Taking advantage of bomb cyclone snow and seeing old growth of epic proportions
By Tom French
Any Adirondack Explorer from St. Lawrence County has hopefully heard of the Peavine Swamp Ski Trail. Perhaps many have even skied its 4.9 miles from end to end or traversed its three additional loops.
The original trail from Route 3 to an existing lean-to on the “Inlet” or “Main Flow” (of the Oswegatchie River entering Cranberry Lake) was built by the DEC in the mid-1980s, though the history of the route goes back to a November 1950, “hurricane,” according to Barbara McMartin’s Discover the Northwestern Adirondacks (1990). The DEC UMP (1984) refers to the “Blowdown of 1950,” though I suspect that event was actually the Great Appalachian Storm – a bomb cyclone that affected the entire Northeast.
Referred to at the time as the “Storm of the Century” (how many times have you heard that now?), it impacted 22 states, killed 383 people, and caused $70 million in damage ($827 million in today’s dollars) with rain, snow, flooding, and winds up to 160 miles per hour at higher elevations.
The Ogdensburg Journal reported “at least 100 hunters in the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake region” as “perilled” when the “rain turned to snow.”
“Trapped in the Adirondack Mountains where fallen trees blocked trails and highways, District Forester William Petty… said the plight… would become ‘serious’ if there were a heavy snowfall.”
The making of the trail
In the aftermath, a woods road was hacked out to salvage the timber adjacent to Peavine Swamp, a large acidic bog.
McMartin reports the harvest as controversial at the time, but “sanctioned” by the State Attorney General to reduce fire hazard. McMartin also describes the use of dynamite to remove erratics in the path of the road – gravel remnants of which still exist for those traversing the trail during warmer months.
I recall skiing it 30 years ago, after an ice storm with my wife. It was treacherous, so we turned around. Doug put it on my horizon again while we were blazing toward the Dead Creek Flow Jackworks this past November. Part of the Cranberry Lake 50, it would also contribute to my madcap notion of completing the 50 by land, sea, bike, foot, and ski.
We picked the only potentially “partly cloudy” morning of Christmas week in the hopes of enjoying the snow from the Blizzard of 2022 (also a bomb cyclone) before it melted in the recent rain.
Inspecting the trail conditions as we dropped a car at the Peavine Swamp Trailhead (between Cranberry Lake and Wanakena on Route 3), we were pleased to find someone had already broken trail – though we didn’t know how far would be tracked. In addition to the end-to-end trip, skiers and snowshoers have three different loops to choose from or a 3.5-mile trek along the West Connector into the village of Cranberry Lake.
We drove to the other end near the Ranger School in Wanakena by 10 a.m. with hopes that we might finish before forecasted afternoon clouds and the snow turned soft with temps above 40.
We quickly discovered we would be breaking trail, though it wasn’t too deep at first and we knew it would be packed at some point. We applied glide wax to prevent sticking and plowed into the snow.
The trail starts along the shore. Except for a small patch of open water near the trailhead, the flow was frozen in all directions with fog rising in the shade of the southern side.
We knew from pre-trip recon that we would reach a high point in about a mile, and then it would be mostly downhill with the expected rolls of the eastern foothills. Doug offered to break trail first. After 50 yards, the trail turns to the left into the woods, losing sight of the lake. It re-appears briefly at about a quarter mile before the trail veers again into the forest and up the rise. We were quickly peeling layers.
Eventually, Doug relinquished the lead only for me to guide us a few yards to the first junction with Loop 3 and the turn to the lean-to. I spotted the tracks of previous skiers as soon as I crested the rise, but Doug must have been tired from breaking trail up roughly 200 feet in .9 miles because he didn’t notice until he was on top of the tracks.
Both ends of the trail are about the same elevation, but I’m glad we chose the northern trek. That ascent awarded us with almost four miles of mostly gentle downhill. The glide, especially on previously packed trail, was heavenly.
A couple steeper hills did challenge my telemark style, but the “partly cloudy” day was actually blue bird – not a cloud in the sky. We passed several hemlocks of “heroic” girth along with large spruce and hardwoods such as birch, maple, beech, and black cherry – old growth for which the trail is well known. The surrounding hills peeked through the trees, and we spotted what we suspect were coyote tracks, though bobcats have also been reported along the trail.
As the day warmed, the snow softened and compressed beneath our feet with occasional snow bombs dropping upon us from the trees. We reached the car in about two and half hours, the snow so soft the tracks of the previous skiers had literally dissolved into the pack.
The Peavine Swamp Trail is also accessible for biking. Along with the three loops and West Connector, the area provides many recreational activities. Stick to the trails, though. McMartin says the swamp is legendary as a place to get “turned around” or lost. According to “recurring tales of hunters,” compasses don’t work, perhaps due to iron ore in the bedrock.