(Cover Image: Remote Glacial Moraine, Cranberry Lake 50 Trail, Five Ponds Wilderness Area.)
Back in August I attempted to become the first person to run the entire Cranberry Lake 50 mile trail loop (solo and self-supported) through the Five Ponds Wilderness region of the Adirondack mountains. It was going to be awesome. I was going to knock it out in under 12 hours. A “First Known Time” and a great way to cap off (if not redeem) my race season.
Instead, I got lost, taking a wrong trail. And somehow at mile 27 found myself back where I’d been hours earlier in the day. Just as thunderstorms were blowing in. Map and compass ensued as my day unfolded and I bailed my way out through back trails to a not-on-the-map dirt road, finally getting a cell signal after 38 miles of running (in 10 hours and change). I then waited for my ride to arrive, passing the time by swimming in a beautiful mountain lake with sunset on the horizon as darkness descended and I enjoyed cold beer with drunk campers from down the road. That was months ago and life has been insanely busy since then with the kids going back to school + work deadlines. So, it’s about time I recount my adventure.
(For background on the run itself and my rationale for tackling it, please read my Cranberry Lake 50 Mile Preview post).
FRIDAY, AUGUST 14th
It’s good to have friends like Matt Brown.
“You have any races coming up?”
Actually, I’m running this thing in the Adirondacks in August. Still need to figure out some final logistics. Like……. crew. In case something goes wrong. It’s in the middle of nowhere.
“You need crew? I know that area well, run trails, and happen to be a doctor…”
Um… wow! Yes! Thank you!
Matt’s wife and kids were kind enough to lend him to me for the weekend as crew extraordinaire. Apart from the road section at the start/finish, the Cranberry Lake 50 loop only has one road crossing (at mile 38), so it seemed prudent to have someone check in with me at that point. I joked with Matt that, as my crew, if something went wrong at the most remote part of the loop he’d only have to log 38 miles to help me out. I’m not sure he was amused.
We headed up to the Adirondacks late Friday morning, about a 4 hour drive. Made it to Cranberry Lake, set up camp, drove out to the trailheads so Matt knew where to check in with me during the run, had some dinner and called it a night.
The weather forecast was a bit iffy. Not bad, but not great either. Overcast, warm(ish), rain/thunderstorms (maybe? probably). It rained pretty hard Friday night, but the weather system seemed to have blown through by the time we got up early on Saturday to start my run.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 15th
We got up early, geared up, and hit the trailhead on Route 3 just East of Cranberry Lake, getting started right after sunrise as planned. Matt had asked if it was cool that he join me for the first hour or so, which was fine by me, so, signed in at the trail register and off we went! The first few miles were pretty nondescript, just getting a feel for the trail and the terrain as we headed out under an overcast sunrise. The first 10k got increasingly rocky, but nothing too bad and was mostly gently rolling singletrack through increasingly deeper woods.
The trail popped us out on a peninsula of Cranberry Lake (above – near East Inlet) around that 10k mark, where Matt bid me farewell and made his way back as I kept going. Not another soul in sight. In fact, with the exception of a couple random hiking groups, I’d see very few people throughout the day. This was also made evident from the sign-ins at the trailheads. Only a couple of people each week signing through, which meant… “don’t get hurt out here. You’re on your own.” From here the trail followed the shoreline for a bit before ducking back into the deep woods past Curtis Pond and heading off towards Dog Pond. The further I went, the more apparent it became that this wasn’t going to be an “easy” 50 miler (if there is such a thing). The trail had more climb than I had anticipated encountering that early in the day and was more technical (rocks, roots) than the packed singletrack I’d expected. Although I’d read numerous hiking reports from folks beforehand, I’d never actually been on the trail itself and knew that – being that this is the Adirondacks – I’d better play things a bit more conservatively than planned if this was to become the order of the day. Running a 50 miler in a race setting is one thing. Doing it alone through wilderness is quite another.
