Cranberry Lake’s loop is a perfect spot for pandemic social distancing
By Betsy Kepes
In some ways the Cranberry Lake 50 is a perfect trail for a pandemic.
The trail is often wide, following old logging roads, so if you do meet a hiker (a rare occurrence) it’s easy to keep a safe distance. The terrain is rolling, sometimes even flat, and many streams cross the trail. It’s possible to camp almost anywhere to avoid lean-tos and developed campsites.
But this beautiful trail wasn’t designed to hide fugitives and hermits. Tom and I often hike the 50-mile loop at the end of April, when we have school vacation and before the blackflies. We hike for three days with friends, hoping they’ll find the same peace we do as we walk past remote ponds, stride above the rest of the world on a long esker, and admire tall hemlocks and white pines.
This 2020 hike with Jim and Amanda would be different. No sharing food or water bottles or binoculars or personal space. We would have a constant awkwardness as we tried to stay away from each other, the opposite of most trips where we sit knee-to-knee around a campfire and share samples of our cooking.
At our first trail lunch we sat apart, pulled our masks down to our necks and didn’t share any food. In front of us Cranberry Lake was unusually calm, with the water in Brandy Brook Flow slapping gently against the rocks.
Tom boiled water for tea. I could drink it, as he was in my social bubble, but what about Jim and Amanda? At first they politely declined the offer. Then Jim decided he could bring over his own mug and tea bag and stand far away as Tom poured. Masks on.
Backpacking is a time to get away from the stress and worries of the working world, but in the time of COVID-19 it carries a new set of difficulties. Is it possible to share a lean-to or a campsite with other hikers? And what is the new etiquette when meeting others along the trail?
New Yorkers who love being in the woods are not staying home. We met a couple from Jamestown who had come up to their family camp. With no work downstate, they had decided to enjoy the North Country. We had a tricky moment when we shared a map. If we put it on the ground we could all peer at it, but leaning forward was the only way to see the details. We had masks but they didn’t.
Later we met a father and his young son heading in to Hedgehog Pond to fish for brook trout. The man sat down at a safe distance, and told us he loved having time to be outside with his son. They, too, were living in the family camp and doing schoolwork in the morning so they’d have time to go adventuring in the afternoons.
After our lunch at Brandy Brook Flow we hiked overland to East Inlet and sat—apart—at a little beach, admiring the watery silence. The Cranberry Lake 50 trail passes by lots of water but very little of it is Cranberry Lake. We wouldn’t see the lake again until lunchtime the following day when we descended to Chair Rock Flow.
Fortunately, from East Inlet the miles of trail pass by a series of lakes, all of them gorgeous pockets of water with impressive beaver dams at their outlets. Amanda was a safe distance behind me when the trail swooped up onto a ridge above Irish Pond. A large, dark-furred animal swam across the still water. I stopped and whispered, “It’s a moose. No … it’s a bear.” We watched the long shape reach land and plow forward on short legs. Amanda pointed out a cub in a tree. After the animals disappeared into the woods we looked at each other and grinned. That shared moment was one of the best of the trip.
We discovered it was easiest to walk with one other person, or alone. When I had the trail to myself I often thought of my mother. That week her home health aide had tested positive for COVID-19. My mother did the test the day before our trip and was told she wouldn’t get the results for five days. She seemed healthy, a week since her last contact with her aide, and she encouraged us to go. Worrying wasn’t going to help, so I decided to store up memories to share with her when we got back.
In some ways it’s a miracle that the Cranberry Lake 50 trail exists at all. A microburst storm in July of 1995 flattened miles of forest, leaving piles of huge trees tangled together. The network of trails south of Cranberry Lake was completely buried in blowdown.
Intense work with chainsaws opened up some miles, but many trails were abandoned. Hikers stopped coming to these woods. In 2002 Sherman Craig, later a chair of the Adirondack Park Agency, brought together local leaders in a group called the Five Ponds Partners. He told me they believed “these trails are ours as a community and a state. We want them opened.”
After a rough start the group partnered with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Mountain Club to bring together large groups of volunteers on National Trails Day in June. Over the course of five years the alliance of professionals and volunteers opened up many of the trails in the region. As the trails returned, the idea of connecting a series of trails to make a circle route inspired many.
When a new trail was completed over the shoulder of Indian Mountain it was time for the grand opening of the Cranberry Lake 50, on National Trails Day in 2009. Jamie Savage, a professor at the State University of New York’s Ranger School in Wanakena, now leads the Five Ponds Partners. The group designed a finisher’s patch, publishes Cranberry Lake 50 maps and maintains a website. Almost 200 people a year register as having completed the hike, with the highest numbers in August and September. They hail from 25 states and Canada, with 70% from New York State.
The light was low on the second day, when we dropped our packs and walked in the access trail to check out the Cow Horn Pond lean-to. The site was lovely, with a little beach and a sunset view. No one was there, but someone had left a backpack in the lean-to, tucked into a corner. We dismissed it as trail trash until Tom felt the coals in the fire pit and they were still warm. Amanda noticed two bottles of expensive medication next to the pack—not something to abandon. With our COVID-19 thinking we decided it was too risky to stay and set up in the lean-to, only to have the owner of the pack return, perhaps with a group. We hiked on.
On day three we awoke at Bass Out Pond to rain. As we hiked on the trail to High Falls on that gray day the carcasses of hundreds of downed trees glowed bright green in their blankets of moss.
The final miles to Wanakena brought us new admiration for the work of beavers. To them, a road across a wetlands is only a dam that could be built higher. It is best not to be finicky about dry feet when hiking the Cranberry Lake 50 in the spring.
Back at the car we dumped in our packs and pulled out our phones. Tom and I cheered when we got the news.
My mother’s test had come back that morning, and she tested negative for the coronavirus.