By Bill Ingersoll
One early spring, I embarked on my first backpacking trip, to Mud Lake in the Silver Lake Wilderness. The place attracted me because it had a lean-to and the walking distance seemed reasonable.
Thus, I set off into the wilds with a brand-new pack and sleeping bag. By the time I reached Mud Lake, my shoulders ached so much that I wondered how anyone could find this pursuit pleasurable. When I set the pack down for good at the lean-to I felt as though a sort of reverse gravity was lifting me upward – as though I could leap 50 feet now that this burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
During the following week, I theorized that I had not properly fitted my pack to my body frame. All the weight had been dragging on my shoulders and not on my hips, where it was supposed to be. I adjusted the straps accordingly and decided to redo the same exact trip. My shoulders still balked at performing a task to which they were not yet accustomed, but the burden seemed to be much more bearable.
I judged the trip a success, though I would find ways to refine my backpacking skills in the months and years to come. The misery of that first trip has been redeemed by the many more beautiful experiences I have had, experiences found nowhere but in the wilds of the Adirondacks.
There have been early mornings in June spent beside a secluded pond, when the entire shore was alive with birdsong. There was that autumn morning at Wolf Pond when I awoke to find the world enshrouded in fog; that was also the morning when the coyotes on the far shore confused the poor loon that mistook their yelping for other loons. There was that first night I camped beside the North Branch waterfall near Arietta, when the sound of cascading water worked its way into my dreams. There was that November night at Pharaoh Lake when Wintergreen Point was my observatory for viewing the Leonid meteor shower.
Superficially, the various regions of the Adirondack Park are all part of the same ecological zone, but there are vast differences as you travel from one area to the next. This subtle variety is one of the things I find so enthralling about the North Country, one cannot visit just one place and claim to have “seen” the Adirondacks. Here are three suggestions for backpackers looking to sample some of that variety.
Middle Settlement/Big Otter Loop
The Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness is the westernmost of the Park’s roadless areas. It is not very large, and in a day one can walk from one end to the other. However, the area is graced with a generous trail network and many scenic small ponds, making it an excellent choice for backpackers. The topography is subtle, and water is everywhere, even with a detailed map it is difficult to sort out the various watersheds. There is a stream named simply Middle Branch, and the world may never know what exactly it is the middle branch of.
Ha-de-ron-dah contains a number of popular destinations, such as Middle Settlement and Middle Branch lakes. While they are nice, there is a superior loop that incorporates both lakes with several of their neighbors. The loop is over 15 miles long, and I have done it in two days. However, if you have never been to this area before you may well find yourself tempted to stretch the loop over three or four days, there is certainly enough to see.
The most common starting point for any trip into Ha-de-ron-dah is the Okara trailhead on NY 28, about three miles south of Thendara. Head first to Middle Settlement Lake, which is a beaver-enlarged pond featuring its own lean-to and an eloquent pair of loons. The rocks in front of the lean-to are a favorite for swimming, sunning and fishing. What always strikes me about Middle Settlement is the way the hardwoods march right down to the water’s edge. There are white pines along the shoreline, but very few of the balsams and spruces that often impede access to Adirondack lakes.
These woods were severely burned a century ago, and as you continue northwest past muddy Lost Lake toward Pine Lake and East Pine Pond, you will find ample evidence of that fire. Most striking is the stand of black cherry trees with all the grass and ferns growing at their feet. A substantial bridge carries you across Middle Branch to the Pines, where you will find ample camping opportunities. There is a newly reconstructed lean-to at Pine Lake, but there is a tent site on the east shore that is far more scenic.
Turn northeast here toward Big Otter, which lies on the wilderness boundary. There has been a problem with ATV trespass here for many years, and unfortunately the state has proposed building an automobile road to the lake from the west. For the most part, though, Big Otter is a quiet place with tent sites on its southern shore. Follow the trail east beside South Inlet, where you will find one section flooded for several hundred feet (you will need a change in footwear for this). Then bear south for Middle Branch Lake and its lean-to, and then take the trails to Cedar Lake and Grass Pond for the final leg back toward the start.
The West Canada Lakes Plateau
Near the heart of the Adirondack Park is a place that is close to my own heart. The West Canada Lake Wilderness covers enough territory that in a way it is almost as diverse as the Adirondack Park itself. A string of hulking mountains “the so-called Little Great Range” forms an imposing wall on the northeast side, while the northwest corner gives way to parallel ridges and obscure ponds. The southern tier is pierced by the wedgelike valley of the South Branch, which is a favorite haunt of modern-day guides.
