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Birdathon 2013: Fleeing the Pepperbox Wilderness using an Old Hunters’ Trail

Beaver meadow near old hunters' path

Beaver meadow near old hunters’ path

The morning after any Birdathon is fraught with frustration and bitterness, as avian species not observed the previous day suddenly appear, gleefully rubbing my face in the fact they evaded detection. Despite this dread, I woke in early morning after the Birdathon 2013 enjoying the morning chorus near the southwestern corner of Sunshine Pond; luckily, the missed species remained at a manageable level.

Sunshine Pond is the largest pond in the Pepperbox Wilderness, and despite its name, most people would think of it as a lake, given its size and dominance of the surrounding landscape. It is a rather slim pond, running roughly north-south, containing two larger islands, as well as many smaller ones. Given the lack of common loons observed, it is likely devoid of fish, probably due to acidification, at least partly because of acid precipitation.

During the Birdathon in 2010, I bushwhacked the circumference of Sunshine Pond, exploring the many wetlands nearby, before heading to Cropsey Pond for the evening. This proved more daunting than I imagined, mostly due to its large size and the extensive coniferous forests along the northwest shoreline.

View Birdathon 2013: Day Three in a larger map

Section Stats:
Date: May 19, 2013
Length: 3.7 miles (3.7 total daily miles; 11.1 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Moderate (due to haste)

On this morning, the chorus of singing birds includes many of the species obtained here the day before, such as the purple finch, scarlet tanager, common yellowthroat and song sparrow. In addition, two species not heard at this location, Lincoln’s sparrow and Canada warbler, add some more diversity to the cacophony of bird songs at Sunshine Pond.

I lay under my tarp, alternating between a state of light sleep and awareness, for at least an hour before finally getting up and dressing for my exit from the area. My head cold continues to dog me, but despite the last two arduous days, I feel slightly better than I did when I started out. Maybe the mountain air has some medicinal effect on my system, but more likely, the illness is just working its way through my body. Finally.

Despite my need to get to Stillwater Reservoir by noon to report my findings from yesterday, I leisurely pack up my campsite, checking out the pond and the ridge to the west for any interesting activity. A rose-breasted grosbeak sings nearby, causing a curse to emerge from my lips for it not speaking up the day before. After taking numerous photographs of the pond and the surrounding area with my camera, I finish my packing and say my good-byes to the pond before turning south back toward Raven Lake Road at about nine in the morning.

After crossing the tiny inlet stream at the south of Sunshine Pond, I bushwhack through a mixed, mature forest, heading southeast toward a steep ridge. From previous experience in 2011, this ridge should provide an easy hiking experience within a hardwood forest all the way to an old beaver meadow. From the meadow, it should be easy enough to find an old hunters’ trail, at least with the help of my GPS.

The bushwhacking becomes increasingly easier farther upslope as the forest transitions from mixed lowlands to the hardwood-dominated uplands. The climb culminates in a very steep but short slope, leading to a flat plain covered in mature hardwoods. The light green color of the nascent leaves contrasts with the dull grays and browns of the American beech and red maple stems.

Once climbing the steep slope, I follow along the plateau’s edge without the aid of my compass. The drop off is so steep that I am often left feeling a strange sense of vertigo when I stray too closely, as if I were walking at the edge of a rocky cliff. According to the map, following along this drop off should bring me right to the edge of a beaver meadow, which will give me something to explore before turning west and searching for an old hunter’s path that leads all the way back to Raven Lake Road.

Morning on Sunshine Pond

Morning on Sunshine Pond

Sunshine Pond

Sunshine Pond

While bushwhacking south through the hardwood forest, I hear another annoying bird species that I did not get during the Birdathon yesterday. As the feelings of frustration bubble up once again, I stop and have more than a few choice words for the brown creeper, before continuing on my journey southward, feeling better for expressing myself to the little brown bird, though I doubt I left a lasting impression.

Within a much shorter time than I thought from glancing at the map, a clearing off to the southwest becomes increasingly visible through the trees. Leaving the hardwoods behind, I carefully pick my way down the ridge, reentering an increasingly more coniferous forest as I draws closer to the old meadow, which luckily has not been flooded like so many others encountered the previous day.

