Rain delays on an aggressive bushwhacking adventure often lead to an alteration of a finely honed trip itinerary, which is never a good thing. Unfortunately, this exact situation unfolded at the dawn of the second day of my trip through one of the least frequently visited parts of the Five Ponds Wilderness in the northwestern Adirondack Park.
After a morning trapped under my tarp to work out all the details, my journey through the carpet spruce swamp along the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River would happen later in the day as I must head southeast instead of directly south to the river. This results in less time spent bushwhacking through the carpet spruce swap, including not sighting the mighty river itself until reaching a confluence where several different streams meet at a large open water wetland. This could very well be a good thing, depending on the arduousness of the terrain through the area, but without a doubt, it will reduce much of the adventure aspect of the trip.
Now nearly half-past noon, after a morning rain delay at Lower South Pond, I force thoughts of disappointment and regret from my mind and instead throw my backpack across my back, collect my homemade hiking poles and begin hiking east along the shoreline. With the bushwhacking more difficult along the indistinct shoreline (from a late spring/early summer of an abnormal amount of rain), combined with the dense foliage, freshly saturated from the recent rain, I stay back in the forest, only catching an occasional glimpse of the open water.
View Day Two, Part Two in a larger map
Date: June 18, 2013
Length: 1.1 miles (1.1 total daily miles; 4.4 total trip miles)
As I proceed east, I pull slightly away to the south, my destination a thin drainage pointing right in the direction of the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River’s confluence, just a mere mile and a half to the southeast. The clouds scatter across the sky now, azure blue dominating with ample sunlight penetrating the canopy and lighting the forest floor in small patches. Hopefully, the sun will remain shining, and before long burning off the majority of the moisture still hanging in the air.
After minimal effort, I enter the drainage, saying my final good-bye to Lower South Pond, a ridge to the north quickly blocking my view of the pond that was my wet home for the previous night. The elevation increases only slightly though, but the forest quickly transitions from mixed to almost entirely deciduous.
Glancing at my Garmin Legend GPS, I notice the low battery indicator shining brightly (at waypoint 7a), with the darn thing completely dead before shedding my backpack to search for replacements. Opening my backpack, the pungent smell of alcohol instantaneously fills my nostrils, immediately nauseating me. The source is no mystery, as there is only a single possible one in my backpack, but how can that be when I just checked the container a little while earlier, with no signs of leakage?
Figuring I left the spout unsecured, I dig down deep and retrieve the half litter collapsible Platypus bottle, only to find nothing wrong with it, other than it holds significantly less alcohol then it did when I broke camp less than an hour before. Blowing a little air in it (ick! – denatured alcohol tastes terrible) reveals a small leak in the seal at the top, which obviously combined with the pressure of stuffing it down deep into my backpack resulted in alcohol leaking out all over my pack liner. At least I was smart enough not to place the alcohol bottle in the liner with all my other gear. My persnickety packing methodology actually paid for once!
I do my best to duct tape the leaking seal on the collapsible bottle, knowing full well, it is a futile attempt, doomed to failure given the solvent nature of alcohol. Digging out a couple extra resealable plastic bags, I double bag the small bottle just in case, and place it near the top of the backpack where the lack of pressure on it prevents further loss of my only fuel. Otherwise, cold meals are on the agenda for the remainder of my Carpet Spruce Swamp bushwhacking adventure.
While securing my backpack and cursing under my breath about the leak so early into my trip, I notice a massive yellow birch standing nearby. This giant of the forest has most likely endured many tribulations over the many decades of its long life, although probably none as offensive as the language issuing from my own mouth now.
With the batteries of my Garmin Legend GPS changed, and the leaking alcohol issue temporarily dealt with, I return to bushwhacking along a slightly south of east bearing through the drainage. The climbing increases as I draw farther from the pond, with a single dip before recommencing the climb at a steeper and steadier rate. Off to my left the elevation increases steeply as well, while to the south it is much more gradual, at least as far as my rather limited vision through the thick forest allows. A small stream probably lies hidden along the forest floor to the north, creating the drainage, although the sound of rushing water is absent, so it may only be active during the spring snowmelt.
Suddenly, the sound of many famished young woodpeckers breaks the silence of my early afternoon woolgathering. Taking a quick break (waypoint #8), I search around for the woodpecker nest, its distinctive sound learned from my years working as an ornithological field technician, especially those where nest finding served as a major component of the job. Given today’s great distance and my late starting hour due to the rain delay, I only allow a minimal effort in my search, surrendering soon after beginning.
The short delay gives me an opportunity to check my progress, revealing I am close to crossing from the Stillwater topographical map to the Beaver River one. With the new map comes a new bearing of 112 degrees, one that ensures missing a steep cliff but still intersecting an open ribbon of a wetland as I pass through the northern edge of the carpet spruce swamp on the way to the river’s confluence. At that point, my hope is to find a suitable campsite in that area for the night, before moving on the next day.
Before heading along on my new bearing, a wardrobe adjustment is well overdue. The sunshine accompanying the partly cloudy skies throughout the early afternoon brought increasing temperatures and, drying conditions. With the coast being clear for the near future, I finally shed my rain jacket, as its mysterious power to forestall the rain is no longer necessary. Just in case the fates get any ideas about soaking me further, I split the difference and leave my Golite rain pants on.
The climbing continues through mostly mature hardwoods, with a few minor dips along the way. Leaving the drainage behind, I start climbing over a hilltop, being careful not to drift too far south, where the map indicates a steep drop-off. Just beyond the cliff to the south lies the carpet spruce swamp along the northern shore of the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River.
The descent from the hilltop is steep, despite missing the worst of it to the south. Ferns thickly cover the forest floor, making the going more hazardous, as it is impossible to see anything beneath them. The ground does not appear as damp in this area, as if the rainstorm this morning missed here completely. Lucky bastards!
After the steep descent, the topography takes on a more rolling aspect, with slight climbs quickly followed my slight descents. Dense stands of hardwood saplings, mostly American beech, make the going a little more difficult, with the lower branches continually grabbing me, my backpack, hat (reminding me once again of the movie Forced Vengeance), and even my safety goggles, as I attempt to move through.
Suddenly, a brown blur flies from one tree limb to another in front of me, an agitated hermit thrush screeching its annoyance with my presence. Without flushing the female, it is impossible to discern the nest’s whereabouts. Gingerly picking my way through the ferns, I hustle out of the area, dreading the sound of shattered eggs or screaming chicks with every footfall. I keep reciting, “Don’t look back” repeatedly to myself as I go.
When I am far enough away from the danger zone, I stop for a little snack break, since it is nearly two in the afternoon (waypoint #9). The carpet spruce swamp is not far to the south now, although the surrounding mixed forest hardly indicates an extensive coniferous forest nearby. While snacking, I enjoy the songs of the red-eyed vireo and winter wren, knowing soon the going may become quite a bit more arduous.
When I continue bushwhacking east, a descent almost immediately begins, complete with scattered glacial erratics surrounded by thick fern cover. Although the forest begins as mostly hardwood, the coniferous component becomes increasingly dominant as I draw near the cusp of the Oswegatchie River’s carpet spruce swamp.
I enjoy the last few moments as I slowly descend into the darkness of the thick spruce that I know soon awaits.
Carpet spruce swamp, here I come, ready or not.
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