Monday, August 7, 2017

Three Hikes On Nature Preserves Near Lake George

Gabe and Annaleigh Heilman discover the beauty of Pole Hill Pond “Where do those trails go?” I wondered. The map showed a small trail system, whose outline looked like a loopy, potbellied cartoon character riding a unicycle. Sure, there was Pole Hill Pond at the upper end, but the trail swung far and wide of it twice, a hugely indirect route. What was the dinky little loop down at the foot? I’ve been looking at Adirondack trail maps most of my life and could not decipher this weird pattern of black dashes.

Yet here it was, on the National Geographic trail map that accompanies my Adirondack Mountain Club’s Guide to Eastern Trails, so I could explore it for work. How did those trails get there? Who knew about them? What was that pond like? They were on a new parcel of state land, so the state Department of Environmental Conservation couldn’t yet have built them. Itching to check all this out, I headed for the top of Lake George’s Northwest Bay, above Bolton Landing.

North Bolton is a quiet corner of the Lake George basin; the traffic thins out, the houses are far apart, the ice-cream stands are left behind. Better yet, state land and a couple of Lake George Land Conservancy (LGLC) preserves take over. In this little neighborhood, it turns out there’s a span of four-plus miles of newly protected lands with more than twelve miles of trails.

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” That was true for Robert Frost in Vermont, and it’s true here at Pole Hill. Right out of the parking area, huge hemlocks dominate a silencing forest over dark cobblestones in a stream. The old logging-road trail goes straight across. These giants were spared the ax, and rumor has it that there’s a stand of virgin chestnut surviving here, at the north end of its range. This surprises me, as logging traces are everywhere.

An LGLC poster at the trailhead gives distances and trail descriptions. The route soon splits, and the roads seem equally less traveled, so I take the yellow-marked one to the left. This was the small mile-long loop, of the apparent unicycle. It climbs quickly onto a grassy ridge called Bear Knob. No bears here, nor chestnuts, but there are glimpses up into the backcountry hills where the longer loop meandered. I circled back down quickly to the east, so I could explore its wide swings, counterclockwise.

Heading north on the Blue Trail, I descend into the emerald hollow of a swamp; ferns and mosses spill over onto the trail, which winds around waterlogged holes. When this basin was filled, it was apparently called Pipe Pond, though most of it is covered with lush greenery. I almost expect to see a brontosaurus.

At the far end, a hefty ascent begins, and the land dries out. Soon I’m into another habitat, as oaks overshadow dry, grassy meadows. The trail steepens, and I think of skiing these glades. There are small rocky knobs, which the road—now more of a trail—meanders around. Occasional openings give glimpses of Northwest Bay on Lake George, but the big views will have to wait till higher up. This wooded ridge is Middle Mountain.

Gabe Heilman checks out a caterpillar on his wristThis big slice of land, 1,300 acres, was bought by the Lake George Land Conservancy in 1999 and permanently protected with its transfer to the state a year later. Its lower end is at five hundred feet, not far above the lake, and its heights rise to 1,600 feet. Undeveloped uplands acts as a natural water filter to protect the lake’s water quality.

The trail now mixes flats and steep scrambles; it crosses two ridges, with sharp dips between. I hear the distant thrumming of a helicopter behind me, and I wonder what’s up. As I gain the open top of Walnut Ridge, I find out. The vista gazes east to Tongue Mountain, whose First Peak is wafting smoke. The speck-like helicopter is shuttling water loads from the lake to the lofty ridgeline. It doesn’t look like a big fire, but the scene is eerie, in miniature from this range. A sprinkling of helpful rain begins; I later learn that the fire was easily contained.

And now comes a winding scramble down to Pole Hill Pond. I reach a fork and turn left (more on the right turn later). It’s a piney open woods with a stone fire ring and views across the water. The pond is J-shaped, and the Blue Trail flanks its southeastern shore opposite a beaver lodge. This secluded watery basin is quiet and seems little visited. I sit, snack, and gaze over the water.

