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N44 W75 – North of Stillwater Reservoir, Adirondacks, New York, USA

The History

This confluence had been calling to me ever since I found out about the Degree Confluence Project. I'm a northern woods kind of guy. All of the confluences in my home state of Vermont had been visited at least once already, as had the New Hampshire confluences. Several needed attention in Maine's North Woods region, and three still remained to be done in New York, two near the Pennsylvania border and this one in the western region of the Adirondack Park. I love the Adirondacks, so it never was a question of whether I'd do this confluence but just when.

What made this particular confluence so alluring to me was that it was quite far from any roads. The vast majority of confluences in the lower United States are within a mile of a road, and the initial research for this point showed no roads within ten miles on a variety of street maps. Even for the Adirondacks, this was remote.

This is one of two confluences within the Adirondack Park, the other being 44N 74W, near Newcomb. It is also one of two confluences within Herkimer County, the other near Mohawk and Interstate 90 at 43N 75W.

The history of the Adirondack Park fills entire volumes, but bears some encapsulation here. While I believe this information to be accurate, I should disclaim that I am neither historian nor biologist nor geologist.

The Adirondack Park is the largest state park in the 48 contiguous US states and serves today as a powerful model for environmental protection that is being closely studied by many other states and countries. The "Blue Line" that delineates the park's boundary encloses a 6.1 million acre area; at 9500 square miles, it is larger than the entire state of Vermont (9250 square miles). Within its bounds is a patchwork of publicly and privately owned lands, with the 1990 census indicating a year round population of merely 130,000 people and an additional 100,000 seasonal residents. About 42 percent of the park, more than 2.5 million acres, is known as the Adirondack Forest Preserve and it comprises the public lands of the park.

The region was relatively unknown for a surprisingly long period of time after the New World was settled by Europeans. Even Native Americans, the indigenous people who lived in the New World long before the Europeans found it and started calling it "New", did not make permanent settlements in the area because of its harsh climate and terrain. Algonquins did migrate through the area regularly, and the term "Adirondack" is itself reported to be a derisive name the Iriquois used for the Algonquins, meaning "bark eaters" – a jab at the Algonquins' purportedly poor hunting skills. That etymology has yet to find widespread acceptance by linguists.

A presentation made at the start of the tour of the Sagamore Great Camp claims that when Lewis and Clark returned from their great transcontinental expedition, more was known of the Pacific Northwest than was of this large tract in northern New York. Maps from the early 1800s show a great amount of detail as far west as Chicago, with a large featureless circle representing the "Dome of the Adirondacks" and how little was known within it. When white settlers did finally move in, even just subsiding was difficult. Winters were long and hard, growing seasons short, soils thin, and access to markets difficult. About the only hardship that was absent was the conflict with Native Americans that characterized most white settlement. Historian Philip G. Terrie observed, "The only thing that distinguished the Adirondacks from western frontier regions was that exploitation of local riches – real or imaginary – did not involve the removal or slaughter of indigenous peoples." (Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Adirondacks were raped by timber and iron ore interests, who denuded tens of thousands of acres of land. While these businesses were undeniably vital to the rapid growth of the industrializing USA, they extracted a heavy toll from the natural landscape. The railroads that these heavy industries used to move their products out to markets also ironically lead to the collapse of the those industries. Trainloads of sightseers, escaping the stresses of city life down east, gentrified the region. Fancy hotels and Great Camps befitting all the luxuries of the Gilded Age catered to "city sports" who sought, ironically, to get back to nature. When they eventually got back to the city they brought with them a love of the Adirondack region – and vivid memories of the clear cut hills they witnessed traveling on their vacations.

As early as 1864 it was proposed that the Adirondacks be preserved as a "Central Park for the world", and with the public support that came from city folk alarmed by the before and after images of Adirondack land that had been worked over, the original Adirondack Forest Preserve was declared in 1885, consisting of nearly 700,000 acres (283,000 hectares). The state switched from its century old habit of being a seller of large tracts of land to being a buyer, consolidating its holdings and expanding the size of the preserve. In 1892, the "Blue Line" that marked the boundaries of the Adirondack Park was officially defined, and in 1895 the constitution of the state of New York was amended to read that, "The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands," making the forest the first (and still only) constitutionally protected lands in the United States. A rush of building second homes within the park boundaries starting in the 1960s led to the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency in 1974, the body which administers the land use and development regulations for the park. Land use policy is a highly controversial topic to this day, but by most measures the Adirondack Park is considered a success.

At first glance nothing seems extraordinary about the ecology of the region; it is a typical mix of hardy North American hardwood and softwood trees growing on a foundation of mountains carved by glaciers thousands of years ago. What's remarkable is that 90% of all northern woods plant and animal species can be found within the park. Before protections were put in place, several animal species were forced out of the Adirondacks. The elk, mountain lion, northern timber wolf and lynx were all extirpated and have yet to make a successful return, though there are sporadic reports of signs of the felines in the area. Beaver, moose and black bear also had their populations severely reduced with the arrival of white settlers, but they have all made comebacks and while perhaps not as abundant as they once were, their numbers are stable and not considered endangered. Blissfully, the northern region of the park that includes the confluence is absent poison ivy, ticks and New York's two poisonous snake species, the copperhead and timber rattlesnake. Several varieties of the most loathsome of tabanids, deer flies, can be readily found though.