The trail continued to wind across beautiful streams (above), up and down rollers, and deeper into the woods, with the terrain becoming more prehistoric (below – glacial boulder field – truly out of Jurassic Park) the further I went. And this is the part I adore about these runs. That sense of true solitude and remoteness. And also a sense of place. These vast expanses put one in their place very quickly and grant a valuable perspective on life that is often hard to come by in the rapid melee of our daily modern reality.
3ish hours in (my memory is a bit fuzzy on which mileage things happened at this point) the trail became an old railroad bed, a remnant of the 1800’s when logging occupied the area. A couple easy miles of looooong ascent was immediately followed by increasingly steeper and rockier terrain with small but frequent climbs and descents. Somewhere around the 4 hour mark I emerged at Chair Rock Flow (image below shot from the footbridge crossing), a spectacular stream crashing down into Cranberry Lake. I stopped to dunk in the freezing cold water, a perfect ice bath mid-way into an ultra effort. After crossing the bridge, the trail continued to roll up and down through rockier trails as I got closer and closer to the mid-point around 50k where I’d see turn offs for Cat Mountain and would know I only had an hour or two to the one road crossing (in the Hamlet of Wanakena) where Matt was going to check in with me (with ice cold coke!), and from there only 2-3 hours to the finish.
The terrain was beautiful, looping in and out of marsh and lake areas. Plus, the weather had taken a turn for the better, as blue skies emerged and the temperature rose. After I looped Olmstead Pond (below, I think?), I arrived at a trail juncture that… in theory I should have passed already. But hadn’t. I kinda scratched my head, thinking nothing of it at first, until I saw trail signs and markers leading me to believe that I had somehow backtracked on myself. Which, I was certain, couldn’t be right. After all, I’d followed the correct blaze colors for the past 6+ hours. I got out my map and compass to be certain. And… no, that can’t be right. But it was. I’d been wrong. Somehow. Somewhere. I’d taken a blue trail South then West then North when I should have taken a blue trail West then South then West. And there I was, back where I’d been hours earlier, with no idea how I’d gotten turned around, at the most remote portion of the 50 mile loop, and a thunderstorm blowing in. Well, shit.
Close to 7 hours in I was now faced with a choice. Roll the dice and keep going? Or try to back track to a side trail I’d passed hours ago that I kinda maybe thought I might know where it came out somewhere over by Horseshoe Lake (South of Tupper Lake), an area our family has canoe camped near several times, and might allow me some semblance of familiarity from which to figure things out.
ANALYSIS – KEEP GOING: Pros: finish the full loop. Cons: I didn’t know where/how I’d screwed up, how much time/mileage I had to make up (my best guess was that I’d just lost 3-4 hours of running and 9-12 miles), I was running behind planned pace for my crew check-in (with no cell signal anywhere nearby to alert them), and there was a thunderstorm blowing in. Worst case scenario I might get even more lost, have to bivvy overnight, and then find my way out in the morning. Doable (I had proper gear and nutrition to make that work if needed – it was a contingency I had planned for), but not my preference.
ANALYSIS – BACK TRACK: Pros: Back track on trails I already knew and bail out at Horseshoe Lake where Matt could get me (there’s an access road there). My ride will pick me up. Probably not have to bivvy overnight. Cons: I was only 50% sure that the side trail I’d spotted earlier came out where I thought it might. I also wasn’t sure how much back road I’d have to run to make it to Horseshoe Lake. Back roads in the Adirondacks can be a mile long. Or 100 miles long. And they don’t have names. They’re not even on the map. I could, hypothetically, have an even longer slog ahead of me and still end up having to bivvy overnight.
(Above: the Five Ponds Wilderness Area as seen from the top of Mount Arab looking South.)
I decided to back track. I knew where Cranberry Lake sat in relation to Horseshoe Lake and was fairly (kinda sorta maybe?) confident that I’d pop out on a road I knew from past canoe camping trips back into that area. I really, really, really hated to bail. I so wanted to bag this trail, and it killed me to turn around and make the safe call even though I knew that it was the safe call. But, the approach of “this situation probably isn’t safe, this wilderness/mountain isn’t going anywhere, I can always come back” is one that has always served me well. I’ve learned to trust my gut on these things and have never regretted it, so I bit the bullet and turned around.
