The West Canada Lake Wilderness Area (September 9-13, 2010)

I went for a solitary walk in the West Canada Lake Wilderness Area in the Adirondack Park in New York State from September 9th to the 13th (2010). I chose this place because of its isolation (there are no roads) and the beauty of its lakes. (See a description and map.) Even with a companion, which I would have enjoyed, the isolation from “everything” of Babel helps me reestablish a bird’s-eye perspective on life. As I walk and lounge in the elements, I can reflect, and the distance and isolation help me reestablish an existential and metaphysical perspective on reality. In the background of my thoughts is Harold Bloom’s take on gnosticism (along with his unfortunate misunderstanding of apostolic Christianity), which I appreciate, and a fresh reading of Colossians and 1 Peter.

Thursday: I drove in on Perkins Clearing Road, a dirt logging road off of Route 30 at Mason Lake. I took this to Perkins Clearing, where I then took Jessup River Road to Sled Harbor. (Sled Harbor, now used as a collecting point for storing logs, was once where wagons were replaced by sleds pulled by oxen.) From there I took Old Military Road, a much rougher road, to the parking area at the Pillsbury Mountain trailhead, 6.3 miles from Route 30. I arrive at noon.

Starting OutI change my clothes and organize my backpack and then, setting out at 12:40, I walk about 4.6 miles to the First Cedar Lake lean-to along the Cedar Lakes Trail, arriving at 2:40. It rained from the time I left the car and will keep raining without relenting until six in the morning. At the lean-to I meet two fishermen on their way out. The lake and surrounding forests are always beautiful, even in the rain when what I notice most are the layers and contours of lake, forest and hills. Curtains of rain drifted in waves across the lake. Inside the lean-to, my bags and wet clothes hang from the ceiling on cordage and nails. The roof leaks a few feet from my sleeping bag.

Friday: It is cold in the morning and I work with gloves. Though the clouds are thinning and I see patches of blue, it does not seem promising. As it turns out, it continues to rain off and on with the sun shining in between. I head out at nine o’clock along the Northville-Placid trail for the grassy junction where the former caretaker cabin once stood at the east end of West Canada Lake. I had done this trail many times before. After Cobble Hill it is overgrown and gets increasingly rough; it is an obstacle course through bog, mud, rocks and roots (this is where trekking poles make a lot of sense). At 11:25 I find that the “bridge” across Mud Creek is no longer there and there is no evidence of it; it is clean washed away. The makeshift bridge of two saplings tied together is too flimsy to attempt without long poles, which are not available nearby (my trekking poles at full extension barely come to the height of the bridge, and therefore are useless). It is necessary to wade across, the water coming up forty inches on me.

From the site of the old cabin I take the West Canada Lakes Trail along the northern rim of West Lake to the lean-to at Brooktrout Lake. This trail is also rough and overgrown and requires navigating across flooded parts. Despite the best intentions of the trail-blazers, beaver activity is constant and forces hikers to find new solutions. I arrive at 2:30 after hiking 9.3 miles. Strangely the lean-to faces a large rock, away from the lake (with a fire going, the lean-to could be toasty, but the forest is soaked and dry wood will be hard to find; I forego it); the floor also slopes too much. The lake itself is beautiful (as they all are). I can see patches of blue sky and a strong wind is blowing. Around six o’clock a Scottish man and his ten-year-old daughter from Connecticut arrive from Otter Brook Road over five miles away. They are very pleasant to talk to, but they decide to pitch their tent near the water. Sadly, my camera stops working. This night, only the third night of the moon, the stars shine with an amazing intensity.

Saturday: In the morning I am very cold. I think it is in the low forties (F). As I have my breakfast, I have all my layers on and the sleeping bag is wrapped around my legs. I head out at 9:15, after bidding adieu to my neighbors, along the way I had come and I reach the grassy junction at the end of West Lake at 10:45. The day has become hot and sunny. I take the Northville-Placid trail south to Spruce Lake. The long wooden bridge across the outlet of South Lake always makes an impression on me. Along the way I meet several hikers, one of whom is a man and his dog whom I will see later. When I get to the Sampson Bog falls there is a solid log bridge across. A few years ago the bridge had washed away and I safely waded across on the rocks behind a beaver dam at the top of the falls. Before that, I used to be able to cross, if the water level was low, by hopping the rocks, but it got so that a person attempting to do so risked their life because of the force of the shute. The new bridge makes the crossing easy (and safe). The trail after that continues to be muddy but better than before.

