15 miles to paradise
Trek through old-growth forest leads to remote Sand Lake
By Phil Brown
This backpacking trip was about creating memories. Because in a few weeks he’d be gone, off to Germany for 10 months to study at the University of Wurzburg. If that’s a big step for a 19-year-old, it’s also a big step for his dad.
Nate and I talked about various possible destinations, including Mount Marcy, before settling on Sand Lake, the remotest spot reachable by trail in the 118,000-acre Five Ponds Wilderness. It’s more than 15 miles from the tiny community of Wanakena, in the heart of the largest virgin forest in the Northeast.
We had three days together. Our plan was to hike 10 miles on the first day and spend the night in the lean-to at Big Shallow, one in the cluster of five ponds that gives the Wilderness Area its name. On the second day, we would go to Sand Lake, set up camp and hang out on the beach. On the third day, we would return to Wanakena.
To spice up the trip, we thought we’d retrace the steps of Bob Marshall, who visited the Five Ponds in the summer of 1922, when he was a forestry student at Cranberry Lake. Marshall went on to become a staunch advocate of preserving wild lands, and he helped found the Wilderness Society in 1935.
When we signed the trail register at 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, the sun was out and the skies were blue. Nate and I headed south along Skate Creek in a cheerful mood. The trail follows the route of an old railroad that the Rich Lumber Co. built in 1902 to access timberlands south of Cranberry Lake. After Rich logged these lands, it sold them to the state, which later transformed the rail bed into a truck trail. It is now closed to vehicles.
At the start, the trail still looks like a grassy road, but the deeper you go into the wilderness, the more overgrown it becomes and the more it resembles a footpath. We soon found ourselves brushing against tall grass and bushes heavy with the morning dew. Our boots and trousers got soaked in no time.
After 4.2 miles, the trail comes to a junction with a 200-yard spur that leads to High Rock overlooking the Oswegatchie River. The beetling bedrock offers a splendid view of the river as it slowly meanders through a green expanse of grasses and alder bushes, with forested hills rising in the background. The big white pines at High Rock are also something to look at.
We loafed for nearly an hour, admiring the scenery, taking pictures and drying our socks. A father and son were leaving in a canoe as we arrived. In a moment, they disappeared around a bend. A little later we heard a group of canoeists, but they remained hidden behind the alders. When they finally appeared below us, we shouted greetings and asked if we could take their photograph. We saw no other people the rest of the day.
By the time Nate and I left, it was about 11 a.m. The rising sun had dried out the flora along the trail, so travel was just delightful. We crossed a stream on a stone bridge and then arrived at a large beaver flow. To get around it, we had to walk on top of a long beaver dam now overgrown with grass.
You’ll see a lot of beaver flows on this trail. On summer days such as this, they can be quite idyllic, with clouds reflecting in the open water, tufts of grass poking through the still surface, skeletal trees resembling abstract sculptures, and wildflowers adding daubs of blue, orange and yellow.
About 90 minutes from High Rock, we came to a fire ring beside the Oswegatchie and stopped for lunch. The water here was virtually still, stained a dark brown from tannin. Like the river, we took our time. After eating our sandwiches, we lay back in the thick grass beside the trail, closed our eyes and listened to the song of black-capped chickadees.
Bestirring ourselves, we reached a junction in 20 minutes and turned right on the trail to the Five Ponds and Sand Lake. The way straight would have led to High Falls on the Oswegatchie and back to another trailhead in Wanakena. The two trailheads are less than a half-mile apart, so day-trippers can explore this region in a long loop hike. No matter which trailhead you start from, it’s 7.7 miles to this junction, but the western approach, along the old rail bed, is easier.
Starting down the new trail, we came to a wet crossing over a beaver dam and then passed through a spruce-fir flat. In 10 minutes we reached a wooden bridge that spans the Oswegatchie.
“I’ll always remember the Oswegatchie,” he said later. “Everything was numb.”
As we redressed after the swim, we heard two woodpeckers whacking away at a nearby spruce tree and went to investigate. They turned out to be three-toed black-backed woodpeckers, which are fairly uncommon in the Adirondacks.
But let’s get back to Day 1. Heading south from the Oswegatchie, we noticed after a half-hour that the trees looked larger. This meant we had crossed from St. Lawrence County to Herkimer County and entered the old-growth. The state purchased 40,000 acres of virgin forest from William Seward Webb in 1896, after he complained that the raising of the Stillwater Reservoir had made the timberlands inaccessible. The northern boundary of his land coincided with the county line.
Soon we crossed the outlet of Big Shallow and followed it for 20 minutes or so to a lean-to with a fine view across the pond. As soon as we arrived, we saw four ducks take off from the water. Moments later, a raptor splashed down and then flew to a perch in a dead tree. I thought it must be an osprey, though it looked rather small.
Bob Marshall, then 21, and a fellow student spent the night at this peaceful place on Aug. 12, 1922. They had come to see the old-growth forest and to visit all of the Five Ponds. That summer, Marshall hiked to nearly a hundred ponds in the Cranberry Lake region to rate their scenic beauty.
After settling into the lean-to, Nate and I set off to find two of the other ponds: Big Five and Little Five. To reach them, we took a herd path up the steep slope of a knifelike ridge on the west side of Big Shallow. The ridge is an esker – the sinuous deposit of a glacial river. It extends all the way to Sand Lake, five or six miles distant, but it is most prominent in the vicinity of the Five Ponds.
