High Falls Loop

High Falls on the Oswegatchie was but one of the high points of the author's hike.
High Falls on the Oswegatchie was but one of the high points of the author’s hike. Photo by Jack Ballard.

A heavenly circle

By Jack Ballard

Jack draws on his tightrope skills while crossing a beaver dam.
Jack draws on his tightrope skills while crossing a beaver dam. Photo by Lisa Densmore.

The feel of sweat rising on the brow from honest exertion is motivation enough for some to take a hike, but most folks set out with another goal in mind: a lofty summit with expansive views, a secluded trout pond, a cool swimming hole on a lazy bend in a river.

As a photographer with an insatiable appetite for sweet, natural things, I am lured by the prospect of finding picturesque waterfalls and berry patches. A route that offers both—such as the sixteen-mile High Falls Loop—is nothing short of hiker’s heaven.

My friend, Lisa, and I plan to do the loop over three days, with overnights at High Rock on the Oswegatchie River and at the Janack’s Landing lean-to on Cranberry Lake. We don’t leave the trailhead in Wanakena until noon, but Lisa assures me we have plenty of time to cover the 3.8 miles to High Rock.

The trail whisks us on a gentle grade along Skate Creek. Lisa informs me that we’re actually treading upon an abandoned railroad bed built in 1902 by the Rich Lumber Company that was later turned into a truck trail. It’s nearly flat, perfect for making time. Our legs limber. The pace quickens. At this rate, we’ll reach High Rock faster than my teenage son can down a bowl of cereal, but within ten minutes our pace slows to an erratic crawl.

Jack Ballard waits for a nibble on the Oswegatchie River. Photo by Lisa Densmore.

First, Lisa spots a delicate bouquet of Queen Anne’s lace blooming in a shady spot near the trail. With dozens of photos of the flower already in her files, it seems unnecessary to make another. She captures another twenty, fussing with the composition and exposure while I sweat and swat mosquitoes. Then she discovers a veritable meadow of wildflowers sprinkled with blue chicory, yellow buttercups, and orange jewelweed. Resigned to the delay, I drop my overstuffed pack and pull out my own camera.

Eventually, we don our packs again and begin hiking purposefully up the trail. Lisa spies a blueberry bush with several plump, purple orbs cuddled within its leaves. We dive from the trail, only to find more bushes to plunder. The process repeats itself over the course of the next hour, until our fingers are stained with juice and Lisa sticks a hideous purple tongue out at me when I tease her that the berries are as high in calories as antioxidants. For the first time in my life, my berry craving is satisfied. Though we pass many more bushes along the route to High Rock, we don’t stop for another nibble.

High Falls Loop Map
Map by Nancy Bernstein.

High Rock reclines above a slow curve in the Oswegatchie on a short spur off the main trail. From its rounded shoulder we gaze up the river. The outlook affords a bird’s-eye view at the riparian corridor, wild and bustling with life. An azure streak marks the passing of a blue jay while a slick-tongued garter snake eyes us from scrubby vegetation along the rock. A cool, yawning pool beckons from below. After a swim, we pitch our tent on a level spot above the rock and prepare dinner. Darkness settles softly on the forest, and not long after the first stars begin to twinkle overhead, I’m ready for bed.

With nearly nine miles to cover to our next campsite on Cranberry Lake, we set out early the next morning. Shortly up the trail, the path crosses an old railroad bridge of weathered stone with a perky cascade bubbling over a broad rock. Not far beyond the bridge the forest thins as we approach a beaver pond, the first of several that moisten the route to High Falls. Roughly paralleling the river, the trail continues its gentle, graded ascent through tall grass and ferns, damp with sufficient dew to soak my pants from the knees down.

Lisa Densmore conductiong research for a guidebook.
Lisa Densmore conductiong research for a guidebook. Photo by Jack Ballard.