Geologically, the Adirondacks are unique among the mountains in the eastern US for not being part of the Appalachians. They are actually part of the Canadian Shield, an enormous rock base that underlies half of Canada and forms the nucleus of the North American continent. Unlike the Appalachian Mountain chain, one of the oldest in the world which are eroding downward, the Adirondack mountains are geologically even older but are still pushing upward every year, with erosion tearing away at the surface soils to expose large stone faces. Ice Age glaciers also contributed to the rocky character of the land, depositing glacial till and large erratics far and wide. Rock from the High Peaks region, formed 15 miles below the surface of the earth, is nearly identical to rock brought back from the moon.

The confluence is located within the fifth largest Wilderness Area of the park, the Five Ponds Wilderness Area. Wilderness Areas are specially protected lands in the United States where there is little evidence of the presence of man. They are open to human recreation, but motors are banned – no cars, trucks, motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles, motorboats, seaplanes, chain-saws nor any other engine is permitted. The 101,000 acre (41,000 hectare) Five Ponds area is notable for having the largest stand of primeval forest in the northeastern US, 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of trees that never encountered the axes and saws of the lumberjacks. It is named for an interesting geologic feature about four miles northeast of the confluence, where a narrow knife-blade of a ridge, known as an "esker", rises sharply in the midst of five ponds.

The Five Ponds Wilderness Area was deeply affected on July 15, 1995, by several microburst incidents, concentrated blasting downdrafts of wind that were estimated in excess of 100mph (160kph). The state Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC) estimated that approximately 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) of forest suffered severe damage with 60% of trees blown down, and that an additional 109,000 acres (44,000 hectares) of forest suffered moderate damage with 30% of trees blown down. Not all of that was in Five Ponds Wilderness area, but it was by all accounts the worst hit; most of the few existing trails in the area were closed. (Jerry Jenkins, "Notes on the Adirondack blowdown of July 15, 1995: scientific background, observations, and policy issues," Wildlife Conservation Society, N.Y., 1995, as reported in "Interspecific variation in susceptibility to windthrow as a function of tree size and storm severity for northern temperate tree species," by Charles D. Canham, Michael J. Papaik, and Erika F. Latty .)

Map of 1995 storm damage
(Map taken from "Conservation Policy in Time and Space: Lessons from Divergent Approaches to Salvage Logging on Public Lands", by George Robinson and Jeffrey Zappieri, 1999. The approximate confluence location has been marked with red crosshairs; our approach was predominantly from the west-southwest, starting the trip into the backcountry from west of the green line.)

The Plan

I first mailed Alex Jarret, bermeister of the Degree Confluence Project, on the first day of spring, 2001, about my intention to attempt this confluence in the summer and asked him to let me know if anyone else was interested in visiting it. A couple of months later he added a feature to the website with which confluencers could advertise their plans themselves, and within a day or two I had posted my intentions.

I was greatly surprised when within a few hours Russ Nelson contacted me about his interest in doing the journey together. He'd been monitoring the specific page for the confluence for a couple of days, during which time it had mostly said only, "This confluence hasn't been visited or attempted. Directions: Hard." What made his message so surprising to me is that Russ and I sort of knew each other from way back to the late 1980s from our involvement in free software projects and Usenet. He was the newsmaster for Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY, at the same time that I was the newsmaster for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. We didn't really keep in touch over the years, though, so seeing his name in my email was a blast from the past. Russ had never visited a confluence before.

I'd already done some preliminary research with my mapping software and paddling guides and formulated a rough plan that involved driving in from the west on the Long Pond Road Extension to the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River, about 3.5 miles west-southwest of the confluence, putting in with a kayak, paddling up flow into the Sand Lake Outlet and to Sand Lake, and then bushwhacking about a mile down the east side of Sitz Creek to the confluence on the northeastern side of Sitz Mountain. Though the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie is known for excellent spring rapids, judging from the topographic maps the fall from Sand Lake to the put-in was gentle enough to allow for reasonable up flow paddling. I intended to check with people who had firsthand experience paddling the area.

The other main option was to hike in from Wanakena, northeast of the confluence. The High Falls Truck Trail (one of several "truck trails" in the park – old logging truck roads that have been left to grow back to mere footpaths) defines a 7.8 mile walk to the Sand Lake Trail. From there it is another 7.2 miles (15 miles in all) past the Five Ponds esker to the shores of Sand Lake, with another one mile of bushwhacking to the confluence. Using this backup plan would require two full days and because I was going to be on vacation with my wife, Diane, during this time it was not considered a realistic option. (Some day, though, Diane and I intend to do this hike, to explore the Five Ponds esker.)

