Backpack to the future
Editor explores National Scenic Trail route
By Phil Brown
I’m a bit late hitting the trail, and that has me worried. I’m supposed to meet my friend Steve at the Colvin Brook lean-to, and I have more than 40 miles to go. Fortunately, our scheduled rendezvous—at noon on Monday—is three days away.
My plan is to backpack from Forestport to Lewey Lake, following the proposed route for the North Country National Scenic Trail. When finished, the Scenic Trail will stretch 4,600 miles, from North Dakota to the Adirondacks. The Adirondack leg will be about 145 miles, starting near Forestport and ending at Crown Point on Lake Champlain, the eastern terminus (or start) of the national trail.
The Adirondack trail has been in the works for more than three decades. When complete, it will be the second long-distance route in the Adirondack Park. The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) finished the 122-mile Northville-Placid Trail in 1924.
Last November, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released a draft plan with a recommended route for the Scenic Trail. For the most part, it would follow existing trails, but up to 50 miles of new trail would need to be cut. As a result of objections, DEC may alter parts of the route (see accompanying story). Eventually, DEC will issue a revised plan, which will be reviewed by the Adirondack Park Agency.
Most likely, it will be several years, at least, before the Adirondack trail is in place. I couldn’t wait that long. In late May, I hiked what promises to be some of the wildest sections of the Scenic Trail—both to get a jump on the future and to critique the proposed route.
Friday, May 23
Forestport to Little Woodhull Lake
It’s nearly noon by the time I drive into Forestport, so I stop for lunch at the Buffalo Head Restaurant. I order a big burger and fries, my last meal before leaving civilization. Over the next three days, I’ll be subsisting on oatmeal, salami and cheese, pita bread, trail mix and freeze-dried dinners.
The Stone Dam Trail begins on North Lake Road, about 6.5 miles from the restaurant. This is where the Scenic Trail enters the Forest Preserve. I start hiking at 12:35 p.m., passing through a young hardwood forest. The violets and viburnum are in bloom. So are the black flies.
Shortly, I hear Little Woodhull Creek on the left. A mile from the road, the trail crosses the creek on a sturdy wooden bridge. The stillwater near the bridge is one of the prettier scenes I’ll encounter today. Two ducks lift off as I approach the shoreline.
Resuming the hike, I reflect on how little use this trail receives. The path is littered with dry leaves and occasionally blocked by blowdown. I see no footprints. Although this region is part of the Black River Wild Forest, it offers the quiet and solitude usually associated with the Park’s Wilderness Areas. Indeed, if wildness is measured in opportunities for solitude, this place is much more wild than parts of the High Peaks Wilderness. How arbitrary our land classifications seem.
At 3.5 miles or so, the trail goes past Stone Dam Lake. A loon is swimming near the boggy shore. Someday, the Scenic Trail will leave the existing DEC trail north of Stone Dam Lake and head northeast to Little Woodhull Lake. Until then, it’s a four-mile bushwhack. Twenty minutes after leaving Stone Dam Lake, I plunge into the woods. The hardwood forest is quite open—so much so that you probably could put in a trail without cutting a tree. After three hours of easy travel, I wander into a hummocky spruce-fir swamp that takes 20 minutes to cross.
Emerging from the wetland, I climb a small ridge and spy Little Woodhull Lake through the trees. I make my way to the outlet, a charming spot nearly a mile from the nearest trail. After crossing the stream on boulders, I continue bushwhacking through an evergreen forest until I reach the lake’s inlet. A herd path leads to the shore of this beautiful, wild lake, where I see first a beaver, then a couple of ducks and finally three snuffling otters.
It’s now 7:30 p.m. The sunset is the color of orange sherbet. I set up my tent and boil water for a freeze-dried meal. After dark, I climb into my sleeping bag and nod off to the calls of loons and a chorus of spring peepers.
COMMENT: Scenic Trail hikers should find plenty of solitude and serenity in this part of the Black River Wild Forest. Little Woodhull Lake is a jewel that offers the chance to see loons and other wildlife. Because the woods are open, it should be easy to cut a new trail to the lake. Overall, a good introduction to the Adirondack Forest Preserve: Hikers will see hardwood forests, evergreen shorelines, spruce-fir swamps, bogs, streams and ponds.
