By JOHN THOMPSON
My hiking pal Marc Howes reads maps the way other people read books. On a vicarious trip through the western Adirondacks he came upon a curious locale, and his map morphed into mystery.
“There’s this Beaver River,” he said. “Way out in the middle of nowhere. No roads to it, just a bunch of houses and an abandoned railroad line. What’s with that?”
Remembering I had a cabin in Big Moose, the next stop down the tracks, he figured I’d been to Beaver River—but I hadn’t.
“It’s kind of like an island,” I said, “You get there by boat. Nine miles up the Stillwater Reservoir. Or by snowmobile in winter. That’s about it. There is an old trail to it, though—the Norridgewock, if you’re interested. A long one.”
“I’m in,” he replied.
A month later, at the end of August, Marc and his wife, Stephanie, met me in Big Moose. From there we drove the two miles to Twitchell Lake, where the road ends.
“Where you headed?” a white-haired fellow on a bicycle asked as we hoisted our packs.
“Beaver River,” I boasted, knowing most went no farther than Silver Lake, an easy mile up the Razorback Pond Trail.
“Ever been there?”
“I’ve gone a few times. Hiked there just last week.”
“You’ll huff and puff up Oswego Mountain, right at the start. Then, on the other side, there’s a detour around some beaver activity. Well flagged, though. You won’t get lost. After that it’s some pretty nice walking.”
In the old days, hikers would take a boat or canoe across Twitchell Lake to pick up the Norridgewock Trail, which led northwest to Beaver River. In the 1990s, the state built a new trail that branches off the Razorback Pond Trail, eliminating the water passage and private-property problems at the old trailhead. The new and old trails meet up after three miles or so. The hike to Beaver River is seven miles, most of it in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness. We chose to hike only one way and then take a boat ride to the landing on Stillwater Reservoir, where we left a second car.
Under blue skies, we started up an old dirt road. Signing the register, I counted just seven entries for Beaver River, with most people heading to Silver Lake or a little farther to Razorback Pond. A few minutes later, we turned right at a fork, following blue markers, and immediately started climbing through a mature hardwood forest. Our friend on the bicycle was right: we did huff and puff up Oswego Mountain (although no maps label it as such).
“It’s nice to hike a trail not eroded to oblivion,” Marc remarked as we reached the viewless summit.
I had to agree. This was nothing like hiking in the High Peaks.
We had gained a little more than two hundred feet in elevation. We’d have no more huffing or puffing as Beaver River sits six hundred feet lower. As we descended, a train whistle wafted through the woods: the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s breakfast train was pulling into Big Moose. North of Big Moose, the tracks are not fit for regular use.
After descending, we reached the bypass around the beavers’ handiwork on the outlet of Oswego Pond. The route took us east, through ferns and spruce. Without the copious orange flagging, it would have been hard to follow. Eventually we came to the outlet, a stony stream that we hopped across. Soon blue disks indicated we were back on the regular trail. After a short climb we dropped to a vly that we crossed on a string of planks. Later, we came to a mossy log spanning another stream. Stephanie crossed like a gymnast on a balance beam.
After skirting 2,300-foot Twitchell Mountain, the trail angled north and breezed through a palette of green—maple, yellow birch, young beech, ferns, mosses, and hobblebush. We reached a sign indicating that Beaver River was four miles away. Due to a loose nail, the sign had swiveled so its arrow pointed to the ground. Marc whacked the sign back in place with his hiking pole. Apparently, this is where the old and new trail merged, but we saw no evidence of the old route from Twitchell Lake.
We encountered three minor blowdowns on our hike. We also removed a number of branches that had fallen across the trail. Most were beech branches, evidently victims of beech-bark disease. American beech once dominated the forest in these parts, but now you see their trun-cated trunks standing like faceless totem poles, and the forest floor is littered with gray corpses.
Stephanie spotted a behemoth standing about a hundred feet off the trail. I’d never seen a hardwood so large in the Adirondacks. We tripped through the hobblebush for a closer look and guessed at its trunk measurement. I estimated a circumference of about twenty-eight feet.
“Has to be an old beech,” Stephanie remarked.
But does smooth beech bark change so drastically in old age? This senior citizen was shaggy.
“Looks like a maple,” I said, “but I don’t see any maple leaves.”
Marc zoomed in on the crown high above, looking for leaves. “Yellow birch?”
For all we knew, it was a sequoia.
Continuing on, we came to a wet area with old puncheons, or split logs, rotting in the mud. The trail was showing its age. We skipped the puncheons and hopscotched through tall grass and muck without much difficulty. After a short ascent, the trail practically raced downhill, losing five hundred feet in its final mile and a half. Suddenly, a red cabin appeared ahead of us. After three and a half hours we’d reached Beaver River.
When the trail met a dirt road, we turned right to circle around Norridgewock Pond, as “downtown” was on the other side. An assortment of propane and fuel tanks lined the rear of a rambling log cabin on our left and solar panels adorned the roof of another. Beaver River is off the grid. There are no utility poles or overhead wires. Electricity is homemade here, derived from generators or the sun, and propane fuels lamps as well as stoves.
After passing a few more camps we came to a plaque honoring Verplanck Colvin, the indefatigable nineteenth-century surveyor of the Adirondacks. Affixed to a random boulder, the plaque’s placement was curious. Then a causeway took us over the pond’s outlet to another dirt road, this one paralleling the rusting railroad tracks.
Beaver River’s isolation dates back to 1922 when the Beaver River Flow dam was raised nineteen feet, creating Stillwater Reservoir and cutting off the only road to the hamlet. At the time, the road wasn’t missed much since the railroad then served the town. But passenger service ended in 1965.
Roads remain here, but they go nowhere. The few vehicles in town—rusty pickups, ATVs, and golf carts—have no license plates. Despite the lack of vehicular traffic we did notice a gas pump near the town’s principal intersection. Crude oil prices may have plummeted elsewhere, but not in Beaver River: the price at the pump was $5.99 a gallon.
After poking around town for twenty minutes, we encountered no one. Where was everybody? Had we entered the Twilight Zone? No, Beaver River’s year-round population is six, we found out later, and the “weekend warriors” hadn’t arrived yet, this being a Friday.
Stepping into the Norridgewock III, one of two (!) hotels here, we finally found humanity: tourists who had arrived on the hotel’s cruise boat filled the dining room. After lunch we joined them for a nine-mile ride to the Stillwater landing, which took about an hour. Passengers with binoculars spotted loons along the way, and people waved at us from the shoreline campsites. It was a relaxing end to an adventurous day.
DIRECTIONS: From NY 28 in Eagle Bay, drive north on Big Moose Road for 7.3 miles to Big Moose Station. Just before the road crosses railroad tracks, turn right onto Twitchell Road and go 2.0 miles to a parking area at the road’s end.