Both Big Five and Little Five lie on the opposite side of the esker. When we reached the top of the ridge, we found our way obstructed by blowdown from a fierce windstorm that struck the western Adirondacks in July 1995. We fought our way forward until we glimpsed Big Five through the trees. Starting down, I found the going even tougher. Nate was not having fun. I let him go back to the lean-to and continued on my own. I finally got a good view of Big Five by climbing onto a fallen tree. It was, as Marshall noted, a handsome body of water, with a large bog at the southern end. Panther Mountain rises over its western shore. I saw a solitary loon in the middle of the pond.
To reach Little Five, I returned to the ridgeline and headed north a quarter-mile. Fortunately, this bushwhack was much easier. When Marshall visited Little Five, he was impressed by the large pines, but he felt the pond’s beauty was marred by “a fringe of dead trees all along the shoreline.” He’d be happy to hear that most of the deadwood is gone but many of the pines are still here.
It had been a long day. After a dinner of freeze-dried Thai food, Nate and I curled up in our sleeping bags with our paperback books – for Nate, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; for me, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. We slept late the next morning. Before leaving, we read the lean-to journal and made our own entries. “I hadn’t been camping in years,” Nate wrote, “and I had forgotten how nice and peaceful it is. . . . I am going to miss the Adirondacks when I go to Germany.”
When Marshall departed Big Shallow, he continued south along the esker on the way to Wolf Pond, a few miles south of the Five Ponds. We tried again to follow in his footsteps, but the blowdown proved too much. We returned to Big Shallow and continued our journey on the hiking trail.
After re-crossing the Big Shallow outlet, the official trail climbs a narrow ridge that provides dramatic evidence of the 1995 windstorm. State crews cut through a jumble of blowdown to reopen this section of trail. You can see sawn logs every five or 10 feet. There is almost no canopy left. The mature trees have been replaced by thickets of saplings. Ashen spires of dead trees tower over the scene of destruction.
As we walked along the ridge, we saw Washbowl Pond on our left and a few minutes later Little Shallow Pond on our right. These are the last of the Five Ponds. Washbowl is unapproachable, given the blowdown, but you can bushwhack to the shore of Little Shallow without too much trouble.
The region south of the Five Ponds escaped the windstorm relatively unscathed. Walking through this ancient forest is a wonderful experience. I was surprised at how open it is, with fields of ferns growing in the shade of stately trees. Not all the trees are giants. You’ll find a mix of ages. But there are plenty of big ones. I was especially impressed with the yellow birches. I took a photo of Nate standing beside one that was 10 feet in girth at breast height – or more than 3 feet in diameter.
Arriving at Sand Lake in midafternoon, we encountered the first people we had seen since the canoeists the previous morning: a family of four who spent three days hiking here from Star Lake. Unfortunately, they were occupying the only lean-to, where we had hoped to stay. But we’d worry about accommodations later. Right now we wanted to wash the dirt and sweat from our weary bodies.
As you might have guessed, Sand Lake has a sandy shoreline and a sandy bottom. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal swimming spot: It’s like having a private beach 15 miles from the road, encircled by old-growth forest. The water was cool and clear.
Once refreshed, we approached the family – a couple with two teenage daughters. They were sitting on an old pine that had fallen into the water next to the shore. The log, now bleached and worn smooth, had become a haven for frogs living in the shallows. We introduced ourselves and struck up a conversation. After a while, the father mentioned he had discovered a campsite nearby. Wading 20 yards up the shore, he pointed out a path that led to a clearing among several large pines. It seemed like a good spot. Nate and I set up a tarp.
Afterward, we returned to the beach with our books and lay in the warm sand. We read, chatted, watched the loon far from shore. Like Nate, I had forgotten how peaceful camping can be. I considered bushwhacking to the little ridge that separates Sand Lake from Rock Lake. The guidebook said it’s like a park there, with lots of huge trees. But I decided against it. Nothing could be better than this.
There is a small beach on the other side of the river where you can take a dip to cool off on a hot day. Nate and I did so on our return to Wanakena. Wading in, I realized instantly why the Oswegatchie was once famed for its huge brookies: Trout love cold water! Although it was August, the river was bone-chilling. Perhaps it’s because the Oswegatchie is fed by numerous cold springs. It took awhile to work up the nerve to plunge in and swim to a sandy spit on the opposite shore. When I finally did, Nate felt obligated to prove he was no chicken either.
Directions : From the hamlet of Cranberry Lake, drive west on NY 3. After crossing the Oswegatchie River, continue 8.3 miles to County 61 on the left (look for a sign for the Wanakena Ranger School). Drive south on County 61 for about a mile, bearing right at a fork. Continue straight and cross the Oswegatchie. The road bends left and passes a short lane and a tennis court. If you intend to enter the Five Ponds Wilderness from the western trailhead of the High Falls Loop, park in a grassy clearing just beyond the tennis court, then walk down the short lane to the trail register. The loop’s eastern trailhead is 0.4 mile farther down the main road. If you’re approaching Wanakena from the west, County 61 is 6.1 miles past Youngs Road in Star Lake.