Foray into flatland
By Stephen Williams
Until this past winter, I’d never heard of the Independence River Wild Forest. Not having discovered this underappreciated corner of the Adirondacks earlier has been my loss.
The Wild Forest tract comprises seventy-six thousand acres on the western edge of the Adirondack Park, some fifty miles north of Utica. By Adirondack standards, it’s pretty flat country, a place to visit for its lakes and ponds and streams, not for spectacular views from bare summits. But it’s quintessentially Adirondack in the ways that count most: it’s wild, beautiful, and remote.
My college-age son Nick and I set out to explore the region this spring, hiking in an eight-mile loop that took us to Big Otter Lake and Pine Lake.
We began at the end of Partridgeville Road, several miles northeast of Brantingham Lake. We parked in an unmarked dirt lot just before a bridge over Otter Creek. From there, it’s a straightforward walk up an old dirt road to Big Otter Lake.
Otter Creek was flowing hard and fast as we crossed the bridge. Immediately afterward, the road passed through a private in-holding where a horse stable is located. Hikers have the same right of passage as on any public road. Immediately past the farm, we entered state land.
The road to Big Otter is open to motor vehicles, but it’s not maintained, and it’s so rough that you’re unlikely to see many. We did see two people riding an all-terrain vehicle, even though ATV use on Forest Preserve lands and roads is illegal. These were the only people we saw on the entire hike.
It had been the rainiest spring in recent memory, and there were a lot of large puddles in the road. Actually, they were more like miniature ponds: startled frogs leaped away at our approach at just about every one. We skirted the shore of some of the ponds and bushwhacked around others, but we still made good time through a lovely dense forest. Birds called out loudly in the treetops, and sometimes we could hear Otter Creek off to our right.
We crossed Tommy Roaring Creek on a plank bridge and another stream on rocks. After covering 3.2 miles in less than ninety minutes, we reached a junction near the western arm of Big Otter Lake. A right turn leads to Pine Lake. The trail straight ahead follows the north side of Otter Lake to reach, in 1.5 miles, the former site of a hotel. We had planned to go there, but we had forgotten our insect repellant, and mosquitoes were swarming around us. To avoid unnecessary blood loss, we skipped the side trip and headed for East Pine Pond and Pine Lake.
Almost immediately, we encountered a man-made wonder in the wilderness: a brand-new wooden bridge that stretches nearly a hundred feet across Big Otter’s outlet (i.e., Otter Creek). Nick isn’t a nerd, but he is an engineering student; me, I’m a writer who’s enough of a nerd to be fascinated by bridges, and so both of us admired this sturdy structure (which I later learned was built by the state last summer with snowmobile-registration funds).
We walked across the first section, paused in the middle where a boulder serves as a pier, and continued to the other side, stopping to take in the view of the lake. Signs on the far side indicated our arrival at the edge of the Ha-De-Ron-Dah Wilderness, which stretches for seven miles south to Route 28 near Old Forge. We stopped to look for frogs, take pictures, and admire another engineering marvel, a big beaver house not far off shore.
When we resumed our journey, we passed through a more-open hardwood forest on a trail marked by red disks. The trail follows the border of the Ha-De-Ron-Dah Wilderness but stays within the Independence River Wild Forest. In winter, it sees some use by snowmobilers.
It took less than an hour of easy hiking to reach East Pine Pond, which is big enough that we at first mistook it for Pine Lake. As it turned out, Pine Lake was less than five minutes farther up the trail. Pine Lake is large and picturesque. A lean-to offers a place to rest, have lunch, or spend the night. We stopped again to rehydrate and refuel.
From the lean-to, it’s a short distance down the shore to another trail junction. Although there’s no sign, the way right leads back to Partridgeville Road, on a trail marked by yellow disks. Faced with the absence of a sign, Nick seemed slightly dubious about my knowledge, but he followed. (We had already made a false start up another trail.)
The 2.8 miles back to Partridgeville Road offered some of the prettiest hiking, as we walked through tall hardwoods. Also, the sun came out for the first time all day. Just as a trail barrier for a snowmobilers’ parking lot was coming into sight, the yellow trail took a sharp right.
“Are you sure?” asked Nick, whose spirits were lifted by the sight of the gate.
Well, no, I wasn’t. But at least I was right. Within a quarter-mile, the trail brought us back to the parking lot where we had started, completing our loop. All the trails had been wide and easy to follow.
Later, I asked DEC about the lack of signs at Pine Lake and at the Patridgeville Road parking lot. I was told that DEC intends to install more signs in the Independence River Wild Forest after updating the tract’s management plan. Alas, DEC is notoriously slow in completing management plans.
Now that I’ve discovered the Independence River Wild Forest, I want to go back. Big Otter Lake would make an outstanding cross-country ski destination, and I still want to see that old hotel site.
It should go without saying—but won’t—that the Big Otter-Pine Lake loop could also be done in reverse.
From Brantingham Lake, drive north on Partridgeville Road. After 1.5 miles, turn left to stay on Partridgeville Road. Continue 6 more miles to a parking area on the right, just before the bridge over Otter Creek.