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Carpet Spruce Swamp: Pond-hopping Toward Crooked Lake

Second unnamed pond

Second unnamed pond

Pond-hopping is a time-honored way of bushwhacking through the Adirondack backcountry. Despite the term, little actually hopping is required, unless it occurs underfoot by a frog or toad trying to escape for its life. Instead, pond-hopping consists of breaking up a lengthy bushwhack through mostly unbroken forest by splitting it into shorter segments, each starting and ending at a pond or other water body.

My first bushwhack of the third day in the western Five Ponds Wilderness Area is a classical pond-hopping experience. Four unnamed ponds lie spread out over the landscape, each separated from the adjacent others by a steep and narrow ridge. Such terrain should provide a morning that goes by quickly, as each small bushwhack provide the payback of a scenic wilderness pond, its water glistening from the bright sunshine. If I am really lucky, there may even be a duck or two floating along on its surface.

Leaving the open area near the shoreline of the pond where I spent the previous night, I retreat north for a short distance back into the forest, before turning eastward again, bushwhacking slowly but surely toward the next pond on my day’s journey. Still lacking my bushwhacking legs, I take my time, carefully placing each step until I feel surer of ability to stay upright and not faceplant onto a log, stump or something far worse.

View Day Three, Part Two in a larger map

Section Stats:
Date: June 19, 2013
Length: 1.2 miles (1.3 total daily miles; 8.3 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Moderate

The slope is gradual as I slowly pull away from the unnamed pond, which I am very thankful for, as it allows my knotted muscles time to stretch out before anything incredibly arduous begins. Soon the gradual rise becomes steeper, with the coniferous forest transitioning to a more mixed one, with many deciduous trees scattered throughout.

By the time the steady climb uphill leads to a level area, the urgency for a morning bowel movement becomes unbearable, even though my last one occurred last yesterday afternoon on the way from the confluence. As if my body is somehow in perfect synch with my surroundings, the area around me is nearly the perfect place to put down an Adirondack dump, as it is far from water and its associated bloodthirsty insects. My gratitude for avoiding the bulk of the insect horde knows no bounds, as they would love nothing better than to zero in on bare, white ass to harvest on a cool and sunny morning; even a skinny one like mine.

With the morning’s sweet delight over and done with, I recommence my climb over of the ridge separating me from my next pond to the east, now with a newly acquired spring in my step and twinkle in my unburdened eye. In a short distance, the ridge increases its steepness, suddenly requiring me to pick my route carefully. When a cliff face appears before me, there is no choice but to pause, contemplating how best to get around it Continuing south along the bottom of the bare rock cliff, a herd path winding its way up through a crevice in the cliff comes into view. Scrambling through, relying heavily on both homemade hiking poles for support, I finally reach the top of the ridge, much to my relief.

Gleefully, I almost immediately begin my descent. The slope is steep at first, but still doable, requiring only a modest level of effort, much unlike my recent climb on the other side. My elation quickly gives way to despair when my descent ends at another cliff, reminiscent of my climb just moments ago, but in reverse. This time, there is no progress-saving herd path to act as my salvation, leaving me no recourse but to head northeast, along the cliff’s edge in search of a way down.

The party-pooping cliff slowly peters out as I proceed northeast, providing me with a more gradual descent only a short distance from the killer cliff I left behind to the south. Although less extreme than the cliff, the descent continues steeply, requiring my great care while placing not only my feet, but the hiking poles as well. The split that cost me one of previous hiking poles in the Pepperbox Wilderness plays over in my mind with each step downward, my knuckles turning white with my tightening grip upon the poor handles. The surrounding forest’s increasingly coniferous nature warns me of the approaching pond well before catching the first glimpses through the trees.

The second pond is the largest of the four unnamed wilderness ponds I will encounter on my way to Crooked Lake. This pond sits in a basin surrounded almost exclusively by ridges, with a dense coniferous shoreline compounding its sense of remoteness. The dense forest provides few views of the entire pond from my current position, but the northeast shoreline may provide a better vantage point. Lucky, my path takes me in that direction before departing to the south for the next pond.

First unnamed pond

First unnamed pond

Northern shoreline of  first pond

Northern shoreline of first pond

This pond solves one mystery from the morning though, as floating out far from shore is a single common loon. It never vocalizes while I stand on shore, but the silhouette is unmistakable, soon verified with my small binoculars. Can there be any doubt this is the same loon I heard from the previous pond? Seeing the large fish-eating bird on such a small pond is surprising, as I cannot imagine there would be much fish here, especially in an area where dead acidified water bodies appear to dominate.

Maybe these lakes and ponds are making a comeback, or this loon ate a few too many lead sinkers.

Shrubs dominate at the water’s edge, with an occasional floating bog mat near shore. Mingled in with the shrubs is an occasional clump of sedges or grasses. From one shrub, emerge several crimson flowers of the pitcher plant. This carnivorous plant is a bog inhabitant, suggesting the acidified nature of the pond. Any plant that eats blood-sucking insects is a friend in my book.

In short order, I make my way along the northern end of the shore, setting myself up for the next ridge and the shorter hop over to the next pond. Deer sign (i.e. tracks and scat) is all along the shoreline, much more common than anywhere else on this trip thus far. For one reason or another, this pond appears popular with the deer crowd of the area.

