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Stillwater Reservoir to Cranberry Lake Trip: Bushwhacking to Toad Pond

Toad Pond outlet

The following is an account of day five 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 and another trail hike, and then a short bushwhack to Gun Harbor on Stillwater Reservoir. The trip back followed a similar route except heading to Cranberry Lake before returning to Wanakena. The fifth day consisted of traversing the entire Red Horse Trail from Trout Pond to its northern terminus at Clear Lake followed by an extensive bushwhack north to Summit Pond, Crooked Lake and finally Toad Pond.

After awakening at the Trout Pond lean-to, I packed up and was on my way shortly before 7:30 AM. The sky was overcast again and it remained breezy from the following day. The weather conditions did little to damper my spirits though since I was past the half-way point on my trek through the Five Ponds Wilderness. I was apprehensive about what might lie before me in the way of blow downs though. The south-bound portion of the trip had been relatively easily accomplished and I felt that in someway I had not paid my dues in the navigating blow downs department.

View Day Five in a larger map

The trip northward via the Red Horse Trail went smoothly and quickly as I kept a fairly fast pace. I knew I had far to go and I wanted to get as much done of the trail portion as quickly as possible. By 7:40 AM I reached the old lean-to site at Salmon Lake, and despite nearly falling into the muck at one of the chaotic wetland crossings north of Salmon, reached the Witchhopple Lake campsite by 8:44 AM.

A light rain started falling just before arriving at the Witchhopple campsite but the rainfall did not last long. The temperature on a tree-mounted thermometer read 52 degrees, a comfortable temperature for backpacking especially at the quick pace I had been hiking up the to this point. While resting and taking some pictures of the lake I thought I felt some vibration through the forest floor, just as I had felt on numerous other occasions when moose were present. I looked around the area but never saw any moose though. I observed a napping common loon out on the middle of the lake.

Salmon Lake

Within a half hour I returned to the trail and headed north again but I was not looking forward to crossing the Witchhopple’s outlet stream. But the crossing went well and I continued on until reaching the northern terminus of the trail at Clear Lake around 10:00 AM (point #42). Five miles hiked in approximately 2.5 hours. Not too bad.

After a half hour of resting and picking up litter strewn around the campsite, I put on my rain gear in an attempt to break the overcast. After donning the rain gear, I started bushwhacking around the lake in the reverse direction from the day before. It only took twenty minutes before my rain gear did their magic and brought the sun back into view, albeit only briefly. Within a half hour I was at the Summit Pond outlet to Clear Lake (point #43), crossing some stove pipes just prior to the reaching the stream.

Witchhopple Lake

I headed at a bearing of 16 degrees and in less than 15 minutes I arrived at the east end of Summit Pond (point #44) and flushed a hooded merganser off the water. Just before reaching the pond I crossed some more stove pipe and a beer bottle, the remains of a party long over. For a little variety I followed the northern shore instead of the southern one as I headed back toward Crooked Lake. There were some blow downs and dense deciduous saplings along the northern shore especially at the eastern end. After traveling both sides of the pond I would definitely advise making camp along the southern shore, which is much more accommodating for camping.

From the northwestern corner of Summit Pond I headed off at a bearing of 334 degrees back in the direction of the eastern edge of Crooked Lake. By 12:13 PM I quickly passed by the eastern edge of Crooked Lake and climbed over the ridge just to the north of the eastern arm of the lake (point #48) and down into a cull between a shoulder of Summit Mountain and the rise just northeast of Crooked Lake. From here I headed roughly north up onto the shoulder of the rise toward the western edge of an unnamed pond located northeast of Crooked Lake.

Clear Lake

As I caught sight of the pond (point #49) I changed direction and forced my way through some blow down to reach a thin peninsula along the ponds western end. The stygian water of the pond appeared stagnant and was surrounded by many dead young spruces along the shore with larger and alive conifers further inland. As I fought the young spruce blow down to reach the end of a peninsula I flushed some waterfowl off the pond but observed a single hooded merganser that remained. It was almost 1:00 PM at this point so I ate my lunch at the end of the peninsula even though finding a comfortable place to sit was a challenge. An annoyed common grackle harassed me for the entire half hour of my lunch break. Despite the afternoon hours I heard many species of birds here, notably a northern waterthrush and an olive-sided flycatcher using an unusual vocalization (not the typical quick-three-beers song).