I made it back up through the rocky ridgelines to Chair Rock Flow. Couldn’t get a txt through to Matt, but managed to reach my wife with my plan who then relayed everything to Matt before I dropped out of cell phone range again. Unfortunately, for Matt, there are several Horseshoe Lakes in the Adirondacks and they’re not near each other. So, that made Matt’s job of finding me an adventure in and of itself (reference txt screenshot below from Matt sent to me later that night as he was still 90 minutes away).
It started raining. Warm drops of rain, slowly, then more quickly, then harder, then driving rain, plus thunder, then lightening… this is fun. I was mostly down in the woods not exposed on ridgelines, so lightening strike risk was fairly low. The rain felt great. It was hot and muggy and the bugs were beyond awful. I’d picked late August to run this trail because I thought the bugs wouldn’t be as bad as they are earlier in the summer up in the Daks. But they were absolutely horrendous this year. And they weren’t any better in the middle of a storm. If anything, they were even worse (pic below, plus the fabulous effects from some kind of thorny stinging nettle I’d never encountered before and seemed to congregate across some of the more remote trail sections).
So, here I am, hightailing it out of the woods in a storm, getting bit up by bugs, periodically checking my map (which is rapidly decomposing in the rain) and compass to make sure I’m headed in the right direction, hoping the trail is going to pop out where I think it might.
I exited the Cranberry Lake 50 loop after maybe 90 minutes of back tracking and maybe 50k into the day. Out onto a trail that I knew came out somewhere around Horseshoe Lake. Or the Boy Scout camp (which I’d seen random signs for, but never ended up finding). I spent over an hour on more of this trail before even getting to the road. Finally, as the rain started to let off, I came to the exit of the trail (below) out onto the back road. A bullet hole riddled Stop Barrier sign letting me know that I was finally nearing the trailhead.
Unfortunately, arriving on a back road in the Adirondacks doesn’t really mean anything. It might be a private access road to someone’s estate. It might be a seasonal snowmobile route (which this one was). It likely won’t be on google maps (this one wasn’t). So, it’s a total crap shoot. Literally (below – bear crap in the middle of the road). But, still, mentally, it at least feels like you’re closer to some semblance of safety. I wasn’t sure how many miles of road I had ahead of me. My guess was that I had another hour or two until I’d reach Horseshoe Lake, and that turned out to be about right. So, another 90 minutes or so of run/hiking, and I finally reached some primitive roadside campsites. And actual human beings! Yes! I knew there were campsites around because a pickup truck full of drunken campers wielding chainsaws drove by. So that was creepy.
As I continued, I could hear them felling a large tree down the road, loading it into the pickup and then turning around. I asked them if that was Horseshoe Lake up ahead and they told me it was. Told me that this road went for another 10 miles or so before joining the main route to Tupper Lake. Easy enough directions. I finally got a txt out to Matt. Except that Matt was at a different Horseshoe Lake (as referenced in the aforementioned txt screenshot) 90 minutes away (by car), so… I ended up making do. It was sunset. In the mountains. On a beautiful lake. One of the campers walked over to where I was on the lake shore and struck up a conversation… “Holy shit!! You…??? Ran 40 miles?? Today?? What the…??? Dude, you want a cold beer or something?” Hell yes I want a cold beer. I swam in the cold lake which helped my muscles recover. Swapped out into my warm backup clothes from inside my pack. I’m not complaining. There are far worse ways to kill time (view below). Guys fed me, gave me beers, hung out, chatted. It was great.
Meanwhile, Matt was stressing out, trying to get to me before dark. He came close on an alternative back road, but (image below)… alas, no bolt cutters. We’ll pack a pair next time. He’d had a long day himself, running with me in the morning, plus running up and down Cat Mountain prior to waiting for me at Wanakena, netting himself a 50k trail day – his first ultra (congrats, Matt!!).
