Carpet spruce swamp. Confluence of the Middle Branch Oswegatchie River. These places are not on any maps, at least none that I ever seen. They exist only in the conversations of backcountry explorers that dare to leave the trail behind and venture into a remote corner of the Five Ponds Wilderness. Maybe on an occasional Wikipedia page too.
Now, instead of hearing about them, I am on the cusp of experiencing them for myself.
After a rain delay and crossing the ridge south of Lower South Pond, I stop briefly for a snack before continuing the descent, sometimes steeply, toward that legendary carpet spruce swamp, lying along the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River in the heart of the wild and remote Five Ponds Wilderness. With each step, the forest became increasingly coniferous, with repeated sightings of what appears to be a clearing to the south.
Could the Oswegatchie be that close?
View Day Two, Part Three in a larger map
Date: June 18, 2013
Length: 1.2 miles (2.3 total daily miles; 5.6 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Moderate (aggressive terrain, dense forest, light blowdown)
I keep reminding myself that the river is still a good distance south, so the likelihood of catching a glimpse is highly unlikely. Too bad the rain delay from this morning forced me to rework my itinerary for the day; otherwise, I could head directly south and see the river for sure. Unfortunately, such a diversion will have to wait for a return visit when the weather is more cooperative, as my limited time compels me eastward.
The scent of spruce fills the humid air as I approach the bottom of the descent. The forest to the south is completely spruce, mostly pole-sized trees standing in close quarters, like an army in formation ready to detour any possible invasion toward the river beyond. Even those from innocuous bushwhackers like me!
The level terrain marks the beginning of the carpet spruce swamp, a mostly flat area surrounding both sides of the river. The spruce trees are dense, with sharp dead limbs sticking out in all directions and at multiple heights, making further progress difficult if not for my safety glasses. The dangerous lower limbs, long dead and free of needles, poke and prod me, my backpack and everything on my person, including constantly knocking off my hat off, much to my chagrin.
Continuing my bushwhack eastward, the tree limbs are not the only impediment, as the terrain proves rather arduous, with many downed trees lying along a ground, which is already covered with hummocks and hallows of its own. An occasional rock extrudes from thin leaf litter, often surrounded with pools of algae-choked water. The tree limbs, downed logs, undulating terrain, exposed rocks and deep pools combine to form an aggressive obstacle course, whose sole purpose seems to be designed to impede a foolish bushwhacker’s progress.
The standing trees quickly diminish as I continue, replaced by hazardous downed logs, more prevalent rocks, and deeper pits filled with increasing amounts of algae. On top of all this, small bushy spruces cover much of the debris, making the hiking even more hazardous than ever before. The landscape takes on a more bizarre character, as if I was mysteriously transported to an alien planet or at least some place other than the southern Five Ponds.
With the sky almost completely clear, the effort becomes increasingly uncomfortable, forcing me to discard my Golite rain pants. The pants, with their impractical black color, bake my legs in the afternoon sun, plus the large number of downed logs make it increasingly likely I will rip them to shreds, just like with my Marmot Precip pants many years ago.
After losing the rain pants, the going becomes much more comfortable, if not easier. I find myself moving from one clear patch to another, winding my way on a path of least resistance through the debris, trying not to look too far ahead or at my new watch.
The area is strangely silent except for an infrequent golden-crowned kinglet coming from the occasional standing tree. The terrain remains rolling, with frequent small depressions unfolding off to the south, apparently dug out from the many years of draining snow melt and down pours off the hill sides to the north and eventually down to the river.
My eagerness to make it through rough terrain causes me to forget the whole purpose of my trip. I never once pull out my camera in this area, thus not recording the conditions for all to see here. It also leaves me regretting not purchasing a Go-Pro video camera for documenting my bushwhacking adventures. Maybe next year.
A brown bird, a little smaller than a robin, flushes from a spruce bush in front of me. Immediately, I spot its now-vacant nest covered by a few branches, my eye for such a thing honed from many summers nest locating as part of my biological field jobs from years past. Carefully pulling the branches away with my hiking poles, I take a few pictures of the contents, 4 bright blue eggs covered with brown speckles. Given the bird’s size, the location of the nest and the egg color, it is most likely a Swainson’s thrush.
Just as my patience is running thin with the arduous struggle, a tree line with a much thicker canopy appears ahead, at the exact point where the elevation starts increasing gradually. Once again, the smaller spruce trees close ranks, poking and prodding me with their sharp dead limbs. With the thicker forest providing more shade from the warm afternoon sun, I stop for another rest and mark a waypoint (#10) before setting off for the last stretch to the Oswegatchie’s confluence.
