The adage goes “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Although this typically means that despite many superficial changes, the underlying reality remains the same, it has an entirely different meaning on Bear Pond Road along the border between Watsons East Triangle Wild Forest and the Five Ponds Wilderness.
During my first visit to this area in the late 1990’s, Bear Pond Road was a narrow, rough and rocky jeep trail, drivable by high clearance vehicles only, and though not a necessity, four-wheel drive sure came in handy, especially if pulling off the road was planned. Nearly a decade later, the road was wider, smoother and open to ATV use, with illegal trails proliferating throughout the area. Now the road is still smooth and almost just as wide, but the ATVs are gone, as is most of their damage, with the area appearing quieter and less used.
Despite all the human-induced change over the decades, the surrounding forest appears little changed, as it goes about the process of living, reproducing and dying, as it has for many centuries. Any change, barring some catastrophic event like the blowdown of 1995, is slow, steady and nearly imperceptible to creatures with life spans rarely surpassing the one-hundred year mark.
After the long and rather nerve-wracking drive along the dirt road in a sudden downpour, my legs feel as if they are nearly a hundred years old, with the muscles tight and cramping. In my younger days, jumping out of my vehicle and hitting the trail without as much as thought was the norm, but now in middle age it is a whole other ballgame.
View Day One Part Two in a larger map
Date: June 22, 2013
Length: 1.2 miles (1.2 total daily miles; 1.2 total trip miles)
Now with the sun appearing through the clouds, the rain over, at least for now and my lunch eaten, I exit my vehicle to walk up and down the road a little to acclimate myself to the awaiting effort or carrying a 40+ pounds backpack. Within seconds, the mosquito horde zeroes in on my location, surrounding me with a ferociousness no doubt brought on by the recent rain. Constantly moving to evade the worst of their attack, I attempt to maintain a positive attitude, thanking the forest for sparing me from any black flies at least. My tolerance for those little black devils exhausted from earlier in the year, back while participating in the Birdathon within the Pepperbox Wilderness.
During these pre-trip preparations, the sky goes through a series of darkening and lightening phases, leaving me with the impression of a high probability of showers throughout the remainder of the day. Before giving it another chance to start pouring, and subsequently giving me an excuse to retreat within my car once again, I shoulder my backpack and head down the old side road toward my inevitable destination of Upper South Pond and beyond.
Back in the late 1990’s, while I was working as an ornithological technician for the Wildlife Conservation Society, this initial side road was drivable all the way to a small parking lot along the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River, where a metal girder acted as a bridge across the river. Today, it has become a footpath, blocked off with several large boulders just a short distance from the main road, although it still maintains its two-tract vehicle nature, perhaps perpetuated by the recent construction of an actual bridge across the river a few years back.
The old side road undulates over rolling terrain, leading northeast through a wet mixed forest before taking a turn to the east at a very large puddle. After inching my way around the puddle, I soon enter the old parking lot, appearing much as I remembered it. Although much of the area is vegetation covered, a significant is still open cinder and rock, a testament to the resilience of the human-caused disturbance.
A break in the surrounding forest on the opposite side of the clearing sits the newly constructed bridge. Crossing the distance, I get my first good look at the new bridge, as it was still under construction the last time I came through the area. The bridge is much wider than the previous girder, complete with a single railing on the downriver side. The single railing gives the bridge a strange appearance, like a dog with only two legs. Perhaps the missing railing is a money-saving measure, or an engineering feature to prevent its destruction during the spring ice flow, although it appears a tad bit less safe to me.
While crossing the bridge, I take care not to step off the upriver edge, especially while taking photographs of the river. The construction is sturdy, but the gaps between the boards give me pause, so hold my homemade hiking poles up height, so as not to accidentally get them stuck between the struts and lose them into the river below.
The river is rock-filled and narrow at this point, probably accounting for the location of the bridge here. This is the only bridge along the Middle Branch in this area, so in times of high water this is the only safe crossing. I am thankful for the crossing, as there is no need for a fording as I did downriver during my trip to Oven Lake two years ago. Plus, it eliminates one source of anxiety, since I need not worry about the crossing on my return trip.
