Take in the long view on this Five Ponds Wilderness hike
By Phil Brown
It’s an especially warm, sunny day in mid-April, a perfect day for hiking if not for the mud, snow and ice in the higher elevations around Lake Placid. And so I head for the lower elevations: the Five Ponds Wilderness south of Cranberry Lake.
The 118,000-acre tract constitutes one of the wildest regions of the Adirondacks, but perhaps because of its remoteness or its dearth of dramatic summits, it sees far fewer visitors than the High Peaks, Lake George or Old Forge. To a certain kind of traveler, this makes the place all the more inviting.
The Five Ponds Wilderness is not entirely flat, of course. I intend to climb to one of its high points, the 2,261-foot summit of Cat Mountain. Although this modest peak stands less than half as tall as Mount Marcy, hikers can see for 50 miles from its rock ledges on a clear day.
There are two ways to get to Cat Mountain. If, like me, you start your trek in the metropolis of Wanakena (pop. 60), you’re in for a round trip of 10.6 or 11 miles, depending on which guidebook you own. If you have a boat, you can cross Cranberry Lake and start your hike at Janack’s Landing on Dead Creek Flow, shortening the round trip on the ground to about 4.5 miles.
Eleven miles might seem daunting, but most of the route follows gentle—often downright flat—terrain. Indeed, there is virtually no elevation gain over the first three miles. And the summit is just 765 feet higher than the Wanakena trailhead.
I hit the trail at 10 a.m., starting up an old railroad bed. In the early 1900s, the Rich Lumber Co. ran logging trains along this route as far south as Dead Creek Flow (an arm of Cranberry Lake). Note the graded embankments on the sides of the trail.
The Five Ponds Wilderness was hit hard by a windstorm in 1995 that toppled thousands of trees, killing three people and closing many trails. You’ll see evidence of the storm everywhere on this hike: sawn logs along the trail, piles of blowdown off the trail, and patches of woods devoid of tall trees.
Beavers also have altered the landscape. On the way to Dead Creek Flow, I pass several beaver meadows, their gray snags stabbing the blue, cloudless sky. Several years ago, I was walking back to Wanakena on this trail when darkness fell. Unbeknownst to me, the trail was flooded and I waded right into a foot of water—prompting an alarmed beaver to slap his tail.
On this sunny day, I encounter no floods. Indeed, the trail is surprisingly dry for April. The woods are full of birdsong—white-throated sparrows, black-capped chickadees, hermit thrushes. But my totem bird for this hike is the pileated woodpecker, whose frenzied drumbeats I hear throughout the day. As I move deeper into the wilderness, I half-suspect that the woodpeckers are following my progress and relaying the news in a secret language.
After about two miles, I reach Dead Creek Flow and spy two figures far off shore. Could they be fishermen? I look closer. No, just a couple of stumps. Once upon a time, Dead Creek Flow had been a cranberry bog, giving the lake its name. When the lake was dammed, the bog was flooded, but the water here remains shallow. Soon a small powerboat enters the picture, churning up a wake as it heads toward Janacks Landing. Powerboats are allowed on the flow even though all the land around it is classified as Wilderness, where motorized recreation is banned. The boat shatters any illusions that I have escaped civilization.
I pass a pair of lakeshore campsites, cross Dead Creek on a plank bridge and arrive at a trail junction. The way left leads 0.2 miles to a lean-to at Janack’s Landing. I’ve come three miles and gained a total of four feet in elevation.
Continuing straight, the main trail soon starts climbing, reaching Sand Hill Junction at 3.9 miles. The route straight ahead leads to High Falls on the Oswegatchie River. I turn left and resume climbing. The trail affords a view of rolling hills to the west and then pulls alongside Glasby Creek. In another minute or two, I arrive at Glasby Pond, named for a 19th-century trapper and hunter, and cross the creek just below a large beaver dam. Rock ledges on the shoulder of Cat Mountain can be seen to the east. If I have time, I think, maybe I’ll bushwhack to them.
The trail skirts the southern shore of the pond and comes to another junction. I turn left for the summit—only 0.7 miles and 360 feet of ascent to go. On the way up, I spot two cairns on a large boulder and wonder who put them there and why. Through the bare hardwoods I can see Dead Creek Flow to the north (once the leaves come out, it’s probably not nearly as visible).
Just below the summit, I come to a rock outcrop rising out of a flat area of open hardwoods. The trail angles upward through a break in the rock. Once atop this cliff, I walk out onto a ledge for a more expansive view of the flow and then hike the last 50 yards or so to the summit. I meet three state forest rangers on patrol and learn that it was their boat I saw earlier.
Bernie Siskavich, who works out of Wanakena, gives me a tour of the summit. Directly below us is Cat Mountain Pond. Ravens often roost on the summit cliffs, and now we see one chasing a turkey vulture high above the water. The closest mountain, just to the south, is Threemile Mountain; a bit farther away, to the southwest, is Roundtop. Bernie points to the west and has me squint: At the very edge of the horizon, I discern a blue tableland. It is, he assumes, the Tug Hill Plateau, about 50 miles distant. What’s most impressive about the vista is that the only sign of civilization is a strip mine near Star Lake, about 10 miles away—and even that is not conspicuous.
Bernie leads me to lookouts on the east side of the summit. Lo and behold, it’s Blue Mountain, rising prominently nearly 30 miles away to the southeast. He next points out the Ermine Brook slide on the western slopes of Santanoni Peak, almost 40 miles to the west. We can also see the cliffs of nearby Grass Pond Mountain.
When we return to the main ledge, I ask about a distinctive sharp peak far to the south, in the vicinity of Stillwater Reservoir. The rangers don’t know what it is, so I jot down the compass bearing in my notebook. When I get home, I take out a map and decide that it’s probably 2,264-foot Stillwater Mountain—which is almost the exact height of Cat Mountain. That this low peak 20 miles away should be so conspicuous tells you something about the geography of the Five Ponds Wilderness.
After the rangers leave, I sit on the warm rock to eat a sandwich and gaze at the waves of wooded hills. I turn and look again toward the strip mine in the distance. Back in the early 1900s, a former miner named John Janack staffed a fire tower on Cat Mountain for 23 years. He took the observer’s job after losing his leg in a mine explosion. To get to work everyday, he would hike with his peg leg from a cabin at Janacks Landing to the mountaintop. The fire tower is long gone, but the summit now is home to a solar-powered transmitter and antenna used by the rangers for radio communications. I suppose the equipment is necessary, but it’s strange that the Five Ponds management plan does not discuss it all.
Leaving the summit, I decide to bushwhack to the cliffs I had seen from Glasby Pond and head up the first knob I come to. It’s easy going at first, but soon I am crawling under blowdown and scrambling up rock. As it turns out, these are the wrong cliffs. Well, I muse, I bet nobody’s been here before. As I start down, I pass a teakettle hanging from a tree.
Eventually I do find the cliffs with the view of Glasby Pond. A good view, but not as good as the one from the summit. The return to the car is a breeze, either downhill or flat. The spring peepers are peeping as I round Dead Creek Flow. About a mile from the road, I pause to take a pebble out of my boot and am passed by two hikers–the only people I have seen besides the rangers. I let them get ahead and then resume my walk, in the company of only the chickadees and the woodpeckers.
From Cranberry Lake, drive west on NY 3, and 8.3 miles after crossing the Oswegatchie River, turn left onto County 61 (the turn for Wanakena and the state Ranger School). At 0.8 miles from the highway, bear right off County 61. In another 0.4 miles you cross the Oswegatchie again. Continue 0.6 miles to a parking lot on the right.