Since I posted my intention to kayak and hike at the confluence project web site, Russ's first thought was that I intended to kayak up the main course of the Oswegatchie (further east than Middle Branch) to High Falls and then hike in from there. I considered this idea for all of thirty seconds before putting the idea to rest as far too difficult.

In my mind, the biggest issues to resolve with the Middle Branch kayak-and-hike plan were whether the gates on Long Pond Road Extension would be opened and whether it was possible to paddle up to Sand Lake. Then Russ sprang another issue on me, the July 1995 microburst. This could mean anything from closure of the road to river blockages to arduous bushwhacking. We resolved to find out through calls to the Adirondack Mountain Club, park ranger stations, and other personal contacts. Russ even planned on pressing a friend with a private plane into service for an aerial scouting mission. Unfortunately, that never happened – it might have made for some nice additional photographs for the Degree Confluence Project.

Early reports from some friends of Russ's were that the new growth was thick, warranting a machete. They also said that the deer flies were particularly numerous and obnoxious, which is kind of interesting, given that the deer which the flies are ostensibly named for are not so crazy about deep woods wilderness areas as habitat. The word on kayaking up Sand Lake Outlet also didn't sound good; one friend said that extensive beaver activity made encountering one or more dams highly likely, and another said that the outlet wasn't doable without high water, which was not the expected scenario in mid-July.

After talking with Brad Pendergrast at the Adirondack Mountain Club, Russ came back with much good news. Apparently the area of the microburst had spared Sand Lake, even though it had closed the Sand Lake Trail from the northeast. Furthermore, Brad had recently paddled the Sand Lake Outlet and indicated it should be able to be paddled up flow – but that beaver activity might make for several portages. He also reported that the Jeep trail on the map did indeed go right up to the shore of Sand Lake. He thought that if we paddled up Sand Lake Outlet we should have only one half mile length of rapids to go around.

We were still not entirely sure of what exactly what areas the microburst had affected, but were heartened by the news that we shouldn't have to deal with it most of the way. Russ didn't have much kayaking experience, but he was willing to rent one for this trip.

About a six weeks before the trip date, j proctor contacted me about also coming along for the trip. j had several confluences under his belt and was eager for the adventure of this harder to reach spot. His visit to 41N 77W in Pennsylvania, USA, was rife with trouble like my failed attempt at 4N 102E in Malaysia, so I already felt like we were kindred spirits, but I'm still puzzling over how he managed to end up in a thicket of briers and blackberries when later confluencers found the spot in someone's house in the middle of a large, open lawn.

When informed of the developing plan, j eventually asked the rather natural question of how come, when the Jeep trail up to the south side of Sand Lake was passable, we were bothering with kayaks at all? In my mind, there were two answers: kayaking is fun, and usually faster than walking. But neither Russ nor j had much kayaking experience, and with the possibility of portages around beaver dams making that route all the more difficult, we decided to do the whole thing on foot.

A call to the Watertown ranger station to enquire about the status of the Long Pond Road Extension gates as recommended by one of my paddling books yielded the answer that they shouldn't be a problem, so with the basic route finally decided all that remained were the logistics. We picked Tuesday, 17 July 2001, two days after the six year anniversary of the microburst, as the favored day and Thursday as the rain date. j thought he might not be able to go because he had a thesis project due late in the month with more work unfinished than he had time to finish it.

The appointed day approached much too rapidly for me. I was very nearly trapped for several days by flooding in Minden, West Virginia, on July 8th, had a business trip on short notice for July 9th to July 13th, needed to leave with my wife for our Adirondack vacation on July 14th, and had a significant work deadline on July 16th. On the 11th and 12th Russ, j and I exchanged phone numbers, described our packing lists, made our best guesses as to the timeline of the adventure day, and agreed on Sunday evening at 7pm as the time to declare whether the 17th was our go day or to postpone it to the 19th.

We agreed to meet at a church that was indicated on topo maps in Belfort, the town at the end of Long Pond Road 17 miles west-southwest of the confluence. It would be about two hour drive for each of us: Russ coming from his home in Potsdam to the north, j coming from a hotel in Utica to the south (because coming straight from his home in Massachusetts would mean he had to leave at 3am), and me coming from Indian Lake to the east. From Belfort, j initially estimated a nine hour schedule that included three and a half hours of driving from Belfort all the way up to Sand Lake on the Jeep trail – even longer if we couldn't drive to Sand Lake. His schedule included an hour to get to "Oswegatchie Camp", which I had not at all recalled from all the planning we had done. I shot back a message that suggested his times were unduly pessimistic. I guessed that the round trip from Belfort would be about seven hours total, or even less if we could drive all the way to Sand Lake. I based this on the drive from Belfort to Middle Branch being what I thought my book said took an hour.