Scattered clouds fill the sky, with the bright sun reflecting off the exposed rocks within the river. Despite the earlier downpour and the wet foliage, a hopeful feeling bubbles up within me about any future rain holding off until after reaching my camping destination for the day on the southern shore of Lower South Pond. This optimistic outlook, based mostly on naiveté than anything else, is extremely vulnerable, as rain clouds can move in rapidly at any time.
Crossing the bridge, the trail immediately reenters the wet and dense forest, with raindrops still falling from the surrounding tree foliage, displacing most of the typical wilderness sounds. The trail remains true to its origin, with twin parallel and unvegetated paths meandering through the forest. The two ruts, sometimes deeply rutted and rocky, often nearly disappear, remaining as only subtle indentations on the surrounding forest floor.
The old Jeep trail nearly continuously climbs after leaving the Oswegatchie River, with little sign of much use. Rarely, a yellow trail marker appears, nailed to a tree along the wide trail, sometimes alive and standing, but almost just as often, down and lying across the trail. On the infrequent occasion where the trail levels out, a large murky puddle often straddles the trail, forcing me to make the choice between filthy boots and potentially wet feet, and picking my way along the puddle’s border.
Not much of a choice on the first day of my trip really, especially with the dark, moisture-infused clouds occasionally going overhead.
There is little evidence of human use on this trail, which is not surprising, as only the most intrepid soul braves the required ordeal to gain access. Occasionally, the vague indent of a human footprint stands out alongside a muddy puddle, yet the condition makes it difficult to discern its age. Then again, the muddy print could be from a black bear instead.
While continuing to climb through the forest, the trail takes a hard right up a steeper rise, turning to the southeast, while the original Jeep trail keeps straight ahead to the northeast. If my memory serves me correctly, the unofficial trail ahead continues through the forest until reaching the Sand Lake outlet. My memory of this trail is as murky as the frequent puddles encountered along the trail, as the last time I visited Sand Lake via this route was back in 1997, when gaining access to the Five Ponds after the trail system to the north was shut down thanks to the 1995 Microburst.
Luckily, I spot the yellow markers along the side trail, because the turn lacks the obviousness of most other forest trails. The trail climbs along a deeply eroded trail, with not only rough and rocky ruts, but also numerous downed trees blocking the way as well. There is little soil remaining in the ruts, having long ago been washed away, leaving me to slowly make my way around all the obstacles along the higher bank where the walking is decidedly easier.
Finally, the ascent ends briefly as the trail descends to a narrow wetland crossing. Soon after crossing the wetland and returning to the forest, the climb begins anew, until reaching a small stream. Almost immediately upon crossing the small stream, I make my first moose droppings sighting of the trip. I take a photograph to immortalize the moment, realizing there is something odd about being fascinated with another animal’s crap.
Then again, I do not roll around in it, so as far as odd behavior goes, it is not all that bad.
The forest becomes increasingly darker as I climb away from the moose droppings, compelling me to look skyward, where something very unwelcome is brewing. Darker clouds are rapidly moving in, with the sky almost completely overcast, in stark contrast with the clear and sunny sky left behind at the bridge. As if the dark clouds were not enough, a soft rumbling in the distance begins.
Could this rumbling be artillery practice at Fort Drum? Or are some dreaded thunderstorms bearing down on me from the west? I guess I will soon find out.
My pace quickens with the increasing darkness, rumblings and steady breeze, as if some shelter that will protect me from any approaching deluge is in my future. In this remote area, the only shelter in my future is the one in backpack, which takes time to assemble. Unless the rain starts comes down in buckets, I am pushing on toward Lower South Pond, where I expect to spend the night.
Upon reaching the zenith of the climb, the trail descends into a wet area along the western end of Upper South Pond. Through the forest to the east, I can see the reflection of light from the surface of the pond, beckoning me to come investigate.
Unfortunately, this is where the semi-marked trail and I part company; my route now takes me to the southeast along the pond’s southern shoreline. The old clearing at the end of the trail has to wait until my return trip in five days. I anticipate any changes to be minimal in the decade since my last visit, except for any revolving around the lack of human visitation.
Stepping off the trail into the dank and foreboding forest, an excitement engulfs me as I bushwhack southeast. Given the darkening clouds, this excitement may very well not be the last thing washing over me before the completion of my journey for the day.
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