‘The worst lake in the Adirondacks’
A family bushwacks to Merriam Lake to discover the truth
By Lauren Otis
We walk single file along the soft forest floor through the dappled sunlight. Cady, my 12-year old daughter, leads the way followed by my 8-year old son, Oberon. I bring up the rear. We crest a little rise, picking our way through hobblebush, fallen trees, mossy stones and ferns.
“Papa, there’s a mushroom, so don’t step on it,” says Ober.
“Look guys, Indian pipe,” chimes in Cady.
“I can’t believe these mushrooms are actually living,” says Ober.
“Why? Because it’s so dry?” I ask.
“Yeah, because they like the wetness,” he responds. “Oh look!” he exclaims a few steps ahead. “There’s some bunchberries.” Soon his attention is distracted by something else: “Little toads. One got on the end of my walking stick. Don’t walk on them, Papa.”
A large moss-covered rock beckons, and we take an impromptu break, shedding our packs, throwing aside our walking sticks and dipping into the snack bag.
“This is just so cool,” says Cady. “We are sitting here surrounded by trees and nothing but woods in all directions. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
I agree with my daughter. We are in the middle of nowhere, and it is pretty cool. After a lifetime of more or less sticking to trails on my visits to the Adirondacks, several years ago I was converted to the pleasures of bushwhacking by my two energetic and adventurous children. Used to the steady gait of trail hikes, we were surprised by the snail’s pace the unpredictable forest floor forced us into, yet charmed by all the amazing natural discoveries, large and small, we no longer breezed past.
It has become our annual summer ritual when visiting the family camp on Twitchell Lake to plan an off-trail camping adventure. Bushwhacking is more strenuous than trail hiking, but its rewards can be far greater, providing a liberating opportunity to leave all human byways behind and enter the true Adirondack wilderness.
An hour ago we turned off a little-used trail running between Twitchell Lake and Big Moose Lake and began beating a northeasterly path through the woods. We are starting a three-day trek, the ultimate goal of which is to reach a seldom-visited water named Merriam Lake, which lies a mile or so above Big Moose Lake’s North Bay.
An old book lying around our camp, David Beetle’s folksy 1948 travelog Up Old Forge Way, devotes all of one paragraph to Merriam Lake. Beetle writes that Merriam “was described to us charitably as ‘the worst lake in the Adirondacks’ and we were willing to agree without going in.”
Maybe Beetle’s interest wasn’t piqued, but ours certainly was. What possible attributes could this lake possess that re-sulted in such an aspersion? In our own explorations we had never happened upon an Adirondack lake that we’d describe as anything other than lovely. We had to find out. So here we were, with map and compass in hand and full backpacks, eager for a glimpse of the infamous waterbody.
We strap on our packs again and get moving. As I hoist my heavy burden, straining to maneuver it into position, I exclaim, “Light as a feather!” and Cady and Ober follow suit. This becomes our standing joke every time we struggle into our packs in the next 48 hours.
Soon the leafy forest floor gives way to a tangle of pines along the bank of a narrow beaver meadow. We wrestle ourselves and our packs through the pine thicket and down the bank to the sunny meadow. We traverse the meadow a bit, passing a de-crepit beaver dam, then heading up the opposite bank when the terrain gets too boggy. An afternoon thunder shower cools us off. Cady and Ober start singing a song from one of their favorite tapes, Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Choo Choo Boogaloo.”
“Little children, get on board. Little children, get on board. There’s room for many a more,” they sing as we trudge along. We climb a steep ridge and then weave down through a field of massive boulders sheathed in moss. The huge stones tower over us, unmoved since the receding glaciers deposited them here 10,000 years ago.
At 6 p.m. we glimpse glittering light through the trees and soon arrive at Jock Pond, a small, shallow body of water we bushwhacked to several years ago. “I want to keep going,” announces Ober, but Cady, our voice of reason, avers that perhaps it’s best if we stay here and set out for Merriam Lake fresh tomorrow morning. It’s a sentiment I am in complete agreement with.
We set up camp in a lush fern glade that’s bordered on one side by a sheer granite wall and on the other by a towering white pine, standing alone at the pond’s edge. If the trip itself makes up so much of the fun and adventure of family bushwhacking, it is only rivaled by the pleasure of arriving at a new campsite, full of its own unexpected beauties and the promise of rest.
The next morning dawns overcast and muggy. After breakfast, Cady and Ober build a fort with dead branches and ferns while I break camp. We get a leisurely midmorning start, heading past the giant white pine and into the woods. Following alongside a long, low rock outcrop we are happy to have the canopy of trees above to shade us as the sun rises higher in the sky and burns off the cloud cover.
After our winding route yesterday, today we have a straight shot up to our destination. A little more than an hour after we’ve set out, the trees grow thinner up ahead and we emerge onto a grassy field, beyond which sits the exhilarating sight of Merriam Lake. “Hooray! We made it,” Cady cheers.
“Now my pack feels like nothing,” says Ober.
There it is before us, the “worst lake in the Adirondacks.” Merriam Lake is, of course, a lovely lake. At its middle are two pointed conifer-covered promontories, which cinch it into the shape of a squat hourglass. Grassy clearings border the water along its small coves. Along the north shore a sheer stone cliff comes straight down to the water’s edge. Our only company appears to be five or six ducks paddling among the rushes and rocks.
The lake level is low, exposing a spit sticking out into the water. We pitch our tent on it. The bowl of the sky spreads out above us, and it feels like we are camping in the middle of the lake. The water is warm and the air is warmer, so the afternoon is given over to splashing around, skinny-dipping and exploring the lake in the small inflatable kayak that I had carried along. During a lull in the breeze, we hear the faint noise of a motorboat on Big Moose Lake. Ober screams at the top of his lungs: “Big Moose Lake, can you hear us?” But no one can hear us. We have this pristine little piece of the Adirondacks to ourselves.
We eat a big helping of pasta and tomato sauce, then toast marshmallows over a small campfire. It is dusk, with the last pinkish hues fading from the clouds in the west. Suddenly, what sounds like the faraway howl of a coyote comes through the still air. We all hush up and listen. The howl had come from the north, somewhere in the vast, uninhabited region between Big Moose and the upper reaches of the Beaver River.
We hear an answering call from a different direction. Then, after a few beats, the first howl is repeated, followed closely by a whole symphony of yowling, caterwauling, keening, whistling yelps. After a few seconds, it stops as suddenly as it started. Ober crawls into my lap and Cady sits close as we wait breathlessly for more of this eerie, exhilarating wilderness conversation, but that’s it. Only silence. Talk about bedtime stories.
After an overnight shower, the morning air is damp and the broken cloud cover doesn’t look promising. Yet we still manage to have a leisurely breakfast of hot oatmeal and fresh-picked wild blueberries and explore our immediate environs on foot before the rain returns.
We pack up quickly and head out, retracing our route to Jock Pond, then branching off on a more direct route home. We walk the length of Jock Pond, skirting the muddy shore, and follow its outlet to South Pond and the trail back to Twitchell Lake. It is soggy going, but by midafternoon we are back at our camp—warm, dry, tired and happy.