Lake Durant, Cascade Pond and Stephens Pond cross country ski loop
By Phil Brown
It’s barely above zero, and we’re skiing across Lake Durant into the wind. After pulling on my balaclava, all I can hear is my breathing. In fact, the world has been reduced to my breathing and my cold fingers. I start to wonder what I’m doing here. And then I look up at Blue Mountain, the big guy in this neighborhood, encrusted in white, thrust up against a blue-gray sky, and the sight reminds me: This is fun.
By the time we reach the end of the 2.5-mile lake, we’re warmed up, and the fun has just begun. We intend to ski through the Blue Ridge Wilderness to Cascade Pond and Stephens Pond and then return to the car in a series of gentle descents on the historic Northville-Placid Trail.
Tony Goodwin rates the nine-mile loop as an intermediate ski trip in his guidebook Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks. The loop can be completed only if the lake, which lies along Route 28, is well frozen. You should ski the loop counterclockwise, as the Northville-Placid Trail is more suitable for a descent than the trail to Cascade Pond.
If the lake is not sufficiently frozen, you can do a car shuttle or do a round trip to Stephens and Cascade ponds via the NP. Of course, you shouldn’t ski on the ponds either if the ice isn’t safe (at least three inches thick).
When Sue Bibeau, Jeff Oehler, and I slip onto Lake Durant, on a Sunday in early January, we have no worries about the ice: the night before, the temperature fell to eighteen below. Snowmobilers have broken the wind slab, so we follow their tracks. We don’t see any riders today, though. Indeed, we won’t see anybody on the whole trip.
It takes us nearly an hour to cross the lake, including stops for photos. At the west end, we clamber onto a wooden bridge over the outlet of Rock Pond, which flows into the lake. As soon as we head up the trail, the shoreline evergreens give way to bare hardwoods, and we begin a steep ascent. After several minutes of sidestepping and herringboning, we reach the crest of a ridge and descend to a small brook.
For the next three quarters of a mile, the trail gradually ascends a valley. With the right wax or good scales on the bottoms of your skis, you should be able to get adequate grip to glide or shuffle on this stretch. You may have to step over a few streamlets.
About a mile from the lake, we come to a second hill that requires sidestepping. Again, the climb is short. At the top, we pass through a stand of hemlocks and then enjoy a brief descent—a nice change after the climbing. Presently we arrive at a signpost where the trail takes a sharp left. To the right is an overgrown carriage road that leads to Wilson Pond. The state Department of Environmental Conservation plans to clear the route and mark it as a foot trail. The work is expected to be finished this year.
We kick and glide on level terrain to the old lean-to site overlooking Cascade Pond. Rather than cross the narrow bridge over the outlet, we ski across the north tip of the thirty-five-acre pond and take in views of peaks in the nearby Blue Ridge Range. Upon arriving at the east shore, we follow ski tracks to a new lean-to set back from the water. (The old lean-to has been removed.)
Time to refuel. We put on our dinner jackets—parkas and insulated shells—but after fifteen minutes of moving only our mandibles, we feel the cold creeping into toes and fingers. We wolf down our sandwiches and get back on the trail again, eager to resume burning calories.
The trail between Cascade and Stephens ponds follows the old carriage road and, though brushy in places, is pleasant skiing. Several minutes after leaving the lean-to, we notice the east bay of Cascade Pond close by on the right. In his guidebook, Goodwin recommends skiing across the lake to the end of the bay and then bushwhacking a short distance to the trail. Good advice. Next time I’ll be sure to read the book before setting off on a tour.
At 5.7 miles, less than a mile from the lean-to, we reach the Northville-Placid Trail. A left turn would take us back to the car, but we go right. After several short, exciting descents (watch out for a stream gully at the bottom of one), we glimpse the frozen Stephens Pond below us and then come to the lean-to—about a half-mile from the junction.
This lean-to also is set back from the shore. We don’t stop but follow ski tracks onto the pond. At sixty-five acres, Stephens is one of the largest water bodies in the Blue Ridge Wilderness. Skiing toward its northern end, still following tracks, we occasionally stop to enjoy the views of wintry peaks all around us.
From the lean-to to the tip of the pond, it’s about 0.7 miles. As we near the end, we’re puzzled to see the ski tracks veer to the left. We keep going straight and soon find ourselves mired in slush. Like our predecessors, we make a beeline for the closest shore. After scraping our skis, we follow the tracks through the woods for a quarter-mile to the Northville-Placid Trail, coming out well below the junction we passed earlier.
We have a little less than two miles to go. The NP is smooth and wide, great for skiing. For the next half-mile, the trail is fairly level, after which we schuss several delightful drops to a register at the Lake Durant State Campground (which is closed in winter). We then follow the unplowed campground roads, marked by blue NP markers, back to our car on Route 28.
The trip has taken us almost five hours. On the ride back to Saranac Lake, I ask Sue and Jeff for their thoughts.
“It’s a nice loop,” Sue says. “I like the varied terrain.”
Jeff agrees, but he adds, “I didn’t feel like I got enough downhill reward for what seemed like a fair amount of uphill.”
Of course, we got exactly the same amount of downhill as uphill, but I know what Jeff means. On the one hand, the ascent of the Cascade Pond trail is a struggle in a few steep sections. On the other, the descents on the Northville-Placid Trail are relatively easy and gentle. Jeff, outfitted in lightweight telemark gear, would have preferred a steeper, more thrilling downhill run. No doubt many other skiers, especially those with skinnier boards, would be glad for the gentleness of the descents. But all can agree that the Lake Durant loop is an excellent way to see a little-visited wilderness.