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Stillwater Reservoir to Cranberry Lake Trip: Hiking Through the Five Ponds Wilderness

Truck Trail

The following is an account of day one of my epic hike from Wanakena, NY to Stillwater Reservoir, Cranberry Lake and then back to Wanakena. The entire trip required backpacking via trail into the heart of the Five Ponds Wilderness, a lengthy bushwhack to the northern terminus of the Red Horse Trail, another trail hike, and then a short bushwhack to Gun Harbor on Stillwater Reservoir. The return trip followed a similar route, except for a detour to Toad Pond, and then heading to Cranberry Lake before returning to Wanakena. The first day was an extensive hike over familiar trails through the vast interior of the Five Ponds Wilderness to camp for the night at Wolf Pond.

The first day of my Stillwater Reservoir to Cranberry Lake bushwhacking/backpacking trip was a long trail hike into the interior of the Five Ponds Wilderness to Wolf Pond. After driving up to the Adirondacks in the morning, I motored into the hamlet of Wanakena, NY just past 12 noon. The biting insects remained tame while I assembled my stuff and prepared for the 12+ mile hike. While eating my lunch, I unsuccessfully tried to feed a peach pit to a curious eastern chipmunk.

View First day’s route in a larger map

The air was saturated with moisture and the skies overcast but the birds were singing and I was psyched to be starting what I imagined would be an aggressive but enjoyable trip. There was some lingering trepidation about my troublesome sacroiliac joint though, but it had been pain free for over a week. By 12:30 PM all concerns were behind me as I was on the trail and making pretty decent time.

After hiking through open wetlands at the beginning of the trail, I entered into the closed canopy of a deciduous upland forest where I soon heard a staccato screech overhead. I looked up and spotted a large hawk-like blur coming right at me. Luckily, my reflexes kicked in and I ducked while the hawk flew right over my head and up into the canopy on the opposite side of the trail. I never got a good look at the hawk but from the call and its size it had to be a northern goshawk. The bird flew from tree to tree but never swooped over my head again before it returned to its original location on the west side of the trail. Knowing of their habit of attacking from behind when defending their nest, I held my hiking poles above my head to thwart any possible attack as I hiked away down the trail.

View from High Rock

After a short rest at the intersection with the old Leary Trail (closed since the 1995 blowdown though it appears someone has been clearing it), I hiked on to High Rock. High Rock is located by taking a short side trail off of the main Truck Trail and is well worth the 0.1 mile trip. High Rock is just what its name implies; a large rock overlooking the Oswegatchie River plain. There is an excellent view of the river snaking through the dense shrubbery as it makes its way south into the heart of the Five Ponds Wilderness. While at High Rock, I checked the map and had a snack and was soon joined by two younger guys who stopped on their canoe trip out of the backcountry. These were the last two people I would see until the following Saturday. The overcast temporarily broke and some rays of the sunlight highlighted the shrubbery out on the river plain. The breeze off the river plain was enough to keep the mosquitoes and their cohorts at bay making this one of my more relaxing rest stops.

One of two beaver dams crossed on Truck Trail

I backtracked from High Rock back to the main trail and continued south. I noted a higher amount of hiker traffic compared to my past experiences along this portion of the trail as evidenced by the number of foot prints and the amount of litter. The trail alternated between upland forests and blowdown-stricken wetlands highlighted by an old stone bridge crossing and two different beaver dams. The stone bridge crossed a stream cascading over sheer rock on one side that became a meandering stream flowing into the river plain on the other. The trail traversed over both beaver dams, each dam having extensive areas in need of repair. The trail was wet here and I had to take care not to slip into the water. While crossing one of the dams I noticed a blue water bottle floating out in the middle of one of the flooded beaver ponds. No doubt dropped by a careless and thirsty hiker.

When the trail returned to the edge of the Oswegatchie, I took a very short side trail to campsite #28 on the river. This campsite is one of a network of campsites used primarily by canoeists along the Oswegatchie. While taking a break for a snack and some water, I hopped over to a large rock sloping upstream in the river to write a short message in small rocks to a co-worker who was in the area for the next few days. Unfortunately, he never saw the message as they pulled off the river just downstream from this location. I avoided lollygagging too long since the mosquitoes were horrendous here as usual.

View of Oswegatchie River upstream from campsite #28

A short distance further the trail continued through a beaver meadow that had been converted back to a pond since my last visit here, undoubtedly by a very industrious beaver. A short detour marked with yellow flagging around to the north skirted the new pond and before too long I arrived at the junction with the Five Pond Trail. At this point it was 4:30 PM and I still had another 5.2 miles to go before reaching Wolf Pond.

I navigated through the notorious swampy patch just south of the trail junction, crossed the bridge over the Oswegatchie, crossed another beaver dam and eventually followed the Big Shallow outlet stream. After following the stream for a while I finally crossed it and soon arrived at the Big Shallow Lean-to at 5:30 PM. Some light rain fell intermittently after crossing the bridge over the Oswegatchie River but no deluge came despite the ever darkening skies. Two common mergansers, two beavers and an unidentified duck were spotted on Big Shallow Pond during my 45 minute rest at the lean-to. The dark skies made me contemplate staying at this location but since the plan was to stay here on the return trip I decided to chance a downpour and head off for Wolf.

Wet area north of bridge on Five Ponds Trail

After crossing the Big Shallow outlet stream, hiking through the ups and downs along the esker, catching a glimpse of Washbowl through the thickening young trees, passing the Little Shallow lean-to and skirting some wetlands, the trail reentered a mature mixed forest where it continued all the way to the junction with the Cage Lake Trail (which goes by Wolf Pond). While in the forest I observed moose tracks along the trail, about halfway between Little Shallow lean-to and the Cage Lake trail junction.

I staggered into Wolf around 7:15 PM. The mosquitoes were intense around the lean-to, a condition I found surprising since in my experience this lean-to was usually the least buggy of all those in the area. Down on the pond (Wolf is a very large body of water and deserves a lake designation in my opinion), I observed a pair of common loons together with their two young. The over-protective parents did not appreciate my presence and let it be known vocally; loudly and incessantly. While setting up camp back at the lean-to I heard an American Bittern’s call downhill toward a swampy area in the southeast corner of Wolf. The American Bittern’s call sounds like an old fashioned pump, WHONK-a-chunk (or as a co-worker once commented, repeatedly calling out his favorite President’s name, BILL-clint-on). Although I had often heard American Bitterns at Wolf this was the first time I heard the bird somewhere other than along the far southwestern shore.

Darkening skies at Big Shallow

Around 9:30 PM, it started to rain, soon followed by both thunder and strong winds. The thunderous downpours woke me up throughout the night, although sometimes it was hard to distinguish between the rain hitting the lean-to roof and the wind whipping through the canopy of towering white pines between the lean-to and the pond.

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