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Carpet Spruce Swamp: Retiring from Five Ponds Wilderness via South Ponds

Upper South Pond

Upper South Pond

Retiring is on my mind while departing from the remote western Five Ponds Wilderness after six days. Primarily, because I am rushing home in time to attend a co-worker’s retirement party, but also for what leaving the forest I love so much behind represents as well.

Departing from the Adirondack backcountry has some similarities to retiring from the working world. Both involve changing a routine, though working lasts much longer than most outdoor adventures, unfortunately. These thoughts leave a metaphoric dark cloud looming overhead to add to the actual darkening of the sky that combined with the humidity threatens a wet afternoon.

Getting temporarily disoriented earlier is putting my attendance at the retirement party in serious doubt. For that reason, I try and pick up my pace a little, leaving Sitz Creek and its beaver vly behind after just a short stay, my route taking me slightly southwest toward Middle and Upper South Ponds. After a short while, open wetlands appear to my south, indicating Middle South Pond is not far off.

Mature softwoods dominate here, with little understory or subcanopy, surprisingly given the open wetlands to the south. Among the balsam fir and spruce, an occasional large eastern hemlock stands dominating over all, its large girth indicating its senior status. If not for the undulating terrain, the surrounding area looks almost park-like.

Section Stats:
Date: June 22, 2013
Length: 3.2 miles (4.4 total daily; 19.3 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Easy

A bright blue color catches my eye for an instant and then suddenly disappears. This hide-and-seek of color continues for a while until I draw closer and it reappears on a fir tree up ahead. At his distance, the source of the color is apparent; a thin blue ribbon wound its way around the tree truck. Somehow, it managed entangling itself without aid of a balloon. Despite a quick scan of the area, the location of the balloon remains unknown.

At the very least, I can pack out the ribbon, as I do with most lightweight garbage found on my backcountry sojourns. I slowly untangle the ribbon from the trunk, taking great care not to rip it and leave a remnant hanging up beyond my reach. Patience pays off, as I secure the ribbon in my pack before returning to my original route.

Open water begins appearing to the south, as the open wetlands begin morphing into ponds as Middle South Pond grows closer. As I approach, I realize doing so is a mistake and will actually make reaching the main pond more difficult, so I turn north skirting around an open wetland and head for the pond’s northern most bay instead.

Within a short distance, the pond’s northern-most bay comes into view, and along with it, more frequent piles of moose droppings. Although there was an occasional pile here and there before, this area becomes a regular moose-shit city, with larger piles and greater frequency. My obsession with marking each as a waypoint on my GPS continues, but if the frequency does not let up, I will have no choice but to abandon this practice entirely.

After making my way around the northern bay, I turn south, staying on the elevated ridge above the shoreline, but edging closer to the water when the opportunity presents itself. Only scattered overstory provides shelter from the sky here, though the trees are massive in size but few and far between. Whether this is due to some natural thinning or beaver activity, it is hard to say. Where the tree canopy is lacking, the ground is a thick tangle of hobblebush. Living up to its name, the shrubbery impedes my progress tremendously.

Despite the thick understory, I keep finding more moose turd piles, even when the hobblebush gives way to even thicker small shrubby conifers. After trying to set waypoints every few steps for a while, I finally throw up my hands, giving up any further attempt to record their location. Obviously, this is a favored area for moose, which I take note, since I plan to return to see if I can catch a glimpse of one of these large mammals.

Leaving Middle Pond behind, I head east into the forest again in search of Upper South Pond. The shoulder of a hill off to the north separates the two ponds, which should be far easier traversing than following the thickly-vegetated shoreline. Before climbing, the many relatively flat areas nearby grab my attention; this just might be an ideal place to camp and see that moose hanging around the area. I will have to camp here sometime in the future.

Climbing the ridge, hemlocks start dominating the forest, both in number and in size. This is especially true at the height of land, where the forest seems unending on the other side. Even after climbing down off the ridge, it takes a little while longer before glimpses of Upper South Pond start appearing off to the south. Soon after, the entire pond makes an appearance, much to my relief.

Piles of moose turds

Piles of moose turds

When I finally reach the northeastern shoreline of Upper South Pond, I find what resembles the herd path that leads back to the marked trail. At least ten years has passed since I was here last, and the trail has become significantly more indistinct since then.

As I make my way westward, metal debris starts appearing. Its rusty edges protrude from the leafy detritus, the reminder of a time when this area was significantly more popular. That was long before acid rain though, when these water bodies were still teeming with fish, drawing anglers into the depths of this remote wilderness. The fading trail is testament to the lack of visitors these days, now that fish have vanished from the pond’s waters.

The herd path becomes more distinct as I approach the western end of the pond, until it finally leads to the clearing at the end of the marked trail from Bear Pond Road. The clearing looks much as it did a decade before, though the ferns and other herbaceous plants dominate now. The vegetation appears almost completely undisturbed, as if no campers have erected tent or tarp in a very long time. The fire ring lies almost completely hidden beneath the vegetation, as is a stack of cut and decaying logs nearby.

