By Phil Brown
Ask a roomful of cross-country skiers to name the best backcountry tour in the Adirondacks and you’re sure to get a roomful of answers. But there’s little room for debate about the best new ski tour: Henderson Lake to Duck Hole. Thanks to the Open Space Institute, this 6-mile trek across four backcountry lakes nestled amid the High Peaks is now open to the public. Starting in Tahawus, the six-mile route traverses property that OSI bought last year from NL Industries.
Preservationists had tried for a decade to work out a deal for the 9,600-acre tract, which they dubbed the Southern Gateway to the High Peaks. OSI plans to sell most of the land to the state, perhaps early next year. When that happens, it will become part of the public Forest Preserve, but OSI already has opened the land to wilderness enthusiasts. In the past, if you wanted to ski to Duck Hole from Tahawus you were supposed to stay on the marked foot trail, making the trip a somewhat ordinary ski through the woods. Skiing across Henderson Lake and the two Preston Ponds changes everything, opening up magnificent views of the High Peaks and lesser summits. (In other seasons, canoeists also can enjoy these vistas.) On the morning of our excursion, Explorer Publisher Dick Beamish and his wife, Rachel Rice, picked me up in Lake Placid. At the Tahawus trailhead, about 90 minutes later, we hitched up with Adirondack photographer Carl Heilman. Everybody was smiling in anticipation of our adventure. The forecast promised a blue-sky day. From the parking lot, we skied up an old woods road and in less than a quarter-mile crossed a bridge over the Henderson Lake outlet—the start of the Hudson River. Just past the bridge, we turned left off the main trail and reached a narrow finger of the lake after a few hundred yards.
Skiing up the finger, we soon emerged into the middle of a frozen white expanse encircled by snow-covered peaks. The most prominent, at first, is 3,752-foot Henderson Mountain (the Adirondacks’ 68th highest) rising in the west. The wind on the lake can be strong, so bundle up. We turned north to head toward the end of the lake, where we planned to pick up the hiking trail to Preston Ponds. On clear days, you will enjoy astounding views of MacNaughton, Wallface, the MacIntyre Range and Indian Pass as you ski up the lake. This morning, the tops of the peaks were still enshrouded in cloud, but we would see them later on our return. To the southeast, the clouds did lift enough for us to spot the fire tower on Mount Adams, which also was part of the OSI purchase. The ski on Henderson is about 1.5 miles. When we got to the lake’s northwest corner, we could see that we weren’t the first to travel this route in recent days: Ski tracks led through the woods about 30 yards to the marked hiking trail. Since last winter, OSI has built a lean-to near the spot where we exited the lake. It is a memorial to Larry Vernon, a lawyer with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) who loved the Adirondacks. Vernon died of cancer at 55. We turned left onto the trail and headed northwest, following the base of Henderson Mountain. Soon after crossing a few streams on wooden bridges, we came to a meadow covered in snow and ventured off trail through unbroken powder to inspect an old beaver dam. The trail then climbed to a narrow pass between Henderson and MacNaughton mountains. I thought this the most attractive section of the woods, with rocky cliffs closing in on both sides. The height of land here is 2,300 feet in elevation, about 500 feet higher than Henderson Lake.
The descent from the height of land is short, but it has a couple of tricky turns. In a few minutes we came to the south end of Upper Preston Pond, about 1.75 miles from Henderson Lake. The hiking trail takes a sharp right here, but go straight to reach the pond. Upper Preston Pond is about a mile long. There is a cabin on the south shore that presumably will be removed once the state buys the OSI tract. Otherwise, there was no sign of civilization. By this time, the skies had turned clear and blue. As we skied into the wind, we saw the Sawtooth Mountains ahead of us. When we reached the other end of the lake, we splayed in the sun (but out of the wind) and ate lunch. Upper and Lower Preston are linked by a short stream, but it was not totally frozen, so we followed a trail broken by earlier skiers. It took only a few minutes to reach Lower Preston. Again, we found ourselves heading into the wind, but that didn’t stop us from looking up to admire the mountainous scenery. At the end of the pond, which is a bit shorter than its mate, we passed a good-size island and then took a makeshift ski trail along the outlet. After a short distance, we came to a steep knoll and had to remove our skis to climb. The bushwhack was short but difficult. In a few places, we sank in the snow down to our thighs. If the state builds a canoe carry trail between Lower Preston and Duck Hole, it could be used by skiers in winter. A DEC spokesman said such a trail might be considered after the state buys the land.
Duck Hole marks the end of private land. Whatever difficulties we experienced getting there we forgot as we skied to the middle of the lake. To the south was the Santanoni Range; to the west, the Sewards; to the north, the Sawtooths. And looking back, we saw the summit of 4,000-foot MacNaughton towering over us. At its western end, Duck Hole spills over a dam. This is the start of the Cold River, the only major river in the Adirondacks lying wholly within a state-designated Wilderness Area. It flows 14 miles to the Raquette River, which forms the western border of the High Peaks Wilderness. We chatted with two fellows who were camping at the lean-to near the dam. They, too, had skied here. Although they had a fire going, the day was so sunny, we didn’t feel the need to warm ourselves. It had taken us a little more than four hours to get here, including our lunch break and stops for photographs. The return was quicker. The two difficult parts were the bushwhack between Duck Hole and Lower Preston Pond and the descent from the notch between MacNaughton and Henderson mountains. In the latter case, none of us skied the trail the whole way down. Carl and I ventured into the open woods, but that wasn’t easy, either. Dick and Rachel walked and beat us to the bottom of the hill. It would be nice if DEC modified this section of trail to make it skier-friendly. The skies were still clear when we got back to Henderson Lake. We were bowled over by the vistas all around. Especially impressive were the large cliffs of Wallface Mountain, rising straight up above Indian Pass. On the east side of the pass we could see Mount Marshall and, just visible behind it, Iroquois Peak. What a way to end the day! We kept stopping as we proceeded down the lake, reluctant to leave such scenery behind. Finally, we turned into the narrow finger of Henderson. As we did, we happened to look up: There was Mount Colden staring back at us, its summit and slides draped in white, framed against a deep-blue sky. We marveled at this sudden apparition for a moment and continued on our way. To adapt a line from Old Mountain Phelps: “That Colden ain’t the kinder scenery you want ter hog down!”