The truth lay somewhere in the middle. When I expressed confusion over what j was referring to, he did some more research and found out Oswegatchie Camp was a summer youth camp and educational center that was twenty minutes from Belfort. It was the road from there to the end of Long Pond Road Extension that took an hour to drive.

On Friday night I returned from my business trip with work I really needed to finish for the deadline before I left on vacation. The work spilled over into Saturday and Diane and I finally left on vacation a half day later than we'd planned. In my rush to get everything done and out of the house, I grabbed the wrong stack of maps and ended up bringing only two significantly relevant maps, the 7.5' USGS quads of the areas northeast and northwest of the confluence. I also neglected to download the Garmin MapSource topo maps into my GPS. Argh!

My wife and I stayed at Camp Driftwood in Indian Lake, which had neither cell phone coverage nor a public telephone, making contact with me very difficult. Fortunately we'd already agreed on the Sunday at 7pm time for finalizing our plans, and so after checking the weather forecast in the closest thing to a local newspaper I found a pay phone and called Russ and j. We agreed that Tuesday at 8am was the meeting time, and that 8:30 was the latest to wait for the entire contingent to show up. Russ was also supposed to call the Wanakena Ranger Station, which oversees the Five Ponds Wilderness Area, to inform them of our plans.

The evening before the trip, I went over my entire route from Indian Lake to the confluence with Diane and briefed her on the schedule. Despite having previously estimated the trip time to be seven hours, which would put us in Belfort at 3 and me back at Indian Lake at about 5, I told her to expect me back by 4, "maybe even sooner", which I sincerely thought was more correct. (Silly, silly David.) We agreed on a protocol for me calling Camp Driftwood to give her a message when I got out, which was to be "no later than 3". (Cue ominous foreshadowing music.)

That night I packed up the car, made my lunch for the next day, took a shower and laid out my clothes. I went to bed at 10:30pm, earlier than usual for me, with the intention of having a good rest and being all too cognizant of the fact that I am not A Morning Person. Instead I had an uncharacteristically restless night, tossing and turning until I finally got up at 5:45, pulled on my clothes, grabbed my lunch and hit the road at 5:55. I was not well rested, but adrenaline is an amazing drug and sleepiness was not a problem for me for the entire trip.

The Meeting

My driving route, suggested by DeLorme's Map'n'Go, took me up Route 30 into the town of Indian Lake, west on Route 28 through the towns of Blue Mountain Lake, Raquette Lake, Inlet and Eagle Bay, northwest on the Big Moose Road through Big Moose and past the Stillwater Reservoir, southwest on the Stillwater and Number Four roads through Number Four to Crystal Dale, and north on the Erie Canal Road through Kirschnerville to Belfort. That's about 80 miles, with just 10 very small towns and some so small they were nothing but a few houses. Without a sufficiently detailed base map in my GPS I made only rough guesses at where a couple of intersections were for the GPS route, but those rough guesses turned out to be surprisingly close and I had little difficulty finding the roads that I needed.

During my drive to Belfort I got to see a pleasing variety of wildlife active in the early morning hours, as has been a regular feature of my confluence trips. Northern ravens are ubiquitous in these parts and so it was not surprising that I saw many. White-tailed deer are also common enough but it was still a treat to see them on three occasions, twice with still spotted fawns who hadn't yet learned enough to run into the woods when a motorcar approaches. More unusual sightings were of a great blue heron (which while often seen while paddling are more rarely seen through the windows of a car) and a very large, grizzled, old wild turkey, uncommon for its size and apparent age. A special sighting was of a wild partridge; I think I've seen only a few of them in all my life.

Stillwater Reservoir I was on the lengthy, dirt, Big Moose Road and a mere 10 miles nearly due south of the confluence at 7am when I stopped to take a picture of the very low water level at the Stillwater Reservoir, aiming my camera roughly in the direction of 44N 75W.

Black Creek (I think) On the Erie Canal Road I caught a glimpse of a pretty brook out of the corner of my eye as I whizzed past, so I backed up to take a picture. The water spilled down over bedrock in front of a trailer home parked to its south, such a lovely spot for a home. The trailer, however, was condemned.

Belfort Bridge Closed I saw nearly no other moving vehicles the entire drive, and those few I did see were going the other direction. Without being once stuck behind another car, I made excellent time to Belfort and arrived at about 7:45, 20 minutes sooner than the two hour, nine minute drive Map'n'Go predicted – even with two picture stops. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of a closed bridge.

At first I thought to wait on the south side of the bridge for j, but then decided to take the detour to wait at the agreed upon meeting spot; we had to leave out Long Pond Road from that side anyway. The detour was 13 miles long, all the way out to Route 812, up to Indian River and back down to Belfort. The ominous symbolism of that 13 miles became even more foreboding when I pulled up to Russ's truck at a cemetery. If I were a superstitious man, I'd have called the trip off right there.

