A wild weekend
By Phil Brown
For days, I had been telling my daughter Becky and her boyfriend, Nyle, about my first visit to Wilcox Lake, hoping to whet their appetite for our weekend camping trip. In hindsight, maybe I played up the loons too much.
That first trip took place a decade ago, when I knew nothing about loons. My son, Nathan, and I were sleeping in a lean-to on Wilcox’s western shore. We were alone—as far as we knew. Suddenly, just before dawn, we awoke to maniacal laughter coming from the lake, echoing round the hills.
What the deuce? Was it a cougar? An ax murderer? Nate and I stared at the lake, but it was hidden by a ghostly mist. The laughter continued, but as no one or no thing charged out of the darkness to slaughter us, we eventually calmed down and went back to sleep, albeit with one eye open.
When the sun came up, we saw a pair of beautiful black-and-white-checked birds gliding silently in the water. Then they broke into laughter.
This summer, approaching the lake via the trail along East Stony Creek, I wondered if the loons would be back. I wanted to set up camp in the same lean-to and hoped that Becky and Nyle, who planned to arrive later, would get to hear the loons that night.
My companions were to spend one night in the woods, but for me, this was the first leg of a three-day excursion in the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest. We all started at the Brownell Camp trailhead at the end of Hope Falls Road in the town of Hope, north of Northville. From there it’s a 5.2-mile hike to the lake. On the second day, I left Wilcox Lake by a different trail, exiting the woods for a short while near Willis Lake and then taking yet another trail to Murphy Lake—an 11-mile trek altogether. Becky and Nyle, however, returned by East Stony Creek to our starting point and moved my car to a nearby trailhead on Creek Road. On the third day, I hiked the 3.8 miles to Creek Road, passing Middle and Bennett lakes en route.
The 20-mile loop—taking in five lakes and a scenic river—is just one way to explore this oft-overlooked region. At 140,000 acres, the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest is larger than nearly all of the Adirondack Park’s officially designated Wilderness Areas. And most of it is just as wild.
Which raises a question: Why isn’t the Wilcox Lake region classified Wilderness rather than Wild Forest?
Generally, Wild Forest Areas remain fragmented by roads and private lands, disqualifying them from Wilderness status. From a regulatory standpoint, the main difference is that motorized use is prohibited in Wilderness Areas, whereas motorboats and snowmobiles are permitted (though not everywhere) in Wild Forest Areas.
Barbara McMartin, the historian and guidebook author, believes Park planners shortchanged the southern Adirondacks in the early 1970s when deciding which lands should be classified as Wilderness. She points out that another southern tract, the Ferris Lake Wild Forest, encompasses nearly 150,000 acres.
McMartin concedes that not all of the Wilcox Lake and Ferris Lake regions qualify as Wilderness, but she argues that both have wild cores, containing stands of old-growth forest, that do. And under the Park’s State Land Master Plan, a Wilderness Area can be as small as 10,000 acres—or even smaller, if certain other criteria are met. The Jay Mountain Wilderness Area is only 7,100 acres.
An attempt to reclassify these wild cores as Wilderness would likely raise a political ruckus. McMartin stops short of making such a recommendation. However, she said the state Department of Environmental Conservation should manage the core areas as Wilderness by, for example, doing more to stop illegal motorized use. And she added: “Let’s at least talk about reclassifying.”
Setting off on the trail on a sunny afternoon, I am looking for wilderness, not its definition. A few hundred yards from the register, I come to a sturdy wooden bridge over Tenant Creek. A herd path leads up the stream to a series of pools and waterfalls, but I resist taking the detour. I cross the bridge and presently enter the “forever wild” Forest Preserve.
The trail, which had been following East Stony Creek, now veers away and passes through a beautiful woods with large hemlocks. The forest is airy and open. Here and there, sunbeams filter through the canopy and bathe the understory in soft light. Peering deep into the woods, hoping to glimpse a deer or even a bear, I feel like a spy from another world, and I guess I am.
In 20 minutes or so, the trail returns to the creek. Butterflies dance in the sunlight among the ferns and joe-pye weed. This being summer, the creek is bony and in most places just a few feet deep, but the flow is enough to create musical riffles. Soon I encounter an older fellow with a wooden staff who’s just come from Wilcox Lake. He’s the only person I will meet on the trail in three days of hiking. He tells me that one of the lake’s two lean-tos is occupied and that he passed a family on its way to the lake. I fear that they’ll take the second lean-to.
