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This another wonderful trek through the “Great Southwoods” as this area was once referred to. There are plenty of trails in Wanakena, and this takes you through the heart of its origins -the forests. It isn’t a very rough hike terrain wise, and at a little over six miles, it’s a reasonable distance for those looking for something more than a nature trail at the park. It isn’t only a destination for hikers, but also a place for boaters to land and head off to the many trails that hub from the area, such as the plains, High falls, Cowhorn Junction and Cat Mountain.
There is so much history on Wanakena, that I’m not going to try to cover it all here. I have done a previous bit on the hamlet, and it has proven to be the top viewed piece to date. https://hikingthetrailtoyesterday.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/wanakena/ . I will give you some history that relates to this particular hike.
After Ford’s mills & the Rich Lumber company moved to greener pastures, the forests began to regrow. This was helped by the efforts of the newly formed Ranger school. The rails that once served to get the timber to the mills were taken up for use elsewhere. These railroads became the trail you walk on during this excursion (and many others) and also the roads you drove in on.
In those years forest fires were a major concern. The State started building and manning fire observation towers on higher points to locate these fires before they became too large to fight. One of these locations was on top of the 2257’ Cat mountain. A 37’ wooden tower was constructed in 1910 at a cost of around $700. This was later replaced by a 47’ steel tower In 1917. These towers were manned by John Janack. In 1908 Janack was caught in an explosion at the nearby Benson iron mines. He lost an eye and a leg as a result of his injuries. He would man the observation towers until 1934. His original camp which he and his family lived was located at what we now refer to as Janack’s Landing.
They would boat from nearby Cranberry Lake, and down Dead Creek flow and land their boat there. From their home at the landing, he would climb the two and a half miles (and 800+ feet of elevation) to the tower daily during fire season. The towers were not manned over the winter as there was little or no chance of a forest fire. Later on, the state constructed a new camp closer to the mountain.
The Fire towers were equipped with a phone system to call in any reports of smoke & fire. These used a wire that that ran from the tower to a central phone line. These were hung from tree to tree through the forest. Part of the fire tower wardens job was to keep this wire up and working. While hiking this trail, I found one of the insulators on a tree. Another part of the warden’s job was public relations. They would greet visitors and educate them on the forests and trails, answer questions, and promote the ideas of conservation and stewardship of the lands. There were other wardens after Janack, and eventually, the tower was removed. Only two fire towers are left in St. Lawrence county- Arab Mountain (Conifer NY) and Cathedral rock (Wanakena NY), which was formerly located on Tooley pond mountain. Both are great hikes.
From New York State Rt. 3, turn onto St. Lawrence county RT. 61. Follow this, continuing straight onto Main street. This will take you across a bridge, (which at one time was a train trestle) and onto the South Shore road. Around ¾ of a mile ahead, you will find the trailhead on your right. This is the Five ponds & Pepperbox wilderness trailhead. This is the second trailhead on this road. The first one is near the playground and water plant.
On the trail
As soon as you start down the trail, you are on the old bed of the Rich Lumber Company. In places, it is pretty overgrown, but still easily followed. You will hike past several beaver meadows on both sides of the trail. It was in was of these that I came across a beautiful black bear in the morning twilight. He wasn’t scared or interested in me and eventually wandered off. Nothing like bumping into a bear first thing in the morning to get your blood pumping!
At around the 1.1-mile mark, there is a detour around some water- likely beaver related. This rejoins the main trail after a few minutes. The detour is fairly new, and not as obvious as walking the old rail bed, so keep your eyes open. Further along at 1.5 miles, you will get your first glimpse of Cranberry Lake. This is Dead Creek flow. There is a great campsite not too far from here with amazing views of the lake. The woods are classic Adirondacks- Plenty of Spruce, Balsam, and Hemlock softwoods with some soft Maple and Yellow birch mixed in. The railroad grades are easily seen, and it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the log trains traveling the rails here.
On July 15th, 1995 a microburst hit this region with a vengeance. Hundreds of acres of forest were blown flat, and you can readily find traces of the event today. Look for uprooted tree stumps, and also spots where a path was cut right through the tipped over trees. At 2.9 miles you will come to an intersection or hub of trails. From here you are only 2/10ths of a mile from the landing. Trails lead to many of the other destinations in this 107,230-acre Five Ponds Wilderness. Hikers looking to venture to these places often boat to the landing to cut some miles off of the trip. Cranberry Lake Dry Dock and marine service [ firstname.lastname@example.org ]also offers a water taxi service, they will drop the hikers off and return at a predetermined time to pick them up. This is very popular with those hiking the Cranberry 50 challenge. http://cranberrylake50.org/ . The final stretch to the landing is a narrow trail through evergreens and can be a little damp in spots. There is a boardwalk, in the beginning, to keep you out of the worst of it. When you get there, you’ll find a nice lean-to which is always a great place for my breakfast. This sits up a little bit from the lake. You have made a loop around the end of Dead Creek flow, and there are several good campsites nearby. According to my GPS, this is 3.4 miles from the trailhead.
When you get back to Wanakena, don’t forget to stop and walk across the newly rebuilt footbridge. This is an icon of the region. The original was destroyed by ice in January of 2014. Due to the grassroots efforts of the local and those with a love of the hamlet, it was rebuilt a few years later. The new bridge is a very accurate reproduction of the original 1903 footbridge that was constructed for the workers to get across the Oswegatchie river too work at the mills on the South Shore road. There are many kiosks located around town, and a walking tour map is available as well. This helps give you an idea of the roots and History of the town. Otto’s abode is a welcome sight for a cold drink & snack after your hike. The Pinecone restaurant on the Ranger school road is always a favorite place to dine for us. I hope you enjoyed this article, if so please feel free to share it.
A special thanks to Mark Friden, Town of Clifton Historian.
References & Sources
New York State D.E.C.
Cranberry Lake 50
Town of Clifton Historian
Clifton Fine ADK
For more on the Wanakena area:
About the Author
I am a life-long resident of the north country, calling Edwards my home. I have always had a passion for the outdoors, and for local history. I recently started this site to share places that have been part of our local history and heritage. I hope you get a chance to hike some of these trails for yourself and reflect on the rich history of those that walked here before you. And if not, sit back and experience these from where ever you are right now. Either way, enjoy!