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Carpet Spruce Swamp: Bushwhacking Straight to Crooked Lake

Crooked Lake

Crooked Lake

Reaching the midpoint of any bushwhacking trip always comes with a good dose of ambivalence. The early trip jitters are finally gone now, leaving the realization that every remaining day brings you closer to your departure and the inevitable return to the so-called real world with its numerous pressures and frustrations.

So as I finish my lunch at the shore of an unnamed pond in the middle of the westernmost Five Ponds Wilderness, my thinking centers on this final stretch of bushwhacking before reaching the halfway point of my trip. All that remains of today’s journey is following the pond’s inlet up to Crooked Lake for the night before starting the slow slog west back toward my car, and all it represents.

Crooked Lake is an odd lake. It is large and irregularly shaped, appearing as a four pointed star in the middle of some of the most remote areas within the Five Ponds Wilderness. Three of the four points function as a stream headwaters, the northern one for the Robinson River, with the other two eventually feeding into the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River, one of which I crossed early this very morning. In 2010, I bushwhacked along the lake’s northern shore, even crossing the nascent Robinson River at its headwaters on my way to the terminus of the Red Horse Trail, and eventually to Stillwater Reservoir.

View Day Three, Part Three in a larger map

Section Stats:
Date: June 19, 2013
Length: 1.4 miles (2.7 total daily miles; 9.7 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Moderate

With lunch in my stomach, a nice, long rest under my belt and some serious daydreaming complete, it is high time to finish today’s bushwhack. Leaving the small, unnamed pond behind, I head north for only a short distance before shifting northeast. Instead of climbing over the mountain’s summit to the north, my plan is to cut over to the stream and follow the pond’s inlet all the way up to Crooked Lake. Unfortunately, that requires at least some climbing, but I am hoping to avoid as much of the steep portions as humanly possible.

It bears noting, that by mountain I am using the term loosely, as at its summit, this big-boy is only about 2300 feet. Hardly a monster by any standards, but here in the lowlands of the western Five Ponds Wilderness, it is nothing to sneeze at. If I can avoid climbing over it, I am sure going to do my damnedest to do so.

Shortly upon leaving the unnamed pond, the terrain becomes steeper as I begin to climb along the southern shoulder of the mountain. Although the forest stays mostly softwood, it quickly starts transitioning into hardwood species with the increase in elevation. The hardwoods consist primarily of American beech, red maple and eastern hemlock, with a few yellow birches mixed in for good measure.

With the transition to hardwoods, I shift from heading north and the inevitable arduous climb, and veer northeast instead, heading on a parallel path alongside the drainage connecting Crooked Lake and the unnamed pond I just left behind. The brilliant idea of safely following the contours up in the hardwoods away from the difficult conifers along the drainage soon falls apart as I encounter a series of up-and-downs, leading me further east on an inevitable intercept path with the stream instead.

Unfortunately, my eastward path does not spare me from all of the arduous climbing. A steep descent requires hunting around for an easier path forward, which proves relatively close after some searching. Soon it is déjà vu all over again, as I find myself on the wrong side of a rocky cliff again. Then again, is there a right side of a cliff when it lies directly in your path? Travelling a short distance along the cliff, requiring some doubling back and a little aimless wandering, the sheer drop off peters out some, allowing for a scramble down a steep, but doable slope. At least, I did not free-fall down it.

Forest on mountainside

Forest on mountainside

What resembles a seasonal stream, with very little water currently flowing through it, lies at the base of the cliff. While carefully picking my way through the rocks, trying to avoid a twisted ankle at all costs, I spot a pile of black bear scat. Looking around at the cliff behind me, the numerous rocks scattered about and the dense forest surrounding me, this is exactly the place I would anticipate finding a bear.

I move on quickly to avoid any possible misunderstanding with a groggy and irate bear.

What would a rapid descent be without an immediate ascent to make the effort moot? Climbing again so soon after struggling to find a descent seems like an awfully cruel joke, but nevertheless this is the situation before me. As a small consolation, the climbing does not last long, as I find another steep drop off before me. At this point, these successive drop-offs are getting a tad bit tedious. Luckily, I can see an open area through the trees just beyond this decent, so hopefully this is my last for the forseeable future.