St. Vincent de Paul Church St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery

It was 8:10 by the time I finally met Russ. j had emailed him the night before to say that he would not be able to come, so our entire party, all two of us, were there. Though my Subaru Forester would normally probably have been a better choice between the two vehicles, we decided to take his pickup truck because one of the wheel bearings on my car is going. I hurriedly threw my gear into his truck, slapped the GPS antenna onto the roof, and away we went at 8:20.

The Trip Out

From here the trip was pretty much like any other confluence trip. We drove, we parked, we walked to the confluence, we photographed our GPSs, we walked back out and we drove home. The End.

Ok, ok, you know I have more to say than that. But I must confess that attaining a confluence is generally somewhat anticlimactic; it is the pursuit of it that drives me more than the actual accomplishment. More on that in a few paragraphs. Continuing with the story ...

The road was curvy but nicely paved out to Camp Oswegatchie, and then turned into the bumpy, rock strewn, potholed track that would take us on a meandering course out to Middle Branch. While clearly a lot of effort had been expended on trying to maintain the road for many miles, with drainage trenches that had been improved just this season and new stone fill laid in spots, we were still reduced to a typical speed of 15mph in the four-wheel drive truck, barely faster than my paddling book suggested a normal passenger car would drive the road. Some of this was caused by the reduced clearance Russ's truck had because of the snowplow bracket mounted on the front, but in all it really was not a road to go ripping down even with improved suspension and clearance.

Continuing my extraordinary absentmindedness with the maps, I left the only two useful maps I had in the car back in Belfort, keeping my magnetic compass company. One of the maps was the Oswegatchie SE 7.5' Quad, which would have been useful for identifying side roads near our destination. This wasn't a big problem, but I kept kicking for myself for having zero good maps after all that planning, and really wishing I could just hold a good paper quad in my hands.

Russ had an old DeLorme New York Gazetteer in the truck to provide some relief, and some topos loaded on his homegrown GPS setup. This rig was a sight to behold, even as a programmer and mapping geek, I could barely contain myself when he told me it was running GPS software he wrote himself, pygps. Written as an open source project in Python, it was running under Linux on a Compaq iPaq handheld computer. It takes NMEA data via the serial interface connected to a DeLorme Earthmate GPS receiver. While the user interface still needs some work, it was certainly functional for driving down the road as it kept the underlying topo map nicely centered. I could also check other topo maps, indexed by their UTM coordinates, to try to get a fix on just which side trail we should be taking. While the inability to get WGS 84 coordinates for a particular point and the lack of seamless map browsing were slightly frustrating, the software is still in development and I'm sure it will shape up nicely, especially with the field experience Russ gained on this trip.

A sign posted along the Long Pond Road Extension suggested that the NY DEC considers its proper name to be Bear Pond Road, named for the pond three miles south of the confluence. Middle Branch at High Landing Russ photographing at High Landing From Camp Oswegatchie the road loops north over the 44th parallel and stays there for several miles. Shortly after crossing back south of the 44th, it runs alongside the Middle Branch. Russ caught a glimpse of the river through the trees and so we stopped to take some pictures.

We were immediately beset by a swarm of deer flies. They hunt by motion (not by scent, making chemical insect repellant pretty much useless), and they must have been tracking the truck ever since we drove in. Able to fly at nearly 40mph, it would have been trivial for any one of them that spotted us to keep up, and apparently every single one of them had. Bleah.

According to the detailed description of paddling the Middle Branch contained in the first addendum to Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, the spot we stopped was called High Landing. I didn't realize it until writing up this report, but the book says this is the easiest put-in spot in this section of the Middle Branch, "down a steep, 30 foot high bank". The "steep" part is certainly accurate, the actual height seems in excess of forty feet (corroborated by the Stillwater 7.5' quad). It looks the road to Brindle Pond would have made a better put-in, and what I had originally intended to try, but perhaps the authors discounted it because of the gated access.

Safely back in the truck, we continued on, knowing we were near the Jeep trail to Sand Lake. We passed several gated side roads and tried to discern which, if any, might be the Jeep trail by using the maps on Russ's iPaq. This process was complicated by the pygps user interface and the accidental omission from the database of a map section that included the middle of the trail. We had a pretty good idea where to find the trail though so we kept driving onward along the only open route.

Then we hit the end of the road, still not yet at where we thought the Jeep trail would be. Bridge Out.

Bridge Out

We knew that this was the Middle Branch and that our desired route lay across it. It was 9:40am, an hour and twenty minutes for the 20 mile drive from Belfort, and it was time to get out and walk. We were 2.37 miles from the confluence as the crow flies, and expected about three miles of walking.

Middle Branch at destroyed bridge
GPS map GPS time, coordinates and trip info

Russ and I were prepared for the flies. We were nearly identically attired in tan hiking pants and long sleeved white shirts, and each had bug nets for our heads. We sprayed on a liberal application of DEET-based insect repellant, throwing caution to the wind (no pun intended). DEET is killer stuff, not just for bugs but also for people if not properly used. The flies quickly started biting Russ right through his shirt, so he donned a bug net shirt a biologist friend had loaned him and he was soon at ease. He pulled on his backpack and strapped my machete to its waist belt.