Dense blow down growth

After extricating myself from the peninsula, I continued to follow the contours of the rise wedged between the northern and eastern points of Crooked Lake but towards the northwest at a bearing of 326. I was attempting to reach the point where the stream to the north crossed a contour line and thus where a rocky crossing might be available. I followed along the steep slope avoiding crossing the contours as much as possible frequently fighting my way through blow downs. Because of the blow downs on the northwest side of the ridge, I moved down to the stream and crossed as soon as I found a convenient beaver dam (near point #51).

There were no blow downs after crossing the stream but I moved further west into the thick forest to avoid an extreme bend in the stream I would follow north to Toad Pond. As soon as I was certain I missed the bend (point #53) I started heading due north toward the western edge of Toad Pond. I failed to encounter any blow downs until I hit the north side of the high ridge just south of the wetland below Toad Pond. The thickness of the blow downs forced me to retreat down the east slope where the downed trees were greatly reduced (point #54). As I started to descend (point #55) I spotted a mountain in the distance to the north which I suspected was Partlow Mountain.

I crossed a small stream feeding the wetland south of Toad Pond (point #56) and fought my way through blow downs covering the ridge to the southwest of the pond. After tiring of crawling through the blow downs I retreated out into the wetland, which was somewhat dry along the border (point #57). Light showers fell briefly as I made my way along the wetland shore heading toward the short stream feeding the wetland from the pond.

Unnamed pond

At about 4:00 PM the sky cleared and became a beautiful azure color. I stopped near the outlet of Toad Pond (point #58) and took numerous pictures of the wetland, its surrounding towering white pines and pond outlet. Many tree swallows flew about the wetland and two ducks swiftly flew in and landed in the middle of the wetland beyond my view.

I started to move around the pond to the east in search of a nice camping site to enjoy what appeared would be a very pleasant and clear evening. I crossed the outlet of the pond on a beaver dam and made my way along the southeastern shore fighting through the young conifers lining the shore. Tiring of fighting the conifers (even though a slight herd path was followed a part of the way), I moved out into the shrubby and boggy shoreline. I remained along the open shoreline enjoying the sun along the first half of the north shore as I moved west. Occasionally I would stop and peak my head in the forest but the conifers remained dense and completely unfit for camping.

Blow down

Halfway along the northern shore the open shoreline disappeared and I was forced to move upslope into the forest still searching for a useable campsite. A light rain started around 6:00 PM while the sky remained blue on the other side of the lake. As I scanned the sky I realized a very dark cloud was moving overhead. OVER. MY. HEAD. As the light rain became a torrent, I quickly got back into my rain gear, which I shed back at the wetland a couple hours previously (mistake, mistake, MISTAKE!!). I took shelter in a dense cluster of deciduous saplings produced by the nearby blow down and waited for the dark cloud to move off to the east.

After soaking everything (including me) the rain stopped as suddenly as it started and the sky again turned completely blue. This time I did NOT shed my rain gear! As the rain stopped the mosquitoes and no-see-ums moved in for the kill harassing me nonstop the entire evening. Unable to find a suitable camping site, I set up in a small area near a small stream at the western end of the pond. The area here was miserable for camping: wet, rocky, with blow downs scattered about. Everything got soaked as I set up camp as the rain continued to drip from the canopy.

Wetland south of Toad Pond

I was tired, wet and being ravaged by biting insects so when I found it difficult to find a proper limb to hang my food bag I started to become a trifle irate. The fact I almost stepped in some bear dung impressed upon me the importance of properly hanging my food bag. After several failed attempts to locate and/or hang the food line and much whining, cursing and praying, I found a hemlock not too far away from site that was perfect. Tired from my many other attempts it took a long time to hang the rope. I got it stuck in a tree once, almost got hit with stick being used instead of rock and I even knocked over a moderate sized snag. All the commotion brought in a large, curious and dark gray jay. He observed me as I continued my struggle of hanging the food line and then apparently got bored of the entertainment and moved away thus not witnessing my elation when I finally got the food rope hung in the hemlock.

White pines south of Toad Pond

Toad Pond

Since it was so late and I was too tired to fire up the stove I ate one of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunches for dinner. I retired early before dark soon after finishing dinner and filtering water for the next day. Before retiring for the evening I checked the conditions I would be traveling through first thing in the morning as I headed toward Streeter Fishpond. Surprise, surprise, it was through a blow down. I guess I would continue to pay my dues in the blow down department tomorrow too.

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