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Piseco Lake to Lake Durant: 10 days on the NPT in January

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  • Piseco Lake to Lake Durant: 10 days on the NPT in January

    Northville Placid Trail Trip Report

    So family members and friends have been bugging me for a trip report of the 10 days I spent with 3 friends on the Northville-Placid Trail in early January. Here’s the complete trip report:

    Day #1: Piseco Lake to Fall Stream

    The first day of our hike was fairly warm, with sunny skies. Knowing that we had less than 5 miles to hike, we took a leisurely morning, left Albany around 8:30 and got to the trailhead around 10. There was some initial confusion as to whether or not we were actually at the trailhead, as there are no signs in the parking lot and the register is a little ways down the trail.

    As there was at the most 2 inches of snow on the trail, we strapped our snowshoes to our packs and hiked in on foot. The trail was very well maintained for the first couple of miles, with no blowdown on the trail to be seen. As the trail reached the turn to the west, however, blowdown began to appear more and more frequently, foreshadowing the trail conditions we would encounter daily for the next 7 days.

    We arrived at Fall Stream, our intended camp site for the night, about an hour before sunset. The main camp site near the stream crossing was hard to miss, and we found a fire pit buried beneath the snow. A walk around the area revealed numerous other potential camping sites as well, so the area probably receives quite a bit of overnight use in the summer. Our shelter for the evening was comprised of three 8 by 10 foot tarps, two of which we overlapped and ran a ridge line through, and the third was used as a drop cloth on which we put our sleeping pads.

    Day #2: Fall Stream to Spruce Lake #1 Lean-to

    In the early hours, we awoke to hear the sound that every hiker dreads (especially in the winter): rain. Fortunately, it tapered off to a drizzle by the time daylight arrived and we started to pack up camp. During the night, the rain melted much of the snow so there was even less than before.

    The section of trail between Fall Stream and Spruce Lake was rather hilly, with short, steep sections in spots. We passed through and by some old logging camps which were very obvious, even with the snow on the ground. Parts of the trail clearly followed old logging roads, but was not as confusing as the ADK guide made it out to be. Side trails mentioned by the guide were unmarked, very overgrown, and easy to miss, while the main trail was for the most part easy to follow. Some places had a fair amount of blowdown, however, especially the ridge just after the Fall Stream crossing. Furthermore, the trail became very wet and muddy after the Jessup River crossing.

    We spent the night in the Spruce Lake #1 Lean-to. As we would later find out, this was the most sheltered of the lean-tos at Spruce Lake, as #2 and #3 are both on the shore while this one is set back into the woods a bit. If there is rain or wind in the forecast, Spruce Lake #1 is the lean-to of choice.

    Day #3: Spruce Lake #1 to Spruce Lake #3

    During the night, the drizzle re-intensified into a steady rainfall. To our surprise, all of the snow had melted when it became light enough to see. This, combined with the fact that the rain had not abated with the coming of daylight, definitely dampened our spirits- we had come prepared for winter, but instead we found conditions more closely in line with fall or spring. We were also hesitant to spend a day hiking in the pouring rain, as we had no idea whether or not the temperatures would drop again afterwards.

    Around 10:30 am, the rain stopped, and we decided to hike to Spruce Lake #3, a mile up shore from #1, so that the day would not be a complete loss. It was a decision that turned out to be a good one, as it took us nearly 4 hours to traverse that mile.

    The trail after Spruce Lake #1 starts out very hilly and muddy, and as usual, is covered with blowdown. At Spruce Lake #2, we found 2 canoes but no paddles. One canoe was in somewhat decent shape, the other looked like a tree had fallen on it at some point in the near past. According to the lean-to register, there is a byop policy in effect. The register also mentions a stash of beer and canoe paddles hidden in the woods that was air dropped but never found.

    Shortly after Spruce Lake #2, we encountered our first major stream crossing of the trip. The outlet of Balsam Lake, which flows into Spruce Lake, was very high from the rain and snowmelt. What looked like it was normally a 2 or 3 foot wide trickle was a 30 foot wide torrent of water and foam ripping through the woods at incredible speeds. There was no possible way it could be crossed without getting everything from the thighs down soaked and risking a full head to toe soaking from tripping.

