A distant goal
By Bill Ingersoll
Something big and dark moves swiftly across the trail ahead of us and quietly vanishes in the brush. I stop, and my dog Lexie stops ahead of me. It was a brief glimpse, but we both saw it clearly.
“Did you guys see that?” I ask.
Brad, walking behind me, replies, “I saw something black, but I couldn’t see what it was.”
“It was a bear,” I say. Lexie is eyeing the woods intently.
“What, a bear?” Greg interjects, from the rear of the group.
“Yeah, just up there. It walked right across the trail.”
“That figures,” Greg says. “I didn’t see a thing.”
We listen for a moment, but we don’t hear or see the bear. Confident that the way is clear, we continue on the trail across the outlet of Olmstead Pond and around the southern shore. It’s dusk when we arrive at the lean-to. A short path leads to a rock ledge on the shore. Despite the fading light, we enjoy a view of the pine-and-rock shoreline and the warm autumn colors that surround the pond.
We had begun our hike sixteen miles ago at Wanakena, a tiny community on the Oswegatchie River. Our goal is to take three days to hike a thirty-mile section of a new long-distance trail encircling Cranberry Lake, appropriately named the Cranberry Lake 50-Mile Loop. We plan to finish on the third day at the Burntbridge Pond trailhead on Route 3 east of Cranberry Lake village.
The CL50 passes scenic views of the Oswegatchie, numerous ponds, cascading streams, and the sites of several historic cabins. It’s possible to take short side trips to High Rock and High Falls on the Oswegatchie, to the summit of Cat Mountain, and to various bays of Cranberry Lake. Most of the route follows trails that have been around awhile. They include sections of the Dog Pond Loop, the Otterbrook Trail, the Sixmile Creek Trail, the High Falls Loop, and the Peavine Swamp Ski Trail. All are located in the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest or the Five Ponds Wilderness. Doing the full loop requires walking along Route 3 for about five and a half miles. If you don’t like walking along the road, you could leave a bicycle nearby.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation first proposed the loop in 1994, when it updated the management plan for the Five Ponds Wilderness. DEC officials felt that a “signature trail” was needed in the Cranberry Lake region to attract hikers from more popular parts of the Adirondack Park.
Nearly a decade later, the Clifton-Fine Economic Development Corp. created a subcommittee, comprising mostly local residents, to improve and promote hiking opportunities in the region. The panel took the name Five Ponds Partners and quickly endorsed the CL50.
“Encouraging local and visitor use of the trails for four-season use is a way of bringing people into the area,” said Sherm Craig, the subcommittee chairman.
The Adirondack Mountain Club cut the only new trail needed, a 2.1-mile route over Indian Mountain connecting two existing trails. By 2007, the CL50 had come into being. Five Ponds Partners plans to promote the trail by printing brochures, erecting a trailhead kiosk, and marking the trail with special disks.
Lexie and I are the first to wake up in the morning. As we stand on the rock ledge at the shoreline of Olmstead Pond, with the sun just beginning to peek through the hardwood forest across from us, a solitary loon swims silently across the still water. It is almost gone from view by the time Greg joins us.
We hear voices back by the lean-to. Brad is chatting with a visitor, a fellow hiker named Russ Byer, who aims to complete the entire loop in three days. He drove four hours to the trailhead yesterday and hiked roughly twenty miles from the Burntbridge Pond trailhead to a campsite on Olmstead’s north shore.
Russ has a lot of hiking ahead, so he’s soon on his way. Weeks later, I got back in touch to ask how he liked the loop. “What I liked the best,” he said, “was how the trail seemed to constantly change: old logging roads, deep wooded sections, many lakes and ponds, beaver dams, and rocky sections.”
We face a long day too. After breakfast, we load our packs and continue around the north side of Olmstead Pond. It seems like we have only just begun when we reach the first of the two tent sites there. One is located near a beautiful rock ledge with views of the pond and its vibrantly colored shoreline – a stunning place, at least on this picture-perfect October morning.
Our next stop is Sliding Rock Falls, where Sixmile Creek drops twenty feet over sloping bedrock into a large pool. After crossing the creek, we follow the new trail over the north side of Indian Mountain. The slope is remarkably steep, but ADK employed switchbacks to ease the trail’s grade. A long stretch is benched into the side of the hill, with rustic rock steps in a few spots.
After crossing the forested height of land, we make a long and gentle descent to Chair Rock Creek. The creek crossing requires agile rock hopping. If the creek is running high, the crossing may be even harder. Five Ponds Partners has proposed a bridge for this site. Just beyond, a side trail leads left to a boat landing and campsite on Chair Rock Flow, an arm of the lake. As we eat lunch, we listen to the cascading creek in the woods behind us.
