Trek to pond offers solitude for backcountry skiers
By Mike Lynch
It was a cold March day when we reached Cooper Kill Pond, after a three-mile uphill ski on a deep snowpack.
I’d been to this pond just a few other times, including once to sleep in the lean-to when I was helping with a birding survey. The spot never stood out to me as a desirable destination, at least in the warmer months.
But on this day, the pond had more appeal. Winter can do that. The frigid air and snow-covered landscape can make a place feel more wild and add an aesthetic charge.
“There’s something different about being on a pond,” my skiing partner that day, Tyler Merriam, said. “It feels more remote. It feels a little bit more still and quiet.”
The Cooper Kill Pond and trail are located on the northern side of the Stephenson Range in the 17,000-acre Wilmington Wild Forest. The Gillespie Road trailhead is around the corner from the Whiteface Memorial Highway, a popular place for skiers.
For years the trail was known as the Cooper Kiln Trail because that’s the way it appeared on state Department of Environmental Conservation maps and signs, but that changed in recent years. New DEC trail signs and the updated Wilmington Wild Forest management plan now use “Kill,” which is the way the pond appears on USGS maps.
The trail itself is a known ski destination, but it’s not as popular as places such as the Jackrabbit Trail. Hikers and mountain bikers use it in the warmer months.
The trail can be skied as a 5.9-mile through-trip from trailheads at Gillespie Road and Bonnie View Road, or as an out-and-back from either trailhead. The through-trip, starting at Gillespie, has the added benefit of being mostly downhill. After a 2.7-mile ski to the pond that includes 960 feet of elevation, you descend 1,660 feet for three miles.
The trail was originally for snowmobiling, but motorized use was discontinued on the eastern side of the pond in 2012. Snowmobiles are still allowed on the western side to the pond, and the Wilmington Snowmobile Trail veers off the trail to head north to Forestdale Road near Catamount Mountain.
We decided to ski an out-and-back trip from Bonnie View Road.
As we headed up the trail, we found the first stretch is chiefly flat, and we easily made our way up the gradual incline.
Cross-country skis with metal edges made for the backcountry would likely be sufficient for this section of trail, but we were skiing in backcountry ski gear meant for steeper trails.
Merriam used an alpine touring set up, while I used telemark equipment. Our gear was overkill for the first half of the way to the pond, but would come in handy as we hit the steep and windy sections higher up.
That day we only saw a few other skiers, and that occurred on the lower section of trail. They came flying down the hill and spoke of skiing on a nearby slide.
The Wilmington Slide, as it’s known, was created by Hurricane Irene in 2011. It’s become a destination for skiers and hikers. The feature can be accessed about halfway to the pond using a herd path that heads to the right. People interested in skiing there should be aware that slides can avalanche. It’s recommended that people have the proper training and gear before slide skiing.
When we passed this section, we continued on the main trail heading to the pond.
The section of trail from the slide herd path intersection to just before the pond is slated to be rerouted, according to the latest amendment to the Wilmington Wild Forest unit management plan. So are some sections on the motorized western side of the pond.
The eastern side reroute calls for the trail to go south, or left, when looking uphill. It would then continue near the Stephenson Range ridgeline and connect back to the old trail shortly before it connects to the pond.
The plan calls for the relocation because the current trail is eroded. Although there was at least a couple feet of snow between us and the ground, we could tell there were ruts in the trail. It took on the shape of a bobsled run in places.
One of the groups looking to do trail work on this section is the Barkeater Trails Alliance, which has done a significant amount of trail building for mountain bikers in Wilmington. As of October, BETA was fundraising and putting together a work plan to submit to DEC for approval.
“The overall goal is to maintain the overall connection from point-to-point on the trail, but making it suitable and more sustainable for all uses that are occurring,” BETA Executive Director Josh Wilson said.
Wilson expects the eastern side reroute to be a better design, but it won’t be built like a traditional ski trail and may be suited for mountain bikers.
“It’s really hard, especially when you have a lot of elevation change to have a sustainable mountain bike trail that doesn’t make some sharp turns here and there,” he said. “It’s kind of a necessity, and that doesn’t always match up with what skiers want.”
This section of trail, closer to the pond, is a good workout and gets your heart rate going as you skin up.
As we approached Cooper Kill Pond, I was glad to reach a level last stretch. At the ice, we sought out the snowed-in lean-to to warm up, grab a snack and transition into our downhill gear. I threw on a helmet and grabbed a puffy jacket.
The temps were much colder than I expected when we arrived. When Merriam and I had set out that afternoon the temperatures on Bonnie View Road were mild and a thin winter jacket was all that was needed. At the pond, the warmth disappeared with the fading sun.
We skied around the pond, a mountain pass between the Stephenson Range and the Wilmington Range, for a bit. The normally scenic views of the surrounding mountains were obscured by clouds.
We headed back to the trail into the birches and evergreens. There wasn’t much daylight left. But the return would be much quicker. The snow conditions were nearly ideal, and downhill would make the uphill part of the trip worth the effort.
Note: This version has been updated to change Ferndale Road to Forestdale Road and include information about the potential dangers of skiing slides.