The trail crests a small rise and becomes an old logging road, coming down alongside the pond’s outlet. Partway down, it skirts a surreal scene: the ghostly dead forest of a muddy, washed-out beaver pond, with four gargantuan skidder tires awash in the muck; if the skidder could haul out huge trees, why not the tires too? Petunias planted in them would help.

Another small crest, and the stream cuts down this valley about five hundred feet in a mostly straight line. I’m back in dark hemlock woods. The stream meanders as the land bottoms out; the trail brushes its banks but also keeps it at a distance. Straight ahead, a barrier blocks the way to private land. Bearing left, I soon return to the trailhead.

I now know where the loopy trail goes; a long up-and-down circuit through damp stretches of shadowy woods and dry, sunny glades, over rocky balds, and past Pole Hill Pond tucked away near the top. I’ve also followed the little wheel-like loop over Bear Knob in the lowlands.

Next, I’ve got to check out that right-hand road not taken above the pond; I could hike back up to it, but I opt to drive the long way around.

To get there, another day, I take Padanarum Road, biblically named for a farming valley between mountains. There were farms here in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but now it’s mostly forested, and the Lake George Land Conservancy has two preserves in the neighborhood.

The nearest, the Godwin Preserve, is the latest, opened just last year. It’s a small sanctuary of about a half-mile square, named for its former owners, and bordering the Pole Hill Pond parcel. Everything about the place is new and unassuming: the preserve sign is small, the parking area tiny and still duff-covered, the one footbridge very simple, and the two trails recently grubbed out. No bells and whistles here; I’m drawn in to this unaffected place.

pole hill pond map The main Red Trail runs south and east along a logging road, winding up and down but mostly up; it passes a fork with the Yellow Trail, which I’ll save for later. I’m guessing I’m on the way to that earlier unexplored right turn above Pole Hill Pond. The route dips down and passes a vernal pool, full even in this very dry summer.

Our word vernal comes from the Latin for spring, the season. Vernal pools fill only from rain and snow and usually dry up in the hot months. Since fish can’t breed in them, vernal pools are havens for invertebrates and amphibians. Caddisflies, dragonflies, wood frogs, toads, and blue-spotted salamanders are some of their residents. Wood ducks visit, and raccoons, mink, and wading birds do feed. Vernal pools are remarkable and short-lived biological refuges.

Past the pool and over a rise, and there it is: my neglected trail fork. It’s as if I’ve found the Northwest Passage. I take a quick saunter over to Pole Hill Pond for another gaze and snack by the water, and then turn back.

The Yellow Trail is a short offshoot, only a third of a mile long, that contours alongside a ridge. It’s barely scratched out of the dirt and takes me to a small western lookout. Blueberry bushes are all over the place, and the view also is modest. Crane Mountain peeks over the southern ridge of High Nopit, a prominent hill with a quirky name. Just to the north lies the next preserve, Amy’s Park. I linger a few minutes and head down to check out that third jewel in the crown.

Back at the car, I can choose to head north or south, drive or walk. Amy’s is very close, a collection of ponds, marsh, and forest strung more than a mile along Padanarum Road and its western offshoot, Trout Falls Road. The two preserves are separated by just one thin property, so the connector trail between them follows Padanarum for a quarter-mile before ducking into the woods. I decide to hoof it. The four trails at Amy’s Park all connect to each other, and I opt to follow a clockwise loop.

The five-hundred-acre preserve has been open since 2012, after it was purchased and held by a conservation-minded buyer, and named for a family member. Residents had petitioned the town to preserve this land and water quality along Indian Brook, which flows into Northwest Bay, and the deal was completed with state and federal wetland-protection funds. The trails explore a variety of terrain.

It’s a relaxing amble along Padanarum Road, a back road with very little traffic; there are long stretches of forest, with a few small camps here and there. The route is marked with yellow triangles, and it turns into the woods just past the boundary of Amy’s Park, whose Yellow Trail I meet in a minute or two.

Taking a left, I immediately cross Indian Brook and find myself in a cool, dark boreal forest, filled with lichen, balsam, and spruce. There’s an opening over the marsh, called South Pond, a sweet spot for birding. A kingfisher swoops past, rattling its call, and a beaver pushes its V-wake across the water. The trail rises slightly through this deep green landscape before hitting Trout Falls Road.