    Being the smart college students we were, we remembered the canoes at the lean-to a little ways back up the trail, and decided that the one in decent shape would be our means of getting around this obstacle. My friend Brendan and I grabbed our trekking poles, intending to use them in lieu of paddles to propel the canoe along by sticking to the shallows and pushing off along the bottom of the lake. We got to the canoe, put it in the water, and climbed in.

    At this point, it should be noted that there was still about a half an inch of ice on the lake. To get the canoe up to the point where we would cross the outlet, we had to repeatedly back the canoe up, ram it forwards up onto the ice, and then jump up and down in the canoe to break the ice so that we could repeat the process again. Eventually, we made it to the section of shore where Sarah and Teresa waited.

    Because of the small size of the canoe, it took 6 trips back and forth across the outlet to get everyone and all of our packs to the other side. On each trip, we either carried a pack or a passenger in addition to the two people with trekking poles propelling and steering the canoe. Spruce Lake #3 was right on the other side of the outlet, so as soon as we made our last trip, we set up camp at the lean-to and went to bed early.

    Day #4: Spruce Lake #3 to West Lake #1

    This day dawned cooler than any of the previous days, but was sunny as well. We packed up and quickly traversed the first few miles of trail. There was some blowdown in this section, but not as bad as many of the previous sections of trail. Encouraged by the good weather, we had made it up over the col north of Spruce Lake and down the other side in no time.

    We had thought that we had left what would be the sketchiest stream crossing behind, but we were soon proven wrong. The bridge over Sampson Bog Outlet is washed out, and the torrent we encountered made the previous days stream crossing seem like a little trickle. The roar of water could be heard a quarter mile away up the trail. We were not to be deterred however. There was no way we were going to turn back after coming this far.

    Downstream, the stream split up into 3 or 4 separate channels flowing between a cluster of islands. We examined this area for about an hour, figuring that 4 smaller crossings would be more feasible than one large crossing, but gave up after failing to find a good spot to cross. We then hiked about a quarter mile upstream, and found a beaver dam. Here, the water was flowing evenly across the entire top of the dam, no more than 6 inches deep at any spot, but about 50-60 feet wide.

    I went across first, and found that the dam was much stronger and studier than it looked from first observation. Gotta give credit to those beavers. I was able to get across with dry feet, protected by both my North Face winter hiking boots, and my Outdoor Research gators. I plan on writing both companies letters of appreciation. The crossing, however, was too hard to do with full packs, as there are sections of the dam with saplings growing up that must be squeezed through or swung around, and the chances of falling into incredibly deep water above or below the dam.

    Where the bridge used to cross the river was the narrowest point of the stream that we could find. Two of us crossed the dam, and then we returned to this point. We strung a rope across the stream, and tied off each end. We then placed a carabiner on the rope, and tied two long pieces of P-cord to the carabiner. The p-cord was used by those of us on either side of the stream to pull the carabiner back and forth along the rope. Slowly, piece by piece, we got all of our gear across the stream (we were too afraid that if we sent a full pack across, the rope would come undone- our packs were heavy, at least 60 lbs each). After about an hour, we managed to get all of our gear across, and then we hiked back up to the beaver dam and the remaining 2 members of our group came across.

    The trail from this point on went through some swampy sections. We also so trail signs pointing out mileage to “West Canada Lake,” which we later figured out referred to West Lake. The Mud Lake outlet bridge has been replaced, but the new bridge looks pretty shabby and might not last longer than a few more years.

    Since we still had some daylight left, we decided to continue on to the West Lake lean-to. The bridge over South Lake is pretty well built, but the water was so high that it began and ended in the water. Fortunately, someone had placed planks in the water that kept our feet dry even though they were partially submerged. There is a beaver lodge next to the bridge that is one of the biggest I’ve ever seen; it was at least 8 or 9 feet high and twice as wide. While we were crossing the bridge, a beaver came out to see who we were, and began swimming around, splashing his tail.

