On the path unbroken
By Alan Wechsler
There are times when you want the mountains to yourself, with no trace of your fellow human beings. And there are times, by God, that you hope there have been cross-country skiers in front of you.
That thought crossed my mind when we were driving to the trailhead to begin one of the great ski adventures of the central Adirondacks – an 11-mile traverse of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, starting on Route 8 in Bakers Mills and heading north, ending at Thirteenth Lake near Garnet Hill Lodge.
The trail near the lodge is usually tracked. You can do the route in reverse, but you may find yourself breaking trail when you’re most tired. Also, you’ll have a difficult downhill at the end. Some parties split up, starting at opposite ends, and swap car keys in the middle. This avoids a long shuttle, but what happens if one party runs into trouble?
Whichever way you go, you’ll be skiing parallel to the East Branch of the Sacandaga River for much of the way, going over flat and rolling terrain that’s perfect for an intermediate skier in reasonable shape. Much of the route follows an old wagon road. You can look forward to miles of riverside views and a scenic lean-to where you can eat lunch.
But the difference between an enjoyable glide through the woods and a death march will depend on one thing: whether you’ll be following tracks or breaking trail. Fortunately, the popularity of this trail ensures that, in all likelihood, at least part of it will be tracked out.
My friend Jim Close and I did the trip in early January. We stashed a car at Thirteenth Lake and then drove 20 miles in a second car to the Route 8 trailhead. It was about 10 a.m. by the time we entered the woods. We were in good spirits as others had broken trail.
Unfortunately, the weather was not exactly stellar for skiing.
Jim and I have a long-standing argument about the benefits of waxless versus waxable skis. With his ancient, wooden skis, Jim is vehemently pro-wax. Unfortunately for him, this day called out for no-wax skis. Temperatures were in the mid-30s and the snow had the consistency of mashed potatoes. Jim applied a red wax, using a propane torch to set it, but on the snow he immediately began to slip backwards. Out came the torch and a new wax, this one purple, with similarly unsticky results. Finally, he pulled out a tube of that most dreaded of substances: klister, a nasty, gluelike wax that tends to get all over everything, like a wad of discarded chewing gum on a hot summer day.
“I’ve been skiing with wax for 35 years,” he said as he applied the gunk, “and it’s still a mystery.”
Jim has done this ski-through numerous times. When he first did it, there was no bridge to cross the East Branch midway up the trail, so skiers had to be prepared to turn around if there wasn’t a good snow bridge over the wide river. Now all you need is a stout pair of legs.
After Jim found his wax groove, we began the climb. It was a relief not to have to worry about skiing down this hill at the end of a long trip. Both Jim and I have had nasty crashes while descending it on previous trips to Siamese Ponds. After one fall, Jim’s ribs caused him pain for months. Once I steered off the trail into the powder and whacked my right calf on a hidden rock. I was limping for two days.
At the top of the hill, we admired the rock walls near the trail and then pushed off for a long, fun descent to the East Branch.
The next section of trail was a delight. The river alternated from ice to open water as we followed its banks. In one cold winter, Jim and a friend skied up the frozen river for nearly five miles. On my half-dozen jaunts into these woods, however, I have never seen conditions like that.
On this trip, because of a recent warm spell, we saw plenty of water. Small creeks interrupted our progress, forcing us to perform awkward splits to cross them. Doing this route on colder days, with a good snow pack, is recommended.
At 3.8 miles, we came to a junction, marked partially with homemade signs on plastic disks nailed to a tree. The right trail is the most direct route to Thirteenth Lake. The left one goes to a lean-to that overlooks the river. At the lean-to, if you bear right at another junction, you’ll return to the main trail leading to Thirteenth Lake. The other way leads to the Siamese Ponds.
We followed the tracks to the lean-to. Alas, here the tracks we had been following continued over the river toward the ponds. That meant we’d be breaking trail from here on – at least until we hit tracks coming from the other direction.
After a break, we went to work, taking turns pushing through the snow. With the warm weather – it was almost 40 degrees by now – the snow had condensed, and we only sank down a few inches. This made for fast movement, but there were other problems, such as snow clumping to the bottom of our skis. At one point, Jim pulled his off and scraped off the nasty klister as best he could. I, in turn, applied some glide wax to the bottom of my boards, which helped slightly to prevent buildup.
Eventually, Jim took the lead for a long stretch, pushing through a beautiful woods. Water dripped from small patches of snow stuck in evergreen branches above our heads, and the occasional crack of defrosting tree branches emanated through the woods.
After about 90 minutes of trail breaking, Jim started whistling. He could see ski tracks coming from the other direction. The last four or five miles would be easy going!
“I’ll take over trail breaking,” I volunteered, moving past him and dutifully pushing through the final 50 feet of untracked snow.
Other ski tours
Here are three other cross-country trips in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, each suitable for skiers with intermediate skills.
PUFFER POND: A delightful romp, ending at a scenic lake with a lean-to. Leave from Thirteenth Lake as if you were skiing to the East Branch of the Sacandaga. After about a mile, turn right at the sign for Puffer Pond. The route goes downhill slightly, then up a moderate hill to the lake. There’s a bridgeless water crossing that could be trouble after a thaw. Round trip: 11 miles.
SIAMESE PONDS: Another classic, this route follows the ski-through from Route 8 for about four miles. At the lean-to, you cross the suspension bridge over the East Branch and begin a long climb to the ponds. It’s hard work toward the end, but the pond is beautiful, surrounded by snow-covered hills, and the descent back to the lean-to is one of the best in the central Adirondacks. Round trip: 12 miles.
KING’S FLOW SKI-THROUGH: With two cars, you can park at King’s Flow, ski up to Puffer Pond and then down to Thirteenth Lake (or do it in reverse). I don’t think it’s as nice as the East Branch ski-through, but it’s certainly worth doing. Head south along the King’s Flow East trail to its intersection with the Puffer Pond Brook Trail. Once at Puffer Pond, continue on the trail down to the well-traveled route back to Thirteenth Lake. End-to-end trip: 8.5 miles.