Monday, March 23, 2015

A Fish Creek Ponds Ski Tour

Follensby_snow-600x308The winter started out promising with a good snowfall in December, but later in the month rains washed away most of the snowpack. We received a bit of light, fluffy powder the week after Christmas, but not enough to make most trails skiable.

And so, not for the first time in recent winters, we opted for a ski tour across backcountry ponds.

When people think of pond skiing, they usually think of the Seven Carries in the St. Regis Canoe Area. Indeed, Carol MacKinnon Fox and I skied the Seven Carries route on January 2 and found the conditions ideal: a few inches of light snow on top of rock-solid ice, with no slush. We had such a good time that the next day we decided to try the ponds just to the south of the Canoe Area.

The St. Regis Canoe Area is justly celebrated for its many ponds, but if you look at a map, you’ll see that there is an even greater concentration of water south of Floodwood Road in the vicinity of Fish Creek. The ponds in this region and the Canoe Area belong to the same glacier-sculpted landscape. In fact, the Adirondack Council has recommended that the state close most of Floodwood Road and expand the Canoe Area to encompass an additional twenty-six ponds.

Hemlocks_follensby-477x800With so much frozen water, the skiing possibilities are endless. Carol and I did a 7.5-mile loop starting at Middle Pond. After Middle, we crossed Polliwog, Little Polliwog, Horseshoe, and Follensby Clear ponds, then skied for about two miles on a trail along Fish Creek to Floodwood Pond, and finally followed a carry trail from Floodwood back to Middle. In all, we visited six ponds and enjoyed a fair amount of woods skiing to boot.

Afterward, Carol said she loved the mix. “The special part of this trip was the variety of terrain and scenery: big ponds, little ponds, and snowy woods trails. The switch from gliding on the ponds to skiing on gently rolling trail means you never get bored,” she said.

Of course, you should not attempt this trip unless you are sure the ice is safe—at least three inches thick. Even when the ponds are generally safe, be aware that you may encounter thin ice or open water at inlets, outlets, and bottlenecks (that is, wherever there is current). On our trip, we found four spots that should be avoided (as shown on the accompanying map).

We chose to start at Middle Pond in part because it lies along Floodwood Road. After parking on the side of the road, we skied onto the pond via a primitive campsite. Gliding through the fluffy snow, we knew instantly that it was going to be a stellar day.

Heading due east, we reached the end of the pond in just ten minutes and got on the carry trail to Polliwog Pond. The beginning of the carry was marked by a small white sign, while the trail itself was marked by yellow disks with a drawing of a canoeist. The white signs and yellow disks are standard on carries throughout the Fish Creek region and the Canoe Area.

The carry to Polliwog soon joined a hiking trail marked by blue disks. When the two split again, Carol and I continued straight, following the yellow disks. Although the snow cover on the trail was thin, we kept our skis on until the very end, removing them only to walk down a somewhat steep slope crisscrossed with tree roots. With more snow, we would have enjoyed a fun schuss onto the frozen surface of the pond.

We found ourselves on the western bay of Polliwog, which is practically a pond in itself. The bay is connected to the main water body by a short channel. As we approached the channel, we could see open water. We stayed far to the left and skied over a small point that’s home to a primitive campsite. The ice on the other side of the point was solid.

Once on the main part of Polliwog, we skied around a peninsula on our right and headed southwest to the next carry trail. We weren’t sure of its exact location, but as we approached the shore we made out a white rectangle among the evergreen trees.

“It’s fun how on each pond you have to find the carry sign. It’s like a little treasure hunt,” Carol remarked.

The cover on the carry to Little Polliwog was too thin for skiing, but it’s only a two-minute walk between the two ponds. On the way we passed through a magnificent stand of hemlocks.

A mere sixteen acres, Little Polliwog is the smallest of the six ponds we visited. The next carry begins halfway down the pond, but you might want to ski to the bog at the far end of Little Polliwog before continuing your journey.

Horseshoe_carolThe carry to Horseshoe Pond also was unskiable but short. At its end, the current from the Little Polliwog outlet had kept the shoreline ice dangerously thin. To avoid this hazard, we crossed the outlet (a short step onto a beaver dam) and walked to firm ice on the edge of a tiny tussock swamp.

On Horseshoe, we skied to a narrow peninsula that divides the pond. We explored the peninsula’s hemlock forest on our skis before getting back on the pond and heading to the northeast shore to pick up the trail to Follensby Clear Pond. Once again, we had to remove our skis, but the carry was brief.