Russ fiddling with his GPS Russ crossing the bridge Unfortunately this was when Russ's homegrown GPS started behaving badly. It had trouble getting and maintaining a fix, indicating some sort of trouble with the Earthmate receiver (since his software just parses the NMEA data sent from the receiver). He fiddled with it a little while at the bridge before finally pulling in a good signal and proceeding across the creek. We pondered what force it must have taken to have bent the girder that we walked on.

On the other side 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.

Russ's GPS lost its fix and so when we reached a small meadow we again killed some more time while he tried to get it to lock in. After ten or fifteen minutes of this, he finally declared it non-functional and put it away. Another side trail led into the woods here but based on the topography we didn't think this was the trail we wanted yet.

Another tenth of a mile down the path we found it. It turns out that if Brad took a boat up the Jeep trail he must have carried (or pulled) it the whole way. That's dedication. Even if the bridge was only fairly recently collapsed, it's probably been a very long time since a Jeep ever drove the trail. We rechristened it the ATV Trail.

Mudhole Mudholes and other boggy spots became more common, no doubt helped to that state by the large, knobby tires of ATVs. While pressing through the forest edge growth for short distances around particularly bad spots was not very difficult, it did slow the pace.

"Russ, you think you might want to put those rubber boots on now?" He'd started the hike in sneakers.

"I was kind of wondering why I didn't have them on already." So he stopped to put them on and thereafter was able to tromp through most wet spots with abandon, even more so than I in my well-waterproofed hiking boots.

We followed the trail northeasterly back across the 44th parallel, sometimes using the paths where ATVs had bypassed some particularly muddy areas. The most difficult section for me came when we failed to take one of the ATV bypasses and had to walk through an area of dense fern growth. With my bum leg, not being able to see my footing can be even more of a challenge than it is for most people. Fortunately Russ found a quick way to a clearer path for me.

As we neared the spot we expected the trail to reach the southwestern end of Sand Lake, the path we were following did something quite unexpected. It headed predominantly east where we expected it to go north. We're still not sure where and how we missed a turn, but this was actually a stroke of good fortune. As long as the trail continued easterly, we were getting closer and closer to the confluence. We wouldn't get to see the shores of the reportedly beautiful Sand Lake, and sadly wouldn't get any photos of it, but between a slightly late start and time lost for GPS fiddling this was ultimately a good thing.

And continue eastward it did. At times it became a little difficult to follow, but never so much so that we really thought we'd lost it or that it had stopped. It was not a well worn trail, nor was it blazed, but the track was subtly evident. In places deadfall blocked the trail but it was easy to skirt and regain the course on the other side. In one spot the trail seemed purposefully obscured; this was perhaps meant to block ATVers from proceeding any further, since we were now within the Five Ponds Wilderness Area where ATVs would be illegal. (We saw no sign, however, indicating where the legal ATV trail stopped and the Five Ponds Wilderness Area began.)

"Russ, I'm going to be really chagrined if we get to the end of this trail and its at the confluence with a litter of beer bottles all around it."

Soon after I made a comment that the trail should start heading more south than east if it were going to the confluence, it turned south. Whoa.

"Tale, I think we may just want to have our own beers there," Russ said. We were sweating. The walk had not been especially strenuous, with very little altitude variation, but the long clothing and the bug nets were quite warm.

Barely two hundred feet after Russ uttered his beer comment, we came to a camp. This was a shocker to me. An official Wilderness Area should not have something like this in it. 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. Stupidly, I never checked out what was under the tarp. Now I'm intensely curious.

Camp at the end of the trail
Stakes leaning on a stump Woodstove

It was noon. We'd come two and a half miles at just over 2mph while we were walking, and apparently killed nearly an hour motionless for GPS fiddling and a snack break. A thermometer at the camp said is was 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but based on the way we were sweating Russ didn't believe it. (I'm used to overheating; I'd not be surprised that I was sweating when it was 60 degrees.) This was the end of the trail and we were just a half mile northwest of the confluence. We'd cut more than a half mile off the distance we'd originally expected to need to bushwhack from the end of the Jeep trail.

Thermometer
GPS map GPS time, coordinates, and trip info

Leaving Privy in the woods the camp on nearly a straight line for the confluence (with a slight westward tendency to avoid a nearby marshy area), we found its privy, a toilet seat nailed between two trees. Quite a luxury, actually.

The most enduring memory I have of the rest of the bushwhack is all of the immature basswood trees (also known as linden) we encountered. Sitz Creek with basswood Their broad low leaves helped obscure footing in places the same way the ferns did, and it would sometimes be difficult to press through as several stems joined against each other and my lower legs. In one area the basswood completely blanketed the ground, making for the slowest going of the entire bushwhack. You can see the plant on the right side of the photograph of Sitz Creek, which flowed from Sitz Mountain in the south to Sand Lake in the north. (Jeff Meuwissen has suggested that we misidentified this plant and that it is really Witch Hobble. I dunno, could be. The leaves look very similar.)

