By Phil Brown
One of my go-to ski tours, especially early in the season, is the Hays Brook Truck Trail north of Paul Smiths. Although another ski tour begins across the road, I never bothered to check it out until last winter. Now I know what I was missing.
The Kettle Trail is a trail for all seasons. After skiing it, I returned in summer to bike it and later to hike. I can’t tell you which activity or which season is the most enjoyable. You’ll have to find that out for yourself.
The trail begins on Slush Pond Road and ends in 3.4 miles at McColloms Road. Both are dead-end dirt roads and not plowed, so in winter you must ski or snowshoe an extra half-mile to reach the trailhead.
The route is named after the kettle ponds that can be glimpsed through the trees as you travel through the woods. A kettle pond forms when a retreating glacier leaves behind a mammoth block of ice buried in soil. When the block melts, water pools in the resultant depression. Kettle ponds eventually fill in with vegetation and become bogs. In fact, one of the kettles we visited is a spongy mat of sphagnum moss.
The first half of the trail follows another legacy of the glacier: an esker, a narrow ridge formed from the deposits of a river that once flowed through the ice. Essentially, an esker is a riverbed turned upside-down. This esker undulates, making for fun downhills when skiing or biking. The esker’s sandy, well-drained soil provides ideal conditions for red pines, which grow in abundance on its slopes, often with an understory of ferns.
Carol MacKinnon Fox and I skied the Kettle Trail on a cold day in January. Because Slush Pond Road was not plowed, we parked on the shoulder of Route 30 and skied to the trailhead. Slush Pond Road provided a foretaste of what was to come. Fresh snow had weighed down tree branches and bent them over the road, sometimes obstructing the way. When we knocked the snow off the branches, the trees would spring up to allow us passage.
A new signpost marked the trailhead. Turning right off the road, we entered the woods and soon came to the first of several short downhill runs (each, unfortunately, followed by an uphill). I went first, sliding through sugary snow and around a bend. I had to make a quick stop because a tree had fallen across the trail—the first of many we would encounter.
We herringboned uphill to the top of the esker and continued along the ridge beneath towering red pines. Occasionally we could spy kettle ponds or bogs through the trees. The forest was a white fairyland. As on Slush Pond Road, branches often hung over the trail, creating a snowy gantlet. We’d knock the snow off with our ski poles or, if gliding downhill, we’d just plow through them and hope for the best.
After several ups and downs, we came to a longer descent that took us off the esker and through a small clearing. The trail then climbed gradually, apparently following an old woods road, and passed through two larger clearings. It was getting late in the day, so we opted to turn around after climbing one more hill. We had gone about two-thirds of the way to McColloms Road.
On the return trip, we bushwhacked a short distance to one of the kettle ponds. On a subsequent trip, I would learn that the pond is actually a bog, but on this day the evidence for that was buried under a carpet of white. The place was utterly still. As we turned to go, we noticed a string tied to branches on the edge of the “pond.” We thought it must have something to do with scientific research—a guess that proved wrong.
Carol enjoyed the trail so much that she returned with two friends later in the month to ski all the way to McColloms Road. Unfortunately, I was ill that day, but I hadn’t seen the last of the Kettle Trail.
With rare exceptions, it’s legal to bike on trails in wild forest areas, but it’s uncommon to see a trail designated for biking. So when Carol and I noticed an official cycling disk nailed to a tree at the start of the Kettle Trail, we figured it must be good riding and vowed to return.
On a sunny day in August, we loaded our mountain bikes on the car and drove back to Slush Pond Road. This time we were able to drive all the way to the trailhead. On the road we saw Jim Sausville, an outdoor athlete from Saranac Lake who had just ridden the trail. He warned us that we would encounter blowdown and heavy ferns. He also mentioned that he’d seen a black bear eating blueberries.
“We got downed trees, bugs, thick ferns, and a bear. Other than that it’s a great ride,” Carol joked as we set off on our bikes.
Well, we didn’t see a bear and the bugs weren’t bad, but we had to stop a number of times to carry our bikes over or around fallen trees. And the ferns! At times we couldn’t see the ground we were riding on.
As on our ski trip, we enjoyed the downs more than the ups. Indeed, we walked our bikes up several of the hills. Overall, the difficulties did little to lessen our enjoyment. We had a fantastic time. For most of the trip, we were riding on soft duff through a sunny pine forest. Hard to complain.
I was eager to see the trail beyond last winter’s turnaround spot. The snowy clearings we had passed through on skis were now filled with ferns that stood as high as our handlebars. Beyond the clearings, we climbed a hill and then followed an old logging road to the trail’s end at McColloms Road, which is not a thoroughfare for the family sedan. On our way here we had removed as much of the blowdown as we could, so the ride back to the car was even better.
Exploring the woods on a bike is exciting, but if it’s serenity you’re after, nothing beats a good, old-fashioned hike. With that in mind, I returned to the Kettle Trail later in the summer with Mike Lynch, a writer/photographer for the Explorer, and his daughter, Maya.
As walkers we had more time to observe our surroundings—mossy logs, mushrooms, wildflowers, animal scat. And blueberries! Maya had been quiet for most of the hike, but she perked up as we passed through lush berry patches.
“Look how fat those are,” Mike remarked, ogling the berries.
“Can I have one?” Maya asked.
Neither she nor we could eat just one. We all stopped to feast on nature’s bounty before moseying farther along the trail. Mike and I pushed easily through the ferns that Carol and I had encountered a few weeks earlier, but they posed a bigger problem for Maya.
“The ferns are over my head,” she said.
“Keep coming through,” replied Mike, who was shooting photos.
“I’m trying,” she said.
We turned around after a mile and half. On the way back, we bushwhacked to a pond visible from the trail. I don’t know if it was a kettle pond, for it wasn’t round. In any case, it was a beautiful speck of wilderness, a dark waterway bordered by grassy tussocks and squishy moss dotted with cottongrass. I don’t imagine too many people visit this enchanting place.
We also left the trail to explore a piney slope of the esker and found strings tied to a number of trees. Mike surmised—correctly, as I later learned—that forest rangers put up the string last year during a search for a man who had parked his car on Slush Pond Road. He eventually was found dead in the woods, more than a month after his disappearance.
After returning to the trailhead, we drove down Slush Pond Road to the private-property boundary, which is about two miles from Route 30. We passed a few old logging roads that I hope to explore one day on foot or on my mountain bike. But it was Slush Pond—beautiful, pristine, yet easily accessible—that really caught my eye. I knew I’d be back someday with my canoe.
With winter around the corner, the Kettle Trail soon will be in shape for skiing. In the meantime, keep it in mind for biking or hiking.
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