    We arrived at the West Lake #1 Lean-to right about at sunset. There was enough dead and down wood around to build a roaring fire.

  • #2
    Day #5: Rest Day

    During the night, we awoke to feel wet snow hitting our faces. We quickly stretched one of our tarps across the front of the lean-to (why do they always built lean-tos right on the water where the wind will blow rain and snow into the lean-to?) and went back to sleep. In the morning, however, the snow had turned to rain, which was coming down hard and steady. We elected to take a rest day, and hoped that the rain would let up by the next day. We had brought enough food for 2 extra days in the woods, so after this day we would be forced to move regardless of the weather.

    As the day progressed, it got colder, and slowly the rain turned to snow. By the time we went to sleep there was about 2-3 inches of new snow on the ground.

    Day #6: West Lake #1 to Second Cedar Lake

    We awoke to find about 4 inches of snow on the ground with a continuing light snowfall. We decided against snowshoes as the snow was not yet deep enough to obscure many of the rocks and roots in the trail. We quickly hiked past the old Interior Outpost location at West Lake, where the trail register had fallen over and become buried in the new snow. The tote-road bridge over the West Lake outlet is still submerged, and the water was high enough that the detour trail crossing was impassable as well. We were forced to hike a little ways upstream where we found a section of stream narrow enough for us to place a couple of fallen trees across to build a bridge. It took us about an hour to find this spot and then find the fallen trees necessary to complete the stream crossing. Fortunately, this would prove to be the final sketchy stream crossing of our hike.

    We continued east along the tote road, as a light snowfall continued all day. Our original plan had been to take an easy day and hike to the First Cedar Lake lean-to, but we decided to try and make up for some lost time by heading to the second lean-to instead. The side trail that leads to the first lean-to is not marked at all, except for a rudimentary pictograph of a lean-to and an arrow pointing out the direction of the trail that we found carved into a tree at the junction.

    Whoever decided to route the NPT up over Cobble Hill has a sick sense of humor. The trail gains considerable elevation over a long extended grade. Every time you think you are near the top, you round a bend and see that you have more uphill climbing to do.

    The side trail to the second lean-to is also easy to miss; it’s about 100 feet before the bridge over the Beaver Pond outlet is reached, on the right side of the trail. This was a nice lean-to, set back from the water a ways. We arrived shortly before sun set. It had continued to snow all day, and the temperatures had dropped considerably. Instead of the 40 and 50 degree days we had encountered at the start of our hike, it had dropped to teens and single digits.

    Day #7: Second Cedar Lake to Carry Lean-to

    During the night, enough snow had fallen that we decided to don our snowshoes for the first time so far of our trip. We hiked to the Third Cedar Lake Lean-to, located near the old Cedar Lake Interior Outpost, and past the dam holding back Cedar Lake. Thereafter, the trail followed many short steep ups and downs, but the only major elevation gain of the day was Lamphere Ridge.

    I totally missed the Sucker Brook trail junction; one of my companions who saw the sign said that it was set off the trail a ways and easy to miss. The Carry lean-to is also set a little ways off the trail, with a great view of the Cedar River and several mountains to the north. Entries in the lean-to register indicated that it is very difficult to find the lean-to by canoe from Cedar River Flow- apparently there are many channels where the river enters the flow that make navigation confusing. When we arrived, the Cedar River was unfrozen and flowing pretty stron.

    Day #8: Carry Lean-to to Wakely Dam

    We awoke to hear the first sounds of civilization since leaving Piseco Lake 7 days before: snowmobiles. The river had also completely frozen over, testament to the drop of temperature during the night.

    The trail north from Carry Lean-to mostly followed old logging roads, but was covered with the most blowdown we had encountered yet. It seemed like every 50 feet, another tree was across the trail that we had to climb over, crawl under, or walk around. I’ve seen herd paths in the High Peaks that were more passable than the trail was in this section.