Eventually, the trail pulls away from the creek again and begins a long ascent up a ridge. From the higher ground, I can see the creek far below but no longer hear its music. No matter: I shift my attention to the songs of the hermit thrush, black-capped chickadee, red-eyed vireo and other birds of the forest.
The trail descends to Dayton Creek. I hop across on rocks and find myself once more walking along East Stony, looking upstream at a shimmering pool of still water bordered by tall green grass. In a few minutes, I come to a sturdy cable suspension bridge that crosses the creek 4.2 miles from the trailhead.
It’s also possible to reach this bridge from the opposite direction, taking a former jeep trail from Bakertown. Unfortunately, riders of all-terrain vehicles use the jeep trail illegally, crossing East Stony upstream from the bridge to reach Wilcox Lake.
On the other side of the creek the trail climbs to a height of land and joins the trail coming from Willis Lake. Just beyond this, it joins the jeep trail and begins descending to the lake. The final tenth of a mile isn’t a trail so much as a muddy slope laced with ruts six inches deep. The Adirondack Mountain Club described this damage from ATVs in a guidebook more than a decade ago. Apparently, the state has been unwilling or unable to stop the trespassing.
The marked trail ends on the southern shore of Wilcox Lake. A path follows the shore in both directions. The closest lean-to is to the right, but I turn left to reach the lean-to on the western shore, about 0.4 miles away.
The structure is empty, but the family I heard about earlier is also thinking of using it. We decide to share. As it turns out, none of us will sleep in the lean-to, but we all use it for cooking, storing gear, playing cards and loafing.
My companions are two adults—Brian Hudspath, 27, and his sister Joy, 23—and two boys—Eric, who is their 12-year-old brother, and David, their 8-year-old nephew. Brian is wearing a T-shirt that proclaims “Peace through war.” He tells me that he spent most of last year with the Army in Iraq, usually patrolling highways. Firefights were common.
It occurs to me that this peaceful lake is about as far away as you can get from Iraq. We hear a tremolo-like call: There is a pair of the loons on the water.
Becky and Nyle arrive about an hour before sunset. We set up our tents and fix dinner—freeze-dried stuff that actually tastes pretty good. Afterward I recline in my solo tent, gazing through the mesh at the stars and trees. I fall asleep listening to a chorus of bullfrogs. In the middle of the night my wish is granted: I hear the laughter of the loons.
“Good morning, Becky,” I say when she finally drags herself out of her tent the next day. “Did you hear the loons last night?”
“Yeah,” she replies. It’s obvious she doesn’t share my excitement.
Then David, the 8-year-old, catches her attention. “Hey, Becky, you want to see a snake?” He leads her to the side of the lean-to, where a garter is sunning itself on a rock.
A few minutes later David is standing by the shore watching minnows. “Look at all the fish!” he says. “There must be a thousand!”
There also are leeches. As they move through the shallow water, their eel-like black bodies stretch, then snap back, like a Slinky toy.
“Hey, Uncle Brian, do you want to see a leech?” David yells.
Brian walks down to the water. “Yeah, that’s definitely a leech,” he says. “Do you want to go swimming?”
“No!” David exclaims.
Nyle, too, is intrigued by the leeches. He sets up his tripod and camera and prepares to photograph them. David is incredulous.
“You haven’t taken a picture of a leech in your whole life?” he asks.
Later that morning, I retrieve an old rowboat from the other lean-to. Becky, Nyle and I oar to a pair of islands on the other side of the lake. When Nate and I visited these islands years ago, we saw cedar waxwings. Sure enough, they’re still here. But I’m disturbed to see two double-crested cormorants roosting in a dead tree. Cormorants are not native to Wilcox Lake, but their population has been booming on Lake Champlain, the Great Lakes and elsewhere, and state biologists fear the large birds will spread to the Adirondacks’ interior waters. After my trip, I call Ken Kogut, a DEC scientist, to ask if cormorants could displace the loons on Wilcox Lake, since both species eat fish. He is unaware of any studies addressing that question. “So who knows?” he says. “I hope I never have to find out.”
We return from the islands about noon, fix lunch and break camp. The Hudspaths leave first. As we gather our belongings, two mountain bikers pedal up to the lean-to, having ridden from the Brownell Camp trailhead. They had driven all the way from Syracuse so they could ride their bikes here.