Around midmorning we reach another beaver pond, a sprawling impoundment that shows off the skill of the North American animal most able to alter its habitat. It’s a boggy game of hopscotch to traverse the eroding dam. A rotting sapling breaks beneath Lisa’s feet, plunging her right boot into a bog. I’m tempted to theorize that the branch would have held if she hadn’t bulked up on berries, but she’s armed with an iron-tipped trekking pole and probing at a tangle of sticks. I swallow my taunt, wipe away my grin, and follow her across the bog.

Some four miles beyond our departure from High Rock, we cross Glasby Creek, then reach a damp, grassy meadow known as “The Plains.” The high, distinct trill of cedar waxwings betrays their presence before we spy the black-masked birds. A small blotch of yellow in a shrub appears to be a warbler, but it flits away before we can make a positive identification.

A half-mile later, we reach the short spur trail to High Falls. On the brief descent to the falls we pass an ancient, rusting contraption—an old logging skidder. A curious conglomeration of gears, rails, and pulleys, it’s an odd but interesting artifact that won’t be soon departing its au naturel Adirondack Park museum.

Fast food on the trail.
Fast food on the trail. Photo by Lisa Densmore.

High Falls consists of a broad, modest waterfall, followed by a series of cascades. Smooth stone perches offer many ideal spots to lunch and lounge. After gobbling a sandwich, I scramble to the top of the falls to look around. Just before the Oswegatchie crashes over the stony precipice, the water flows briskly over a large expanse of bedrock. Back at the brink, I notice Lisa hunched over at water’s edge. When I reach her, she starts showing me a sequence of 197 photos she’s taken of a great blue heron fishing in the river. Somewhere into the third dozen, I suggest we might better view the photos on a computer screen, a diplomatic half-truth intended to facilitate our passage to Cranberry Lake before midnight.

A great blue heron fishes along the river.
A great blue heron fishes along the river. Photo by Lisa Densmore.

Back on the trail, we head toward Dead Creek Flow on a boggy passage through a classic deciduous forest interspersed with more beaver ponds. Crossing a tangle of roots at the edge of a soggy glade, my boot nearly squashes a large toad sitting placidly on the trail. Some two miles beyond High Falls we ascend a low rise known as Sand Hill. The soil is notably sandy and dry, a pleasant relief from the damp meadows.

From the top of Sand Hill the path descends into another mile-long series of spongy lowlands. The prints of a black bear remind us that this is real wilderness. Taking a spur trail to Janack’s Landing, we at last spy the rippled water of Cranberry Lake winking suggestively through the timber. Down the hill from the lean-to, we find a shallow spot to wade and swim. A stone’s throw away, a peninsula of reeds juts from the shoreline, the perfect place for bass to hide. Back at camp, I consider uncasing the fly rod in my pack before succumbing to a short nap that becomes a long snooze. When the cook suggests I scrounge up some wood for an after-dinner campfire, the fish are forgotten.

Beaver meadows are a common sight in the High Falls Loop.
Beaver meadows are a common sight in the High Falls Loop. Photo by Lisa Densmore.

The next morning, an extra hour’s sleep seems more sensible than sunrise fishing. When we depart I’ve yet to wet my line in Cranberry Lake, a deficiency I vow to rectify on a subsequent outing. From Janack’s Landing, it’s a level, three-mile walk back to Wanakena. The first mile loops us around an inlet, then along the shore of Cranberry Lake. We pass numerous lakeside campsites, most accessed by folks in motorboats.

As the trail bends northwest, away from the lake, we find ourselves in another series of flooded meadows and sparse timber, a boggy legacy of the local beavers. It’s tricky navigating the stick-and-mud impoundments. Dry-footed modernists may find the beavers annoying, but it strikes me that beaver bogs were a dominant feature on the landscape long before European settlers tamed the Adirondacks,

We come out on the road a half-mile from our original trailhead. We drop our packs, and I’m elected to make the short jog to retrieve the car. Lisa sits on a log, happily scrawling her concluding notes from the trail that she’ll later incorporate into Hiking the Adirondacks, a guidebook that she’s writing and her reason for our trip. But I won’t need pencil and paper to recall the trek’s most salient features. How can you forget a plunging waterfall and buxom blueberries?

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