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This is one of two confluences within the Adirondack Park, the other being 44°N 74°W near Newcomb. It is also one of two confluences within Herkimer County, the other near Mohawk and Interstate 90 at 43°N 75°W.
The Adirondack Park is the largest state park in the 48 contiguous United States of America. The 6.1 million acre park is a patchwork of roughly 2.5 million acres of publicly owned and 3.6 million acres of privately owned lands, and has a year round residential population of merely 130,000 people. The public lands, known as the Adirondack Forest Preserve, are the only constitutionally protected lands in the United States.
Ecologically, the area of the confluence is a fairly typical boreal forest of mixed hardwoods and softwoods, with maple, birch, beech and basswood the dominant hardwoods and spruce, pine and tamarack the dominant softwoods. 90% of all northern woods plant and animal species can be found within the boundaries of the park, even though the winters are long and hard and the growing seasons short.
Geologically, the Adirondacks are not part of the ancient Appalachian chain as the rest of the eastern US mountains are. Rather they are part of the Canadian Shield, an even older mass of rock that is still growing upward even as the Appalachians are eroding downward. Four different glacial periods of the Ice Age helped carve most of the features of the area and deposit many tens of thousands of boulders throughout the region, and erosion of thin soils is the currently the main agent exposing steep rock faces on the upward thrusting mountains.
The confluence is located within the fifth largest Wilderness Area of the park, the 101,000 acre (41,000 hectare) Five Ponds Wilderness Area. Wilderness Areas are specially protected lands in the United States where there is little evidence of the presence of man; in particular, all motors are banned. Rich in 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of primeval forest, Five Ponds was deeply affected on July 15, 1995, by several microburst incidents, blasting downdrafts of wind that were estimated in excess of 100mph (160kph). Roughly 147,000 acres (60,000 hectares) suffered moderate to severe damage in northern New York in that storm, with the worst of it in Five Ponds.
David had been interested in visiting this confluence since he first heard of The Degree Confluence Project in December 2000. When the project website added a "publish your plans" feature, he quickly made his intentions known to visit the spot while on vacation with his wife, Diane, in mid-July. He was contacted by Russ in very short order. David and Russ knew each other online from a decade earlier through their mutual work in the Internet community, but they had never met and had not been in contact for many years.
Confluence Project regular j proctor also joined the team and helped with the planning. Ultimately, though, his thesis chased him down and beat him up and he was unable to come.
We reviewed a variety of options, including my initial plan to kayak up the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River into Sand Lake and bushwhack from there. After talking with a variety of knowledgeable sources, we opted instead to just drive in from the west as far as we could go then hike the rest of the way from there. The best scenario, which seemed quite possible, was that we could drive all the way to the shore of Sand Lake and have little more than a mile of bushwhacking. The worst case scenario looked like about 2.5 miles (4 km) of hiking to get to Sand Lake, and then the bushwhacking.
Knowing of the extensive damage the storm had caused, we planned to climb over many downed trees and hack through dense new growth with a machete. We also knew that the deer flies were especially pernicious this year.
Russ and David each started their drives at about 6am coming from different directions and met at a little after 8am in Belfort, about 17 miles (27 km) as the crow flies west-southwest of the confluence, a few miles longer driving. After transferring David's gear into Russ's truck, we drove the long and bumpy Long Pond Road and Bear Pond Road, stopping once to photograph the Middle Branch Oswegatchie down a steep bank through the trees.
We reached the road's terminus at a destroyed bridge over the Middle Branch Oswegatchie, a 20 mile (32 km) drive, one hour and twenty minutes. This settled the question of whether we'd be able to drive up Jeep trail to Sand Lake, still more than two miles away. Though the confluence was only 2.4 miles (3.8km) away in a straight line, we thought it best to stick to the Jeep trail and minimize bushwhacking, so we estimated that would extend the hike to a bit over three miles (five km) one way.
After donning bug nets and applying insect repellant liberally, we were off … and stopped. Russ's homegrown GPS, running his own pygps software on a Compaq iPaq handheld connected to a DeLorme Earthmate GPS receiver, was causing trouble. Though it had worked fine in the truck, he couldn't get and keep a satellite fix. He fiddled with it for a good long while before eventually giving up. We relied on David's Garmin III+ for navigation.
