When it comes to good skiing conditions, Cranberry Lake delivers
Story and photos by Tom French
When my buddy Doug Miller is eager to ski early or late in the season, he looks to the west, toward St. Lawrence County in the hopes of lake effect powder. He is seldom disappointed.
Two of his go-to destinations are the Burntbridge Pond Trail or Cranberry Lake 50 East Connector Trail at the Gilbert Tract Parking Area, though he’d never done both as a loop (of sorts), so he invited me along for a two-car exploration.
Although it was mid-winter when we made the trek, the area clearly had significantly more snow than Potsdam or Higley Flow (my neck of the woods) or Saranac Lake – Doug’s stomping ground. Susan, Doug’s wife, joined us as well, which was a pleasant surprise. I knew her level head would control the bears in Doug and me.
We started at the Burntbridge Pond Trailhead (also known as the Brandy Brook (Flow) Trail), a parking area on the south side of Route 3, 2.5 miles east of Cranberry Lake. The trail climbs from the parking area about 30 feet in a tenth of a mile to a spur of the Grasse River Railroad.
Penetrating into the forest for five miles, records suggest the Brandy Brook Tram was active from 1913-18 and perhaps again from the ’20s into the ’40s, though Barbara McMartin states the rails were removed in 1933 when the state acquired the tract. The spur began at Brandy Brook Junction, currently a rest area on the south side of Route 3 just east of the bridge over the Grasse River. Route 3 was built along the path of the spur until diverging east of the trailhead.
It is not your grandfather’s railroad bed; it was a rough-hewn logging railroad with serious grades pushing 12% and climbing almost 85 feet in less than a mile to its high point. It also makes for a nice downhill especially if you’re doing an out and back. I should know – I realized a mile in that I’d forgotten the keys to my Highlander. My shame was skiing back to Doug’s truck to fetch them.
This section is also part of the St. Lawrence County Snowmobile Network. Though no one had been through with a sled recently, it was packed down enough to make easy skiing. Along the way, we ran into a DEC employee out of the Potsdam Office. He was nailing up new snowmobile trail markers and occupied Doug and Susan with conversation while they waited for me to return with the keys.
At 1.5 miles, we left the Burntbridge Pond Trail and railroad bed, turning west onto the Cranberry Lake 50, though the trail was originally built to provide access to Bear Mountain without having to pay the day-use fee at the DEC Cranberry Lake Campground. A register also marks the junction. My copy of Barbara McMartin’s Discover the Northwestern Adirondacks (1990) calls it the “fairly new” Bear Mountain (Campsite) Trail. DEC maps seem to call it “Campground Trail.” The Cranberry Lake 50 map considers it part of the East Connector.
The trail begins with the most significant hill of the day. Doug blazed down first, utilizing his telemarking technique and, I suspect, the thick, virgin, powder snow to keep his speed down. Susan followed, and I went last, picking up speed in the now well-tracked path. Doug and Susan both cheered as I approached the last few feet – a jog around a log. Alas, I knew to fall, taking my only tumble of the day.
Faint traces of previous skiers could be discerned in the snow, but they were so old they didn’t offer any assistance. We were breaking trail for the entire 1.1 miles. On multiple occasions, Susan exclaimed, “I can’t believe how much snow there is here.”
Several boardwalks across Bear Mountain Creek and portions of the swamp were narrow for skis. In the 19th century, it was known as Bear Mountain Lake because it was flooded. A few blowdowns, perhaps from windstorms last fall, forced us to reroute, and a layer of ice could be detected at times underneath the several inches of more recent snow. I knew to keep one ski out of the tracks of Doug and Susan on the hills. Several inclines required sidestepping, especially a few yards before the bridge at the junction to Bear Mountain and the Cranberry Lake Campground.
The last mile might have been the most pleasant. We began the day under partly sunny skies which turned to thick flurries along the middle section. Perhaps a lake effect band had swung into the area, but as we skied down the wide path to the car, the puffy flakes stopped and the clouds parted. Skies turned blue and speckled through the trees making shadows dance. The elevation we earned along the Grasse River Railbed was repaid with generally downward schussing in powder snow to the Gilbert Tract Parking Area.
The only issue we encountered were some post holes, but they were more of an annoyance for Doug as he broke trail. Although not required (as in the High Peaks), snowshoes or skis are still recommended on trails throughout the Adirondacks when snow is present – not only for safety reasons, but for preserving trail conditions for other users.
I simply enjoyed the last of three different sections that offered varied conditions from the flat-packed, snowmobile trail, railroad bed to breaking trail through backcountry single track to laying down first tracks in wide powder.
When we reached my car at the Gilbert Tract Parking Area after three hours of skiing, Doug suggested we check out the 2.2-mile loop ski trail, but I declined. I figured I’d already skied an extra back and out when I fetched the keys. The Gilbert Tract would have to wait for another day.
If you go: The Burntbridge Pond Trailhead is located about 2.5 miles east of Cranberry Lake along the south side of Route 3. Located on a turn in the highway, it can easily be missed if driving too fast. The Gilbert Tract Parking Area, also on the south side, with access to both the ski loop and Cranberry Lake 50 East Connector Trail is only about a quarter-mile outside of Cranberry Lake.