Saturday, May 24
Little Woodhull Lake to Horn Lake Trail
A beautiful morning, all blue sky and bird song. Two loons are swimming about and diving. A raven flaps over my campsite. And then loud splashes echo across the water: Three deer are drinking from the lake on the opposite shore. I watch until they disappear into the woods.
I slept late, so it’s 9:45 by the time I hit the trail. The herd path parallels the inlet until reaching a maintained trail in less than a half-mile. At the junction, I turn left and hopscotch across the stream. Soon I see Little Woodhull again through the trees.
“Maintained” is a relative term. This trail gets almost no use from hikers, and the way is frequently obscured by blowdown. Often I rely on the red trail markers to figure out where to go. Just before 11 a.m., I reach the Sand Lake Trail—an old woods road that starts at North Lake Road.
I cross the trail and begin my second bushwhack. Again, the hardwoods are fairly open. Again, I find myself at one point in a spruce-fir swamp. After a mile or so, I come out onto a logging road. This part of the woods is privately owned, but the state holds an easement that allows public access.
At first, the road is grassy and shows little sign of use. Having bushwhacked for almost an hour, I’m grateful for the pleasant walk. Eventually, the road changes to dirt, with recent tire tracks, and I pass a large strip of woods that has been clear-cut. In 40 minutes, I reach North Lake Road. A family is camping on the lakeshore—the first people I have seen since yesterday afternoon. I turn left and start walking up the dirt road. (The Scenic Trail most likely will avoid the road.) On this Memorial Day weekend, all of the car-camping sites on the three-mile-long lake appear to be occupied.
After a mile and a half, the road ends at a parking lot. Several unmarked trails originate here. I take a short detour to a little gorge on the North Branch of the Black River, then head up an old woods road toward Ice Cave Mountain. I encounter a few hikers returning from the ice “cave” (it’s really a deep crevice). Scenic Trail hikers could visit the crevice via a 1.2-mile herd path from the woods road.
The woods road ends after 1.8 miles at the North Branch of the Black. I had been told that just before this, I should look for another route that follows the base of Ice Cave Mountain into the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. I do find an old road that starts off in the right direction, but it soon peters out. So I decide to bushwhack.
Now I’m really starting to worry about Steve. It’s 4 p.m., and I’ve got about four miles to go to reach an official trail, near Horn Lake. Even if I make it by nightfall, I’ll be behind schedule. I plunge ahead, going up and down several small valleys carved by tributaries to the North Branch. These woods, in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness, are not as open as those I encountered earlier and require a bit of tree tussling. Inevitably, I find myself in a spruce-fir swamp. Looking for a way out, I spot a clearing and make a beeline.
Hallelujah! I’ve stumbled upon a herd path. It proves to be better maintained and easier to follow than some of the official trails I had been on. It’s probably used by fishermen as a short cut to Horn Lake, a remote lake that harbors strains of native brook trout.
At 7:15, I reach the Horn Lake Trail. I had hoped to visit the lake, but that would take me in the wrong direction. Given the time, I decide against it and set up my tent near a stream.
COMMENT: I didn’t see much scenery for several miles after leaving Little Woodhull Lake. Indeed, I spent much of the time on logging roads and North Lake Road. Presumably, the Scenic Trail will take a wilder route. Perhaps it could follow Grindstone Creek upstream and then descend to the northeastern end of North Lake. There are primitive campsites on the roadless side of the lake—just a short distance from the Scenic Trail route—that can be reached by backpackers via an existing trail. The Scenic Trail is expected to leave North Lake via the old woods road. Ideally, it would follow the road all the way to the North Branch of the Black and then parallel the river a ways before hooking up to the herd path leading to the Horn Lake Trail.
Sunday, May 25
Horn Lake Trail to Little Moose Mountain
Another sunny day. The blackflies are swarming as I prepare breakfast and break camp. I don’t hit the trail until 9:30 a.m., but I’m hoping to make up for lost time. My hopes are soon dashed: This trail is more clogged by blowdown than any I have ever seen. With all the climbing over and under fallen trees, it takes me 90 minutes to hike 2.5 miles to the Indian River.
I have been looking forward to seeing the Indian—one of the wildest rivers in the Adirondacks. This is not the Indian that flows from Indian Lake to the Hudson. That river is regulated by a dam. No, this Indian River lies entirely within the West Canada Lakes Wilderness, originating at Brooktrout Lake and ending at the South Branch of the Moose.
