Low snow, high hopes
When most of the Adirondacks had nary a flake, the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest held out the promise of fresh tracks.
By Phil Brown
Early January, and we had hardly any snow in Saranac Lake. Meanwhile, Tug Hill west of the Adirondacks got clobbered yet again with a lake-effect storm. Upon hearing that the tail end of the storm dumped about six inches of fluffy powder inside the Blue Line near Cranberry Lake, I hopped in my car and drove west.
I aimed to do a ski tour I had never done: a fourteenmile round trip to Burntbridge Pond in the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest.
It turned out to be an ideal choice. Despite the fresh snow, there wasn’t much base and thus many hiking trails remained sketchy for skiing. But the route to Burntbridge Pond does not require a lot of snow: it’s flat and smooth, following the bed of a defunct logging railroad and old woods roads.
Flat and smooth is not exciting, but given the lousy start to winter, I was thrilled to be kicking and gliding through a beautiful snowy wood.
The trail to Burntbridge Pond is a snowmobile route, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m told it doesn’t get much snowmobile use (I didn’t see any sled tracks on my trip). Nor does it get much use by skiers, and so the occasional snowmobile packing the trail means you won’t have to slog for miles through deep snow to reach your destination. If you want to avoid snowmobiles, do the trip during the week—preferably right after a snowfall. That’s what I did, and I had the woods almost to myself.
The Burntbridge Pond trailhead is on Route 3 east of Cranberry Lake. When I arrived in the parking lot, there was one other vehicle. Only four parties had signed the register since Christmas.
Hitting the trail, I skied uphill a short distance through a corridor of evergreens. The trail then leveled off and entered a deciduous forest. I was following the tracks of a solitary skier and a dog. About a mile from the trailhead, I spied a German shepherd up ahead, standing in its tracks and staring at me. Soon a skier appeared from around the bend.
It was Bob Barstow, a retired forest ranger, and his faithful companion Maggie Mae on their way back to the trailhead. Bob lives in Cranberry Lake and skis this section of the trail almost every day in winter. “I got a dog that needs a lot of exercise,” he remarked. After a heavy snowfall, he rides his snowmobile to groom the trail.
Bob said the first few miles of trail are on a railroad bed once owned by the Emporium Lumber Company. The line connected to the Grasse River Railroad, which took logs to mills in Cranberry Lake and Conifer. Emporium last logged these woods in the 1920s or 1930s, according to Bob. Although not old growth, he added, the forest contains impressive specimens of sugar maple, cherry, and ash.
At 1.4 miles, I reached a junction with a trail that leads to Bear Mountain Swamp and eventually up Bear Mountain, which was visible through the trees. The 2,142-foot summit of Bear, which overlooks Cranberry Lake, would be a good destination for a ski/snowshoe trip. From the Burntbridge trailhead, it’s 5.3 miles to the summit. If you start from Lone Pine Road, near the state campground, it’s only a 1.7-mile hike to the summit.
On this day, I didn’t think the cover would be sufficient for skiing the Bear Mountain trail, so I continued to Burntbridge Pond. At 2.8 miles, I crossed pretty Brandy Brook on a sturdy wooden bridge. The brook was mostly frozen, though gaps in the ice revealed its black waters.
In a quarter-mile, I came to another trail junction. You need to turn left for Burntbridge Pond, but I suggest first continuing straight ahead a short way to a wetland. You can then ski across the wetland to Brandy Brook Flow, a long arm of Cranberry Lake. The view down the flow, bordered by snow-covered conifers, was the scenic highlight of my trip. If you don’t want to ski all the way to the pond, the flow is an alternative destination. It would be a six-mile round trip.
Returning to the junction, I started skiing east on an old logging road, now breaking trail. This part of the route does gain some elevation—250 feet over a mile and a half—but the ascent is so gradual that it’s hardly noticeable. The climb offers views over the Brandy Brook valley toward hills on the northern horizon.
At 5.4 miles, I came to a third junction, where I went straight. After ten minutes or so, I turned right onto another trail, which paralleled the boundary of privately
owned timberlands. Though protected by conservation easements, the private land apparently had been logged fairly recently. The contrast between the Forest Preserve and the easement land, with its scrawny trees, was striking.
The trail ended at a lean-to (in immaculate condition) near a bog on the north shore of Burntbridge Pond. Before stopping for lunch, I skied across the pond toward what looked like a beaver lodge (it turned out to be a dome-shaped boulder). From the ice, I saw a couple of small peaks to the southwest. Otherwise, there were no hills to be seen—a testament to the gentleness of the terrain in this part of the Adirondacks.
Like many ponds, Burntbridge is ringed by evergreens. At fifty-four acres, it is one of the larger ponds in the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest and, I would guess, one of the more attractive. As I skied back to the car, I wondered what Bob Marshall—the celebrated wilderness advocate— would think of Burntbridge Pond. As a forestry student, Marshall spent a summer at Cranberry Lake and in his spare time took long hikes to ponds throughout the region. He ended up visiting ninety-four and ranked them all according to their beauty. It so happens that I included Marshall’s accounts of his hikes in Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, a collection of his writings that I edited. I resolved to look up Burntbridge Pond when I got home.
Skiing in my tracks on the way back to the car, I made good time. I even was able to coast a little on a few downhills. I reached the trailhead at dusk, having been in the woods more than six hours. On the drive home, I stopped for a burger at the Thirsty Moose in Childwold— a haunt of snowmobilers. My waitress said it’s possible to snowmobile to Burntbridge Pond right from the restaurant, taking trails across the easement land, but she had never ridden to it from the Cranberry Lake trailhead.
When I got home, I took the Marshall book off the shelf and opened it to the chapter on his Cranberry Lake hikes. Wouldn’t you know it: Burntbridge apparently was the only major pond that Marshall didn’t visit that summer of 1922. He had planned to but was deterred by a heavy downpour.
However, he did offer this etymology of the pond’s name: “The old Lake George road crossed the outlet of this pond on a high bridge, which was burnt, supposedly by some Indians, early in the last century.”
DIRECTIONS: From Tupper Lake, drive west on NY 3. Look for the trailhead on the left five miles past Seveys Corners (the junction with NY 56). It’s also one mile after crossing the Grass River. If coming from the west, look for the trailhead on the right a few miles past Cranberry Lake.