Descending to the open area, I look for the open stream that connects the Crooked Lake to my watery lunch site, but all I manage to see is a boggy open area completely inappropriate for bushwhacking, at least by someone wanting to keep dry, like myself. The open area is large and expansive, with a labyrinth of many small snags and shrub masses obscuring any possibility of locating the interior stream.

Boggy area along stream

Boggy area along stream

Rather than move on after all the climbing and descending, I stop for a short rest in before pushing on northeast to Crooked Lake. With it nearly three in the afternoon, dawdling here long is something I can ill afford. The tripartite insect horde, with its persistent hovering deer flies, stealthy under-the-radar mosquitoes and continually pesky black flies, keeps things interesting enough that I never get too comfortable, so within minutes I am back on the march with renewed gusto.

Bushwhacking along the waterway is not too difficult, despite the blood-sucking horde behind my head never letting up. Since following a prominent landmark such as the open drainage requires little directional route finding, I slip both my compass and Garmin GPS securely into my jacket, where they remain for the rest of the journey.

The forest remains mixed near the open area, with the coniferous portion never so dominant as to produce the difficult going that only they know how to do so well. The continuous downed trees, young regrowth and dangerous low limbs are rare here, at least at levels where they pose any serious threat. Picking my way carefully, sometimes moving back into the forest and away from the open area to avoid any obstacles (and the bugs) when the situation calls for it, my progress is both steady and rewarding.

American beech, yellow birch and red spruce dominate the forest. Some of these are very large, providing the feeling of undisturbed old-growth, whether or not true in reality. With such large trees surrounding me, birds singing out in boggy clearing and the absence of any man-made noises (other than my own), it is hard to believe that I am not in the most remote spot of the Adirondack State Park.

Crooked Lake's southern bay

Crooked Lake’s southern bay

Crooked Lake's southern bay

Crooked Lake’s southern bay

Woolgathering makes the hike fly by, and within less than an hour, the boggy area begins to transition from one with scattered small pools within a matrix of mosses and grasses to one with islands of moss and grass in a matrix of water. Labrador tea, pitcher plants, sphagnum moss and sedges dominate the islands, while green frogs twang intermittently in the background. A pair of ring-necked ducks swims through the islands, weaving their way to a unknown location. White-throated sparrow and Lincoln’s sparrow songs echo along the open border, accentuating the feeling of remoteness.

The forest remains open, with larger spruce/fir covering the steeply sloping shoreline all the way down to the water’s edge. Despite the slope, it is fairly easy hiking, with little of the downed trees and poking branches that coniferous forests usually provide in abundance. Not far upslope and away from the shoreline, the forest quickly transitions to a more mixed situation, or sometimes almost completely hardwood. Although the deer and black flies seem to favor this situation less than the boggy area to the southwest, the mosquitoes more than make up for their absence.

Forest along Crooked Lake's southern bay

Forest along Crooked Lake’s southern bay

Often, I catch glimpses of the expansive open water of Crooked Lake ahead of me, either through the trees or during those times when I return forest’s edge. The open water ahead fails to suggest the odd shape of this large lake. Given its exposure, the end of this southwestern peninsula will probably provide the finest views, so this is my goal for a campsite, if possible.

The steep slope along the shoreline suggests that finding an acceptable campsite may be a daunting task indeed. Luckily, as I approach the peninsula’s terminus, the slope peters out and the shoreline becomes somewhat more level, giving me hope that negotiation with the surrounding terrain may yield an acceptable campsite; at least for a single night.

Moving back away from the shoreline, I locate a relatively level area on a small rise shielded by monstrous eastern hemlocks. Although a large log, half buried under leaf litter, blocks any view of the water through the trees, the spot it too hard to pass up, and my campsite for the night is found with little hubbub.

Even before setting up my tarp, my search for a rock to hang the food bag begins. Unfortunately, no tip-up mound or stream are anywhere near my chosen campsite. After a good deal of meandering, taking me much farther from my gear than I normally feel comfortable, I finally find a large rock that allows me to chip off a portion small enough that I can handle throwing it repeatedly up into the canopy without tiring my arm. Thankfully, upon returning to my pack at the campsite, I do NOT find it torn to pieces with all the food missing.

