After December snowfalls, our editor goes on his first ski trip of the season to High Rock in the Five Ponds Wilderness.
By Phil Brown
AFTER SEVERAL LONG days in the office, I went to bed dreaming of my first backcountry ski trip of the season, a jaunt to High Rock in the Five Ponds Wilderness. Conditions would be perfect. Over the last few days, we had received eight inches of fluffy powder.
Then I woke up. Outside, it was twenty-four below zero, according to my Weather Channel app. Like any sensible person, I immediately broadcast this fact to Facebook. A few people suggested I postpone my trip.
“I have skied at 20 below, but I was 14 and foolish. Stay home, for god’s sake,” posted a former colleague.
But most of my Facebook friends were surprisingly indifferent to the possibility of my freezing to death.
“Burrrrrr & Enjoy!” wrote one.
Staying home was not an option as I had two blank pages in the Explorer to fill. Fortunately, the car started. On the way to Wanakena, I stopped for gas at Larkin’s in Tupper Lake. The fellow at the next pump grinned as if relieved to know that if he collapsed from hypothermia I’d drag him into the store.
By the time I reached Wanakena, it was about 10:30 a.m. Rick Kovacs, the owner of the Wanakena General Store, told me the temperature had risen to two above. Cold, but tolerable.
No visit to Wanakena is complete without a visit to Rick’s store. It’s the last outpost before you enter the 118,000-acre Five Ponds Wilderness. Besides groceries and souvenirs, Rick sells all the essentials for backcountry adventure, including topo maps, compasses, waterproof matches, pocketknives, and freeze-dried meals.
The store is the hub of the community, but with just forty full-time residents, business can get awfully slow in winter.
“I’m committed to stay open for the people who support the store year-round,” said Rick, who also owns Packbasket Adventures Lodge. “There are some seniors who can’t get out and drive down icy roads for a quart of milk.”
After fortifying myself with a cup of hot chocolate, I headed out. The trail follows an old railroad grade. For the 3.7 miles to High Rock, a small bluff overlooking the Oswegatchie River, it’s basically flat. This might seem boring, but in early winter, when there isn’t much base, flat trails like this are what you want.
Even in midwinter, the ski to High Rock has much to offer: corridors of snow-laden evergreens, tranquil beaver meadows, and of course the view from High Rock of that frozen serpent, the Owsegatchie. Chances are you’ll enjoy all this in solitude. At least, there likely won’t be crowds.
For the more ambitious skier, High Rock is just the first stop on the High Falls Loop, a sixteen-mile circuit with several views of the Oswegatchie, culminating in a short detour to High Falls, a fifteen-foot cascade. The second half of the loop takes you over Sand Hill Junction and past Dead Creek Flow on Cranberry Lake.This excursion should be undertaken only by strong skiers who are prepared to break trail.
The trail to High Rock begins beside a mill pond where several sawmills operated circa 1900—the heyday of Wanakena’s logging era. The train would come out of the woods and leave logs at the pond, and the mills would turn them into buggy-whip handles, shoe lasts, and lathing strips, among other things.
As I skied past the pond, I had a happy thought: I’m not cold. As I skied deeper into the wild, I became so warm that I took off my inner mittens. No doubt the outside temperature had continued to rise, but my physical exertion accounted for most of the heat I felt. It was still fairly cold, I knew, because after taking a few photos, I noticed the battery in my camera was almost dead. I removed the battery and stuffed it my chest pocket, where it warmed up and got its mojo back.
The trail looked beautiful on this day. I found myself skiing between columns of spruce and balsam, their green boughs drooping under the weight of snow. Occasionally, I came upon a pleasant change of scenery—the snowy tussocks, clumps of yellowed grass, and weathered stumps of a beaver meadow. Not dramatic, but wild and serene. It was delightful to be back on skis.
I was happy, too, that someone had skied here the day before. Even an old railroad grade can pose a challenge if you’re breaking trail. After a few miles, though, the tracks ended, and I was plowing through powder. With the snow piling up to my shins as I “glided” forward, I congratulated myself for having put on gaiters before leaving the house.
Shortly, I found the way blocked by part of a large spruce that had snapped off and landed on the trail, taking as casualties several smaller trees. I thought I saw a way around to the left, but I soon got entangled in a thicket and had to fight through, breaking branches and loosening small avalanches, to return to the trail. I would have inflicted less damage on the environment and myself if I had gone right.
Eventually, I came to what might be called an uphill, a slight incline where the trail cuts across a slope of hardwoods. At the top, a spur trail on the right leads in a tenth of a mile to High Rock. (Look for a sign at the junction.)
High Rock, like High Falls, is not very high. Nonetheless, it offers a fine view of the Oswegatchie meandering through marsh and alder swamp. I have admired this vista in summer, when the alluvial plain is alive with green and the cries of red-winged blackbirds. How different in winter. How still. How white.
High Rock is a popular destination for paddlers, both for its view and for its campsite, which lies beneath large pines. Looking at the winter landscape, I wondered what it would be like to ski up the frozen river and if the ice ever gets thick enough to allow it. If it were safe, I imagine it would be magical trip.
Skiing back to Wanakena in my tracks should not have taken more than an hour, but I stopped to explore one of the larger beaver meadows I had passed earlier. It was easily accessible from the trail. Threading among humps of snow-covered grasses and bushes, I came to a frozen stream and skied along it to an old beaver lodge, all but hidden under the snow.
What an enchanting place. There were scores of gray, withered stumps and a number of tall snags, the remains of long-dead trees. It reminded me of a tree graveyard. Just as in a human graveyard, most of the monuments were small, perhaps a few feet tall, but some rose high into the sky like obelisks. When they lived, these must have been the panjandrums of the arboreal world.
I had wanted to get away from it all. Although I hadn’t traveled all that far from civilization, the beaver meadow seemed a million miles from the world of Facebook and smart phones. Since it was getting late, I couldn’t tarry. I arrived back at the car at dusk, reinvigorated and glad for winter. Also, hungry. In Wanakena, that demands a visit to the Pine Cone Grill. What better way to ease back into civilization than with a beer and one of the Pine Cone’s famous burgers?
DIRECTIONS: From the bridge over the Oswegatchie River just west of Cranberry Lake, drive 6.8 miles west on NY 3 to County 61, the turn for the Wanakena Ranger School. Turn left onto 61, then bear right at 0.8 miles, where the main road bends left. In another 0.4 miles, bear right again onto South Shore Road and cross the Oswegatchie. (A left turn at the junction would take you to the Wanakena General Store.) Less than a tenth of mile beyond the bridge is a short road on the right that leads to the trailhead. However, drive past the road and park in the plowed lot on the other side of the tennis courts. Ski or walk back to the trailhead.