For the last two thousand feet of the trek we started ascending the moderate northern slope of Sitz Mountain. There was only one steep pitch but it was mercifully short. We were under a quarter mile away from the confluence, pushing through undergrowth and breathing hard, when Russ said jokingly, "Remind me again why we do this." I knew it was rhetorical, but as I never allow a chance to wax philosophical slide by, I answered.

What I like about confluencing can be embodied in the oxymoron "regularly random". As we all know, the latitude and longitude system is a man-made projection of mathematics on a global scale. Though both mathematics and the world are all-natural things, the mapping is a human artifice, based in part on an essentially arbitrary starting point of no natural significance (the random part) and consistently measured around the planet (the regular part). And so it was that when I first heard of The Degree Confluence Project that I was instantly attracted to it. I have always had wanderlust, and the phrase "its the journey rather than the destination" has always resonated with me. I also believe that it is useful to at least have a destination if you are going to have a journey, and confluencing provides that destination. It's the process of getting there that's usually the most interesting. Because of the random quality of the points, I'm sure to almost always go off the beaten path, where few people have gone and fewer still have associated with the contrived significance of the latitude/longitude geographic coordinate system.

I also liken The Degree Confluence Project to a photographic essay of the entire world, very similar to features run by magazines and newspapers like "Around The World on New Year's Day" or "Around the State on Independence Day". Whereas the thread that holds those essays together is a particular point in time, the thread the binds the confluence project together is particular points in space. It's a twist that I haven't seen done with any other photo essay. (Time lapse photography notwithstanding, as cool as it is; that's just a point, not points.)

So, with that said, I shut up again and huffed my way up the hill. All pretense aside, I just like being outside, taking pictures, and playing with maps.

At about 12:35 we finally reached the the confluence. There was plenty of evidence of marking tape having been tied to trees in the area, either because of old scars on trees or because it was still actually there (real hard to find that kind of evidence, yuh huh). It was probably from USGS or DEC surveyors, since this point serves as a USGS map corner like many (if not all) confluences in the country.

Russ pulled out a Magellan GPS Photo Zero a friend had loaned him and proceeded to wander around trying to get the magic zeros to show. Having done this before, and admittedly wanting a little rest, I instead opted to plop myself down and wait for my Garmin to settle in. I fiddled around with my camera and other gear in the meanwhile, and after about ten minutes glanced at the display and was astonished to see it holding all zeros for a few seconds. By the time I had my camera ready, though, it had drifted off slightly. I watched it for a couple of more minutes and it seemed to more often than not be just a tad too far north and west, so I moved about a dozen feet southeast and was able get the photo.

Using the Magellan, Russ had already declared a tree about 40 feet southwest to be The Confluence Tree and decorated it with surveyor's ribbon accordingly. As I put my camera up on my Leki trekking pole (which doubles as a handy monopod) and started taking pictures of the compass points from the spot where I took my GPS photo, he decided that my consistent readings from that spot were a bit more accurate. First I did one round of north, east, south, southwest (his confluence tree) and west with the built-in lens of my Kodak DC4800.

North
West East
Southwest South

Then Russ stripped the Confluence Tree of its title and anointed a stump I was standing beside as the Confluence Stump and, of course, decorated it accordingly. I put the wide-angle lens on the camera and took another round of compass point pictures.

Wide-angle north
Wide-angle west Wide-angle east
Wide-angle south

Finally we took a picture of ourselves, handsomely attired in bug net hats, next to the Confluence Stump.

Dapper duo

Before heading back, Nearby fire ring Russ called me over to check out a ring of stones he'd found less than one hundred feet southwest of the confluence. It looked to me like an old campfire ring, filled in by a couple of years worth of duff. He dug around in it a little until he came up with a piece of charcoal, proving its campfire history.

A few yards away from the campfire ring I also spotted the marks of a bear that climbed a beech tree. I was struck by the thought that along with a moose print back on the trail, this was one of only two signs of charismatic megafauna we'd seen.

The Trip Back Again

It was time to head back – past time. I started to stress out about how late it was. We were actually kind of close to the schedule that j had mapped out a week before, which I thought was two hours too pessimistic; on his original timetable we would have been at the confluence at 12:30 (but apparently spent only a fraction of a minute there; I'm not sure how that slipped our collective attention). But 1pm was an hour and a half later than my seven hour revised schedule would have had us, and just two hours from the time I promised Diane that I'd call her. Having messed up big just two weeks before when I failed to call Diane anywhere close to the time I'd told her I'd do so, it was vitally important to me to get to a phone as soon as possible. It had taken us nearly three hours to get from the truck to the confluence, and there was no cell phone access even at the truck. We hadn't been checking, but it was doubtful there was cell phone access anywhere along the road back to Camp Oswegatchie; getting to the camp was my best bet for making the call, and that was another hour past just getting back to the truck. Even discounting time we lost on the hike out, I didn't figure we'd be to a phone until after my 3 o'clock deadline.