The marked trail is on the opposite side of the clearing. I pause for a moment and look back on Upper South Pond, knowing that this is likely one of the final times I will see this water body for a very long time, if ever. Out on the water a female common goldeneye swims away, with her 6+ duckling following close behind. Other than that, the pond remains undisturbed, so I turn and speed down the marked trail, eager to be on my way despite feeling less positive about making the retirement party later in the afternoon.

Metal debris at Upper South Pond

Metal debris at Upper South Pond

The trail shortly disappears in a convoluted clearing, seemingly highly impacted by violent runoff and erosion. I see trails in every direction, but most turn out to be only eroded tracts, once flush with torrents of runoff. Running late, I throw trail finding to the wind and instead turn to my handy Garmin GPS for guidance.

With a waypoint saved where I left the trail five days before, it is easy enough to find the direction and distance to the trail using the GPS. By the time it gives me a general direction, I am already bushwhacking back into the forest toward the elusive trail. Before even reaching the waypoint, I regain the trail and start making decent time back toward my awaiting car.

While approaching a clearing along the trail, a broad-winged hawk flies low overhead and into a tree farther up the trail. It sits there almost motionless, watching me as I approach. Within a few moments, it flies off into the dense forest, apparently uninterested in having a thin and stinky hiker as a snack.

By 11:30 AM, the bridge over the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie comes into view, the sky finally starting to give up some of its moisture in the form of occasional small raindrops. The threat of rain has a similar effect as having the devil nipping at one’s heels, that is, I shift into a brisk walk. At that pace, it takes only a few more moments to reach my car at Bear Pond Road, a Chevy truck now parked along the road as well.

Clearing at Upper South Pond

Clearing at Upper South Pond

I remove my backpack, with the plan of cleaning up before departing for my long ride home. A thick swarm of mosquitoes seeing an infrared bullseye on my back has other plans though. The onslaught is so horrendous, I cannot even stand still, instead choosing to pace up and down the road as I try to determine my next move.

Between the heat, the mosquitoes and the retirement party, I abandon all my good intentions, and instead seek the shelter of my soon to be air-conditioned car. The mosquitoes and the heat can rot in Hell for all I care; just give me a comfortable temperature and a barrier to keep those blood suckers at bay is all I ask.

The slow ride out via Bear Pond Road proves largely uneventful, except for stopping and helping a painted turtle across the road. The long, tedious drive back home is even less interesting. Unfortunately, by the time I drive home, hang my stuff up to dry, bag my putrid clothing and shower, I am way too beat to make it to the party.

To Hell with that too.

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2 comments on “Carpet Spruce Swamp: Retiring from Five Ponds Wilderness via South Ponds

  • Hi Dan,
    I just stumbled across your site tonight and read “Retiring from Five Ponds Wilderness via…” I love that area, esp. Sand Lake. In July ’95 I read a post-derecho article in which someone was quoted as saying ‘…nobody will ever go back there again’. I thought, “WOW! That must be an amazing sight, I have to see that! So I ‘whacked from the St. Law. county corner to SL in August of ’95.
    All other visits to Sand Lake were from Wanakena, except for once from the end of Young’s Rd. in Star Lake.

    Anyway, about that blue ribbon wrapped around a tree… A few years ago I read about the idea of visiting points where an integral number latitude line intersects a similar longitude line. So it’s exactly x.0 degrees 0 minutes 0 seconds. The article mentioned such a “confluence” in the area you describe, and I remember it referred to Sitz Creek or Pond. You were very close to one such point, 44N x 75W. Did you save your GPS co-ords of that trip? Did you set a waypoint at the blue ribbon. According to one of the photo captions, Sitz Creek is ~ 1/4 mile NW of the confluence. The writer said there were other ribbons nearby, maybe from gov’t agency surveys, b/c 2 (or more?) maps come together here.
    Here’s a site that explains the idea: http://scribol.com/outdoor-sports/the-degree-confluence-project-pinpointing-where-the-map-lines-meet and here’s a link to a report of someone who visited the spot and took pictures: http://confluence.org/confluence.php?id=185
    In his report he has links to the websites of his companions who also wrote accounts.
    I love Sand Lake (I

  • Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the comment. I have heard of the confluence before and have read the report you provided before. The confluence you indicated is on the northeast side of Sitz Mountain, north of where I spent the night at Sitz Pond. The blue ribbon I mentioned was clearly the kind of ribbon often used to tie to balloons, not flagging that is often used to mark things in the forest. From the photographs I have seen, the confluence is marked with this type of flagging.

    Thanks for the information. I like Sand Lake too, and went there once this summer for the first time in a few years. It was great to be back.

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