Hardwood forest southeast of Sunshine Pond

Hardwood forest southeast of Sunshine Pond

The meadow remains much as I remembered it from back in 2011. Many gray stumps and several old snags stand within the clearing under overcast and threatening skies. In many places, green vegetation is emerging from the dead litter left on the ground from the year before. In a few places, small pools of dark standing water remains, offering mosquitoes ample places for emerging this spring.

Directly opposite from where I emerged from the forest, stands an old beaver dam with a large gaping hole in it. At the base of the dam remains a shallow, murky pond that once was a thriving body of water many years before. Rocks lie exposed around the old dam, as do others scattered within the meadow. Gaps in the trees beyond the old dam suggest a larger beaver pond to the west, although this may be an illusion perpetrated by my memory of the map of the area.

Some semblance of a stream runs through the meadow, although it appears mostly stagnant, possibly explaining the lack of any new beaver colonization over the last few years. No streams actively exit the surrounding forests, suggesting what little flows through the meadow occur mostly during snow melt or very strong downpours.

Trying to get to the edge of the pool below the dam, I slowly make my way across the meadow, using fallen logs and rocks to avoid crushing the dainty sundews or losing a boot in any possible muck holes. When it gets too wet to continue, I cross a forested peninsula before working my way back toward the eastern border of the meadow, crossing the stagnant stream on another log.

Beaver meadow south of Sunshine Pond

Beaver meadow south of Sunshine Pond

Ruptured dam in meadow south of Sunshine Pond

Ruptured dam in meadow south of Sunshine Pond

Unfortunately, the call of nature interrupts my revelry, so I proceed at a faster pace toward the southern border of the meadow, where I can reenter the forest before doing my business. Despite the urgency, I notice something odd hanging on one of the snags on the other side of the remnant stream. As I draw closer, using my binoculars to accentuate my own vision, the mysterious objects turns out to be a metal can mounted on a wooden base attached in some fashion to the snag. The rusting can ignites my imagination (What could possibly be in there? Who left it? Why?), unfortunately the murky stream and the urgency of nature’s call compel me to leave this mystery behind for another time.

I continue along meadow’s eastern edge, stopping only momentarily to note the density of white-tailed deer tracks in the surrounding mud. No wonder the Pepperbox Wilderness seems popular with hunters, as deer appear to be quite abundant, despite I have yet to actually see one.

Rusty can on snag

Rusty can on snag

When I spot an easy path to the south, I head uphill and back into the mature hardwood forest of red maple, American beech and yellow birch. My haste continues until I put enough distance between the meadow and myself, with the slope leveling off, allowing me to locate an ideal place for my morning poop. At least the urgency allows for a very rapid bowel movement, giving me a reprieve from the usual risk of pooping within the Adirondacks during black fly season.

After finishing my business, I pull out my Garmin Legend HCx (that is not a euphemism!), and locate the nearest waypoint set along the hunters’ path that I marked back in 2011. To my surprise, it is a tad less than a thousand feet to the west of my current position. Normally, I would try locating the trail without bothering to use my GPS, but with the path being so subtle in places and largely unmarked except for an occasional slash cut into a tree, I am afraid I would miss it and waste too much time bushwhacking all the way south to Raven Lake Road. With a noon deadline for reporting my Birdathon results, it is important I waste as little time as possible. So technology wins over traditional map reading skills for the nonce.

Old hunter's trail

Old hunter’s trail

Setting off to the west, GPS in hand, I start my search for the old hunters’ trail. As I draw closer, I scan the surrounding forest floor, noticing the path almost simultaneously with the GPS alerting me that I reached my destination. The old trail is so subtle here; I could easily have missed it and kept going until reaching the bog surrounding the beaver dam to the north.

I spend little time resting at the path before continuing west. Although difficult to follow, I stay true to the path until it reaches a large boggy area to the south of a pond. As I try to find where the path enters the far end of the forest, I start questioning where I am heading. Am I supposed to be crossing the bog when heading back to Raven Lake Road?