It had been dark for awhile before Matt pulled by. I could tell it was him because, well, there’s no traffic on that road. Threw my gear in the car, and we headed back to camp for a warm fire, beer, food, sleep. We were both beat. Saw a wolf (ran in front of our car right across Route 3) on the way, incidentally. They’ve been rumored to be returning to the Adirondacks, and what we saw was definitely not a coyote.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 16th
We packed up pretty early and hit the road in order to grab a proper breakfast on the way home, stopping at Tin Pan Galley (in Sackett’s Harbor / Thousand Islands) where we stuffed our faces. It was glorious. Made it home safely, and… well… what a way to spend a weekend!!
WILL I GO BACK? Of course I will, but I’m just not sure when quite yet. 2016’s races are already picked out and I don’t know how I’d squeeze the CL50 loop into that schedule, but who knows? I’ll likely try to find some time to head up to the Daks and do an out-and-back on the remainder of the CL50 loop that I missed so that I’ve at least done the full thing. And, that way, when I do go back to run it some day I’ll at least be familiar with the route in a way that might allow me to focus on running it hard.
A special thanks to my wife and kids who tolerate this sort of adventuring. It keeps me grounded. And sane. And I’m thankful for a beautiful partner in life who is as adventurous as I in allowing me to embrace this type of wonderful nonsense.
Cranberry Lake was a strange way to cap off a fairly absurd racing season. I accomplished more in the eight weeks from June-August 2015 than I’d have ever dreamed possible several years ago, tackling some legitimately hard races/runs, but – in one way or another – failing at each of them. Spectacular failures, so there’s that at least. DNF’d Manitou’s Revenge (with roughly +/-30k’ of elevation change over 44 miles in 18 hours but battling hypothermia and falling behind cutoff after my gear/drop bag went missing). Missed cutoff at Escarpment Trail Run (by :10), but still managed an official finish. Got lost at Cranberry Lake. Failures that I’m proud of. I’m more proud of this year’s “failures” than I am of almost any other ultra endeavors I’ve ever completed. This summer’s races pushed me like never before and changed me deeply. They made me not only a different runner but a different person. My psyche is different. I feel like I’m now heading into 2016 as a legitimate ultra runner. Capable of marvelously scary things. I like how that feels.
I may have “failed” at my first CL50 FKT attempt, but there will be others. And I got to experience a beautiful trail system through an absolutely beautiful part of our country that not many people get to see. The backwoods of the Adirondacks is a primitive place, with its own beauty, challenges, and spiritual qualities. And I love that. I love that there are still places on our planet that you can only get to under your own power. That have to be earned to be enjoyed. And, quite often, they’re not that far away from us. You just have to make the effort to go there.
– Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest with 2L bladder
– Easton ATR-70 Poles
– Altra Lone Peak 2.0 Trail Shoes
– C9 Running Shorts
– #TrailsROC! Tech T
– Columbia OMNI-Heat Long Sleeve Compression T
– Hind Rain Shell
– Patagonia Trucker Cap and Buff
– Food: Gu Gels, Snickers, Bananna, Clif Bars
– MSR Water Tabs
– Small First Aid Kit: Neosporin, Moleskin, Ibuprofen, Electrolyte Tabs, Ankle Wrap
– Paracord (20′), Duct Tape, Super Glue
– Emergency Blanket
– Emergency Bivvy Sack
– Lighter + Oil-Based Flammable Gel
– Princeton Tech EOS Headlamp w/ extra batteries
– Wigwam Socks
– Garmin 310XT GPS Watch
– Cranberry Lake 50 Map (Print + electronic)
– Salt (because murky water crossings can sometimes = leeches)
– Charged iPhone 6 on airplane mode to conserve battery
– All critical items were kept in heavy-duty zip-loc bags
Don’t forget, as 2015 winds down, you can still make a year-end donation to 5 Ponds Partners, the entity who maintains this beautiful trail system. Any amount, whether $5 or $500 will make a HUGE difference for them and allows these beautiful wilderness areas – something we need more of in today’s busy, plugged-in culture – to be enjoyed by everyone. Donations can be sent to: Clifton-Fine Economic Development Corp, PO Box 115 Wanakena, NY 13695. Mark your check ‘5 Ponds Partners’. All donations are tax deductible.