Junk or no, Bigelow Road leads to some lovely skiing
By Phil Brown
Winter started slowly. On Christmas Day, we had hardly any snow on the ground, forcing Carol and me to ditch our plan to ski in the woods in the morning before returning home to make breakfast and open presents. We spent the holiday indoors.
Two days later, we got a few inches of fluff. Though not sufficient for backcountry touring, it was just enough to ski on Bigelow Road, which, for us, was a new experience. We liked it enough that we added it to our list of places to ski in early winter or whenever snow is sparse.
Located a bit north of Bloomingdale, Bigelow Road is a dirt lane with a checkered past. It once ran from Oregon Plains Road to Franklin County Route 55. The bridge over Negro Brook has been out since the 1990s, turning the road into a pair of dead ends.
Carol and I skied the 1.5-mile stretch from Oregon Plains Road to the brook, which is not plowed. This part of Bigelow Road runs through the state-owned forest preserve and draws recreation-minded folk throughout the year, including birders, hunters, and mountain bikers. It also is the scene of illegal dumping and beer parties.
On the day of our trip, a pickup had been driven down the road as far as a fallen tree. Ordinarily, this would have offended my aesthetic sensibilities, but given the paucity of snow, we welcomed the tire tracks as they provided a packed surface for skiing. As the snow deepens over the winter, skiers are less likely to see cars and trucks, but there is always the possibility of snowmobiles. Sledders use Bigelow Road to reach the Bloomingdale Bog Trail, which crosses the road shortly before the old bridge.
One other car was parked at the start of the road when we arrived. Stepping into our skis, we glided down a very gradual incline to a bridge over Lyon Brook—one of several wetland areas along the road where you might find birds. Some of the more notable species that can be seen year-round are boreal chickadees, gray jays and black-backed woodpeckers. Unfortunately, we did not see any birds, but the wetland did afford a view of slide-scarred Moose Mountain to the southeast.
The branches of the evergreens lining the road were coated with sugary snow, creating the impression, despite the thin cover beneath our boards, that we were in deep winter. “The trees are just beautiful,” Carol remarked. “Total Narnia.”
And then she changed the topic.
“There’s a grill.”
“A grill, right there in the woods.”
Sure enough, about 15 feet off the road, partially hidden, was a Weber barbecue grill. It looked usable and probably is still there for the taking. On the other side of the road, metal bedsprings leaned against a tree.
Ignoring these intrusions into Narnia, we skied on and soon encountered a couple pulling a young child on a plastic sled. The man had a gun slung over his shoulder. He had hoped to shoot a grouse, but he said other people hunt rabbits in the thick woods along the road, usually with the help of a dog.
We continued skiing past two wetlands and came to the Bloomingdale Bog Trail, about 1.25 miles from our starting point. The bog trail runs 16 miles from State Route 86 outside Saranac Lake almost to Onchiota. It sees much more use than Bigelow Road. Though a designated snowmobile route, it is popular with cross-country skiers as well.
Carol and I did not venture onto the bog trail, choosing instead to ski to Negro Brook—a waterway whose name is of unclear origin but might reference an African-American family or families who lived in the Town of Franklin—and turn around. Three weeks later, however, I returned alone to Bigelow Road after a hefty snowfall and extended my outing by skiing for a while in both directions on the bog trail.
On my second trip, the skiing conditions were much better. Snowmobiles had packed down a path in the middle of the road. Again, I usually don’t like sharing the trail with gas-powered vehicles, but they did make my work easier. Breaking trail in the deep snow left by the storm would have been a chore with my skinny skis, albeit a pleasant one.
When I reached the Bloomingdale Bog Trail, I turned right (north). The trail, which follows an old railroad bed, is wide and flat. Like Bigelow Road, it is ideal for novice skiers. I passed through a beautiful stand of tall evergreens and soon thereafter—about a half-mile from Bigelow Road—came to a large beaver meadow, covered in a white blanket. On a clear day, it offers a view of neighboring peaks. On this day, the sky was overcast. I tarried a few minutes, bathed in silence, and then turned around.
Upon reaching Bigelow Road, I continued south on the bog trail and soon came to a wooden bridge over a gurgling Negro Brook—a spot of fast water in the otherwise placid stream. In another quarter-mile, I arrived at a second bridge, this one spanning a slender stream meandering through a meadow. On a clear day, you can see Whiteface Mountain. I had to content myself with views of the meadow and alder thickets. I turned back here. If I had continued, I would have soon reached Route 55. (The Bloomingdale Bog lies south of the highway.)
When I reached Bigelow Road again, I turned left and followed it a short distance to the dismantled bridge over Negro Brook. A snowmobile had crossed the ice just downstream (which struck me as dangerous) and cut through a clearing on the south side of the road. In summer, I have seen all kinds of trash in this clearing: tires, small appliances, beer cans, broken glass, shotgun shells, scrap lumber. One of the nice things about visiting in winter is that most of the mess is hidden under snow.
Snowmobilers are supposed to stick to the road and the bog trail. However, I saw sled tracks entering the forest preserve on the north side of the road. They led to a sparsely treed open area where snowmobilers had ridden in circles in the snow. I can’t condone illegal riding in the forest preserve, but I wouldn’t have discovered this peaceful spot if it hadn’t been for the snowmobile tracks.
With evening approaching, I skied back up Bigelow Road to my car, reflecting on the pros and cons of the outing. Including my side trips, I had logged 5.5 miles, all on the flats, and had taken in a variety of scenery—spruce-fir forests, alder thickets, wetlands, meadows and streams. It’s a nice jaunt for a beginning skier or anyone who wants a bit of exercise. Yet you must be willing to overlook the trash and to run the risk of encountering vehicles or snowmobiles.
The management of Bigelow Road is problematic. The Town of Franklin owns it, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation is responsible for getting rid of trash left in the forest preserve. At its January meeting, the Town Board kicked around the idea of limiting or banning motor-vehicle use on the road (excepting snowmobiles) to stop the illegal dumping. The board also discussed the future of the old bridge over Negro Brook. One idea is to replace it with a pedestrian bridge wide enough to accommodate snowmobiles. Although board members agreed that recreation is the best use of Bigelow Road, they raised legal and practical questions that must be answered before closing the road, whether fully or partially. Franklin Supervisor Dorothy Brown hopes the town will come to a decision this year.
Even in its imperfect condition, I have a new appreciation for Bigelow Road. Looking out the window at bare ground, Carol and I had been yearning to go skiing. With just a few inches of fresh snow, Bigelow Road proved to be the ticket.
“Who would have thought when it was pouring rain two days ago that we would be skiing?” Carol said afterward. “It was beautiful, a nice surprise.”