On the other side of the ex-bridge the road cut a wide swath through the woods but was quite overgrown with grasses, suggesting it had been a couple of years since larger vehicles crossed this way. An ATV had apparently used it as recently as the previous month, though, with fresh ATV tire tracks evident for much of our walk. When we reached the Jeep trail it was clear that we would not have been able to drive it even if the bridge had not been out. Deep mudholes, exacerbated by ATV activity, were frequent right from the start, and the trail got quite narrow well before Sand Lake.
We never actually reached Sand Lake, which is a shame because reports are that it is a very lovely spot. Somehow we kept going east when the trail should have turned north. As this moved us closer to the confluence, reducing the amount of bushwhacking we'd have to do, it wasn't an entirely unfortunate happenstance. In all, it was fairly easy hiking over gently rolling terrain, with only a few brief off-trail excursions around fallen trees. We saw no striking evidence of damage from the big 1995 storm for our entire hike.
At one point it looked as though the trail might go straight to the confluence. Instead it came to its end about a half mile away (0.8 km) from our destination in a very small clearing, at a camp that was highly suspicious because of its location in the official wilderness area. There was a large stack of wood covered by clear plastic, an oil drum, a wood stove, and something massive stashed under a white tarp. Strangely, we never checked out what was under the tarp, but now we sure wish we had.
We'd reached the camp at noon, six hours of traveling into our day and tantalizingly close to our objective. David started to internally mull over the fact that his wife was expecting him to be back in four hours, or at least call in three. Cell phone coverage was non-existent and the nearest land line was passed over three hours earlier at Camp Oswegatchie. Knowing that a lot of time had been killed on the way in, though, he decided (without bothering to consult Russ) that as long as the pace was kept up they should be able to make it to the confluence and back to Camp Oswegatchie by the 3 o'clock deadline.
Pushing forward, the bushwhacking leg began by passing the camp's privy and then crossing the Sitz Creek, which flowed down from Sitz Mountain in the south to Sand Lake in the north and was the closest waterbody to the confluence. The walk was not too difficult as there was still no meaningful storm damage to be seen. The forest was quite mature with a medium understory. The biggest challenge, if it even warrants the word "challenge", was the young basswood trees (or maybe it was Witch Hobble) with their low, broad leaves that sometimes obscured the ground and could be a little hard to press through when they got in a tangle.
Our bushwhack ended up being about half the speed our trail walk had been. Ascending the moderate north slope of Sitz Mountain, we came to the confluence a half hour later. It was just south of a 12 foot (4m) high ledge of rock, which we didn't manage to photograph. Several trees in the area had been marked with surveyor's tape, probably by the US Geological Survey or the New York DEC because this is the corner of USGS quads. We were unable to find a USGS monument though.
After letting the GPSs settle in (Russ had a friend's Magellan in addition to his homegrown unit) we were able to get readings of 44°00'00.0"N 75°00'00.0"W consistently within a circle of only about 12' (4m) radius. Russ anointed a stump within the circle as The Confluence Stump, decorated it with marking tape accordingly, and pictures were taken to north, east, south and west. We also took a couple of self-portraits standing by the confluence stump, with and without bug nets obscuring our faces.
Before heading back, we checked out an old campfire ring that Russ found less than a hundred feet (30m) southwest of the confluence. It appeared to be several years old judging by the amount of leaf duff built up in it.
At a little after 1pm we began our return trip. With few pauses to rest because David was visibly (and audibly) anxious about needing to call Diane, we made good time but were slowed a little when David stressed his bum leg. We made it back to the truck in an hour less time than it took us to do the hike to the confluence and began the drive back to Belfort. Along the way we paused a couple of times where we got a weak cell phone signal to try to call Diane, but the calls would not go through. Finally we pulled in to Camp Oswegatchie at a little before 4 and they graciously allowed David to use the land line … and he reached an answering machine.
Back in Belfort, David transfered his gear back into his Subaru. He rushed back to Indian Lake to meet his wife, while Russ, who had told his family something more reasonable about the timeline for the day, calmly motored on up to the county fair to meet his wife and daughter.
When he finally got back to Indian Lake at 6:15, after 12 hours of confluence traveling, David was greatly relieved to find Diane in good spirits and just finishing making one of his favorite meals. A fine ending to a fine day of confluencing.
Russ's first person account and photos can be found at his web site.
The fascinating history of the Adirondack Park fills entire volumes, but some additional background can be found online at the web sites for The Adirondack Museum and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The Adirondack Mountain Club was formed in 1922 to serve the interests of the public in maintaining the hiking, camping, paddling and similar recreational opportunities of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. They have a wealth of information on the region and welcome new members who share their goal of keeping the Forest Preserve "Forever Wild".
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