2011 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors
Looping the park's third-largest lake
by Neal Burdick
Any way you go, it’s a long walk to Dog Pond. Sit quietly on its bank and it’s easy to imagine yourself deep in the Yukon, far from any place where humans have ever set foot. Until you discover it was the site of a bustling sportsmen’s camp in the 1800s.
That’s the paradox of the “Cranberry Lake 50,” a collection of trails that forms a 50-mile loop around the Adirondacks’ third-largest body of water. You think you’re in timeless wilderness, then you step over a PVC drainage pipe or come upon lumber camp relics such as a white enameled kitchen range that fairly invites you to cook a meal. Heading in from Wanakena, just when you’re psychologically leaving civilization behind and blending into the forest, you cross an exquisite stone-arch bridge and realize that a century ago log trains chuffed and growled and spewed sparks along the peaceful route you’re tracing.
Cranberry Lake, manmade to aid logging operations in the late 1800s, mimics a deformed starﬁsh, with numerous long inlets (“ﬂows”) created when a dam on the Oswegatchie River ﬁlled a natural bowl and backed water up tributary streams. The “CL50” does not simply hug the lake; in fact, it sometimes veers several miles from the shore, as is the case with Dog Pond. The route pond-hops like a pinball, bounces off the lake a few times and shoots into the Five Ponds Wilderness and the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest. So it takes a lot of footsteps to walk the circuit.
But that itself can be a revelation. People who stick to the well-publicized High Peaks don’t realize how big the North Woods really are. The forest’s immensity creates ample opportunity to concentrate on the details. Marvel at the carpet of ferns along East Inlet. Or a gigantic yellow birch and two spruces sharing the top of a massive boulder, their roots holding it the way a baseball pitcher would grip the ball just before release. Listen for ruffed grouse and ovenbirds; be alert for bobcat tracks or signs of otter. Be like Lao-Tzu, who said the journey is what matters, not the destination, which, after all, is only back to your own car.
The CL50, completed in 2009, was spearheaded by 5 Ponds Partners, a subcommittee of the Clifton-Fine Economic Development Corporation, with help from the Adirondack Park Agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. It’s marked by attractive blue and white disks to keep you on the straight (often very straight) and narrow. Only two miles of new construction were necessary to close the loop: a scenic link at the foot of Indian Mountain between West Flow and Chair Rock Flow that was built to bypass some private parcels.
There are two principal trailheads, both on Route 3: a couple of miles west of Cranberry Lake village, at the start of the Peavine Swamp trail, and a couple of miles east at the Burntbridge Pond (also called Brandy Brook) trailhead. A third trailhead is the beginning of the High Falls trail in Wanakena. Interior access points exist, but they require either extra walking—in case you aren’t satisﬁed with 50 miles—or a friend with a boat.
You may have picked up on the two Route 3 trailheads. What separates them is a little over ﬁve miles of asphalt underfoot. In defense, though, the road segments offer a change of scenery, as well as two iconic general stores where you can restock or reward yourself with decadent snacks. Two more miles employ the Ranger School Road northeast out of Wanakena. What little trafﬁc it presents plods slowly by; it’s almost like meeting another hiker. This cannot be said of Route 3, but consider stashing a bike at one trailhead for this part; the road does offer wide shoulders.
Whether you go clockwise or counterclockwise, you need not do the loop in one outing, though if you wish to, more power to you. There are lean-tos and campsites, some quite lovely—Curtis and Cowhorn Ponds are exemplary—at decent intervals. One fell swoop was tempting, but, heeding signals from my 60-year-old skeleton, I tackled it with my ceaselessly energetic golden retriever– poodle, Heidi, on three successive Saturdays last September, and was treated to a lovely fall foliage progression.
In all candor, parts of this trek are more interesting than others. Long sections employ former logging roads and railroad beds. Not for nothing has the state termed the High Falls trail a Primitive Corridor; at times it’s like walking down a hallway that recedes into a distant vanishing point. On the other hand, when the path follows the lakeshore, as it does at half a dozen points, the views are calendar-worthy. And the ponds and streams are a treat for the eyes and soul and tired, hot feet.
Side trips add short distances to the aggregate, but also lots of scenery. Climb Bear Mountain (1.7 miles one way) for a splendid view of the lake or Cat Mountain (a little more than a mile round trip) to get a panoramic sense of just how far the forest spreads. High Falls, not quite a mile round trip off the loop, is a popular destination on its own merits, and High Rock is a beguiling rest stop with a sweeping view of broad Oswegatchie River wetlands and some of the best canoe country anywhere. A new offshoot, the Big Deer trail (2.2 miles one way), links the CL50 to Lows Lake.
The ecological diversity along the loop can cause you to think about forest history and our imprint on it. Intense logging for much of the 20th century left its mark. Nature is steadily repairing that; the woods are reverting to an aspect more like they bore for millennia before humans altered them for what turned out to be a brief interlude. Except they aren’t the same as before the logging episodes, and never will be, although superﬁcially they may appear so. Even without the logging, natural succession would cause them to change. Meanwhile, periodic storms, including historic ones in 1845, 1950 and 1995, have contributed their impacts. Humans and nature have created the forest you are in, whether or not they meant to be a team, and will continue to do so, whether they mean to or not. What you see is not permanent.
Some of the diversity you will experience is supplied by features of your surroundings.
Like beavers. It’s obvious that beavers are pretty darn smart animals. They’ve ﬁgured out that humans thoughtfully build trails as site preparation for their dams. Walk the CL50 and you will begin to comprehend—if not appreciate—the industriousness of these overgrown rodents. At one point in the Plains north of High Falls there’s little choice but to tightrope-walk a seven-foot-tall, worrisomely leaky dam about 40 feet long, with lethal, black, seemingly bottomless water on one side and an unpleasant tumble onto boulders and debris on the other.
Or glacial erratics. Those souvenirs of the last Ice Age reach epic proportions out here. A garden of them between Curtis Pond and East Inlet is littered with specimens that suggest the prow of a ship. A couple even have names: there’s “Sleeping Turtle” and house-size “Willy’s Cave.” Nineteenth-century backwoodsman Nick Stoner is said to have lived in the latter for half a year.
About a mile east of Chair Rock Flow on the Otter Brook trail, a one-time logging road that is the southeasternmost component of the loop, the boundary between logged and unlogged territory is as plain as a wall. A century from now it will be less plain. So when is wilderness really wilderness? This is just one of the questions that will linger as you experience the CL50.
IF YOU GO » To learn more go to www.cranberry lake50.org or pick up the excellent map/brochure published by 5 Ponds Partners, available at area businesses or by mail.