After randomly searching for the other end of the path, I finally find it after wandering around the bog for a while. I reenter the forest and quickly realize I am heading north again. I pull out my GPS, discovering I am indeed heading in the wrong direction. Obviously, when I first reached the path, I failed to change my mindset and head south, instead continuing my obsession with my previous direction when I was searching for the path.

Shit! Crap! Damn, damn, damn!

Trail through bog

Trail through bog

After castigating myself repeatedly, I turn tail and head in the opposite direction, back toward the point where I met the path just a short time before. This time I cross the boggy area staying true to the path, which follows between two logs with chicken wire nailed between them. In the past, someone put a lot of effort into creating this path, illegally I might add, but now the path appears to be rarely used, except for maybe myself and a few others.

Upon reaching the point where I originally discovered the path, I quickly calmed down now that I am certainly heading south this time. The forest is mostly hardwood, with the path remaining largely easy enough to follow as long as I keep my eye out for the slashes on trees and any inevitable twists and turns. The slashes, cut in the stems of trees varying in size from a couple of inches to large behemoths, made following the path much easier, as their original purpose intended.

When the slashes fail me, I watch for a subtle indentation in the forest floor. Despite the many years of disuse, or at least non-maintenance, a scar remains on the land, perhaps perpetuated by animals, who being pragmatic forest dwellers, never turn down a chance to get from one place to another using the easiest path available. Frequently, downed limbs attempt to obscure the trail, occasionally demanding I stop and scan the surrounding area before determining the proper route forward.

Southern portion of hunter's trail

Southern portion of hunter’s trail

The path becomes clearer as it descends into a coniferous forest surrounding a meadow off to the east. I catch just a glimpse of the meadow however, as the path purposely avoids it and crosses over a small stream, the path ascending slightly back into a more mixed forest. In several places, I lose the trail, or nearly so, forcing me to stop and walk around, several times going back to the last point where I found the trail obvious. Each time, I finally regain the path forward, though only confidently when I find the next slash or obvious cut branches.

When the path enters a dense coniferous forest, just uphill from a long pond visible through the spruce/fir, it takes on the characteristics of a cave, with only a single viable route through the dense trees. Checking my watch, I realize I am making good time, allowing for a short rest stop, where I finish off the last vestiges of my remaining water. The southern portion of the hunters’ path is easier to follow, which should allow for a much faster pace until reaching Raven Lake Road.

The remainder of the path weaves through coniferous and hardwood forests, upslope from the drainage flowing from the pond I just left behind. The path’s obvious route allows me to pick up my pace, and within about twenty minutes, I arrive at a stream crossing at the southern end of a large, wet meadow. Raven Lake Road lies just a short distance beyond, so I buckle down, cross the stream on a rock “bridge” and weave a short distance through the forest before reaching a short rise that ends at a curve along the Raven Lake Road.

Beaver meadow near Raven Lake Rd

Beaver meadow near Raven Lake Rd

After a brief rest, I hike at a rapid pace down the road, toward the parking lot on the other side of the Beaver River. Other than a single steep rise, the road continues mostly down slope making this last stretch not only easier but also more pleasant. I listen to the singing birds as I go, realizing that soon I will hear nothing but the radio for several hours on my ride home.

Upon descending and taking that last curve along the road, the bridge over the Beaver River comes into view and my car remains, just where I left it a couple days ago, in the parking lot beyond. It is about eleven in the morning – an hour to spare.

After a quick clean up, I drive back to Stillwater Reservoir as very threatening clouds descend upon the area. At the payphone, I report my findings for the Birdathon, keeping the store staff from completing their lawn mowing before the inevitable downpour. Once the reporting is done, I stop into the store and buy a souvenir t-shirt with a picture of the reservoir on its chest, my small contribution to the local economy.

Raven Lake Road

Raven Lake Road

On the ride back to Syracuse, I reflect on this Birdathon just ended, and start planning next year’s foray. Whether in the Pepperbox Wilderness or not, injury notwithstanding, I shall once again find myself in the northwestern Adirondacks searching for that next elusive bird species.

Hopefully, next year the head cold will stay away.

Parking lot at Beaver River

Parking lot at Beaver River

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