With that, we began the big push. I failed to lead on the same bushwhack path to the mysterious camp in the woods that we had come in on, and the return route seemed a bit harder. From that camp, though, we made pretty good time back to the ATV trail, moving along well enough that at one point I felt the pains of a runner's stitch. About half way down ATV trail my right foot slipped on an uphill section and I compensated by catching myself with my left leg – my bad leg. My thigh muscles cramped up instantly from the shock and the pain slowed me the entire rest of the way back.

Nonetheless, we were back at the truck by 3. Without me needing to ask and against his own natural tendencies, Russ picked up the pace for the drive back, clearly trying to be considerate of my stress (or was that to get away from it the sooner the better?) With both his cell phone and mine in my hands I constantly monitored signal strength and repeatedly tried to get through to Camp Driftwood. We even stopped at a couple of points where the signal was especially strong, but the two or three times the calls seemed to go through I heard only a busy signal.

At least I finally got to enjoy my other sandwich and a yummy chocolate chip cookie I'd picked up at the Sagamore Great Camp the day before.

We got back to Camp Oswegatchie a little before 4 and a couple of helpful camp counselors directed us to the main office where we could ask to use the phone. At the office I explained to the fellow there that it was very important that I call my wife and that I had a calling card, and he kindly let me use the phone.

"Where were you?" he asked.

"Up in Five Ponds wilderness, 44 North latitude by 75 West longitude," I said, for once in my life not trying to explain what the heck the Degree Confluence Project was.

"Where's that?"

"You know Sitz Mountain? Sand Lake? Near there."

"Oh. Is that like geocaching?"

I did a mental double-take. "Um, yeah, kinda, but its called 'confluencing'." With no more questions, he left me to call my wife.

And I got the answering machine. Agh! I left a message that sounded probably way too stressed, imploring them to get a message to my wife as soon as they possibly could. With my options for contacting her exhausted with that single phone call, I hoped for the best and we headed back to Belfort.

Russ continued his snappy pace down the paved part of Long Pond Road and we were back at my car at around 4:15. We hurriedly transfered my gear back, said our brief goodbyes, and I headed back out the detour to Indian River.

The Drive Home

At Kirschnerville I overshot my turn on to Erie Canal Road by forgetting that my GPS route had some guessed-at intersection locations, but that problem was quickly remedied and I was soon back on course. I was slowed down quite a bit by being caught behind folks driving significantly under the speed limit on the rocky Big Moose Road, and didn't feel that I could safely pass them. Eventually they stopped at the side of the road and I was able to proceed unhindered nearly to Big Moose, where I got stuck behind someone else most of the way to Eagle Bay. About a mile outside of Eagle Bay I was treated to another deer sighting, this time with two does and two spotted fawns who once again didn't have the sense to hop off into the woods when my car approached. That did allow me a nice look at them, though.

Once I hit Route 28 at Eagle Bay I was able to call Camp Driftwood on my cell phone, and this time got a human being. She kindly took the message to my wife that I should be back by about 6:20.

Traffic was mostly going the speed limit up Route 28, so I went with the flow. Between Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake a skulk of three fox kits were romping around on the shoulder of the road, aware of the cars but not seemingly too concerned by them. They were adorable.

I finally pulled into Camp Driftwood at 6:15, and could see Diane smiling and waving at me through the kitchen window. She had just finished making one of my favorite meals. It was such a wonderful treat to come back to.

We had dinner as I related my story of the day, and then we checked out the pictures. All of the adrenaline I'd had energizing me from 6am to 6pm finally wore off. I laid down to rest a short while, and the next thing I knew it was 9am the next day.

While I slept, I dreamt of a winter approach from Wanakena down past the five ponds to the confluence. Well, not really. But I'm thinking of it now.

Epilogue

Russ's first person account and photos can be found at his web site.

The primary sources of the background material on The Adirondack Park are the Adirdonack Mountain Club's Guide To Adirondack Trails: Northern Region by Peter V. O'Shea and The Adirondack Book by Elizabeth Folwell.

I am amused by the thought that with about one tenth as much planning, which is more typical for my confluencing trips, I could have had pretty much exactly the same trip as I had: drive out to the end of Bear Pond Road, hike up the trail, bushwhack a little, take some pictures and head home. I admit that it is about equally likely I would have tried to kayak part of it, which could have been either a breeze or a real struggle.

At first look the other Adirondack confluence, 44N 74W, east-northeast of Newcomb, doesn't seem to be nearly so remote because even MapQuest's street maps indicate roads leading to just a tenth of a mile away from the confluence. But the closed gate that the Schmitts encountered gave them a hike similar in length to ours, around six miles total along the road beyond the gate.

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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Last modified: Thu Aug 21 04:52:17 2003
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