Spent 3 days/2 nights exploring the heart the Ha-De-Ron-Dah Wilderness late last week. I've spent very little time in the southwest area of the park before, and it's always a pleasure to explore new areas- although I'm starting to run out of new areas to explore!
Got a late start on Thursday, and hiked in to Middle Settlement Lake in the dark from the Okara trail head on Route 28. The trail packs a bit of a punch in the first few hundred feet, but after than it leveled off. The old snowmobile trail that parallels Route 28 was easy hiking, and the trail in to the lake wasn't too bad either. There were some impressive boulders and ledges on the east end of Middle Settlement Lake that I'd love to go back and explore during the daylight some time.
Got to the lean-to around 11 pm, and settled in for a pleasant night. I awoke early Friday morning, and got to watch a beautiful sunrise over the lake. The Middle Settlement Lean-to couldn't be more perfectly situated for views- it's right on the edge of a rocky bluff overlooking the lake.
Unfortunately, that beauty isn't without it's toll- the lake pretty obviously gets a lot of use, and is pretty heavily impacted. Numerous illegal satellite sites abound in the vicinity of the lean-to and trail, and firewood is scarce. There is one designated campsite on the east end of the lake, but it's pretty apparent that the area gets a lot more use than the one lean-to and one campsite can handle.
I packed up and was soon heading north to Pine Lake, my destination for the evening. The trail north from Middle Settlement Lake obviously doesn't get much use- there were moments where I had to stop and scan carefully ahead through the woods to pick out the route. Along the way, it passed by Lost Lake as well as some small beaver flows- all pretty bodies of water. Both Middle Branch, as well as the outlet of East Pine Pond, are pretty major streams, but fortunately both were bridged and easy to cross.
It didn't take long to reach Pine Lake. The lean-to there is set back a little ways from the water. There was a campsite down by the water, but I also read an entry from the ranger in the lean-to register stating that it was illegal. The lean-to obviously receives significantly less use than the Middle Settlement Lake lean-to, but there were also signs of illegal ATV use in the vicinity.
Since it wasn't even afternoon yet, I decided to head over to check out Big Otter Lake. The trail there from Pine Lake is a snowmobile trail in winter, and was flat and easy to follow. Unfortunately, I also encountered spots of ATV damage along the way- precursors of what was to come at Big Otter Lake.
For such a big lake, the outlet of Big Otter was somewhat narrow, muddy, and unimpressive- although I did spot evidence of a logging dam on the outlet. The road to Big Otter is still open to motor vehicle traffic, as evidenced by several signs I saw, but it's also in pretty poor shape. You'd need a high clearance vehicle with 4WD for sure to safely drive all the way in to the outlet.
I decided to follow the trail up the west side of Big Otter Lake to check out the old hotel site I'd read about in the guidebook. The trail was unmarked, although easy to find and follow. Along the way, I saw lots of ATV impacts- ruts in the mud, many of which were filled with water. In some spots it was easier to walk through the woods parallel to the trail than it was to walk in it.
It didn't take long to find the old hotel site. It's now a pleasant clearing with great views across the northern part of the lake, which in contrast to the outlet, is quite open with sandy beaches. I guess Bit Otter is a popular destination in the summer for those arriving via float plane, and I can see why! I saw what looked to be some nice campsites on the north shore. I stopped here to each lunch, and then poked around a bit. I tried following the old road around the north side of the lake to reach one of the campsites I thought I saw, but was turned back by beaver flooding. I did find an old crosscut saw near the hotel site, though- stuck in a tree!
On my hike back to the outlet, I started to hear a dull roar. At first, thinking it was an airplane, I thought nothing of it. Soon, though, it started to get quite loud, and was obviously heading directly towards me- and my eyes were turned skywards, expecting to see a low-flying plane come right overhead, perhaps a float plane landing on the lake. I realized that I was looking in the wrong direction when the ATVs burst around the corner in the trail. 10-15 of them- and it wasn't just kids. These were adults, most of them couples, with coolers strapped to the back of their ATVs. It was an organized picnic outing! Ah well... at least they were friendly enough- many of them smiled and waved as they went by. The trail was significantly messier after they passed, though (and I noticed a few beer cans and discarded take out containers that I don't think were there on my hike in).
It didn't take long to retrace my steps back to Pine Lake, where I spent the afternoon dozing in the sun in front of the lean-to. I awoke in time to head down to the lake, and watch a beautiful sunset over the water...
Friday night got noticeably colder than the previous night had- and in fact, when I got up the next morning, there was a fair amount of ice, both in puddles on the trail, in in the small bays and inlets of Pine Lake.
Once packed up, I headed back to Big Otter Lake- this time to the south shore, where I picked up the Big Otter truck trail and started heading south. I did pass a designated campsite on the south shore of Big Otter, not too far from the outlet. Not a bad site, and it obviously gets very little use.
The truck trail was in decent shape, a little over grown in some spots, but I was able to make very good time on it. It was obvious that few people ever hike the truck trail. I saw a sign near the unmarked junction with the Lost Creek/East Pond trail stating that the trails north of the truck trail get very little maintenance, and are maintained intentionally in the most primitive manner possible. I had thought about maybe heading out to check out Lost Creek, East Pond, and Blackfoot Pond, but decided to save this for a future trip.
I made good time, and soon I was at the turn off for the trail to Middle Branch Lake. I reached the lake itself late in the morning, and headed down to check out the lean-to. The lean-to is nice enough, on a point of land that sticks out into the water- great views, but also very exposed. It was pretty windy, and I was soon set up in the very back of the lean-to trying to stay out of the wind while I ate lunch.
After lunch, I packed up and headed back to the trailhead. Took a side trip out to Grass Pond along the way... someone had a canoe locked to a tree there, in plain site. :mad: Once I got close to the trailhead, I started to pass quite a few groups- some on day hikes, some obviously heading in on overnights. Looks like I beat the rush by hiking out on Saturday!
Trails were in pretty good shape- I didn't have much mud to deal with, but this was mainly because most of the mud was still frozen. Some sections I can tell get quite wet during the warmer months!
All in all, a great place to visit, even if some areas are pretty highly impacted (either from hikers and backpackers or ATVs!). I'll definitely be back for sure- need to spend a night in the Middle Branch lean-to, and I'm very curious now to explore Lost Creek, East Pond, and Blackfoot Lake, and to perhaps climb Moose River Mountain as well!