Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Oswegatchie River’s Carpet Spruce Swamp

P6189641 Middle Branch Oswegatchie River confluenceTrying something new is often rewarding, although potentially anxiety producing as well. Unfortunately, finding a new area to explore within the northwestern Adirondacks is swiftly becoming more difficult, forcing me further and further off the beaten track. Even months-long injuries have failed to slow this trend.

Although difficult, there remain a few places yet for me to explore. Recently, I narrowed the number of places when I explored a remote portion of the Five Ponds Wilderness where I only had limited experience. This overlooked backcountry gem is bordered by the South Ponds to the west, Riley Ponds to the north, the odd-shaped Crooked Lake to the east and the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River to the south.

I found much to offer the intrepid (i.e. crazy) explorer with the ambition (i.e. insanity) needed to access it. This lack of access enhances the area’s remoteness, giving anyone desiring to avoid the crowds a sanctuary in which to enjoy nature largely undisturbed, except for the occasional aircraft. Although encountering crowds while bushwhacking off-trail is almost never an issue.

Plentiful small ponds dot this area, as well as rolling hills and odd-shaped narrow ridges. Crooked Lake is prominent in the area, a large lake shaped like a four-pointed star, which has the honor of being the headwaters of the Robinson River AND a contributor to the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River. In addition, much of the area is an extensive softwood forest, which Wikipedia describes as a Carpet Spruce Swamp. This softwood forest winds its way through the area like a ribbon following the Oswegatchie, as well as surrounding nearly every other water body.

Access to the area is via Bear Pond Road, a 10+ forest access road that runs through the Watson’s East Triangle (perhaps the best named wild forest in the Adirondacks), and dividing it from the Five Ponds Wilderness for its final portion. Although a dirt road, it is drivable for most vehicles with a modicum of clearance. The likelihood of encountering another vehicle is low, so you might want to bring a shovel or chainsaw just in case.

An old road leads from end of Bear Pond Road (although the road continues to an inholding at Bear Pond, it is gated to the public) to a wooden bridge across the Middle Branch whereas a marked trail leads further east, although the term trail is a tad misleading. Although marked with standard yellow disks, this trail has not seen any maintenance in probably more than a decade. Previously considered a jeep trail, it includes many a muddy section, several currently underwater in vast puddles, which my boots believe may be bottomless. This trail, along with the Keck (also along Bear Pond Road) and Cage Lake Trails are the three wildest marked trails I know of in the Adirondacks.

The trail terminates at a small clearing along the northern shore of Upper South Pond. From there on out though, you are on your own. Based on the fern-choked clearing and the lack of old footprints along the trail, this pond must get very lonely for human companionship. The ones beyond it in the heart of this wild and remote area must be absolutely starved for attention.

Thick coniferous forest of the Carpet Spruce Swamp

Although, much of this area was virgin territory for me, I was hardly completely inexperienced in the region. I explored areas to the north and east several years ago while hiking from Stillwater Reservoir to Cranberry Lake. In addition, I trekked through places south of the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie during a bushwhack from Raven Lake Road to the Red Horse Trail several years before I started blogging about my off-trail adventures.

My first encounter with Bear Pond Road, and the Upper South Pond Trail occurred during a summer working as an Ornithological Field Technician for the Wildlife Conservation Society. These routes were used to access the Five Ponds area in 1997, before the many trails were officially cleared from the Blowdown of 1995. An unmarked old jeep trail that branches off from the Upper South Pond Trail leads to the Sand Lake outlet, where we bushwhacked to the Sand Lake Trail just northeast of the lake’s lean-to. In those days, the bridge over the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie was just an old I-beam from a long destroyed vehicle bridge, turned on its side by some long-ago spring ice-jam.

My recent tour of the area started at the South Ponds. The three ponds, Upper, Middle and Lower are arranged in close proximity to one another, allowing me to visit them in quick succession under darkening skies and threatening clouds. Although Upper and Middle are largely separated by a single ridge, Lower is located further south, with an unnamed pond (Intermediate South Pond?) in between. Upon entering the area, I encountered Upper and Middle from their western shores, and Lower from its southern, where I spent my first night.

The second day’s hike hit a snag when the sky opened up with a deluge of rain for much of the morning hours. After a late start, I bushwhacked over a ridge to the southeast and into the heart of the carpet spruce swamp. From where I hiked through it was fairly dry, but filled with dangerous coniferous blowdowns hidden beneath thick, knee-high regeneration of both spruce and fir. I stayed far to the north of the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie, heading east toward its confluence where streams from Crooked Lake and Lower Beech Ridge Pond meet the river in a large open water body with a marshy perimeter.

This confluence appeared as a perfect place to spot a moose, with all the aquatic vegetation lining its shoreline. Unfortunately, an ill-timed and ill-prepared for call of nature forced me northward to higher ground, and eventually led me almost a mile northeast to an unnamed pond for a well-deserved night’s rest.

The next day found me pond-hopping for most of the day before finally reaching my eastern-most point of the trip on the southwestern shore of Crooked Lake. A common loon appeared on the largest of these ponds, while the others contained the typical assortment of ring-necked ducks, common goldeneyes and hooded mergansers. This third day ended under some towering hemlocks along the shoreline of Crooked Lake, with a common loon keeping me company.

The next day began my journey back west; with every step bringing me closer to my car along Bear Pond Road and the end of my trip. After leaving Crooked Lake, and trekking along a long and narrow pond just to the west, the going got more difficult as moderate blowdown from the 1995 storm impeded my progress. The day ended at a pond just north of the one I camped at two nights before.

