Journal of a canoeist lost in a wilderness idyll
By Brian Mann
Since coming to the Adirondacks, I’ve been hearing about the classic canoe route that begins on the Bog River Flow and winds through the Five Ponds Wilderness toward Cranberry Lake. This section of the Park contains some of the most remote forests and rivers in the East. Some conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and the Adirondack Council, say it should form the heart of a massive Great Oswegatchie Wilderness. This spring, I checked it out myself on a three-day trip with David Sommerstein, a colleague at North Country Public Radio.
Driving down the gravel road past Horseshoe Lake, the morning seems handmade. It’s just warm enough that we can rest our elbows out the open windows of the truck, but cool enough that there’s not a black fly or a mosquito in sight. My partner is David Sommerstein. He’s new to the North Country, new to paddling in the Adirondacks. For two weeks we’ve been swapping excited e-mails and phone calls, working out the details of our escape. Now it’s Friday morning, and ahead of us lies a long weekend, a pristine lake, and a pair of winding rivers.
We’re heading for the Bog River, which will take us west through Lows Lake. Then we’ll face the long carry to the headwaters of the Oswegatchie River. Then we’ll follow the river, curving north toward Cranberry Lake. In all, we’ll canoe and hike through 50 miles of wilderness, country that Paul Jamieson, the canoe guidebook author, called “a picture gallery of the North Woods.”
Here’s a little secret, something David doesn’t know. I’m a lousy outdoorsman. Well, not lousy, maybe, but definitely forgetful. I see a view or a plant and I get so absorbed that I forget everything else. First thing you know I’ve lost the tent poles or the map or the trail. This morning, I pause to write happily in my journal about loon cries and the white-blossoming shad along the shore. What I’m forgetting is wind. Lows Lake, 11 miles long, is famous for sudden zephyrs that tip canoes and swamp guideboats. I’ve read the warnings and should be paying attention, but at midday we’re only halfway up the lake and there’s already a stiff headwind. Nasty curls of white sweep around the boat as our bow lifts and drops with a frightening thud. We dig and fight to keep our direction, as the water turns slate gray and the clouds scud past.
Fortunately, I’ve done a bit of research and know to keep to the north shore, where it’s possible to hide behind a pair of T-shaped juts of land. Paddling in the lee of these peninsulas, we work our way slowly to the west end of the lake. “I was a little nervous when the waves were looking like they were about to start coming in the boat,” David confides later. “We slogged through it, though, out on that wide, open water.”
All my life I’ve wanted to be the sort of woodsman who doesn’t slog, who doesn’t trip over his own two feet, but I love being out there so much that I often get distracted. Maybe that’s why Verplanck Colvin, who first explored this country in the 1800s, once wrote that a good map sometimes gives a better sense of a place than a firsthand look. A map, he said, is a collection of ideas.
That night – after the first short carry – we camp at Big Deer Pond. Finally, I start to slow down. I stop writing in my journal. I stop rubbernecking. David and I just sit for a while, listening to the chirruping frogs and the wind.
Here’s the thing about maps. On a piece of paper, the crossing from Lows Lake to the Oswegatchie River looks harmless. It’s a few inches of delicate blue lines. On some level, I understand that it’s really a matter of miles. I understand that the boat and all our gear have to be lifted on our backs and carried through a tangle of witchhobble and alder. This area – known as the Five Ponds Wilderness – was hit in 1995 by a huge windstorm. Swaths of mighty pine and hemlock were tossed around like Lincoln Logs. Helicopters were used to evacuate fishermen and campers. As we struggle along, the forest is a gray snarl of snapped timber. “It’s just all chopped right off,” David says, pausing to catch his breath, “like someone took a huge weed-whacker and cut everything right off.”
It’s sort of surreal, stumbling along in the middle of a wrecked forest, no water anywhere in sight, carrying a bright-red 16-foot Kevlar canoe. But finally, after four hours on the trail, we come to the upper reaches of the Oswegatchie. Last winter, I came home from skiing with a bruise so big that my wife took a picture of it. The whole time, she looked at me with that expression, that “Why do you do it to yourself?” look. Standing by the amber water of the river, I think: This is why. This, right here. The rest of that morning, we play. We paddle the tightest oxbows in the world, ducking under white pine logs, scrambling over beaver dams. We lift the boat a dozen times, splashing waist-deep in the frosty stream, calling out to each other: “Hold up just a sec!” “Can you make it there?” “Whoo!”
This part I am good at. Heaving, pulling the boat, balancing barefoot on logs, spooking beaver and river otters with our gleeful shouts. It’s Huckleberry Finn stuff, not outdoorsmanship. There’s a late lunch, eaten while sprawled out in a meadow above the river. “The black ribbon of the Oswegatchie,” David says, waxing poetic as he munches on a carrot. “It just goes back and forth and back and forth. The water’s so clear but in this sort of tea-brown way. The white pines that stick up, sort of scraping the sky, are really nice.”
The day is cloudless and mild. It lures us on. We paddle until mid-afternoon. Then, after setting up camp, we set off on the trail that leads south into the heart of the Five Ponds Wilderness, to Big Shallow Pond and Washbowl. We hike along dazzling creeks, tiptoe through sucking bogs, scramble up hills so steep that trillium and trout lilies are at eye level. We march until fatigue makes us giddy. And then farther until we’re still and somber, as if measuring ourselves against the silence of the forest.
There’s no more iconic spot in the Adirondacks than the log lean-to at Big Shallow Pond. We pause to rest as the late afternoon sun slants across the water, not so much lighting the grassy meadow as filling it with color. How serene it is. How far from civilization. “There’s just a good stretch of nothing,” David remarks.
This is what we’ve come for. A good stretch of nothing. Bob Marshall, the legendary conservationist, defined a wilderness as an undisturbed place large enough so that you can walk across it for three days. Here you can feel the space. You can feel it in the ache in your bones.
In the morning, we wake up to find a thin crust of ice covering our tent. David cooks breakfast, pancakes this time. When we’ve eaten and cleaned up, it’s time to go swimming. High Falls is a wonderful cascade that divides the Oswegatchie neatly in half. The jumble of rocks is just big enough to boil up a good flume. Right in the middle, there’s a perfect, ice-cold swimming hole. We leap in and feel the current snatch our breath away, leaving just enough wind for long, coyote howls.
A half-dozen times, we dive in and let the water draw us over the first smooth rocks. Then we crawl out and nap in the morning sun. Our final day seems to evaporate. The hours dissolve as we pack up and paddle away downstream.
As we slip past Glasby Creek and Buck Brook, the growing river does more of the work, taking over for our aching backs. The payoff for our long carry seems more and more generous. The headwind on Lows Lake seems a distant hardship. We pause as a run of trout streams under the boat, wave after wave of glinting life. Then we rattle clumsily down through Griffin Rapids, out into a broad valley, thick with alders, busy with redwing blackbirds. Soon we come to High Rock, the last place to get a lookout before the trip is done. From here, after scrambling up the pine-scented path, you can see how the river turns and twists. It looks like a child took a finger and traced a crazy path through the russet meadow.
“I’m amazed,” David says. “Coming through these oxbows, the wilderness looks so vast. It looks like this valley goes on forever. But then you get up here and it looks sort of manageable.”
An easy couple of hours from the takeout, it does seem manageable. It feels like we could fold it all away – the river and the low hills and the distant ponds – and put it in a pocket. Maybe that’s what Colvin meant with his talk of maps. Not just a few lines or markings on a piece of paper, but a living collection of ideas: the memories of smells and sounds, the intimate sense of distance and rugged earth, and the perfect joy of passing through it.