Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Pepperbox: The Myth of the Trail-less Wilderness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Pepperbox Wilderness Area is one of the smaller wilderness areas in the Adirondack Park. It receives few visitors, as it has no spectacular mountain views, few productive waterbodies and lies tucked away in an obscure part of the Park. Its lack of trails is often cited as one of its unique characteristics.

Too bad it is not true. The notion that the Pepperbox Wilderness contains thousands of remote acres free of trails is a fantasy; it is a myth, like Bigfoot or the Tooth Fairy.

There are many sources for the myth. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Unit Management Plan for the Area, written in 1985, is a primary example. It emphasizes the lack of a trail system as a selling point for the area. Although it mentions the addition of some trail-crossed lands in the northern portion, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s website still touts the Pepperbox’s original southern portion as trailless.

Pepperbox MapThe DEC is not the only source for the myth. The Pepperbox’s Wikipedia page lists the lack of a trail system as a reason for the light human use for the area (though it mentions two miles of hiking trails).  I have even contributed to the myth myself, by mentioning the area’s limited trail system.

This trailless myth has receded somewhat in recent years, as the Pepperbox now has several official state hiking trails. These trails are concentrated in the very northern portion of the Wilderness, which it inherited from the Five Ponds Wilderness Area. The proposed lean-to and trail to Grieg Lake are located in this section, which should further erode the validity of the trail-less myth.

Even before the trailed portion was reassigned, the original Pepperbox was hardly trail-less. It was crisscrossed by numerous, unofficial trails. These trails remain today, in a wide-range of conditions, some more obvious than official state trails, others remnants of busier days well past.  Only few are entirely unmarked, as many are bordered with frequent plastic markers and tree slashes and paint blazes. All of them are technically illegal, but used often enough that the forest has not reclaimed them.  Most of these trails I encountered on my own while explorations of the area, while others are at least hinted at, if not downright described, in trail guides or birding books.

One officially marked access trail that is not technically within the Pepperbox border, allows access to the southwestern corner over private property owned by a hydro-power company. This trail leaves a parking area at the end of Moshier Road, crossing the Sunday Creek and the Beaver River on two different bridges and finally meandering through a power line right-of-way before ending at a sign, warning that the Pepperbox contains no marked trails.

Start of Raven Lake Road Pepperbox TrailThe trail-less sign is more a joke than anything else. Passing right in front of the sign and taking a hard turn to the north into the dense forest, is a well-defined trail, frequently marked with gray blazes on adjacent trees.

This trail is no obscure hunters’ path, occasionally used during the hunting season by some grizzled old-timer reluctant to surrender his favored hunting camp. This well-worn ribbon of brown runs for miles north to a large old beaver vly, as easy to follow as any marked trail in New York State’s official repertoire. Although an extension of this path leads all the way to Bear Pond (a pond to the north that shrunk in size significantly after its beaver dam broke), it is much more difficult to follow beyond the vly.

Another unmarked path departs the gray-blazed trail a short distance north of the sign, where it skirts an open wetland before following the Threemile Beaver Meadow’s stream north, eventually reaching a hunting campsite on an elevated peninsula jutting into a wet clearing choked with low shrubs. Older trails lead farther north, but they are slowly vanishing from disuse.

These are not the only unofficial trails leading into the Pepperbox’s interior either. A less used hunter’s path provides access to the northeastern corner of the Pepperbox, providing access to some of the more interesting ponds (e.g. Sunshine and Deer Ponds) in the area.

This old hunter’s path begins along Raven Lake Road, shortly after its only major stream crossing and just before a large beaver vly. The trail is an easy follow at first, as the well-worn path is fairly evident and frequent blazes marked with an axe along the way. The trail generally runs east of a stream as it meanders north through coniferous and hardwood forests.

The trail becomes more difficult to follow after it passes a beaver pond through a coniferous forest. The fainter footpath is probably due from fewer visitors with the right mixture of confidence and audacity to follow the unmarked path farther. Several downed trees obscure the trail in some places near here too, adding to the confusion.