Turning right, I follow this backwoods lane for a hundred yards and arrive at the uphill segment of the trail. And it immediately scrambles, a goat path up four hundred feet in a fifth of a mile, to a lookout at the south end of the Red Trail. Huffing, I plop myself down for a rest at the overlook. The brook valley below winds southwest into Lake George, framed by distant hills and dotted with islands. A red-tailed hawk glides by on the thermals.

Following a breather and snack, I head north along this ridgetop trail and onto a rollercoaster of a descent to a crossing of Trout Falls Road a half-mile farther on. After a short dip down to a stream and then back up, the Red Trail becomes broad and even, an old logging road above the west side of the marsh. Coyote or fox scat dots the way. This would make a nice ski trail. Another half-mile, and I’m at an opening to the water below. It’s a paddling access to the North Pond, though a far piece to haul a boat; a wheeled carrier would be a good assist here.

Wetland scenery abounds at Amy’s ParkThe roadway continues and sweeps around the north end of the wetland where swallows sweep the air for bugs. This end of Amy’s Park abuts Forest Preserve heading miles up the map. The trail climbs gently onto drier ground and ends at the Blue Trail, another woods road. I can go left out to Padanarum Road or right farther into Amy’s trail system. Going right, I follow the trail over bumps and small rises and down dips through evergreen woods. Woodpeckers drill the balsams, as the sun begins to sink.

I reach another fork, where both lead to the Orange Trail, which ends in a loop with two more lookouts over the silent water. Circling counterclockwise, I head south over more small knobs and work my way uphill to the main trailhead and parking area for the preserve. Not surprisingly, the register shows it to be very popular, though I’m alone now.

There’s a lot of turf to explore on these three parcels. The Lake George Land Conservancy deserves credit for protecting them for people and wildlife alike. I hiked the trails over two days. You could do them all in one, but that would make it a marathon, with the landscape a blur. Two days seems right, up here in North Bolton, where the pace is mellow, and you can saunter along with the wild animals, unhassled and out of sight.

Editor’s Note: Since this story was written Lake George Land Conservancy has partnered with the Adirondack Atlas to provide the most comprehensive map of the Conservancy’s trails here. The full Adirondack Atlas also includes local DEC trails, Champlain Area Trails trails to the north.

amys park mapDirections:

For Pole Hill: From Northway (I-87) Exit 24, drive east on County 11 east for 4 miles. Turn left onto NY 9N. Follow 9N for 2.8 miles and look for a DEC sign at a dirt road. There is room to park two or three vehicles.

For Godwin Preserve: From Northway Exit 24, drive east on County 11 for 4 to North Bolton Road, just before the stoplight. Turn left and go 1.6 miles, then continue straight ahead on Padanarum Road for another 1.9 miles. Look for a parking area on the right shortly after passing Trout Falls Road.

For Amy’s Park: From the parking area for Godwin Preserve, continue another mile on Padanarum Road to the Amy’s Park primary parking on the left. Parking for the southern parts of the Yellow Trail and the Red Trail are at 0.4 miles and 0.9 miles, respectively, along Trout Falls Road. The paddling access points are at 0.8 miles along Trout Falls Road and at 0.7 miles along the north section of the Red Trail.

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.

Photos from above: Gabe and Annaleigh Heilman at Pole Hill Pond; Gabe Heilman checks out a caterpillar on his wrist; Pole Hill Pond Map; Wetland scenery abounds at Amy’s Park; and Amy’s Park Map. Photos courtesy Carl Heilman, maps courtesy Nancy Bernstein.

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David Thomas-Train has lived in Keene Valley, New York, since 1981.  He has been an educator for over thirty-five years, now tutoring students of all ages. He leads canoeing, hiking, and ski trips in the Adirondacks, incorporating environmental education into these activities for various local outdoor organizations. He is the Coordinator of The Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine, a grassroots organization dedicated to the restoration of the fire tower and trails on that mountain, and to its use as an environmental education site. A volunteer for numerous Adirondack scientific and advocacy groups, he monitors aquatic invasive species, loon populations, and is involved in mammal tracking.

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