Pitcher plant flowers

Pitcher plant flowers

Growing bog mat on unnamed pond

Growing bog mat on unnamed pond

Before crossing a small stream feeding the pond from the northern hillside, the forest opens up and becomes increasingly shrubby rather than tree dominated. From the north end of the pond, I spot two beaver lodges near the south end of the pond. Given my map shows no steady inlet streams, the beaver dam probably ensures this pond’s existence at the current levels; the loon and deer owe those furry engineers a lot of gratitude.

With it approaching noon, I forego any lingering for the next pond, deciding not to stop for lunch until reaching the last of the small ponds. Heading west from the small stream, I climb steadily for a while though thankfully not anything nearly as steep as the previous ridge from earlier in the morning. This ascent is much more gradual and upon reaching the crest, I turn south toward the next small pond, all the while wondering what surprises it may have in store for me.

Common loon on first unnamed pond

Common loon on first unnamed pond

The descent is fairly gradual, but steady. The forest is more deciduous now, mature and largely open and easy to bushwhack through. The effort here is akin to that of an afternoon stroll through a woodlot rather the typical Adirondack forest. The leisurely pace and relaxing atmosphere are quite refreshing, quickly making this one of my favorite stretches of the day, as well as the whole trip.

While descending, occasional glimpses of the pond below come into sight, allowing me to tuck the compass into my jacket for good and just enjoy the trip. Unfortunately, the pleasantness ends upon nearing the pond, where the forest becomes much thicker, and decidedly more coniferous with a forest floor thick with hay-scented ferns and other vegetation.

The small pond is in clear view upon my arrival, its brilliant blue waters contrasting with the dark green of the surrounding spruce and fir. Several towering white pines line the shoreline, with my arrival point right at the base of one. A few boulders emerge from the water at the pond’s southern end, several flatter ones just above the water further from shore, while most of the massive ones lie scattered about near shore.

Towering pine overlooking second  pond

Towering pine overlooking second pond

Five ducks sit on the flatter rocks, while another three swim about in the water. Two are large American black ducks, while three others are obviously male ring-necked ducks. The other three remain evasive, but the brown heads make it likely they are the corresponding ring-necked females. At first, my arrival goes completely unnoticed by the ducks, but eventually those on the rocks retreat to the water, with all the ducks swimming farther south and away from me, but I take little offense.

After taking a few photographs, I depart eastward toward the last of the unnamed ponds for today. The ascent is gradual at first but steadier as I leave the pond farther behind and cross over the southern shoulder of the small mountain to the north. The term mountain needs some context in this area of low hills, lakes and wetlands, however, as the mountain’s maximum elevation is a paltry 706 meters, not even much to worry about in many other mountainous parts of the Adirondacks, but formidable here in the western Five Ponds Wilderness.

The slope increases, as has the temperature from this morning, taking more out of me than I realize. After a steeper climb for a while, the incline becomes more gradual again, especially as I approach the crest of the mountain’s shoulder. This is all mixed forest here, with some occasional blowdowns to contend with, increasing my effort and making me feel like lunch should have occurred at the last pond.

The climb down off this ridge is equally steep and steady, almost the entire way down to the final pond’s shoreline. The gnawing hunger in my stomach is thankful for the lack of any cliffs this time, as it believes lunch is well overdue. While approaching the pond, I spot a beaver trail, which I quickly reach and follow in the direction of the water. Upon reaching a small ridge overlooking the pond through the trees below, I continue following the beaver trail until reaching the shoreline.

Beaver channel

Beaver channel

Second unnamed pond

Second unnamed pond

It is almost one o’clock in the afternoon by the time I arrive at the last pond’s shoreline. This irregularly shaped pond would be my last for the day until I reached the large, more odd-shaped Crooked Lake to the northeast. Scanning the pond, I spot two American black duck, instantly wondering whether they were the same two from the last one, gloating on the far shore as they watch me arrive late for the party – the lunch party.

The rumbling in my stomach indicates putting off lunch any further is no option. Finding a nice open area providing an ample view of the pond, I settle myself down for food, filtering and other frolicking, in preparation for the last leg of my trip to Crooked Lake. While the water filters through my gravity filter, I dine on a tuna fish sandwich on pocket bread, with dehydrated spinach powder and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, along with assorted sweet snacks as a follow-up. There are few things in life better than a nutritious and filling lunch after traveling through the Adirondacks during a long morning.

Third unnamed pond

Third unnamed pond

While gorging myself on my hearty lunch, I spot a female hooded merganser swimming into the pond with her 6+ young – all totally oblivious to my presence, despite all the aggressive chewing. While watching them, a male common yellowthroat springs into view in a nearby shrub, curious about my pile of gear scattered about or my person. Another male sings in the distance, though my observer shows little interest. By the time the little yellow bird moves on, the merganser family has vanished, probably taking shelter near shore.

It is almost two-thirty by the time I haul my lazy butt off the soft forest floor, pack up the gear and start heading northeast toward the awaiting Crooked Lake, my last destination for the day. The pond-hopping is over for now, with only the long slog along series of wetlands toward Crooked Lake remaining of my day’s bushwhacking adventure.

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