Skier’s surprise in Raquette Falls

By Phil Brown

Drawing by Mike Storey

The other day I received in the mail a slim book of verse titled Sightings of the Eagle and Other Adirondack Poems. The author, Bud Church, rhapsodizes about his adventures on Osgood Pond, including seven eagle sightings in recent years.

I’m no poet, and I know it, so I don’t intend to sit in judgment on the literary quality. I mention the book because it stirred me to think about my own sightings of bald eagles in the Adirondacks.It’s always thrilling to see an eagle in the wild—more so if you’re with children. You get to see the majestic raptor through their eyes as well as your own. I’ve been lucky enough to see eagles in such circumstances twice: with my son Nathan as we de-scended Lows Ridge near Hitchins Pond and, this past summer, with my daughter Martha as we swam in Middle Saranac Lake. On both occasions, the eagle glided directly over our heads, the perfect cap to a glorious day in the outdoors.   My most memorable sighting took place on a ski tour to Raquette Falls on the western edge of the High Peaks Wilderness. If you cross-country ski, this is a wonderful outing. In Classic Adirondack Ski Tours, Tony Goodwin notes that the trip is popular enough that the trail is usually broken within a few days of every snowstorm. So it was on the day I visited.  

Map by Nancy Bernstein

The trail is fairly level most of the way, but there are enough ups and downs to make it interesting. Although paralleling the Raquette River, it affords only occasional glimpses of the water. If you want a good look at the river, take a side trail at 2.4 miles that leads to the Hemlock Hill Lean-to. Shortly after this junction, the main route dips to Palmer Brook and then begins to climb again. At 4.1 miles, you come to the top of a hill where the trail down the other side makes two 90-degree turns in quick succession. This descent will test your snowplowing skills. If you are not confident in your ability, you can always walk down (on the far edge of the trail).

On my trip, I followed the tracks of two skiers all the way to the falls. I came upon the couple as they were enjoying lunch and the serenity of this scenic spot. I didn’t want to disturb their privacy, so I returned to the main trail and resumed skiing up the canoe carry. Since no one had broken trail and the snow was deep, it took a lot of effort to go the extra mile up a long incline and down the other side to the end of the carry. I plopped down in the snow and fished a sandwich out of my backpack.

The river takes a big bend here, creating on this day a dark pool bordered by snow and ice. As I looked out on the winter scene, I felt as though I were in a museum admiring a diorama of primeval wilderness. This is how things used to be, I mused. Suddenly a large eagle dropped out of the sky, wings outstretched, and swooped over the water. Just as quickly, it rose above the river, turned and disappeared around the bend. The beauty and grace of the eagle left me stunned. Its abrupt entrance and exit also left me wondering if it had been a fleeting apparition. If I were an ancient Greek, I would have thought I had just seen Zeus in one of his earthly guises.

Humbled, I finished my lunch and headed back to the car. En route, I passed a man with a dog. The old mutt raced ahead of me and stopped to look back. As I approached, it ran farther ahead, stopped and looked again. We played this game all the way back to the trail register. A happy dog—just what I needed to ease myself back into the more mundane joys of civilization.

So if you ski to Raquette Falls, will you see an eagle? I don’t know, but it’s worth a try.You’ll arrive at a forest ranger’s cabin (closed in winter) at 4.5 miles. The trail now becomes the canoe carry around Raquette Falls. To get to the falls, continue 100 yards straight ahead and look for a small trail on the right that leads three-tenths of a mile to the river. Many people believe you can’t see eagles this far north in winter. Not true. Some eagles remain in the Adirondacks, fishing in waters that don’t freeze. My most unusual sighting occurred on a January afternoon on Lake Flower in the village of Saranac Lake. A Canada goose had stepped in a leg-hold trap on the ice. Two eagles noticed the goose floundering about and landed nearby. The goose frantically fended them off. Before the eagles could kill the hapless bird, firefighters came to its rescue. After the Explorer published a small item on this strange encounter, a reader wrote in demanding to know why the eagles were deprived of a good meal. Excellent question.

Getting to the trailhead is an adventure in itself. From Route 3 between the villages of Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake, you drive south on Coreys Road, a narrow lane that passes through stands of large pines. In winter, the road is plowed only as far as the bridge over the Stony Creek Ponds outlet 2½ miles from the highway. Park here and ski over the bridge and down the road for a quarter-mile or so to the trail register.

Even before you hit the trail proper, you feel as though you’re a long way from civilization. As you glide through the still forest, the sense of remoteness deepens. I skied the trail soon after a heavy snowfall, when white clumps clung to the nooks and branches of the hardwoods. I remember thinking, “It’s a polka-dot forest.” There were no sounds besides my huffs and puffs and the rhythmic slapping of my skis.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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