A tale of two maps in this remote St. Lawrence Co. ride
By Tom French
As an Adirondack Explorer, I’m always keen to check out remote places with an interesting history. Add a biking icon in the legend along with discrepancies between maps, and it’s really going to light my fire.
My lifelong Explorer buddy, Doug Miller, and I have been eying this adventure for a while, and we were finally able to attack it in late September when the fall foliage reports were approaching peak.
Doug was concerned about differences between his 2019 National Geographic topo, which is “revised regularly in cooperation with the Adirondack Mountain Club, NYS Adirondack Park Agency, (and) NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.” It didn’t show any trails north from Burntbridge Pond through Conifer-Emporium Easement lands to the Grasse River Rail Trail, though my downloaded DEC map did. He was also concerned that unmarked logging roads could create confusion along with the possibility of no bridge across the “Brook Brandy.” So, we decided to start at the Burntbridge Pond Trailhead, 2.5 miles east of Cranberry Lake, and bike counterclockwise. He’d skied the three miles to Cranberry Lake before and was familiar with the terrain. In the end, it was the smart move.
Much of this route to Burntbridge Pond is technical, with roots, rocks, single track and slippery bridges. Indeed, the first tenth-of-a-mile was only a taste of what was to come as the rugged trail rose to a spur of the Grasse River Railroad. It settles into a wide, steady uphill for the next 1.5 miles to a junction for the Cranberry Lake 50 and Bear Mountain. I’d skied this with Doug last winter when we were “Chasing Snow.”
As soon as we passed the register, the trail narrowed to single track through a small grassy meadow, perhaps the one mentioned by Barbara McMartin in her Discover the Northwestern Adirondacks (1990) as the site of an old lumber camp where “twenty-five or so men lived continuously for several years around 1916.” The trail opens up past the clearing with gentle rollers as it gradually descends to a finger of Cranberry Lake.
Then the hard part starts. This section, despite being a snowmobile trail, is mostly single-track and steep at times. Best to drop the front gear into low before you even begin. We gained over 200 feet in the next mile along a ravine which one can spy to the left. Leaves covered the narrow, matted path making it difficult to see obstacles, and because of recent rains, the trail itself was sometimes a stream. Bear scat littered the leaves for dozens of yards making us think the bear had a bowel problem. The logbook at the Burntbridge Lean-to mentions a bear sighting in this area in June.
About halfway along this leg, the trail levels and widens. The hope and joy of knowing it was probably downhill the rest of the way filled our hearts. We passed the junction to the Dog Pond Loop and shortly later arrived at the turn to Burntbridge Pond. Also a snowmobile trail, it contained many whoops as if I was on a dirt-bike track.
Arriving at the lean-to, we were rewarded with sparkling calm waters reflecting the burnt colors of fall surrounding the pond.
Both the DEC Kiosk and Barbara McMartin mention an incident where Native Americans burned a “high bridge” over the outlet from the pond, but I could not find any source for that information and even McMartin suggests it might be “legend.”
Edwin R. Wallace, in his Descriptive Guide to the Adirondacks (1894) simply says “a bridge once existed” on this military road from Lake George. Built in 1812 (other sources say 1808), the pond was named because the bridge “burned many years ago.” No mention of Native Americans.
A 1969 Tupper Lake Free Press & Herald article also references Alfred Lee Donaldson’s History of the Adirondacks to suggest the road began in the Town of Chester, followed the North Branch of the Hudson, and crossed an outlet of Long Lake before skirting the southern end of Big Tupper. Guests at Childwold Park explored the “alleyway cut through the forest.”
Although Canton was the planned destination, the road may have only made it to Russell. Along with other transportation links, it was said, “All roads led to Russell” because it was “far enough from the border to be relatively safe.”
The road “vanished and was… forgotten before the Civil War.”
The lean-to was immaculate and looked to be recently built. The log book indicated we were the 21st party to record a visit this year – almost half by snowmobile last winter. We were not the only people to have biked in, with at least one person arriving from Conifer. Doug lamented not bringing his telescoping rod, and the logbook indicated that others had journeyed specifically for fishing. We enjoyed our lunch overlooking the glow and warmth of fall.
Leaving Burntbridge Pond, we headed north and were quickly on Conifer-Emporium Easement lands. The trail became wide and grassy, especially at a T-junction with what appeared to be a disused logging road. From the DEC map, we knew to turn left – the only signs were for those heading south.
A few yards further, we veered right for a .7-mile flat straightaway. The DEC map shows it along a property line. We were able to bike side by side and chatted most of the way. A stop sign marks St. Lawrence County Snowmobile Junction 13 with Trails 717 & S88, a well-used gravel road. Turning left again, we finally lost the elevation we’d gained east of Cranberry Lake. Brandy Brook was flowing across a causeway, but not enough to deter us from barreling through.
The route steepened again. I watched Doug huff to the top as I coasted to the bottom of my gears and sidesaddled off, walking up to a large clearing that appeared to be an old staging area wide with views.
Doug was still winded. “That hill kicked my butt,” he said. But as we both recovered and admired the colors, he added, “This is why we’re so lucky to live in the North Country.”
The Burntbridge Pond loop, all part of the St. Lawrence County Snowmobile Trail Network, involves traversing three ridges – the first along the old Grasse River Railroad spur, then to the Pond itself, and again after crossing Brandy Brook for the second time of the day. For the next two miles, the road continues an upward trajectory over a series of rollers. Finally, all that elevation is lost in the last quarter mile to the T with the Grasse River Rail Trail.
No southbound signage marks this junction. Fortunately, no other logging roads exist between the junction and Route 3. Those making a clockwise loop will just need to remember it’s the first right.
We savored the flat along a wild section of the Grasse River before swinging off the railbed and up a couple hills to Route 3. The last three-quarter miles on the highway to the car finished this roughly 15-mile loop and four-hour bike.
I’m glad we traveled counterclockwise. We put the hardest part of the bike behind us before lunch and were rewarded with the solitude of Burntbridge Pond. The ride out was mostly a breeze.
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