East of Chair Rock Creek, the trail enters a tract once owned by Otterbrook, a logging company. When I was first here, this was a vaguely defined route with few signs of use. Since then, someone has gone to pains to mark the Forest Preserve management units on both sides of the trail: Wild Forest on the left, Primitive Area on the right. Inasmuch as the forest is really one big wild expanse, I suggest that all of this area should be part of the Five Ponds Wilderness.
We pass the ruins of an old camp where an oven stands like a milepost beside the trail. The trail diverts hikers from a more remarkable site that I came upon on a previous hike. In a large clearing near Sucker Brook, an old cabin still stands, perhaps the last surviving structure of a logging camp. The structure is abandoned and eventually will be removed.
It is getting late in the day when we arrive at Dog Pond, only to find its one campsite occupied by college students. We continue through Proulx Clearing (site of another logging camp) to Irish Pond, where an almost-forgotten side trail leads to a campsite. We stake out spots for our tents, and after supper Lexie turns in for the night – one tired dog! Greg makes a small fire. The wood crackles and small sparks fly into the cool air before blinking into the darkness. Above us, the silhouettes of pines and hemlocks filter the starry sky.
We are not alone in these woods. A wild canid howls somewhere not far from the north end of the small pond – right in our own backyard, so to speak. But this is not the yipping and yowling normally associated with coyotes. This howl is longer, throatier. Dare we say it? It sounds almost wolf-like.
On our third day, we awake to overcast skies. Today’s route will take us along the east side of Cranberry Lake on our way toward the Burntbridge Pond trailhead on Route 3. After breaking camp, we depart Irish Pond, pass Willys Pond, and take a break at Curtis Pond. These ponds are fast losing their fall colors – in another week, most of the woods will be bare.
From Curtis we continue northward to East Inlet, another arm of Cranberry Lake, and stop for another break at one of the two campsites. Although the CL50 circles the lake, it visits the shoreline in only a few places, and East Inlet is one of the nicer of these spots.
We follow the trail into the hills and take a side trip to Hedgehog Pond – called Clear Pond on older maps – where someone has erected a canvas wall tent in anticipation of big-game season. Today, though, there is no one else around to enjoy the exquisite burst of crimson foliage mingled among the spruces along the water.
Our next stop is a campsite at Brandy Brook Flow, the lake’s northeastern bay. Nearly a century ago, the Indian Mountain Club maintained a network of small camps for sportsmen, including one at this location. All that remains is a long-toppled chimney. A large rock near the water’s edge invites us to sit and take in the long view down the flow toward the main body of the lake.
We are not there long when the lead hikers of the college group we saw at Dog Pond begin to arrive. Soon, the campsite becomes a scene of youthful activity. Lexie is overjoyed to have so many new friends fawning over her. We learn that they are taking a backpacking class at the State University College at Potsdam. The students research the gear they’ll need and then plan a trip into the wilderness.
My friends and I look at each other. Why didn’t anyone think of this when we were in college?
The students intend to spend the night here, but we have to go. We still have more than four miles to go to reach Route 3. As we depart, I notice two students sitting near the water, enjoying the view down the flow.
“This is nice,” one says. “Is this part of the Adirondack Park?”
“No,” his friend answers, quite self-assuredly. “The Adirondacks don’t begin until you get to Tupper Lake. They’re closer to Lake Placid.”
I chuckle to myself. Perhaps the CL50 will put Cranberry Lake back on the Adirondack map. I am certain of one thing: the people of Cranberry Lake and Wanakena have a recreational asset they can be proud of.
We began our hike in Wanakena and ended at the Burntbridge Pond trailhead on Route 3, a few miles east of Cranberry Lake hamlet. Because we were pressed for time, we took a short cut to pick up the Cranberry Lake 50 near Sand Hill Junction in the Five Ponds Wilderness. Ordinarily, though, the route from Wanakena to the aforementioned trailhead will cover about four-fifths of the loop.
To complete the loop, hikers need to walk, bike, or drive about five and a half miles west on Route 3, passing through the hamlet of Cranberry Lake, to the Peavine Swamp trailhead. This trail is notable for the stand of large, old-growth hemlocks near the halfway point. It leads in 4.2 miles to the state Ranger School in Wanakena, but hikers may want to take a side trip to a lean-to on the Inlet Flow, a still section of the Oswegatchie River.
From the Ranger School, follow the road into downtown Wanakena, where you can pick up supplies at the general store. Cross the footbridge over the Oswegatchie River and walk west on South Shore Road to your starting point, the western trailhead for the High Falls Loop. The road walk from the school totals two miles.
The CL 50 can be accessed directly from roadways in three places: South Shore Road in Wanakena and Route 3 at the trailheads for Burntbridge Pond and Peavine Swamp. The trail founders encourage hikers to take their time and to walk the loop in several seasons. There are many trails off the CL 50 that also are worth exploring.