I reach the furthest lean-to on Spruce Lake at 2:15, having hiked ten miles. This is called the first lean-to (I guess because it is closer to the town of Piseco). The second and third are north of it and I passed them because groups had already taken them. When I arrive a man and his son were calling it a day and taking their canoe out of the water. This lean-to used to be trashed and I would not think of staying there. I brought my tarp expecting that that might still be the case, but the lean-to was in surprisingly good condition. I removed the litter and swept the lean-to with a bough that had been broken off when the canoe passed through, and set up camp. Several hikers passed by until, about six o’clock, a northbound group of three men from Elmira asked if they could stay the night with me. They are friendly and energetic, having met each other through a hiking group. They build a good fire in the pit and cook steak and mushrooms over it. They offer to share their bounty but I, having eaten before they came (and being a vegetarian in any case), enjoy instead the gift of their conversation. This night I stay awake with them into the dark but I sleep better than I had been.

Sunday: It is warm this morning and I am on the trail before nine, heading back the way I came. I stop at the Sampson Bog bridge to rest and engage in conversation with another hiker who stops to wait for his older partners (they are heading south). It is drizzling on and off and I am getting cold again. I continue on and come to the unmarked junction for the French Louie Trail (also known as the “Pillsbury Lake to West Canada Creek Trail”). Soon, as the rain becomes heavier, I see some trail markers and follow them along an overgrown trail through mud and muck and roots and rocks to the lean-to at Sampson Lake at 12:40, a distance of 8.75 miles from the lean-to at Spruce Lake. This lean-to is clean and the lake is beautiful.

The heavy clouds have overcast the sky in a twilight dark since about eleven o’clock. By early afternoon it is quite cold as the wind blows and it continues to rain. It will rain until seven the next morning. Loons have made their presence heard at every lake but here they are particularly ruckus. From the bank I watch them as a large raptor harasses them, making awful grating noises, until it eventually tires and perches on a high branch of a fir tree overlooking the lake. I admire the steep topography and boreal flora around me, the fir and spruces and the reds of the changing broadleafs against the carpet of needles and decaying trees. But mostly I keep to the lean-to and think and write (the cold makes it hard to concentrate) and try to stay warm, layered with hat and gloves and the sleeping bag wrapped around my legs. Around 2:30 the man with the dog pay me a visit (the dog alerted him to my presence). He  is an intelligent young man without any obvious ambitions taking some time off from the madness of Babel, relaxing in nature’s calm. He has a rather large tent nearby. On rainy days like this he usually stays inside and reads. The night before he had bushwacked around Sampson Bog and camped there. The night gets even colder and I wrap my sleeping bag in my tarp, knowing that it will get wet from condensation but also knowing that it is my last night and I do not need to worry about it. The rain comes down very heavily during the night. 

Monday: I woke up warm, but it is still raining. After I have some coffee, I have a profound and satisfying time of prayer. It gets light uneasily but around seven I no longer see the rain on the lake, though I hear it all around me—the incessant dripping from the trees. Daylight begins to grow and by eight o’clock I can make out blue sky through the mists. The morning warmth and the light of the sun rejuvenate me. I take my time and get on the trail by ten o’clock. The trail is, of course, very muddy, but around eleven o’clock it starts to follow a nineteenth century road. It is still muddy and flooded at places but the continuous obstacle course through rocks and trees and roots has subsided. By 11:30 I come to the lean-to at Pillsbury Lake and rest for a while. It is warm, the sun is out and the wind is howling in the trees, and I can see large portions of blue sky. I climb down to the bank and stand on a boulder and admire the lake. It is long from west to east with several islands. Marsh grasses hug the steep banks and lilly pads float in the water near me. I get back on the trail. After the junction for the Cedar Lakes Trail, the path becomes downright “civilized” (easy), even downhill, and takes me straight to the parking area where my car is. I get to the trailhead by one o’clock, 6.2 miles from the lean-to at Sampson Lake. In all, I walked on the trails just under forty miles (not counting the side excursions on which my curiosity led me), not much but for this time enough. By now the sky has become overcast again, but it was kind to me. One other car is there. I pack my car and change into street clothes. By 1:30 I am ready to leave. Forty minutes later I reach Route 30 and I am on my way home.

Some of My Reflections

I have described these separately. Follow this link to “Wilderness Musings.” 

1 comment to The West Canada Lake Wilderness Area (September 9-13, 2010)

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