I hike with Becky and Nyle less than a mile, only as far as the junction with the Willis Lake trail. They continue to Brownell Camp, whereas I turn right and head toward Willis Lake about five miles away.
The trail, which passes through a hardwood forest, is covered with dead leaves. It does not see nearly as much use as the more scenic route along East Stony Creek, so I figure I have the whole forest to myself. About a half-hour from the junction, I cross the Wilcox Lake outlet on a large wooden bridge. As I continue down the trail, I can see the outlet’s floodplain through the trees, a clearing full of light and green grass.
After climbing up and down a few hills, I come to a stand of large white pines. They remind me of the ancient trees at Pine Orchard, just a few miles north of here. The trail soon descends to cross Doig Creek and emerges from the woods at the end of a dirt road. I follow the road about a mile, past a small community of camps on Willis Lake, to another trailhead. Actually there are two trailheads, on either side of the road: the one on the right leads to Pine Orchard, the one on the left to Murphy Lake, which is my destination.
The trail to Murphy Lake (and beyond) follows an old woods road. It’s marked as a snowmobile trail, but it makes a good ski route as well. Whether hiking or skiing, if you do the 8.3-mile end-to-end trip, I recommend starting at Pumpkin Hollow Road (as I did) and heading south to Creek Road. That way, you take advantage of the 300-foot drop in elevation between the trailheads.
At the start, the trail passes through another stand of pines. At 2.4 miles, it skirts a large meadow on the left. I turn off the trail for a better view and see rocky cliffs on a peak north of Murphy Lake. There’s also a small beaver pond in the meadow. In another minute, I cross the pond’s outlet on a bridge and then begin a gradual ascent, following the outlet of Murphy Lake. In another half-hour, I arrive at the lake’s northern shore and spy two loons on the water.
It’s still 0.7 miles to the lean-to on the southern shore. Following the trail around the lake, I suddenly hear a loud kerplunk in the water. For a second, I wonder if someone heaved a rock at the loons. Then I see a beaver swimming away. He slaps the water again with his tail, a warning to all concerned that an intruder is near. A great-blue heron takes the hint and flaps away from his fishing hole among the reeds. The loons, however, seem unperturbed by the commotion.
I reach the lean-to a little after 7 p.m., tired and sweaty, and go skinny-dipping off a spit of bedrock. After dinner (pasta primavera), I crawl into my tent and read a potboiler by James Cain. I soon put the book down, gaze at the sky and listen. Bullfrogs again. And then the loons start to converse in quavering tremolos. If only Becky could hear this!
The sky is overcast when I awake the next morning. Since I have less than four miles to go, I decide to skip breakfast. Just five minutes after hitting the trail, I glimpse Middle Lake through the trees. The trail descends toward the lake and then follows the western shore, separated from the water by a strip of woods. About halfway up the lake a side trail leads to a shoreline campsite, located across from a large island. Soon I come to another side trail, this one marked by a large cairn. It leads to another camping spot on the water.
About a half-hour later, I reach Bennett Lake. A side trail leads to a campsite with an outhouse, fire pit and small beach. If you’re doing a through hike from Pumpkin Hollow Road, this would be a good place to swim and wash off the sweat. After Bennett, you’ll have only 1.5 miles to go, most of it downhill.
Once back on the trail, it takes me only 20 minutes to get to Creek Road. As we had arranged, Nyle left my car at the trailhead. I hop in and drive to a diner in Northville for scrambled eggs and home fries. While eating, I read the morning papers. There’s a lot of news about Iraq, political scandals, steroids in baseball. I miss the loons already.
DIRECTIONS: Getting to the trailheads
Brownell Camp: From the bridge over Great Sacandaga Lake in Northville, drive north on NY 30 for 4.1 miles to Old Northville Road (about a half-mile past state boat launch). Turn right and go 1.4 miles to Hope Falls Road. Turn left and go 7.4 miles to end.
Creek Road: Follow directions above to Hope Falls Road, turn left and go 2.6 miles to Creek Road. Turn left and go 0.5 miles to trailhead.
Pumpkin Hollow Road: From the bridge in Northville, drive north on NY 30 for 10.9 miles to Pumpkin Hollow Road (6.8 miles past Old Northville Road). Turn right and go 1.6 miles to trailhead for Murphy Lake on the right. Take the road another mile to its end for Wilcox Lake trailhead.