Finding tranquility at ‘Cold River City’
By Betsy Kepes
Fifty years ago, the last Department of Environmental Conservation truck rolled along the miles of wide gravel road from Coreys to the old ranger station at Shattuck Clearing. Now balsam and beech trees crowd into the roadbed and toads and red efts live in its mossy ecosystem.
In 1972, the State Land Master Plan designated the Western High Peaks as wilderness, land “without significant improvement or permanent human habitation.”
If it were still legal, this area north of the Cold River would be a welcome place for a 21st century Adirondack hermit, someone who would continue the tradition that Noah John Rondeau began in 1929. These days human voices rarely disturb the quiet on the ridge above the Cold River where Rondeau made his home for 20 years. At the end of last June, when my friends and I hiked the trails that circle the Seward Peaks, we grew to expect the solitude and—except for the final mile—saw only four backpackers during our three-day trip.
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The full parking lot at the beginning of our journey suggested we would have lots of company but the trail register showed that all of these hikers had a 46er’s dream to summit the state’s highest mountains. They would bag the four qualifying peaks of the Seward Mountains by walking for a few miles along the trail, then veering off onto well-marked herd paths. We arrived mid-morning, long past the hour when the day hikers began their quest for the summits, and we had the trail to ourselves.
My friends Teresa and Megan are both distance athletes, but they were new to backpacking. This would be a good introductory trip for them, with level trails and a moderate pace of 10 miles a day. With 12 lean-tos along the route, we’d have places to stay if it rained or we wanted a “civilized” campsite.
We hiked the Sewards loop in a counterclockwise direction and the first miles took us through mature hardwood forests with deep shade. These majestic yellow birch and black cherry trees survived the Big Blow of 1950, when more than 400,000 acres endured a wild wind, with 25% to 100% of the trees leveled in places.
Six miles from the trailhead we stopped at the Calkins Creek lean-to for a late lunch. The creek looked inviting for a swim, but after we put our packs down a squall rolled in and rain pelted the roof. Next to us, hitching racks poked above a tangle of brambles, relics from the days when New York State hoped to attract horse packers to these trails.
When the sun returned, we edged across the broken bridge at Calkins Creek. At high water it would be a dangerous crossing on the slanted boards. The piles of lumber nearby suggest there are plans to fix this bridge, but the wood has been there for years. The project is on hold, I was told by the Department of Environmental Conservation, as funding goes to trails in the more heavily traveled parts of the High Peaks.
A couple of miles later Megan, in the lead, came face to face with a beaver. She watched it put a pat of mud on an impressive new dam next to the bridge at Boulder Brook. We also got our first good view of the mountains we were circumnavigating. Mount Emmons, just a squeak above 4,000 feet, is impressive enough from the lowlands.
More to explore
See a photo gallery from this trip, by Explorer multimedia reporter Mike Lynch
We skipped the short side trail (not cleared in years) to Latham Pond, all of us ready to put down our packs for the night. The campsite we found along the Cold River might have been a large borrow pit back in the road-making days. We pooled our packs of ramen to produce a big pot of noodles and ate the last of Teresa’s superb chocolate chip cookies.
In the morning we reached a high footbridge over the Cold River, where we joined the Northville-Lake Placid Trail for the day. For miles we followed the curves of the river and snacked on miniature raspberries from bushes only inches high.
On this second day, we would get our swim.
When we reached the mossy-roofed Seward lean-to we dropped our packs and walked out to look at Millers Falls. Even in low water it was impressive as was the deep pool below it, edged by water-rounded bedrock. In unison we unlaced our boots and stripped, sliding into the pool. If anyone had been coming from the other direction, where the trail allows a view of the falls, they would have seen three not-so-young maidens laughing and talking and drying off on the warm rock.
A few more riverside miles led us to Ouluska Brook where we hopped across the shallow water on rocks. In the spring, when I hiked this route with my husband, we forded here, shivering in the icy, knee-deep water. Next to the ford a pile of bridge timbers awaited a building crew, trees growing up around it.
The trail leaves the river after Ouluska Brook, and in less than a mile we reached Noah John Rondeau’s Cold River City, formerly population one. Beneath a sign, a pile of metal garbage marks the old hermitage: a piece of a woodstove, a dented tea kettle, a length of chain. The open meadow of the old photos is completely gone, the teepees of firewood long ago rotted back into the earth. I imagined Rondeau, a 5-foot-2-inch man, going down to the river to gather driftwood, hiking up to Seward Pond to fish or reading one of the many books on the shelves of his “Town Hall.” Would he have invited us in for a cup of his eternity tea, or a bowl of his everlasting stew? Even if he waved us away, in a cantankerous mood, we would have seen his flowers in full bloom, “foxgloves, pinks, white daisies and pansies… nurtured in caldrons hung from tripods,”according to Maitland DeSormo’s “Noah John Rondeau,” a 1969 publication of North Country Books.
An Adirondack hermit
Noah John Rondeau (pictured here) lived in a squatter’s cabin at Cold River.
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The last miles of the second day were the toughest of the hike, with steep downs and ups into small drainages on a trail that had never been a road. Megan suffered with an ill-fitting backpack, and I realized we didn’t have the stamina or daylight to get to the Cold River lean-tos near Duck Hole. Instead we found a perfect spot near a small stream where Teresa built a campfire and we relaxed with a deluxe pesto pasta dinner.
In his later years as a hermit, Rondeau didn’t have to hike the 17 miles back to his home after a rare trip to the outside for supplies. He could catch a ride with a ranger driving in from Coreys to the ranger station at Duck Hole. On our third morning we reached the trail junction at Mountain Pond, where he would have waved goodbye to his ride and hefted his pack basket to walk the few miles to his home above the Cold River.
The trail edged around a hill, then descended to a wetlands where we took off our boots to wade through a shallow pond that now covers the old road. Hundreds of American toad tadpoles swam ahead of us and some of them emerged from the water, walking for the first time on their new legs.
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The next miles of trail were thick with young trees but opened up as we neared #4 lean-tos. Ahead of me I heard Teresa scream and I saw a blur of brown running toward her. Was it an aggressive bear? My heart raced. But it was a much smaller attacker, a mama grouse, her feathers puffed up, passionate in her defense of her chicks.
After the grouse attack and a snack we headed out on the last miles of the trip. The #4 lean-tos are rarely used, but the Ward Brook and Blueberry lean-tos see high use from the 46ers. It was still a beautiful hike, but somehow the final miles felt more urban, as if we were coming out of the wilderness into a tamer park.
At our last lunch together, I asked Megan and Teresa about the trip. Both of them admitted it had been more of a challenge than they had anticipated. “Don’t write that it’s easy,” they told me. But they both also said the hike had given them gifts they hadn’t expected: wildlife sightings, ripe berries, skinny-dipping and hours of walking and talking together on the quiet trails.
We left the woods on July 1. Seventy years before our journey, in 1949, Rondeau wrote in his journal: “Peace—Beauty—Tranquility at Cold River City. Hurrah, Fourth of July. Let fools celebrate theory of Independence and tolerate bondage—But give me the day, alone, mountains, even with deer flies.”
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This article first appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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