The Indian is about 50 feet wide here, and the only way across is by wading. I remove my boots and socks, roll up my pants, grab two large sticks for balance and step into the cool, rushing water. Fortunately, there is plenty of sand on the bottom, and so the crossing is easy and painless.
Leaving the river, I encounter more horrible blowdown. In 40 minutes, I pass a beaver pond (the trail is flooded here) with a view of Indian Lake Mountain. Shortly after, the trail pulls alongside the Indian River. It’s such a beautiful spot that I can’t resist stopping for lunch—even though I have traveled only four miles in three hours.
It’s almost 1:30 p.m. when I resume hiking. Now I’m really worried about meeting Steve. I have less than 24 hours to cover 20 miles. Luckily, as I’ll soon discover, the blowdown is behind me.
The trail climbs steadily to a saddle between Indian Lake Mountain and an unnamed peak to the southeast. Once the trail levels, I walk past a series of small ponds, all connected into one large waterway. It could pass for prime waterfront, but here the only developers are beavers that slap their tails when I get too close to the shoreline. Moose also dwell in the vicinity, judging from two large piles of grape-size scat on the path.
From the saddle, the trail descends to a metal barrier, the terminus of Indian River Road. This is where I leave the West Canada Lakes Wilderness and enter the Moose River Plains Wild Forest.
Just past the barrier, I take a short side trail to Indian Lake. Someday, this 82-acre lake, with its view of Indian River Mountain, could be a wonderful camping spot on the Scenic Trail—if DEC follows through with plans to close Indian River Road. Easy access has led to abuse of the shoreline campsites.
I don’t linger but return to the dirt road and resume my trek. The moose that had been on the trail also made tracks on the road. I pass side trails to Muskrat Pond, which I visit, and Squaw Lake, which I don’t. When I come to a large beaver pond filled with bleached dead trees, I take a short break to put duct tape over the incipient blisters on my feet.
About 4.5 miles up the road, I reach the Brooktrout Lake Trail, which leads south into the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. The Scenic Trail’s draft plan called for hikers to take this trail past Brooktrout Lake to West Lake, then head northeast on the Northville-Placid Trail. This route would take backpackers past a half-dozen large wilderness lakes and surely would be a highlight of the Scenic Trail’s Adirondack leg. However, some people fear that the extra foot traffic would spoil the area’s wild character, and so DEC expects to alter the route. The new route will require hikers to stay on Indian River Road to its end and then turn east onto the Otter Brook Trail, an old woods road now closed to vehicles.
And so I plod up the road another mile to a bridge over Otter Brook, where I see some car campers—the first people I have seen in more than 24 hours. Turning up the Otter Brook Trail, I soon come to a picnic table, and since it’s nearly 6 p.m., I stop for dinner. I am joined by swarms of uninvited guests.
Having eaten and rested, I resume hiking at a brisk pace to cover as much ground as possible before dark. For an hour or so, I’m still following moose tracks. After crossing several streams, the trail comes to the site of an old logging operation, where artifacts litter the woods: rusty buckets, cables, tables, a truck cab, tires. It’s a veritable archaeological site.
Nearby is an attractive meadow below Little Moose Mountain. It’s 8:30 p.m., time to call it a day. I set up my tent, crawl inside and fall asleep.
COMMENT: The hike through the West Canada Lakes Wilderness will be a treat once the blowdown is cleared. Wading across the Indian River makes you realize you’re in the wild. However, the 10-mile hike up Indian River Road and the Otter Brook Trail to the meadow might be termed “trudgery.” It’s boring and lacks a wilderness feeling. If the road is closed and reverts to a wooded path, that would help matters, but that’s a long way off. I did enjoy the view of Little Moose Mountain from the meadow and looking at the artifacts in the woods.
Monday, May 26
Little Moose Mountain to Lewey Lake
I awake about 6 a.m. While preparing to leave, I hear and then see a ruby-throated hummingbird buzzing in the bushes at the margins of the meadow. It’s the first time I’ve seen a hummingbird in the wilderness. I thought they evolved around flower gardens and bird feeders.