Campsite near Crooked Lake

Campsite near Crooked Lake

After unceremoniously hanging the food line, I devote all my energy to setting up camp for the night. Multitasking, gravity runs water through my filter, while I concentrate on putting up the tarp and loading in my sleeping gear in preparation for another pleasant night in the wild. With much of my immediate chores done, I take a few minutes to relax, survey my wondrous surroundings and take a few photographs, before starting dinner. Without any immediate worries occupying my mind, it dawns on me that this is the first evening of this trip when I am not frantically hurrying to get under the tarp, whether due to threatening weather or a long and ill-conceived late afternoon dash.

While enjoying some high protein pasta and dried veggies covered in cheese sauce for dinner, mink frogs entertain me with their frequent “cut, cut, cut” calls down along the water’s edge. I catch a glimpse of a large whitish bird flying over the lake while eating, but lose sight of it after putting dinner down to get my binoculars. Shortly thereafter, a common loon begins yodeling nearby, perhaps responding to my mental inquiry about the unknown bird’s identity.

Having arrived at my campsite relatively early, at least compared to the previous two days, there is plenty of time to relax and enjoy the wilderness experience, despite the constant assault of the biting insects.

Rescued dragonfly

Rescued dragonfly

While looking for excellent spots to take photographs of the lake, I notice a sad looking dragonfly lying in the water near shore, completely covered in algae. Embracing the task, I fashion a useful tool out of the natural materials nearby (i.e. I pick up a stick), and carefully extract the poor insect from its watery grave. I do my best to rid it of its algal entrapment and gingerly place it on the top of a tip-up mound near the edge of the water. It may be too late to save it though, as the insect moves little. Then again, perhaps it is just tired from its struggles, so I make a mental note to check on it before leaving in the morning.

The mosquitoes remain persistent until around eight o’clock, where for some reason they become more restrained. There is no respite from the blood sucking assault however, as the last blast of black flies arrive just before dark, with a large number of no-see-ums in tow shortly thereafter.

A rich array of bird life surrounds my campsite, evident from the constant song entertaining me during the evening hours. A common loon continues calling from across the lake, while tree swallows dart to and fro over the surface of the water. Common yellowthroat, purple finch, rusty blackbird, song sparrow, yellow-rumped warbler, white-throated sparrow, hermit thrush and Swainson’s thrush sing for the day just past, as they prepare for the night’s respite. Yelping to the west suggests that even the coyotes want to get into the act, despite their having the entire night to do so.

Island on Crooked Lake

Island on Crooked Lake

Crooked Lake

Crooked Lake

Increasingly desperate mosquitoes and no-see-ums force me into the safety and security of my shelter. With the temperatures dropping, and the lake’s smooth-as-glass surface revealing the absence of the late afternoon winds, it is probably going to be another cool evening, which suits me fine, especially as am going to be nestled into a warm and lightweight sleeping bag for a while.

The day’s end signals the midpoint of my trip. Tomorrow brings the evitable march west, back towards my awaiting vehicle. What experiences await me along the way is anyone’s guess, but at least tonight, I will get a restive night’s sleep to prepare me for what is to come.

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One comment on “Carpet Spruce Swamp: Bushwhacking Straight to Crooked Lake

  • Wow! Excellent exploration. I am happy about the the big hardwoods and hemlocks in there. Crooked Lake from that angle is really nice. It is probably one of the few photos ever taken from that part of the lake. I was told by some locals, back in the 70’s, that a lot of Sportsmen used to float plane into that lake (before 1972). That explains all the old campsites you noted on an earlier post. I also have been told, back around 20 years ago, that some people use that outlet to go on to Stillwater Reservoir. They generally stayed on the east side of the creek (probably to avoid the swampy area and wide Middle-Branch Oswegatchie River. These acquaintences of mine said that they eventually got to Dismal Pond and then over through to the trail from Bear Pond down to Stillwater. They were coming from Wanakena, and one person told me that they came over from Low’s Lake and Big Deer Pond. The blowdown in 1995 tended to stop a lot of this kind of traveling. They probably had permission to cut across the private inholding or skirted itI. I always avoid private land. The few times I have been on private land, I got permission first. When you found that gum wrapper, that was probably a trapper in there. Thanks Dan!

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