Climbing up onto a ridge yields a change in the forest, as red maple and yellow birch start showing up scattered about within the larger spruces. Ferns begin to cover the forest floor with the change in elevation as well, a dense carpet nearly obscuring all visibility as I carefully place my feet along the top of ridge.
From the ridge, I spot a clearing to the east, momentarily mistaking it for the confluence, when a mere glimpse at my map would immediately point out my miscalculation. As I descend to the shoreline, through towering, well–spaced spruces surrounded in a carpet of fern, it slowly dawns on me that this is not the confluence, but instead a ribbon of a wetland just northwest of my day’s final destination.
At its core, this wetland is an undulating ribbon of open water surrounded by a mixture of shrubs, high grasses and/or sedges with a scattering of dead conifer trees throughout. Tired as I am from the day’s journey, getting around this long wetland seems near impossible, requiring yet another rest stop to figure out my next move.
Unlike most of my journey through the carpet spruce swamp, this wetland is resplendent with bird song. A flock of common grackles flies over, calling as they pass overhead, while red-winged blackbirds, swamp sparrow, olive-sided flycatcher, rusty blackbird and white-throated sparrows sing along the border of the wetland. Not to be outdone, the continuous twang of numerous green frogs plays in the background.
Taking a new bearing of 145 degrees on my compass to the confluence, I begin my long bushwhack around the wetland to the south before being able to head straight to my ultimate destination. The dense forest proves a challenge, a thick understory and a plentiful amount of downed tree taking a toll on my already tired body.
A shabby beaver dam allows for crossing a stream flowing from the ribbon wetland. Calling it a stream is giving it more credit than it deserves, as water flows every-which-way, with many little islands of vegetation within. Luckily, the dam provides a means for getting across, though balancing on this wreck of a dam is a necessity, as the drop off appears steep on both sides, a single slip and the remainder of the day is disastrous.
More spruce forest with dense understory and frequent blowdown follows past the stream crossing, with an undulating terrain before the confluence finally becomes visible between the trees. Now if I can only get around the cliff that stands between me and the wetland I hope to make my home for the night.
Despite the aggressive terrain, covered with an equally nasty forest, I find a way around the cliff and slowly pick my way through the maze of downed trees and nasty dead limbs to arrive at the edge of the confluence at about a half past four in the afternoon.
As I search for a place to emerge from the forest and view the large water body unimpeded, nature’s urge begins to ignite a slight urgency into each of my steps. As I view my surroundings, the cliff to the west, with a wet depression at its base, and the crisscross pattern of downed young spruces complete with their dangerous dead limbs intact on a raised portion of ground, the prospects for taking a dump seem just as low as finding an adequate place to camp for the night.
Following along the edge of the confluence, yet still back in the forest, I spot what might just be a small opening in the trees where I can view the wetland without the obstruction of the trees. As I steadily move in its direction, a small, white object looking out of place on the forest floor distracts me from my primary goal. As I draw closer to it, I awkwardly stoop down and pick up a Milky Way candy bar wrapper.
Even this far off the beaten track, where few people ever dare to explore, it is impossible to get away from humankind’s influence in the form of litter. Whether wantonly discarded by an irresponsible individual, or carelessly dropped by an otherwise conscientious explorer, it is impossible to know.
After reaching the gap between the trees, I realize there is a small peninsula nearby, and with just a little extra effort necessary to reach it. From this vantage point, the confluence unfolds in its full glory, a large water body running north-south, surrounded by marsh grasses and shrubbery. Three different streams feed the confluence, one from the Crooked Lake’s western outlet to the north, another from Lower Beech Ridge Pond to the south and the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River from the east.
Scanning the shoreline with my binoculars, I intently search for moose, the plethora of aquatic vegetation seemingly making it an ideal place for them to congregate. Alas, not a single beast presents itself for my amusement. Not a big surprise there, though.
Despite the lack of moose, other wildlife is prevalent. Twin turkey vultures soar overhead, two specks against the azure sky, sharing it with only a scattering of thick cumulous clouds. A male wood duck, with its brilliant colors, forages near the shoreline, completely unaware of my presence. Farther away, common goldeneye chicks swim about, most likely in search of their absent mother. A red-winged blackbird flies over the open water, while green and mink frogs call occasionally.
Of all the places visited so far on this trip, and all those I anticipate visiting, this is the one where I want to wake up in the morning, just to catch a glimpse of the wildlife sunrise brings, perhaps even a moose or two. So now, it is time to find a camping spot, and take care of some pressing business building within my colon.
Before it is too late.
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