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Stillwater Reservoir to Cranberry Lake Trip: Fireworks at Cat Mountain

Sunset on Cat Mountain

The following is day seven of my epic hike from Wanakena, NY to Stillwater Reservoir, and Cranberry Lake. 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 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 seventh day consisted of a short bushwhack from Streeter Fishpond to the Sand Lake Trail followed by a long haul via trail to Cat Mountain for fireworks and sleeping on the rocky cliffs.

Date: July 3, 2010
Length: 0.8 miles bushwhack, 9.8 miles trail
Difficulty: Easy (long trail distance)

A hearty morning chorus of bird songs greets me as I awoke at Streeter Fishpond. The typical Adirondack birds are singing nearby but not quite as vehemently as early in the season, foreshadowing the coming end of summer in the not-to-distant future. The calls of green and mink frogs mix in with the cacophony of bird sings as I attempt to rouse myself from the relative comfort of my Western Mountaineering Hilite sleeping bag.

View Day Seven in a larger map

When I finally exited my shelter I discovered another beautiful day of clear blue skies and warm sunshine awaited me on my last day of bushwhacking back to the marked trail system. My original goal was stay at Big Shallow Lean-to today for a fairly light day before having to hike a lengthy distance out via Cranberry Lake on my final day tomorrow but I was starting to think it would be better to make my way closer to Cranberry Lake today. This would provide a relatively short hike for my final day which would bode well for my alertness on the nearly three hour ride home afterwards.

I took a short hike down to the shore of Streeter Fishpond before breakfast and observed a single common goldeneye floating on the surface of the water with my Leica Ultravid 8×20 binoculars. While I was marveling on the goldeneyes’s diving ability, a beaver slapped his tail on the water and startled me before disappearing into the water never to reappear.

I returned to my campsite (point #76) and ate my breakfast where I was scolded by a winter wren carrying some assorted arthropods in its beak. Soon all the birds in the area become agitated and I was surrounded by assorted numerous different chirps, chips, rattles and snips. I scoured the area looking for the source of their agitation to no avail. I could not be the source of their distress, could I? I found no evidence of any other threat in the area and within several minutes all was calm again as if nothing ever happened.

Streeter Fishpond

Before 8:00 AM I started moving around the east shore of Streeter Fishpond toward the northern tip of the pond so as to position myself for the trip to the Sand Lake Trail. Using my Silver Ranger compass and my topographic map, I decided on a bearing of 323 degrees, which should take me toward the trail and pass to the west of a wetland north of the Fishpond. Even though the Sand Lake Trail is narrow and fairly wild in this section I was confident I would see it when I crossed it especially given my familiarity with the trail. If for some reason I missed the trail then I would eventually reach Wolf Pond and be able to reorient myself on the map for a second attempt to locate the trail.

As I made my way around the eastern shore of the Fishpond I found my way encountering some interesting features. There were some minor blow-downs along the eastern shore of Streeter, but they proved to be no obstacle to my progress despite I had not obtained my “bushwhacker legs” yet. As usual, spruce and fir grew close to the shoreline but there were many large eastern hemlocks scattered amongst them. Also, the typical conifer to hardwood transition occurred at a much shorter distance back from the water’s edge than usual. These hardwoods were dominated by mature American beech and yellow birch. As I approached the northern edge of Streeter the trees become more scattered and the understory almost nonexistent giving the feeling of park rather than the typical Adirondack forest.

American beech forest

After rounding the northern edge of Streeter Fishpond I headed away from the pond at my bearing (point #77), starting the end of my bushwhacking portion of this trip through the Five Ponds Wilderness. I climbed over the ridge directly north of Streeter and descended slightly approaching a stream just west of a larger wetland. Just before coming to the stream (point #78) I noticed an American beech with some initials and a date carved in it what was once its smooth and attractive bark. I will not repeat the initials as I prefer not to encourage the tree carving (especially smooth barked beeches given the threat of beech bark disease) but the accompanying date read 4/20/00.

After crossing the stream (point #79) I started to ascend until finally reaching the height of land and beginning a more aggressive descent. I changed my bearing to directly north (point #80) as I became more confident I would not miss the trail and I wanted to reduce the length of my bushwhack as I was now planning on attempting to continue all the way to Cat Mountain before the end of the day. The understory became thicker further north, almost exclusively with young beech saplings. A quick check of the overstory canopy confirmed I was moving through a forest consisting mostly of American beech with an occasional sugar maple and spruce scattered within.

