope and away from the lake, remnants of an old road were seemingly encountered, or maybe it was just an illusion at the nexus of my mind and forest.

In between Peaked Mountain Lake and Hidden Lake, a fairly well traveled footpath was crossed. Occasionally, flagging streamed from tree limbs marking the trails location. This trail existed during my first trip to the area, and by the looks of it, it still gets use, despite the many intervening years. Although I lost the trail many times, it was always temporary and within less than a minute or two, I was right back on it. The trails obviousness made carrying the compass almost superfluous, as it had been for the majority of the trip.

The trail took me the entire way to Hidden Lake, which although smaller than its cousin to the southwest, lacked nothing in the remoteness department. Its shoreline was rocky, with several large boulders perturbing from the water, which gave at least one giant snapping turtle a place to enjoy the early summer sun. While traversing along its northwest shore, several stumps stood as evidence that not even this shoreline was safe from the lumberjack’s saw.

Peaked Mountain LakeThe bushwhacking north toward Ginger Pond was the most difficult of the trip. The climbing certainly did not help; neither did the tempting old roads that quickly turned messy with swampy seeps and dense, young conifers. The struggle often made the compass useless, as it was impossible to consult it for any length of time without getting it entangled in the underbrush. It was with great relief when a long pond appeared, although the euphoric feeling was short-lived, as it turned out to be only a random pond south of Ginger Pond.

The north side of the unnamed pond yielded a more discernible trail on an old road that quickly led to an open landing, which featured a stack of cut wood, cozily covered in a brown tarp. Nearby, near the pond’s shoreline was a vast assortment of equipment including plastic barrels and stovepipe, some covered in tarps on the ground, others hanging up in the trees, firmly attached to trunks. The apparent hunting camp equipment seemed identical to other such gear encountered upon my last trip, although in a different location closer to Ginger Pond.

A well-worn trail climbed uphill to an intersection on a much wider and well-used trail. It does not take much imagination to see where it was once another well-used logging road. A short distance east brought me back to the area where the camping equipment was stored during my last trip to this area. The trail widened here and appeared much more like the old logging road that it once was. Open water from small ponds surround the old road on both sides, although the view of them was somewhat obscured by trees, which made it a challenge to get a good look. Although one might be inclined to think this is Ginger Pond, that pond itself lies off to the northwest, well out of sight.

The old logging road continues over a hill and descends to a stream with a large bridge askew in the middle of it. Further progress from here would need to wait until another trip, as the sun was getting low on the horizon, so I returned the way I came until I found an adequate place to spend the night. After a restful night sleep and a morning of birding, I headed west along the main trail as I presumed it must eventually return me to the old road that I took to Evergreen Lake two days before.

Much of the way, the canopy of the second growth forest formed a thin dome over the old road, which gave me the feeling of hiking through a tunnel. Underneath the canopy, the road remained wide and for the most part, devoid of understory vegetation. In places, it traversed through clearings where the surrounding forest had yet healed the scare left from long ago. At one such clearing, the road lacked almost all vegetation, other than scattered patches of moss.

After hiking for a while, the road connected to the old road that ran between Evergreen Lake and Slim Pond. From there I backtracked to Slim Pond, then the main logging road and finally Raven Lake Road.

My short three-day trip showed the potential of the Wilderness Lakes Tract for bushwhacking, especially for a neophyte. Just do not expect the remote nature common to other portions of the Five Pond Wilderness. On this tract, the scars of human activity remain, nearly a quarter of a century later, and probably will continue for a long time to come. But for someone looking for a place to test their route finding abilities a little or just get off the beaten path, then this just might be the place for them.

Photos: Small island on Evergreen Lake, forest encroaching on main logging road through Wilderness Lakes Tract, open portion of main logging road and Peak Mountain Lake from western shore, all by Dan Crane.


Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




5 Responses

  1. Richard says:

    Thanks Dan.
    Another good adventure–you almost take us there. Interesting how little the area has changed over the years!

  2. Mary Warner Marien says:

    It’s so good to read this detailed description of the Five Ponds Wilderness, where I regularly walk. Here on the edge of the northern part of the Wilderness, we have fewer ponds, but more mostly flat trail. Bird life is abundant. We see bobcats and foxes, as well as deer, bear, and coyotes. While I was driving over to Helldiver Pond recently, in the hope seeing a moose, one appeared in the Town of Fine.

    Mary Lou

  3. Harold says:

    Sounds like an interesting area to XC ski this winter. At the very least my tracks would lessen the chances of getting lost in the network of logging roads and pond hopping would seem easy to do.

  4. Bob says:

    Nice story. Brook trout fishing in a few of these ponds can be excellent. Carry a Hornbeck in and try a few, particularly Evergreen and Peaked Mtn, both a fairly easy hike from the Stillwater shore.