Thursday, October 8, 2015

Roads Less Traveled: The Five Ponds Wilderness

Old logging road south of Slim PondOld forest roads get more use than one would think in the Adirondacks. Although they see few motor vehicles these days, many see enough foot traffic, whether it be boot or paw, to maintain their existence in perpetuity. This resiliency is especially useful when planning backcountry adventures, where old roads often allow efficient access to some rather remote areas.

The Five Ponds Wilderness Area contains some of the most remote areas within the entire Adirondack Park. Although it is one of the larger wilderness areas, it only gets a modest number of visitors, most of which congregate within its northern half, where the bulk of its human-friendly infrastructure is located (trails, lean-tos, etc.). Its size, limited access and relative lack of love with the outdoor crowd provide for a vast array of opportunities for remote backcountry adventure.

However, appearances can be deceiving. A closer inspection reveals a healing wilderness rather than a pristine one, once heavily impacted by human activity. Old machinery, discarded junk, trash heaps, and other evidence abound in the area, acting as monument to past use. Although much of this past abuse lies hidden beneath years of leaf litter and downed trees, forest roads remain one of the more obvious impacts not so easily concealed.

Although these old roads appear as scars on the landscape, they are not without their uses, especially for those brave souls that bushwhack through the remote backcountry.

My recent trek into the remote southern Five Ponds Wilderness best exemplified the usefulness of old roads while exploring the backcountry. The larger water bodies east of the Red Horse Trail were my main goal, and a number of different old forest roads provided a convenient way to access them without unduly impacting my remote wilderness experience.

My journey began on Raven Lake Road, which provided access to the Five Ponds Wilderness north of Stillwater Reservoir. Although this well-maintained right-of-way is closed to public motor vehicles (it allows access to an in-holding along the shore of Raven Lake), it offered a pleasant walk through the forest over undulating terrain, with an occasional distraction of a stream, vly or marked canoe carry.

A series of old logging roads extend well-beyond the end of the maintained road, where they provide further access to the Wilderness Lakes Tract portion of the Five Ponds Wilderness. Motor vehicles are completely unwelcome here, as numerous boulders and a sign concealed in vegetation attest. Foot traffic remains frequent enough passed this point, as the well-worn path that climbs up the steep slope indicates.

Old Road Along Negro LakeAlthough the forest has reclaimed the old road in places, with young trees crowding in so only a narrow footpath remains, at other times, a wide-open grassy path revealed a past life when it facilitated logging before it became part of the Forest Preserve in the 1990’s. The farther north the road penetrated into the wilderness, the less use it apparently received, as evidenced by the frequency of footprints left behind in the muddy sections.

The main logging road provided access all the way to Bear Pond, where it finally fizzled out at an old camp near the outlet of Diana Pond. From there, I eschewed old roads for a while, until a few days later when I encountered for another one north of Negro Lake. Any old roads encountered along the arduous two-day bushwhack between Diana Pond and Negro Lake went unnoticed due to their ancient age and/or my own ignorance.

According to my mid-1980’s topographic map, a series of old roads or unofficial trails exist east of the Red Horse Trail. These trails appear connected to a road/trail network off to the east, most of which are on private property.

Searching for the old road north of Negro Lake was one thing, finding it turned out to be something else altogether. The road was designated for four-wheel drive vehicles on the topo map, so I expected it to be more indistinct than the old logging roads used earlier in my adventure. A narrow open area bordered by younger trees and a gravel pit left me with the feeling I finally found the road, despite my handheld GPS’s insistence it was closer to the shoreline. A gouge about three-feet high on a mid-aged yellow birch sealed the deal though, despite my gadget’s protests to the contrary.

The road followed along the entire length of Negro Lake, through both wetland and forest alike, until it finally ended at a still active jeep trail that came out of the east. A short side road traveled down to the shoreline along a peninsula where once a cabin resided. Much of my trek along the road can be viewed on this rather lengthy video, while the area around the old cabin site can be seen here.

Old Road to Wilder PondThe jeep trail traveled a short distance to the west where it ended at a small clearing on the eastern shoreline of the lake, apparently at the site of an old camp. An obscure intersection before the old campsite linked this road network with another one to the south.

