Human history and wild nature coexist peacefully in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness.
By David Thomas-Train
The Adirondack Mountain Club’s Guide to Eastern Trails describes the Sucker Brook Horse Trail east of Schroon Lake as a long, lonely, and little-used route, with farm ruins and a brook named Desolate flowing through a “dark, dank” valley. Although I am now the author/editor of the guidebook, I had never gotten around to checking this trail. Had that description, by the book’s previous author, kept me away?
The rolling 7.5-mile trail to Pharoah Lake from the southwest had remained a mystery, but last fall, curiosity took over. My friend Elizabeth Lee, a savvy naturalist and outdoor guide, and I undertook an end-to-end trek on a mild day in early October. Stopping in at the Adirondack General Store (in Adirondack, of course) we stocked up on chocolate and energy bars. I also bought a box of “Adirondack Bear Poo,” not realizing how prophetic these round brown nuggets would be.
The Sucker Brook Trail is not exactly abandoned, but the register showed most people use it for relatively short out-and-back trips. Some hike the full 7.5 miles to Pharaoh Lake. Our plan was to go to the lake and then hike out on the Mill Brook Trail—in all, eleven miles. This entails a five-mile car shuttle (you also could bicycle back to your starting point).
There seemed nothing desolate or dank about the trail, which follows an old woods road. Soon after starting out, we came to the first curious delight: two lines of stately ancient sugar maples bordering the mostly level trail. Elizabeth snapped some pics. Who had planted these and built this roadway, and where was it headed? It was sporadically marked with yellow horse-trail disks, but it showed no recent signs of horsy use.
The next surprise, heaps of mossy stone piles and walls from long-gone fields, told us that once upon a time, crops or livestock must have been raised here. This was part of a small farm community of the Gregory family, dating from the 1850s. Called Gregoryville, it was reached by this route, named the White House Road. Little else about it is known.
A mile or so in, the woods got dark and mysterious. A cedar and spruce swamp drained ever so slightly to a wetland past the first of several farmstead cellar holes. The nearest one was a tumbledown rocky depression, but the next two were remarkably plumb and square, even with several trees within. Stone steps led down into the former basements. The last home site was on a rise above a retaining wall, as if to keep an eye over the road’s comings and goings. According to a local history, this had been the “white house.” A faint driveway led to the hint of a rectangular foundation out back with no cellar hole, perhaps that of a barn. More mysteries …
The route was now rising bit by bit along the Sucker Brook drainage; it had been a long time since this land had been cleared, as the white pines and yellow birches were gigantic. One last former clearing sprouted young sumacs, and then the roadway faded to a winding and faint trail.
And then more huge trees—white oaks—with scads of branches busted off, leaf litter all over the place, and acorns crunched and splintered everywhere. Only a hungry bear could make this mess! We craned our necks uneasily to the canopy above, half expecting a bruin to come plummeting. But we should have been watching our steps instead, as the hypothesis of ursine feeding was cinched underfoot: many mushy mounds, very fresh and platter-size, of poo! Torn between guffaws and nerves, we minced our hurried way among the squishy obstacles.
The land rolled on to the east, still rising over another mile to the Sucker Brook headwater pond. The trail passed over a small knoll overlooking an impressive beaver dam and lodge, with swamp maples flaming red round about the shore. We were near the head of the drainage.
Here was obvious brush cutting and clearing, not beaver-made, and it continued throughout the trailside sapling growth until we reached Pharaoh Lake. The state Department of Environmental Conservation was reclaiming the horse trail to its normal width, and now there was room to meander.
We soon reached the top of a long hill. Now came what would be a wonderful descent for backcountry skiers: steep pitches and fast turns, with intervals of flatter terrain. The trail drops four hundred feet in a half-mile, winding back and forth through fairly open hardwoods, to the Desolate Brook valley. Alas, it was only October. I’d have to come back for a long winter’s day.
We found a sunny clearing next to a swamp and feasted on pesto and potatoes, cheddar and crackers, jam sandwiches, more chocolate, and apples. Half the reason for hard hiking is good eating.
The “dank, dark” valley was not that. It was shady, but the forest was captivating, dominated by tall spruces and red maples. The completely open understory comprised ground plants like bunchberry, foamflower, partridgeberry, twinflower, and wintergreen, with fungi and lichens everywhere. This seemed a boreal forest in the lowlands, perhaps a dried-up swamp. A downed spruce served as a bridge over the brook. The faint path wound over and around small mossy hummocks in the green and mostly flat expanse. There was a magical quality to the landscape.
After ten minutes or so of level meandering, the path began to climb. Now it was the hemlocks that were huge, and some were toppled. The route twisted between them, as it gained elevation across the southwest flank of Pharoah Mountain. Then the trail reverted to old roadway, lined by large rocks, passing a junction with another long-unused road. It made another lengthy skiable descent, and soon we gazed at the long finger-like outlet bay of Pharoah Lake. Maples shone red and yellow on the shore.
Crossing the bridge above a large beaver dam, we regained a much-traveled thoroughfare, the Mill Brook Trail, also a former road. A trail crew had been at it: low stone retaining walls with fresh dirt backfill between them and a brand-new bridge over Pharaoh Lake Brook. This was a roadway in the remaking. When would it fade also into a remote artifact, with softened overgrown lines, as with the first part of our day’s course? That had taken over a hundred years.
Soon the landscape opened up, first to an expansive wetland on the west, with gold tamaracks, radiant maples, and dark balsam spires. A low mountain called Number 8 Hill loomed above the scene. The next and last opening of the trip came with the downstream return of Desolate Brook as it joined Mill Brook through a drawn-out marsh. A twisting hundred-yard bog bridge ran us tipsily alongside another beaver dam.
Now we were back on a present-day road of very sporadic use, the access route to the old trailhead, a mile within the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. This was the only desolate part of the brilliant hike: an eroded track fanned out into dank and dismal mud-wallow swamps made by drivers avoiding the deep spots. Well might it be closed to vehicles, as DEC says it plans to do. The last part of this trek was a forced march dodging these mires. We craned our necks in search of the car at each bend of the road; at eleven miles, there it was, with others, at the Wilderness boundary.
This had been a long day on roads of all sorts—an old farm road faded to forest path; a bygone roadway, now engineered trail, emerging from years of neglect and misuse; a present-day road abused and in need of healing abandonment. Behind each were landscapes, more rich and varied than they: the huge trees, Gregoryville, the raucous bear zone, the beaver wetlands, the long winding hills, the beautiful onetime swamp, the sinuous lake outlet, the well-crafted trail work, the radiant foliage. All this make the Sucker Brook circuit a marvelous tramp. It’s not for suckers.
DIRECTIONS: For the Mill Brook trailhead, from Exit 25 on the Northway (I-87), head east on NY 8 to the northeast end of Brant Lake. Turn left onto Palisades Road and go 1.5 miles to Beaver Pond Road. Turn right and go 1.1 miles to the dirt Pharaoh Lake Road. Turn right and go 0.5 miles to the parking area. For the Sucker Brook trailhead, return to Beaver Pond Road. Turn right and go 2.7 miles to Johnson Road. Turn right again and go 1.6 miles to a junction. Bear right onto Blair Road and go 0.2 miles to the parking area.