Biking back in time
By Betsy Kepes
Bicycling the Tooley Pond Road in the northwestern Adirondacks is like gliding through a wilderness. For 17 miles, the road rolls up and down through hardwood forests, following the South Branch of the Grass River.
Starting in Degrasse, we plan to follow Tooley Pond Road for the first part of a 40-mile bicycling loop that will take us past rivers, woods and waterfalls and back into history.
“How many cars do you think we’ll see?” Bob asks after we pull into Degrasse. Bob and his wife, Valerie, who own a farm near Canton, are joining my 19-year-old son, Lee, and me on the ride. It’s a Friday in June. I reckon we’ll see fewer than 10 vehicles.
We’ll be pedaling road bikes with wide tires. Most of the road is paved, but a three-mile stretch of dirt near the Cranberry Lake end would be difficult with skinny tires. After 14 miles on Tooley Pond Road, we’ll turn right at Cooks Corners onto River Road. At Newton Falls, we’ll bear right again and take back roads to county Route 27, which will lead us north back to Degrasse.
The state maintains a kiosk at the start of the Forest Preserve land on the north end of Tooley Pond Road, stocked with maps of the Tooley Pond Tract, which was protected in a 1999 land deal with Champion International. We also have brought St. Lawrence County’s highway map and a brochure showing the locations of waterfalls on the South Branch. Over the course of the day, we’ll use all three.
As we cycle down the road, the South Branch entertains us with musical cascades and rapids. Its water is the reddish brown characteristic of many streams in the northern Adirondacks. Stately hardwood trees stand above carpets of ferns.
Nowadays, there are no permanent dwellings along most of the road. In 1868, however, the village of Clarksboro at Twin Falls boasted 200 residents, many of them employed by the Clifton Iron Co. On this day, when we stop to admire the beautiful pair of waterfalls, the only residents we encounter are deerflies.
Sailing down hills and swooping back up the other sides, we whoop and holler like kids on a roller coaster. It’s been so long since we’ve seen a car that we’ve come to think of the road as our own private bike path. Trees arch overhead, providing shade as the day warms up.
Our next landmark is Newbridge, where in 1906 lumberman Robert Higbie built a logging town for 50 families. His railroad brought logs to the Newton Falls mill. The village lasted as long as the logging, about a decade. The only signs of the bygone village are the concrete abutments of the “new bridge,” long ago replaced by a metal structure. We lean our bikes against the railings and gaze up the Grass, a placid stretch of water bordering a wetland. It’s hard to imagine that these woods once held a town big enough for a general store, boardinghouse and schoolhouse.
The waterfall guide, published by the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, lists eight falls and the distance to each from Degrasse. This turns out to be crucial information, as the trails are not well marked. Wondering why, I later asked DEC and was told that signs won’t be put up until the agency completes a management plan for the area.
After a determined search, we manage to find the trail to Copper Rock Falls, 8.6 miles from Degrasse. A short, muddy path leads to a series of rapids pouring over smooth bedrock that does indeed cast a copper sheen. Bob and Valerie stay at the edge of the river—their bike shoes are too slippery for the rocks—while Lee and I explore. A higher falls on the other side of the river is barely visible. We’ll have to come back after the leaves fall to get a better view.
The up-and-down roller coaster continues. A deer flashes its white tail as it disappears into the woods. It’s rare to travel this road without seeing some wildlife.
The state has built a large parking lot next to Tooley Pond. From here, hikers can climb Tooley Pond Mountain, a small summit with the remnants of a fire tower. The steel structure now stands on Cathedral Rock near the state Ranger School in Wanakena. Without the tower, the view from Tooley Pond Mountain is limited. We decide to skip the hike, though it isn’t a long one.
After Tooley Pond, the road is dirt for three miles. The downhills are difficult on our touring bikes. This also is the least scenic part of the road, as we see plenty of evidence of recent logging. We’re glad to hit pavement again in Cooks Corners, a tiny cluster of houses. The Windfall Bar and Grill isn’t open, but a rack holds menu brochures so we place a virtual order. Bob has a cheeseburger and a basket of fries. I try the capellini pasta, and Lee orders the spaghetti squash and fried goat cheese. The owners are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, so the menu is more elegant than usual in this blue-collar corner of the Adirondacks.
After making the turn onto River Road, we greet a new river, the Oswegatchie. We pass a lovely bog at Crane Pond and then stop to eat our real lunch—peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, cheese and salami—at a shady boulder beside the wide river. A loon is swimming on the water.
At mile 20, we pass the empty Newton Falls beach, a sandy spot with a couple of Adirondack chairs and three picnic tables. When Bob Marshall walked to Newton Falls in 1922 from Cranberry Lake he found the town bustling.
As I had no pack, I planned to spend the night somewhere in Newton Falls. But there wasn’t a place to be had in the whole town. The paper mill was cutting to capacity, and then some, and so the town had more people than houses, very different than at Benson Mines. I saw a couple of men who were even sleeping in remodeled chicken coops.
Things have changed in Newton Falls. The impressive old hotel looks worn and tired. As we bicycle around town, we see a post office, a beauty parlor and two churches, but no store. The road curves downhill past the sprawling Newton Falls paper mill, which had been scheduled to reopen this year.
We’re now on county Route 60. After a long uphill, we turn right onto Schuyler Road, a narrow strip of pavement with a few houses and old farms. A downhill takes us to a steel bridge across the Oswegatchie and then to another climb. It’s a lovely road, bordered by old maples and homes with gardens and horses.
Over the next hill we see a “Bridge Out” sign. Reluctant to back track, we keep pedaling to a guardrail and fence in front of a bridge that crosses the arm of an impoundment on the Oswegatchie. Fortunately for us, a section of the fence has been removed, so we lift our bikes over the barrier. The old bridge seems in good shape, its concrete surface still smooth. When we get to the other side, we run to a pine forest to escape a shower.
After the rain ceases, we explore an old cemetery tucked into the pines. Most of the gravestones, leaning and eroded, date to the mid-19th century. Another reminder of the people who once lived in this quiet corner of the Adirondacks.
The road turns to dirt for a few miles. At the junction with county Route 27, a historical sign informs us that the town of Fine held its first town meeting there in 1844. The spot is now wooded.
When we stop to check the map, we decide to take a detour up Irish Hill Road, which forms a loop with the highway. Heading uphill, we gear down and dig in just as another storm begins flinging big drops of rain. As we pass a beautiful field, a spear of lightning jabs the earth, followed immediately by a crack of thunder. I pedal faster, wondering if my rubber tires are any protection from electricity. Lee is waiting at the top of the hill, standing in the road and handing out chunks of a Cadbury chocolate bar. “Chocolate to go!” He grins, his long wet hair plastered over his face. We aren’t going to let a thunderstorm ruin our day.
We lose all our hard-earned elevation in a delightful descent back to the main road. The rain having stopped again, we slow down to enjoy the last few miles to Degrasse. When the skies open again, we sprint to the finish and immediately pile into the front seat of the truck. Lee passes out the last pieces of chocolate. Within minutes, the cab is as hot as a sauna. As soon as the rain lets up, we spill out and put on dry clothes.
Before we head home I check my odometer—40 miles. A racing cyclist could cover that distance in a couple of hours. We’ve taken all day. And what a glorious one it has been.