By Lisa Ballard
The normal route is a pleasant 3.4-mile walk in the woods to a lean-to beside the lake on a well-maintained trail, but in the words of the poet Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Middle Settlement Lake is in the 26,528-acre Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness, the westernmost wilderness area in the park, near Old Forge. Ha-de-ron-dah is another version of the native word “bark eater,” from which the name Adirondack is derived.
The Ha-de-ron-dah is part of the larger 210,000-acre John Brown’s Tract. There were two John Browns of historical significance in the Adirondacks: the abolitionist who lived and was buried near Lake Placid, and the millionaire John Brown of Providence, R.I., for whom Brown University is named.
In 1798 the Brown University patron took over this huge piece of the Adirondacks to salvage his son-in-law’s plan to subdivide and sell the land to farmers, but the plan failed due to the inhospitable climate and poor soil conditions. Part of the trail to Middle Settlement Lake follows a historic wagon road built by Brown for access into his namesake tract.
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At the trailhead, a color-coded sign showing several options to Middle Settlement Lake caught my eye. “Maybe I could make a loop?” I thought. A bridge was out on the west side of the lake, but on the east side, I could head toward the more remote Middle Branch Lake, but take a left beforehand. My loop would pass a couple of other ponds, Grass Pond and Cedar Pond. “Might be nice to see some new territory and a couple of other ponds,” I concluded.
I followed the short access trail from the sign-in box to a T at the wagon road. Left was the direct route to Middle Settlement Lake, my return. I adjusted my pack, then turned right, excited to explore.
I made good time before a mile in and I came to the junction with the Okara Lakes Trail. Following the sign toward Grass Pond, I left the wagon road and climbed up a short rise as the path began to narrow and get wetter. A quarter mile later, I could see a clearing through the trees, then realized it was the pond, which was, indeed, more grass than water. Things got swampier.
Soon there were more ferns than grass carpeting the forest floor, and a lot more mud. I was deep in a primeval fern bog, leaping from log to rock, trying hard to keep the ooze from sucking off my hiking shoes.
As I picked my way along the overgrown trail, I felt oddly alone. Though the way was well-marked by Department of Environmental Conservation discs, few people had walked this way. The woods felt wild and alive. I wondered what creatures watched silently. I stepped over a pile of moose scat. A branch broke off to my right under the weight of something big. A squirrel scolded me from atop a log, while another scampered up a tree. Somewhere in the lush forest, a woodpecker pounded a tree trunk, like a drummer without a care for cadence.
About three and a half miles from the trailhead, the path crossed a substantial brook. The water was, thankfully, low. Once across, I picked my way along a more overgrown, boggy trail. When the path rose gently to drier ground, spider “strings” stuck to my face and pack, more evidence that I was the first to pass this way in a while.
Old blowdowns blocked the route here and there. I scrambled over the fallen, decaying logs, pondering why they hadn’t been cleared like other trails. Likewise, there was no manmade puncheon (low footbridges) across the interminable mud. I felt engulfed by true wilderness.
About four miles into my trek, the path skirted the edge of another grassy, boggy clearing. Grateful for the break from the spider webs, I wondered if this was Cedar Pond.
A half-mile later, I met the main route to Middle Settlement Lake by a jumble of giant boulders on the west end of the lake. After traversing a backwater and half the lake’s northern shore, I found the lean-to, perched atop a ledge on the water’s edge. It was occupied by three campers, the first people I had seen all day.
Further along, I took out a sandwich from my pack. Despite Middle Settlement’s name, there was no settlement, just the sounds of frogs and the wind through the trees. Unlike the many mountaintops I’ve recently climbed, this place was a true backcountry getaway, and the way I got here gave me a sense of being part of it. Instead of peering at acres of untouched forest from a bald peak or fire tower, I was in it.
A loon called. I watched it dive, then gathered up the remains of my lunch to begin the hike back to my car. This time I followed the main trail, which felt like a thoroughfare compared to the unruly route I took to the lake. I passed only two other people. When I emerged at the trailhead, despite trekking over eight miles, most of it on little more than an overgrown herd path, I felt more refreshed than weary, with a deeper appreciation of the wilderness protected in the Adirondack Park. I also learned that one doesn’t need to stand atop a 4,000-footer to have a memorable adventure in the Adirondacks.