    We reached the Cedar River Road in the early afternoon, and began following it to Wakely Dam. Plenty of snowmobiles passed us, most of them heading east towards Indian Lake. Wakely Dam seems to be a popular hangout spot for snowmobile enthusiasts; when we arrived we saw a fair number of them parked and chatting with each other. A couple of them came over and talked to us, giving us the weather forecast and asking if we wanted them to call anyone when the got out of the woods that evening. Overall they were all very friendly. We set up tarps that night near the Wakely Dam Ranger Station in one of the Moose River Recreation Area campsites.

    Day #9: Wakely Dam to Stephen’s Pond

    The day dawned a bit warmer than the previous couple of days had been. We broke camp and started down the road. We crossed the first 4 miles to the snowmobile parking lot very quickly, as we no longer had to break trail. Again, a lot of snowmobiles passed us, and most of the drivers slowed down and waved.

    Upon arriving at the parking lot and plowed road, we took off our snowshoes and began hiking on foot. It wasn’t long before a pickup truck passed us and asked if we needed a ride. Since we had a 9 mile day planned, and a good 2 miles to go before we reached McCane’s, we weren’t going to refuse the ride.

    The sign at McCane said that the property was open only to “long distance hikers hiking the section of trail to complete the entire Northville-Placid Trail.” Since we were long distance hikers, and our goal for the hike to was to hike the remaining sections we had not yet hiked, we figured this applied to us. We may have been the last hikers ever to pass through the McCane’s property, however- a significant section of the trail passed through an area of forest that had clearly been marked for timber harvesting within the past few days, and we heard chainsaws in the woods nearby. Furthermore, we found survey tape marking a new trail that came in from the east shortly after crossing onto state land; our guess is that this is the re-route that the DEC has been planning.

    Stephen’s Pond seems to be a popular party spot, judging from the register entries, as well as a popular spot for couples to camp at together. The lean-to is a nice one, set back from the lake in a sheltered location. By the time we arrived, it had warmed up considerable and a drizzle had started to come down.

    Day #10: Stephen’s Pond to Lake Durant

    Our original itinerary had us hiking all the way to Long Lake, but as we had gradually become somewhat damp during the hike, we decided to take a break for a day and dry all of our gear and clothes off once we reached Lake Durant. We started out from Stephen’s pond in a light drizzle, heading up and over the ridge that parallels the pond. The climb is initially steep, but once the ridge is crested, it was all downhill to Lake Durant.

    We encountered many muddy sections between the ridge and Lake Durant. The mud got so bad that we took off our snowshoes. Shortly before reaching Lake Durant, you pass some confusing junctions that the guidebook mentions, but the guidebook directions do not seem to be correct. Fortunately, we met a skier skiing in from Lake Durant, and followed his tracks to the campground. We encountered a group of school kids on skis in the campground, and a group of older people on snowshoes.

    It was nice to see the car when we reached the road. It took a while to get it started, however. After spending 10 days on the side of the road, I think quite a bit of condensation had formed in the tank and engine, and possibly froze as well. It wasn’t until I had the engine running for well over an hour and was well on the way back home that it began to run smoothly again. Poor car.


    We never did make it back to hike the last 15 miles. Shortly thereafter, the ice storm hit the northeast, and the temperatures plummeted to negative 20’s at night. We’re planning on going back sometime soon however and doing it either as a day hike or overnight. Once we complete that section, we’ll have hiked the entire Northville-Placid Trail in the winter, having previously done the Silver Lake Wilderness and Western High Peaks Wilderness sections in January of 2006.


    • #3
      Originally posted by DSettahr View Post

      During the night, we awoke to feel wet snow hitting our faces...

      In the morning, however, the snow had turned to rain, which was coming down hard and steady...

      As the day progressed, it got colder, and slowly the rain turned to snow. By the time we went to sleep there was about 2-3 inches of new snow on the ground....

      We awoke to find about 4 inches of snow on the ground with a continuing light snowfall...
      This is what I did at West Lake.

      Thanks for the great TR. I read right through it switching between the report and Topo!