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Pepperbox Birdathon 2010 Day One

The following is an account of the first day of my trip to bushwhack my way through the Pepperbox Wilderness while participating in the National Audubon Society’s Birdathon. The Birdathon is a 24-hour contest to detect as many bird species as possible and this was the first time I participated since 2002 and the absolutely first attempt in the trailless Pepperbox Wilderness. The first day consisted of backpacking along an old hunter’s trail into the interior of the Pepperbox Wilderness to set myself up for the Birdathon on the following day.

On May 14, 20010, I left the Syracuse area around 12:30 PM to drive up to the Pepperbox Wilderness in the northwestern Adirondack Park to participate in the National Audubon Society’s Onondaga Chapter’s Birdathon 2010. The Birdathon is a 24-hour contest and fundraising activity where teams of individuals search for as many bird species as possible within the Kingbird Region 5 (includes Onondaga, Oswego, Madison, Oneida, Herkimer and northern Cayuga counties).

I arrived at the hamlet of Stillwater on Stillwater Reservoir a little after 3 PM. I scoped out the area around the boat launch for a pay phone (since I’m one of those dinosaurs who still doesn’t own a cellphone, though it probably wouldn’t work there anyway) for the purpose of reporting my findings to the Birdathon’s coordinator by 12 PM on Sunday. After finding a payphone, I headed down the Necessary Dam Road to the parking area at a gate just before the bridge over the Beaver River down river from the Stillwater Reservoir dam.

Bridge over Beaver River

After a little repacking, I set out on the trail crossing the bridge over the Beaver River at about 3:30 PM. The trail is just a continuation of the Necessary Dam Road at this point (although it is called Raven Lake Road at this point). Raven Lake Road is a well-maintained private dirt road leading to an inholding on Raven Lake. West of the road lies the Pepperbox Wilderness, while to the east is the southern portion of the Five Ponds Wilderness. Although its terminus has been the jumping off point for many of my previous bushwhacking adventures, this time I will only be traveling about a mile to a indiscriminate hunter’s trail.

View of Beaver River from bridge.

The sky was overcast and an occasional puddle in the road suggested a recent rainfall. Rays of sunshine burst through before disappearing again behind a solid wall of thick, gray clouds. Sporadic wind gusts caused the forest canopy to thrash back and forth despite the small size of the developing foliage. A very large flock of geese flew over sounding like a pack of barking dogs. An eastern phoebe sung its insistent phoe-be in the area around the bridge. The black fly activity was modest, probably due to the windy conditions and cool temperatures. Beware of my estimation of biting insect intensity though, since based on years of observations of other people’s biting insect tolerance levels it appears mine may be somewhat higher than the average (with the possible exception of no-see-ums; I cannot stand them!!).

Raven Lake Road

Along the road, I listen closely for signs of bird life to prepare myself for the Birdathon on Saturday. Black-throated blue warblers, ovenbirds and least flycatchers are all noted to be singing as I hike northeast along the road. After descending steeply and crossing the first major stream crossing, the road starts to zigzags up hill. At the second zag (or approximately so), I locate the subtle trail entering into the forest on the west side of the road.

At about 4:30 PM, I leave the Raven Lake Road and head north on the trail into the Pepperbox Wilderness. The trail is easily followed at this point by using signs such as the beaten down path in the ground, the frequent cut logs and the occasional slash cut into an unlucky tree. Almost immediately after leaving the road, the trail skirts a large beaver vly (i.e. meadow) to the north, followed by a small stream crossing.

Beaver vly at beginning of hunter's trail

The trail stays within coniferous forests for sometime before winding along the edge between coniferous forest to the west and deciduous forest to the east until finally reaching the first beaver pond. I rested here and went down to the shore to check for some waterfowl but unfortunately none were observed. After this point the trail gets harder to follow and I stop several times to search around for where the trail continues. Usually either the indentation in the ground or an infrequent slash in a tree stem indicates the direction of the trail. Soon after leaving this pond, the trail turns abruptly northwest toward the south shore of another beaver pond.

First beaver pond

At the southern end of the second beaver pond, the trail crosses an open wetland. As I entered the open wetland, I located two small closely placed logs to the south. These logs are an old bridge (the chicken wire nailed between them is still visible at the far end) and they can be used to avoid getting one’s feet wet here. Also, they point in the proper direction in which to pick up the trail on the far side of the wetland. To the north of this wetland is the second beaver pond and the trail skirts around its western shore but the water is not always visible through the forest. I lose the trail near the north end of the beaver pond, after ascending a hill within a mature deciduous forest. The beaver pond is visible through the trees to the east at this point. I have been to this point several times, always late in the day, and I have never been able to find where the trail continues.

Second beaver pond

I searched briefly for the direction of the trail but since it was 5:00 PM, I decided to pull out my map and find the easiest way to Sunshine Pond, my destination for the night. From past bushwhacks in this area, I know a direct bearing to Sunshine Pond is a near continuous struggle through an almost impenetrable wall of young conifers, so instead I take a bearing of 50 degrees to gain the uplands high ground as soon as possible. After making it around the north shore of the beaver pond, I fight my way through the conifers for some time before the forest begins to transition to mature hardwoods. I remain within the mature hardwoods as I continue uphill (see point 1 on the accompanying Google Map) before deciding to head due north (point 2 on the Google Map) and downhill toward the bay made by two islands on the western shore of Sunshine Pond. I continue to steeply descend through the mature hardwood forest before until I finally start to see Sunshine Pond through the trees to the west. I navigate my way through a short ribbon of conifers until I pop out of the forest and into a wetland located off of the east shore of Sunshine Pond just east of the large island (point 3). Right where I wanted to be!!

I move away from the shoreline and the surrounding conifers and head west toward the shoreline of Sunshine Pond, searching for a nice campsite for the night along the way. It is about 6:20 PM. In this area the shoreline rises steeply up and I fail to find any nice campsites near the water so I set up in a small relatively flat area just out of sight of the water (the square labeled CMP 1 on the Google Map). I hurriedly set up camp: hanging the food line, putting up my shelter, getting water and treating it appropriately, and cooking dinner. By the time I get all this done it is nearly 9:00 PM and I head off to bed since I want to get up just after midnight to see if I can hear any owls at the start of the Birdathon.

My next post will cover the actual day of the Birdathon. It will include my long bushwhack around the northern tip of Sunshine Pond, the small wetlands visited, the slog through a spruce/fire swamp to the north of Deer Pond and my mad dash over two hills for Cropsey Pond. And it includes my first major equipment failure of the year too.

Stay tuned….

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