I’m concerned about Steve, of course, so I skip breakfast and hit the trail as soon as I pack up, munching trail mix on the go. At 7:15, I reach a junction next to a rusting logging machine. The DEC-maintained trail turns right here, heading south to the Northville-Placid Trail at Cedar Lakes. Under DEC’s revised plans for the Scenic Trail, hikers will continue straight on the old woods road, passing Little Moose Lake and coming out on another part of the Northville-Placid Trail. They then will head south on the NP to the Sucker Brook Trail, which will take them to the Colvin Brook lean-to and eventually Lewey Lake.
However, I opt to head to Cedar Lakes. My rationale is that this will enable me to compare—at least partially—the two variations of the Scenic Trail. After the turn, I pass a spur trail to Lost Pond and cross a wetland on a large beaver dam. The trail, obscure in places, then climbs over a ridge and descends to Beaver Pond and the NP.
Turning left, I soon come to a lean-to overlooking Cedar Lakes. One of the arguments for routing the Scenic Trail away from Cedar Lakes is that this region is overused. On this Memorial Day, the lean-to is empty. The last users swept it clean and even left a flower in a vase.
The Cedar River begins at the dam at the foot of Cedar Lakes. This stretch of the NP more or less parallels the river. The trail north of the lakes does not appear to receive a lot of use. It passes through beautiful stands of spruce and pulls next to the river in several spots. There’s no question that this trail is more attractive than the Otter Brook Trail.
At noon, I reach the Sucker Brook Trail. I’m late already, but I’ve got only a mile to go to the lean-to. The trail climbs slightly through a wide-open forest and descends to the Cedar River. The lean-to is on the opposite shore. Just as I reach the water, Steve walks from behind the structure. It’s now 12:20 or so.
“Sorry I’m late,” I call across the river.
“I just got here,” Steve replies.
Incredible as it seems, we have arrived at the same moment—I after four days of backpacking, Steve after a long drive and a 6.6-mile hike.
I carefully cross the river on boulders, set my backpack in the lean-to and prepare a gourmet meal of salami, cheese and pita bread, topped off by hot tea. Steve has brought his own lunch. As we eat, a common merganser lands and takes off on the river.
I note that Steve is wearing blue jeans.
“Don’t you know cotton kills?” I ask.
“It’s a conspiracy,” he says. “You’re not supposed to do anything in blue jeans anymore.”
We hang out a while, then start down the trail. Whoever designed the Sucker Brook Trail had either a sense of humor or a sense of adventure. It crosses Colvin Brook no less than nine times—and some of the crossings are not easy. Steve gets his boots wet more than once. The trail gains 700 feet in elevation as it climbs to a saddle between Lewey and Cellar mountains—the only significant ascent of the entire trip. As we begin the steep descent, we can see Lewey Lake and the cliffs on Snowy Mountain. The trail flattens out, crosses Sucker Brook and deposits us at the Lewey Lake State Campground. Steve walks up Route 30 to get his car at the hikers’ parking lot, while I head to Lewey Lake’s outlet to wash off four days of sweat and grit.
COMMENT: Little Moose Lake is a worthy destination, but hikers would need to trudge 15 miles along a dirt road and a rather unexciting trail to get there from Indian Lake. No doubt most hikers would prefer the route in the draft plan, leading past Brooktrout Lake, West Lake, Mud Lake, Cat Lake, Beaver Pond and the Cedar Lakes. Also, this route passes through some impressive woods and offers views of the Cedar River. I didn’t see evidence of overuse. Even though it was Memorial Day, I saw no one. I understand, however, that my experience on a single day is hardly conclusive. If this part of the Northville-Placid Trail cannot accommodate more use, there is an alternative to sending hikers up the Otter Brook Trail: building a trail over Little Moose Mountain to Little Moose Lake (part of the trail already exists). At 3,620 feet, Little Moose is one of the tallest mountains outside the High Peaks and has good views. It would give Scenic Trail hikers a chance to enjoy a summit. And it would show off the Adirondacks in all their glory. Isn’t that what this trail is all about?
Steve and I drive the 60 miles back to Forestport and stop at the Buffalo Head. For two days, I have been craving one of their hamburgers. Alas, the restaurant is closed. We head up Route 28 to the Wigwam, a tavern that is a landmark of sorts. A small plane, cut in half, is mounted on the roof so that it appears to be crashing into the building. It’s been there for ages. The Wigwam is a small joint, with just a few tables. After four days in the woods, it seems like the pinnacle of civilization.