However, for most visitors, the defining feature of this wilderness is the plateau of lakes at the headwaters of three major river systems. The West Canada Lakes proper, Mud, South, and West, all join forces to create West Canada Creek, a tributary of the Mohawk River. Nearby Brooktrout Lake is one of the sources of the Moose River, and the Cedar Lakes ultimately send their waters to the Hudson. Pillsbury, Whitney, Sampson and Spruce round out the roster of lakes.
However, it is not the lakes’ proximity to each other that makes this region distinctive, but rather their elevations, which range from 2,344 to 2,492 feet. This plateau is the highest collection of large lakes in the Park. As a result, the annual precipitation is a little higher and the woods grow that much thicker. Indeed, this is a very brushy place, and the conifers often jealously guard the shorelines. Brooktrout has long since succumbed to acid rain, but most of the others have held onto their fisheries. Loons vie for nesting places with raucous gulls, which share at least one lake as comfortably as rival gangs.
The most thorough way to explore the West Canada Lake Wilderness is along a 23.6-mile loop beginning and ending at Sled Harbor. If broken up over a three-day weekend, this distance is very manageable. The loop passes all of the large lakes except Spruce and Brooktrout, and each has good opportunities for camping. Most of them have lean-tos, although several of these are showing symptoms of misuse. Many of these campsites offer exceptional vistas of the lakes and the surrounding forests and mountains.
Sled Harbor, which was once a place where horse-drawn wagons were exchanged for sleds to supply the interior camps, is today a nondescript parking area. Sturdy vehicles can ascend the last 1.2 miles of rough road to the Pillsbury trailhead, shaving 2.4 miles off the round trip. Beyond the rock barrier at this parking area, the road narrows into a gravel track leading to the pass between Blue Ridge and Pillsbury mountains. At this point you reach an intersection, and it is simply a matter of personal preference whether you continue straight toward Cedar Lakes first or bear left for Pillsbury Lake.
The trees do not grow to great sizes on this plateau, but they do grow in great numbers. Sugar maple is abundant, as is spruce, balsam and yellow birch. The observant will also notice mountain ash, more commonly found on lakeshores and mountain summits, growing here as a small forest tree. White pine is present only at Mud Lake.
Pharaoh Lake Loop
Traveling east from the central Adirondack highlands brings us to the relatively low arc of mountains and ridges fronting the Lake Champlain basin. This drop in elevation also brings us back into the realm of white pine, and on this drier eastern side of the Park they are now joined by the ever-graceful red pines. Black cherry is here marginalized and replaced by paper birch, and northern red oak is well-established on certain sites.
To sample this region, head for the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. This enchanting place, like the others described above, has a generous trail network ideally suited for backpackers. A loop around the foot of Treadway Mountain hits all the major features, and with so many interconnecting trails the trip possibilities beggar the imagination.
One interesting possibility, of many to consider, is to begin on the Short Swing Trail on NY 74 east of Paradox. Follow it past Crab Pond and bear south to Pharaoh Lake. This large, beautiful body of water is a great place to spend the night. Next stop: Grizzle Ocean. For the most direct route, hike southeast along the lake’s north shore to the first junction and then turn left. (Thanks to a new trail, it’s also possible to head southwest when reaching Pharaoh Lake and then circle the lake, approaching this junction from the south.) North of Grizzle, you’ll pass Putnam Pond, Clear Pond and Rock Pond, where a left turn will ultimately bring you back to the Short Swing Trail. Taking the direct route, you will have walked a total of 19.4 miles by the time you return to your car.
But as I said, this is just one possibility with a number of potential variations. Rather than simply hiking past Grizzle Ocean, why not add 0.8 mile to the overall trip and take the trail that goes all the way around the shore? Maybe you have a burning desire to climb a mountain; well, Pharaoh Mountain lies along the loop, and while it adds dramatically to the elevation change, it has only a modest effect on the total distance walked. Are you starting to see the picture?
Campsites are abundant, too. There are no fewer than six lean-tos at Pharaoh Lake alone, although I must confess that after finding Lean-to No. 3 trashed with food scraps recently, I prefer the tent sites. The twin cliff faces on Treadway Mountain offer a dramatic backdrop to the lake, and many of the smaller ponds possess a character and charm all their own as well.
The most striking feature of Pharaoh Lake Wilderness is its pine forests. White pine occurs in only a few pure stands, but it often grows beside oak, hemlock, spruce and its cousin, red pine. The pines, the attractive lakes and the rampart cliffs combine to set this Wilderness Area apart from other regions of the Adirondack Park.