February 2016 - Backcountry Skiing & Snowshoeing
The Lake-Effect Awakens
Skiing the Snowy Southern Adirondacks
By Rich Macha
Two years ago I wrote an article for this publication that began “The winter of 2013-14 through the end of January has been an exasperating one for those of us who like to recreate in the snow.” Once again I could start out with that same line and just substitute 2015-16. It’s hard to believe that things could ever get much worse for the snow lover, yet good times can still be had.
Cold winds traveling across the open waters of Lake Ontario pick up moisture, which falls as snow over the upland areas of the Tug Hill Plateau and the western half of the Adirondacks. This lake-effect seldom reaches the eastern Adirondacks so, in the absence of regular snowstorms, I often look to ski the southern Adirondacks in the area west of NY Route 30 where snow depths have been in the five to ten inch range this January – not great depths, but enough to cover most rocks and obstructions that might trip up the backcountry ski tourer.
Here are a few ideas for places to ski – or snowshoe – in the Canada Lake and Piseco area. I strongly recommend that you pick up the appropriate maps and guidebooks for this area before venturing out.
Stewart and Indian Lakes – A designated ski trail leaves Green Lake Road (0.6 miles from NY Routes 10/29A) from a trailhead that is shared with the trail up Kane Mountain in Canada Lake. In 200 yards you will pass through the summer parking area. Going straight ahead, the trail soon bears right crossing the outlet of Fish Hatchery Pond, below its concrete dam. The trail then climbs moderately in the next mile, and the downhill on the return can be challenging, even for intermediate skiers, so pick a day with at least a foot of snow. After having gone over 1.5 miles Stewart Lake can be seen through the trees on the left. A short bushwhack gets you to the shoreline and if you are confident that the ice is safe you can explore out onto the lake. Look west to see the two humps of the appropriately named Camelhump.
Continuing east on the trail it is about a half mile to Indian Lake. Again, if the ice is safe – avoid any areas near inlets or outlets where the ice will likely be thin, ski out onto the small lake and look for a large rock to the north that juts out into the lake. Pick a nice sunny spot that is out of the wind for some snacks and hot chocolate before returning. With some pond exploration the round-trip can easily be over five miles. More adventurous skiers can head off-trail to the east and drop down to explore Frie Flow or head north to Eastman Lake. It is hard, although not impossible, to get lost when you can just follow your tracks back.
North Branch – This trip is for those who are comfortable exploring an unmarked old road into the Silver Lake Wilderness. The start is from a plowed pullout next to the first southerly bridge that carries NY Route 10 over the West Branch Sacandaga River in Arietta. First-timers to this route will find it easier to follow the route if someone has recently skied or snowshoed in. Again, it is hard to get lost when you can just follow your tracks back to your car.
The path stays north of and close to the West Branch for a while. Stop a moment to admire the ice and open water rapids on the river as it flows down through a rocky section. Pulling away from the river, the old road heads north, and then southeast passing a small vly on the right. Since this is not an official trail you can expect occasional blowdown to block your route and a little bushwhacking will be necessary. The North Branch is visible in a couple of spots, and after about two miles a nice open vly can be seen on the right, and is worth leaving the old road for at least a brief visit.
Continuing north on the now narrow path, you soon reach a fork – there might be some flagging on a tree here – the old road bears left and a spur leads right to a campsite on the North Branch. Following the old road becomes more challenging due to blowdown and wet stream crossings, but you can turn back any time you wish, and follow your tracks back. The skiing on this tour is on the easy range of intermediate, but a positive attitude might also be needed when circumventing the obstructions – adventure is not without its challenges.
Dry, Dexter and Spectacle Lakes – This trek is mostly on a snowmobile trail, which starts from the west side of Route 10 in Arietta, a little north of the second bridge over the West Branch Sacandaga River – a plowed parking area is on the east side of the road. The first half-mile climbs to a register kiosk at a four-way junction. Go straight, going west on a wide trail that sees light snowmobile traffic, passing amongst hardwoods to the north of Good Luck Mountain. The trail’s character changes as evergreens become more prevalent, before reaching Dry Lake at about the two-mile mark. Some short, steep hills can be avoided by skiing out onto the lake if the ice is safe, and rejoining the trail a bit further along.
There is a challenging downhill run, down to Dexter Lake, then the trail follows the lake’s southeastern shoreline before pulling away near its outlet. Bearing left at a junction, you climb a long hill, where you have time to note any ski strategy that might be required for the fast downhill return. After cresting the hill, the trail starts dropping down to Spectacle Lake – bear left at a junction to come out at a nice spot at the edge of the lake’s western lobe, after skiing four miles. Dead trees poke out of the ice as beavers have built a large dam that raised the water level enough to drown the land at this end of the lake. Look for heron nests in the dead trees. A weekday visit will more likely offer a peaceful snowmobile-free sojourn to this attractive spot.
Foxy Brown Ski Loop – This is a six-mile-long designated ski trail that starts at the parking area for the Piseco Airport – the airport sees minimal use in winter. The trail runs along the edge of the woods on the southeast side of the airport for half a mile, before ducking into the mature woods at a sign topped with a bird box. The terrain is fairly easy although somewhat bumpy at times. After a couple of miles (signs along the way denote distance in kilometers), the trail narrows and passes between small balsam firs – the scent is delightful!
A wide stream is crossed to the left of an oddly-placed bridge. A sign tells you that you are at the halfway mark. The trail then turns toward the southwest, and passes through areas that could be wet during a warm spell – make sure you time your visit accordingly. A large tree is down practically in the trail, but there’s no problem squeezing by its now exposed ten-foot-high root system. The yellow-marked ski trail soon meets the Northville-Placid Trail (blue markers) and the signs at the junction can be a bit confusing. No further yellow ski markers are seen until about 100 yards away from the junction, after dropping down and up through a small stream.
Bear left at any junction to come out at the airport, and pick your best route out through the open airfield, crossing the plowed runway and back to your car. If so desired, more mileage can be gained by skiing on the NPT, or the snowmobile trail that goes from the airport toward Sacandaga Lake.
Courtesy on the Trail – When traveling on foot trails, and whenever the trail is wide enough, skiers should make their tracks to one side of the trail allowing snowshoers room on the other side. On narrow trails we must travel in each other’s tracks – this is unavoidable. Walking (“bare-booting”) in ski tracks will ensure that you rot in hell! When on snowmobile trails it is best to step off the trail when you hear any snowmobiles approaching.
In Conclusion – Even in the worst of low-snow winters there can be fun times in the out-of-doors if you know where to look for it.
Rich Macha is owner of Adirondack Paddle’n’Pole in Colonie, a store specializing in canoeing, kayaking and cross country skiing – visit onewithwater.com for more winter trip reports. Rich also leads cross country ski trips for the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Albany Chapter.