The old roads south of Negro Lake provided an easier way to get through the area but they were harder to follow. In many places, clusters of conifers crowded the path, which were difficult to force through, especially when wet. The old road south of Wilder Pond took on more of a skidder trail feel, with frequent ruts and very wet sections, although to be fair, it did rain hard earlier in the day when I went through.

After Wilder Pond, much of the remainder of my trip involved bushwhacking until my return trip back toward the Stillwater Reservoir dam. Near Hidden Lake, a web of old skid roads scoured the forested landscape all the way north to Ginger Pond, where I regained the old logging road network that returned me to Raven Lake Road.

Old forest roads abound in the Adirondack backcountry, even in some of the most remote wildernesses, like the Five Ponds Wilderness. Although some may get incensed by their presence, they actually show the resilience of the Adirondack forest to undue the works of mankind given enough time. In addition, they offer a welcome break for a weary bushwhacker, providing a whole different type of route finding. They truly are the roads less traveled.

Photos by Dan Crane: an old logging road south of Slim Pond, and the old road to Wilder Pond.

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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.




11 Responses

  1. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Well….Hallelujah!….Dan Crane’s “ok” with “old forest roads” and doesn’t mind using them to ease his treks, but Heaven forbid they be an “illegal trail”. I don’t suppose he’d make use of them to ease passage through the wilderness on his excursions…..right!

    In any event, it’s good to see Mr. Crane is somewhat flexible in his approach to travel through the ADK back country.

  2. george L. says:

    Dan Did you find evidence of old roads within the original 1896 purchase from Webb?

    The roads you describe appear to be outside those boundaries.

    • Dan Crane says:

      George,

      I don’t know exactly where the original 1896 purchase is located. If you can direct me to a map of it, I’ll take a look and let you know whether I found any old roads inside its border.

  3. Meredith Leonard says:

    Dan, Where do you think the jeep trail comes from and is it recently used? Is this on Na-ha-sa-ne land?

    • Dan Crane says:

      Meredith,

      The jeep came out of the east and according to my map it comes from private property to the northeast. It connects with a network of old roads that go to Partlow in the south and Sabattis to the northeast. I think part of that network might go through Ne-Ha-Sa-Ne land, but I’m not completely positive where that is located. Regardless, it looked more recently used than any other road I traveled on the trip, which was it great contrast to the one north of Negro Lake.

  4. Scott says:

    This article illustrates why most of our forest preserve wilderness areas should not be called wilderness and why they should be properly classified as primitive areas. The use and management would not change but people’s expectations would then be in line with reality.

    • Todd Eastman says:

      Management practices for Primitive and Wilderness are different…

      … Wilderness can be used as a tool to restore lands formerly impacted.

      • J Hart says:

        This discussion clarifies for me a distinction between two meanings of the word “wilderness.” To a newcomer to the Adirondacks looking at a map of the park, “wilderness” implies pristine, untrodden lands. On the ground, of course, these lands are certainly not pristine or untrodden. Almost all of them have been lumbered or used in some way. In the Adirondacks, “wilderness” refers to a management practice. Given enough time, wilderness management may lead to something resembling pristine and untrodden lands.

      • J Hart says:

        These comments clarify for me a distinction between two meanings of the word “wilderness.” To a newcomer to the Adirondacks looking at a map of the park, “wilderness” implies pristine, untrodden lands. Of course, these “wilderness” lands are certainly not pristine or untrodden. Almost all of them have been lumbered or used by people in some way. In the Adirondacks, the term “wilderness” refers to a management practice. Given enough time, wilderness management may lead to something resembling pristine and untrodden lands.

  5. J Hart says:

    These comments clarify for me a distinction between two meanings of the word “wilderness.” To a newcomer to the Adirondacks looking at a map of the park, “wilderness” implies pristine, untrodden lands. On the ground, of course, these lands are certainly not pristine or untrodden. Almost all of them have been
    lumbered or used in some way. In the Adirondacks, the term “wilderness” refers to a management practice. Given enough time, wilderness management may lead to something resembling pristine and untrodden lands.