Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pigeon Lake Wilderness:
A Ski Refuge in Snowmobiling Country

cascade lake near inlet map by Nancy BernsteinLast winter, a former colleague got in touch to see if I wanted to go skiing in the Inlet area. Not one to turn down a chance to ski or catch up with a friend, I suggested we do the loop around Cascade Lake in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness.

We agreed to meet for lunch at the Hard Times Café in Eagle Bay, a few miles west of downtown Inlet. When I arrived, just before noon, the restaurant was packed with snowmobilers. I felt a little out of place in my cross-country-ski boots. Tim, who lives south of Utica, walked in about ten minutes later. He couldn’t find a space in the lot, which was largely occupied by snow machines, so he had to park across the road.

Love ’em or hate ’em, there is no denying the importance of snowmobiles to the winter economy of Inlet and Old Forge. You see them everywhere: driving along trails and roads, filling up at gas stations, and parked outside restaurants, bars, stores, and motels.

For those who prefer quieter recreation, there are oases. One of them is the Pigeon Lake Wilderness, a fifty-thousand-acre tract of Forest Preserve where all motorized use is forbidden.

The six-mile loop around Cascade Lake is one of the more popular ski trips in the region, so it’s usually tracked out. And it’s one any skier can handle. In Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks, Tony Goodwin rates it as suitable for novices.

But there is a somewhat tricky descent near the beginning. After signing in at the trail register, we climbed a small ridge. From the top, the trail curves right, then left as it descends to an old woods road. I made it to the bottom without much difficulty, but my Karhu Pinnacles are made for backcountry. Tim was on skinnier skis designed for groomed trails. I figured they’d be hard to control in the deep snow. I stopped and waited. After a minute, Tim reappeared.

“What happened to your pants?” I asked. “They used to be black.”

“I did a face plant back there,” he confessed.

Consulting the GPS tracker on his smart phone, Tim said he had been going 8.4 miles an hour. Fortunately, a foot or two of snow makes a good cushion. We continued on our way and would not encounter a comparable hill the rest of the day.

I had skied the loop by myself earlier in the winter. How different the trail looked then. I did it after a snowfall that bent the young trees on either side so they formed an archway and occasionally blocked my passage. Since my first visit, the snow had melted or fallen off, and the trees had snapped back to attention.

Tim and I could not have chosen a better day: blue sky, no wind, temperatures in the low twenties. And a young couple whom we met on their way out had broken trail all the way around the lake.

A little over a mile from the trailhead, we came to a signed junction. I’ve done the loop in both directions, but we opted for counterclockwise. This saves the best part—skiing across the frozen lake—for the second half of the trip.

Another highlight of the trip is the waterfall that gives Cascade Lake its name. Since Tim had not been here before, he was eager to see this curiosity. In his online research, he learned that it’s forty feet high.

“It’s the Niagara Falls of the Adirondacks,” I told him.

But we had a ways to go before laying eyes on the giant cataract. From the junction, we ascended a gentle grade through a hardwood forest. Once on the higher ground, we could look down on the lake, visible through the trees. After a while, we descended, ever so gradually, to a spruce-fir flat and then reached a clearing three miles from the trailhead.

From the clearing, we could see the waterfall to the right, maybe a hundred feet off the trail. When we got there, Tim didn’t say much.

“Not that exciting, is it?” I said.

“It kind of looks like a blob of ice,” Tim replied.

Nevertheless, we posed for the obligatory photos and then returned to the trail by skiing a short distance down the frozen stream (don’t try this unless you’re sure the ice is solid). Once back in the woods, we followed the trail to a meadow that
looked as if it had been slathered in white frosting. In another four-tenths of a mile, we pulled beside the lake and decided to ski on the ice.

If the ice is thick enough, you might want to do the same. Skiing up the mile-long lake, we could see for the first time the low mountains that hem in the narrow waterway. As a rock climber, I was intrigued by an amphitheater of cliffs
on the north side and made a mental note to check them out some summer. More scenic than the hills, though, was the lake itself: a vast desert of white juxtaposed against the bright-blue sky. The snow was unbroken except for the tracks of deer and bobcat.

As we approached the outlet, we skied to the right shore and got back on the trail. Soon after, we crossed the stream on a bridge, the black waters burbling amid the snow. A short, easy climb brought us back to the signed junction. From here, we followed our own tracks up the old woods road and then climbed to the top of the ridge.

We glided back down to the trail register. Taking out his phone, Tim discovered he set a new speed record on the descent: more than ten miles an hour. That seemed like a cause for celebration. We headed out to Matt’s Draft House in
Inlet for beers and pizza, reminisced about old times, and, in parting, promised to get together this winter for another ski tour.

DIRECTIONS: From NY 28 in Eagle Bay, turn north onto Big Moose Road and drive 1.3 miles to a large parking area on the right.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

More stories about the Adirondacks can be found in each issue of Adirondack Explorer, the non-profit news magazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park.  Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Phil Brown

Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




One Response

  1. brian m says:

    Nice writing. And nothing beats that spooky feeling of being on the ice early…….