At one point the trail crosses a boggy wetland just south of a beaver pond. Those with a sharp eye will find evidence of the trail here by spotting chicken-wire nailed between small logs about a foot apart. Apparently, this bridge reduced the chance of losing a boot to the bog in the past, but today it mostly lies overgrown with dense vegetation, only a faint depression and an occasional exposed section remained a few years ago. Not farther past this point, the trail’s obscurity make it undetectable, though it likely links with one, if not more, unmarked trails in the area, since other trail segments exist to the northwest, north and northeast.

Gray Blazed Trail in Pepperbox WildernessOne such unmarked trail network to the northwest is located at a camping site just west of Deer Pond, near the border of a beaver vly. Several trails emanate from it, like the legs of an octopus. Though many undoubtedly function as toilet or firewood trails, others wind through the surrounding coniferous forest heading for parts unknown.

An entire illegal trail system connects the Five Ponds Wilderness west of Raven Lake to the eastern Pepperbox Wilderness. Brightly colored pieces of plastic mark these trails, each nailed to a tree. This trail may connect with some of the other trails in the northeastern Pepperbox.

Another trail in the area starts at the Deer Pond outlet and cuts through some dense, young conifers leading to the southeast. This trail has helped me reach Sunshine Pond on numerous occasions. The opportunity to follow it farther has never presented itself, but I would not be surprised if it met up with that marked trail coming from the Five Ponds Wilderness near Raven Lake.

Another old trail travels along the western side of Moshier Creek, from Moshier Reservoir northward. Although very obscure in places, this trail probably leads into the Moshier Ponds area, but since that area took some major damage from the 1995 microburst, it’s probably difficult to follow.

There are likely numerous other unofficial trails that I have not encountered. Trails near Martin Brook and on the eastern side of the Cowboy Beaver Meadow are just two that I have heard about, but there are likely many more.

The Pepperbox Wilderness is covered with a network of unofficial trails, but despite this, the trail-less myth lives on. Even with all these trails, the Pepperbox continues to be one of the wilder places in the Adirondacks

For a truly trail-less wilderness area to exist however, active management would be required to keep it that way, otherwise human beings will quickly, traipse, cut and saw their way to any place of interest.

Photos, from above: The no marked trails sign at Pepperbox Wilderness border; DEC’s map of the Pepperbox; the start of trail from Raven Lake Road; and the gray blazed trail east of Threemile Beaver Meadow.  Photos 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.

3 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    Well Dan, you’ve succeeded in putting Pepperbox on the map with your detailed trail descriptions. I guess the next step is to publish a Pepperbox Trail Guide complete with GPS coordinates, if you haven’t already done so. Taken from the recent discussions concerning the ADKRR and other, publicized trail projects, “put in a trail, publicize it, and the people will come.” The Pepperbox now has the trails and the publicity.

    The trails you showed in the pictures weren’t made by just a handful of folks passing through or exploring, but show signs of fairly regular use.

    That said, I agree it behooves AP managers to ensure a genuine “trailess wilderness” stays that way, but how would they go about removing trails so folks can’t find them? They certainly can’t fence it off to allow natural regeneration. I think the state does not want to admit publicly trails exist in the hopes of limiting use.

  2. Tim-Brunswick says:

    OMG…here we go again! Poor Dan is so obsessed with “illegal trails” that at this point I’m convinced he spends more time trying to find them then he does actually enjoying his outdoors experience.

    Who we kidding anyway? The ADKs are not “wilderness” and there have been trails, even roads throughout the most remote areas going back hundreds of years. The animals don’t are and even use them as convenient routes, just like people.

    Give it a break Dan!

  3. Paul says:

    Trails that are pretty well marked like some of the ones you describe don’t strike me as hunters trails. These tend to be pretty well un-marked and often deliberately hidden if on public land. Also, hunting trails often appear to go nowhere since they are going to favorite watches etc. Have you talked to the in-holders?

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