At 491 acres, Follensby Clear was by far the largest of the ponds on our itinerary, and it offered the best views of nearby mountains. Carol proclaimed it her favorite. “It’s so vast; I love this one,” she said. “The islands and the peaks—there’s a lot of variety.”

Yet skiing Follensby Clear requires caution in at least two spots.

Upon reaching the pond, we saw a nearby island (with a lean-to) to our right. We wanted to ski between the island and the mainland, but we found thin ice in the channel and so instead skied through shrubs on the edge of the small island. It might be simpler to ski around the island, but since we didn’t go that way, I cannot vouch for the firmness of the ice.

Just beyond the island Follensby Clear squeezes through a bottleneck where we found more thin ice. One way to avoid this is to ski over a point on the left side of the bottleneck and stay far away from the constriction.

After the bottleneck, it was clear sailing. We skied past two islands to the southwest shore and the next carry. On the way we crossed animal tracks meandering across the pond.

“Bobcat!” I informed Carol.

“Look how he’s winding,” she said. “He must have been drunk.”

“Do you think these are from New Year’s Eve?” I asked.

The carry from Follensby Clear leads to Fish Creek. We skied it as far as a hiking trail that intersects the carry just before the creek. We took off our skis and walked downhill a short distance to see the creek. It remained unfrozen, a black ribbon in a still, snowy landscape.

FishCreek_mapReturning to the junction, we ate a snack and then started skiing north on the hiking trail, which was marked by red disks, for the two-mile trek to Floodwood Pond. Thanks to an absence of rocks and the gentle terrain, the trail was skiable despite the thin cover (thinner under evergreens than in the hardwoods). With Carol leading the way, we skied through a beautiful forest, enjoying views of Fish Creek through the trees. At Little Square Pond, the trail took a sharp right and climbed over a ridge, all the while still paralleling the creek.

Just before Floodwood Pond, we passed a junction with a trail that crosses the creek. We continued straight ahead and soon came to a campsite at a bend in the trail. Steps led us down to the pond. With dusk approaching, we skied to Floodwood’s northeast corner and the start of the carry to Middle Pond. This was one of the longer carries on the trip. It has a steep start and a steep ending, but we were able to ski the rest of it. A short distance from Floodwood, the carry joined the red trail. We turned left here. When the trails split again, we bore right and soon found ourselves back on Middle Pond.

As we drove home to Saranac Lake, we agreed that the ponds are worth revisiting.

It’s a great trip,” Carol said. “I wouldn’t mind coming back when there’s a bit more snow.”

Just a little bit of snow. We were that close to heaven.

DIRECTIONS: From Saranac Lake, drive north on NY 86 to the blinking light at Donnelly’s Corners. Turn left onto NY 186 and go straight for 5.5 miles (NY 186 turns into NY 30 near Lake Clear) to Floodwood Road. Turn right and go 2.8 miles to the Middle Pond campsite on the left.

Photos, from above: Follensby Clear (photo by Nancie Battaglia); Hemlocks and pines along a carry (Nancie Battaglia); Carol MacKinnon Fox crosses Horseshoe Lake (photo by Phil Brown); exclamation points indicate the four places where the author encountered thin ice (map by Nancy Bernstein).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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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.

5 Responses

  1. Teresa DeSantis says:

    Thanks for a great article. It is good to think of this area for winter activities.

    In your article, you write:
    “In fact, the Adirondack Council has recommended that the state close most of Floodwood Road and expand the Canoe Area to encompass an additional twenty-six ponds.”

    My question: How would this be feasible, given the presence of many private land inholdings, accessible by Floodwood Road, maintaining Township 19 access, the Boyscout Camp at the end of Floodwood Road, and the business presence of the St Regis Canoe Outfitters at Floodwood Pond?


    Teresa the Cartographer on Snowshoes

  2. Phil Brown says:

    Teresa, it is a long-term goal. It couldn’t be done unless the state acquired private in-holdings. The far end of Floodwood Road also can be accessed from Tupper Lake via private road open only to landowners and guests.

  3. Teresa DeSantis says:

    Phil- thanks for replying. Is there a link on the Adirondack Council’s website to
    an article on this, or a policy statement? I just went looking, but could not locate.


    • Phil Brown says:

      Circa 1990 the council issued a series of 20/20 Vision reports on the future of the Forest Preserve. It recommended closing Floodwood Road and expanding the Canoe Area in the report on Wilderness.

    • Paul says:

      It seems like those type of impractical “recommendations” are just made to be provocative. Phil, good story. You would not want to fall through the ice back there. Stay safe.

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