The penultimate day of my trip consisted of some limited pondhopping before arriving at Sitz Pond for my last night in the backcountry. Thankfully, most of the blowdown was left behind, although that made climbing over a couple ridgest no easier. Sitz Pond is a large pond, sitting at the base of Sitz Mountain to the north. Large white pines line the pond’s outlet, and many towering hemlocks line its northern shore, providing ample opportunities for relatively level and comfortable campsites.

Piles of moose scat near Middle South Pond

The trip ended with a short jaunt back to Middle South Pond, an arduous trek around its shoreline and finally to the clearing marking the end of the Upper South Pond trail. Following the trail back to where I left it six days before proved more difficult than I anticipated though. At a wet area, where numerous ephemeral streams congregated together obscuring the trails location, leaving me bushwhacking again for a short period before getting back on track and following the trail back to the river crossing and my awaiting vehicle.

Despite all the evidence of moose encountered in this area, a sighting of the big-nosed ungulate eluded me once again. Although I encountered moose scat throughout my entire trip, it was most plentiful between the ridge separating Upper and Middle South Ponds. The western shore of Middle South Pond’s northern bay especially abounded with the crap. Using my GPS, I marked the location of each pile with a waypoint until reaching this portion of Middle South Pond where I finally gave up in disgust at all the piles littered about.

Although this area appeared as remote as any place in the Adirondacks, there were ample signs of humanity’s intrusion. Numerous large metal box stoves lie scattered along the western shore of Crooked Lake, interspersed with pits full of rusting metal and glass bottles, exposed despite the years of accumulated leaf litter. Several piles of ancient junk also abounded along Upper South Pond’s northern shore.

More recent refuse included a Mylar “Happy Birthday” balloon north of the large confluence along the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie, and the remnants of a purple latex balloon along a small cascading waterfall east of Sitz Pond. Oh, and someone dropped a Milky Way wrapper along the western shore of the confluence too. If it is yours, please let me know so I can send it to you. At least, I did not find a metal trap in the area, as another adventurer did years before.

The region east of the Upper South Pond is a remote area, perhaps one of the wildest within the Five Ponds Wilderness. It provides a little of everything to please any bushwhacking adventurer, including pretty small ponds, large cool lakes, vast coniferous forests, rolling hills and narrow ridges. If you are looking for a place to get to know the Adirondacks on its own terms with little chance of encountering another soul then this is the place for you. Just be prepared for some rugged going, especially in the plush carpet spruce swamp along the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River.

Photo: Confluence along Middle Branch Oswegatchie River, Carpet spruce swamp north of Middle Branch Oswegatchie River and piles of moose scat along Middle South Pond by Dan Crane.

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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.

9 Responses

  1. Ahh, now you’ve got me yearning to get out and into the wilderness. Nice exploration! That was also an interesting redirect to adkforum regarding the old trap and connecting with a kindred spirit.

  2. george says:

    See any old growth trees?

    • Dan Crane says:

      I saw many large yellow birches and eastern hemlocks. Not sure whether they’d qualify as old growth trees but I’d certainly think so.

  3. george says:

    Barbara McMartin defined an old growth tree as one which has lived at least half of its theoretical life.

    Sitz Pond is inside the western boundary of the 1896 Webb purchase (a line from the Great Corner to Beaver River).

    The South Ponds are outside.

    The forest should reflect that difference between a once logged area and a never logged area.

    • Bill Ott says:

      George, you have inspired me to plant my own old growth forest of Lombardy Poplars. The populus nigra has a lifespan of only 20 years, so my back forty will be an old growth forest in ten years.

  4. george says:

    and a mayfly is old at 12 hours …

  5. august says:

    Fun and interesting read, as always, Dan. I keep noticing in your articles that you’re a really good photographer, too. Great work.

  6. Ed Reese says:

    The acronym for that Middle-Branch Oswegatchie River softwood swamp at the confluence was told to me by a person from Croghan on May 17th, 1975. He would probably be around 90 years old if is still alive. When I finally got to the Bear Pond road, on my frantic journey to get out of there to prevent hypothemia, and after walking about 7 or 8 more miles on a last wind. He and his son were driving up the Bear Pond Road. They were stunned to see me. No one had gone up that road in three months, according to him. I was very relieved to see people, because I don’t know if I could have got all the way out of there before hypothermia set in. When I told him what I had attempted to do (walk from Cranberry Lake to Stillwater Reservoir) he told me a chilling story of a very good friend of his, years earlier that attempted that (not prepared enough, like me) who never came out of there. They could not find him. I believe he said that the Army also failed to find his friend. He used the word ‘Carpet Spruce’ to describe those Adirondack swamps. I am the person who contributed some of the descriptions to the Wikipedia. Obviously, I do not have the skill level that you do in wilderness trekking and other naturalist skills, however, I have read and studied maps and have made various trips (not alone) into areas in there (not that particular spot, though). I thought that I should contribute, what little I know for the benefit of anyone who is curious about this wonderful area. I wanted to clear up any confusion. Thank you so much for going in there and sharing these wonderful descriptions and photos.

    • Dan Crane says:

      Thanks, Ed!

      I should have mentioned your contribution in turning me onto this area in the first place. Thanks for stimulating my imagination to explore the area, otherwise who knows how long it would have taken me to explore the area. I’m glad you enjoyed the article, check out my personal blog for even more information, since I am currently describing the adventure in excruciating detail there.