Wolf Pond inlet

By 9:45 AM after descending through a series of clearings made by blow-downs I arrived at the Sand Lake trail (point #81). After a brief rest I turned northeast and headed back toward the waterfall at the Wolf Pond inlet. I was curious to see the current at the same inlet stream which necessitated a detour on my second day of this trip. It seemed as if it happened a very long time ago and just yesterday simultaneously. Within twenty minutes I was at a much tamer Wolf Pond outlet, which was crossed with little effort.

Before reaching the Cage Lake Trail junction I started to notice large and deep tracks in the middle of the trail. I was excited to see moose tracks here and they appeared recently made. Sometimes these tracks were in mud and distinct formed while in other places they were just large indentations within the leaf litter. The long and arduous hike before me was quickly forgotten as I picked up my pace and followed the tracks all the way to the Cage Lake Trail junction (point #82).

Moose track

At the junction the tracks turned and headed down the trail toward Wolf Pond. The tracks continued down hill and around the initial blow-down before soon leaving the trail and heading south, perhaps leading down to the wetland along the Wolf inlet stream. After a brief moment of seriously contemplating continuing to follow the tracks, I decided to return to my planned route as my supply of food was too depleted for a potential wild moose-chase.

After a short rest back at the junction, I continued up the trail toward Little Shallow Pond. I kept a quick pace through mixed forests occasionally passing through areas moderately impacted by the 1995 microburst. Soon I arrived along a serious of wetlands which portended the coming of the Little Shallow lean-to. Before crossing the wetland on a series of crumbling boardwalks I heard a northern waterthrush singing and observed a common goldeneye swimming about on the water at a stagnant beaver pond.

Cage Lake Trail Junction

I descended a hill and arrived at the lean-to on Little Shallow. After a brief rest here, I continued on the trail over a series of up and downs along a thin esker heavily impacted by the blow-downs 15 years ago. What was once a trail through mostly either white pines or thick spruce is now a thin trail through a lush and thick forest of hardwood saplings. The Washbowl Pond barely remains visible through this lush vegetation now.

Within 30 minutes I arrived at the Big Shallow lean-to at about 12:15 PM (point #83). Originally this was my final destination for the day as I find this one of the prettiest lean-to locations in all of the Adirondacks. But the early arrival time and amount of miles to exit tomorrow made it a no-brainer on whether to continue on after an extended rest instead of making camp for the night.

A glimpse of Washbowl Pond

Before moving on I ate lunch, soaked my aching feet (the remains of my healing blister greatly appreciated this), filtered water and took some photographs. The water level in the pond appeared to be much higher than in times past and I wondered whether this was due to increased precipitation or a more industrious beaver. On my way toward the Oswegatchie River bridge, while crossing the Big Shallow outlet stream (point #84) I noticed the water level seemed pretty low and thus added credence to the theory that a beaver was responsible for the lower water levels back at Big Shallow Pond.

After crossing the outlet stream I continued north along the trail, at first following the outlet stream and then later passing through several beaver swills. Northern parula’s were common through here as I heard one singing at each wetland. A very large garter snake, an agitated female ruffed grouse and several black bear tracks in the mud were encountered along the trail in between beaver dams.

Big Shallow Pond

At the bridge over the Oswegatchie River (point #85) I saw 4 people, the first people I had seen since High Rock back on my first day. Despite the beautiful weather on a holiday weekend there was no evidence of people camping in any of the numerous campsites around the bridge. Even the highly attractive campsite on the top of a rise overlooking the bridge was covered with untrampled grass, indicating its lack of use for an extended period of time.

By 3:30 PM I left the bridge behind and soon crossed a nasty section of trail through a wetland before arriving at the Truck Trail junction (point #86). Not wanting to waste anytime, I immediately turned east and headed for the High Falls junction. After crossing through numerous wet sections, one with a beaver dam right through the trail and another with the water ankle deep, the trail finally reached drier ground.

I skirted the famous Oswegatchie Plains but because of the in-growth it is no longer clearly visible from the trail. The trail soon went through a pleasant area dominated by stately eastern white pines and grassy herbaceous cover. Despite the hot conditions and the late afternoon hour, pine warblers were still singing in the canopy here.

Black bear print

Flooded area along the Truck Trail

The High Falls trail junction was finally reached at about 4:15 PM (point #87) and I rested for a while here. The breezy conditions did little to cool me off during my rest due to the very hot temperatures. The hot temperatures did a number on my chocolate trail bar which melted in the back of my backpack. Pine warblers continued to sing the entire time I sucked up my trail bar from its wrapper. After licking the wrapper clean, I decided to push on for at least an hour before resting again.

It was 4:30 PM when I headed off to Sand Hill Junction, so I was bound and determined to continue on until an hour had passed. The southern portion of this trail section goes through an area intensively impacted by the microburst of 1995. The trail is surrounded by thick sapling and young tree growth over rolling terrain where once mature forests stood. The middle half of this trail section is wet with many wetland crossings including a confusing section over and around a beaver dam. The final third section before Sand Hill junction is dry and uphill through mixed forest.

Forest along trail to Sand Hill Junction

Sand Hill Junction

At exactly an hour from the High Falls trail junction I arrived at the Sand Hill Junction (point #88). I covered about 3 miles of hiking in a single hour. After resting briefly, I started up the trail to the east toward Glasby Pond and eventually Cat Mountain. The trail climbs much of the way to Glasby Pond (point #88A) and then skirts around the shoreline before climbing again toward the Cat Mountain trail junction. I moved swiftly around the shore of the pond on my way to a small stream where I intended to filter water since I was almost completely out. On my way to the stream (point #89), a beaver startled me when it jumped from the shore back into the pond and some other creature scampered off into the forest but I never got a glance at it.

It took me about a half hour to filter enough water for the night since there is no water source on the top of the Cat Mountain. With enough filtered water I pushed on to the Cat Mountain Trail junction (point #90) and shortly began climbing toward the top of the mountain. The trail here is steep and worn down to the rock surface so the going became slower as I climbed, the hot weather and long day finally started to take its toll on my energy reserves.

Glasby Pond

Finally after a very long day of practically non-stop hiking I arrived at the base of the steep cliffs that mark the last part of the climb to the top of Cat Mountain. I picked up a couple of small rocks on my way through this last portion of the trail to use to hang the food line. As usual, when I reached the top of Cat Mountain (point #91) and walked out onto the cliffs from the surrounding forest I became overcome by the awesome expansive view to the south over the Five Ponds Wilderness.

I explored the area around the cliffs as I had not been here since last year. I noticed that someone cut a significant amount of trees around the central camping site located a short ways back from the cliffs. They even cut some of the conifer branches that use to shelter the camping site from the cliffs! The charred remnants of this cut vegetation remained half-burnt in the fire ring in the corner of the camping site. It continually surprises me how people cannot follow even the simplest of rules such as only burning dead and down.

Climbing Cat Mountain

At this point I decided to sleep out on the cliffs without a shelter which has been affectionately referred to as John Wayne style. I have done this the last several times I have spent the night here but this time I decided not to even set up my shelter as a insurance policy in case of inclement weather. The windy conditions out on the cliff should be able to keep the mosquitoes at bay and the clear evening should provide a glorious show of stars.

Later in the evening soon after darkness set in I started to hear booms in the distance. Since I had already secured myself in my sleeping bag out on the cliffs I had to sit up to scan the horizon. In the distance I could see fireworks going off far to the west. I watched for a while but then started to scan the entire southern horizon and I could see even more fireworks to the east. Soon fireworks were going off in the distance all over the place, one location starting up as another would end. This continued for some time with 2 to 3 different displays going on simultaneously. Each display seemed very similar as if they were all purchased from the same distributor. Later these fireworks were followed up by some natural fireworks in the form of shooting stars, brilliant planets and a very bright half moon.

Dead and down is too difficult for some to understand

I finally went to sleep around 10:45 PM out on the cliffs. It was very windy and I tied my sleeping bag and Prolite Therm-a-rest to my Golite Pinnacle backpack just in case they blew away in the wind when I got up to take a pee during the night. I used my Kelty Triptease line so its reflective properties would make it easy to find all my stuff in the event the wind blew all my equipment away. The wind was incredibly loud throughout the night and my sleep was less than restful. This did not bode well for the long ride home tomorrow.

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