I met Dan at our usual spot and gave him the framed photo I printed of him with the monster pike he caught this summer. The drive was uneventful, and we arrived at the trailhead with temps in the high teens and rising. We knew that freezing rains were likely later in the afternoon. This prompted us to modify our itinerary to do the loop in reverse. This would give us the short day at first with the heavy packs, and perhaps get to the lean-to before the rains. The initial climb up the hill is quite steep and really warmed us up. There were some tracks but we still needed snowshoes. The rains came earlier than expected, but were only on and off. This portion of our trip has many small ups and downs, although it always feels like more ups than downs. The tracks we had been following turned to follow the outlet of Grassy Pond and then we were breaking new trail. The section around Cedar took longer than expected, at one point I thought we might have gone past the turn-off. Checking the compass we were still heading westward, so we were still on target. Moments later the trail to Middle Branch came into view. We started the uphill climb looking for a spot to have a late lunch. We cleaned off a log of its snow and ate some pre-made venison sandwiches. We had a bit over a mile to the lean-to. It went slow as the snow was deep and we were climbing over a ridge. After we descended to the junction, it would be another third of a mile up and over a small rise to the lean-to. Along the way we would keep a lookout for firewood knowing that there would be slim pickins at the campsite. Finally at the lean-to, just over 4 miles and it was past 2pm. The planned 7 mile days ahead would be tough.
We collected firewood and got a nice blaze going. It was quite windy. When the rains started again, it would be blown all the way into the back of the lean-to. A late dinner of smoked polish sausages with peppers and onions. I had not slept well the night before, so I knew I would not be able to stay up too late. Not that I usually do in the woods after dark.
Morning came and Dan smacked the bottom of my sleeping bag to get up. The rains had put out any remnant coals from the fire, so I restarted it from scratch while Dan went to get water.
This is the section which gets minimal maintenance on a 5 year cycle. This past fall it was cleared so it should be much easier to follow than it was this past spring. I was most worried about the beaver dam and the outlet of little simon pond. These can be tricky in the best of times, but with snowshoes may prove difficult. With just under 3 miles to go, we would be cutting it close. We could always make camp off trail if needed. At 3 pm, we were still not at Little Simon Pond so we started talking about our options. I said to give us 20 minutes to re-assess. I was getting tired and after little simon would be the "big climb". Not something I was looking forward to being this tired already. At little Simon, Dan crossed the outlet first. He helped me make the giant step up. From there we looked at this as a possible place to make camp. A quick look at the map and Dan said, we are so close (it was less than a mile), lets just push it. So we grinded it out, that hill was brutal. We made it to camp after the sun had dropped below the horizon so we had but a few minutes to get firewood before it would get dark. This trip coincided with the new moon, so night was as dark as could be.
With the fire lit, we set up the tent and hammock. Tortelloni and sauce for dinner. The wood we gathered produced some great coals which put out a lot of heat. It was really dark and getting cold. The fire was nice. It was significantly below freezing over night. Our tarps had a layer of ice on them in the morning. The hot coals from the night before were still glowing when i got up. It was breeze to restart the fire. I made breakfast sandwiches and we talked out the plans for the day. I was nervous about continuing on towards the Lost Creek trail after yesterday. At the junction we decided to try it, knowing that we could camp just about anywhere. the plan was to get back to the jeep trail at least. We had about 2 miles to the Lost creek trail, then a bit more than two more along Big Otter lake. After the previous day's slog we took more breaks and had snacks to keep us fueled up. The trail was certainly much more clear than the past spring. Following the cut blowdown and new trail markers made navigation easy. The cold temperatures and the previous rains compacted the snow some making the hiking a bit easier.
The sky was a bit clearer than the previous days, the sun did peak out a few times. I did remember to put on sunscreen all three days. We had lunch at the junction. 2.7 miles back to Middle Branch. Somehow we made really good time all the way back to the next junction, even with the slowdown at the flooded section. We now had our own tracks to follow for just over a mile. We figured to just get back to the lean-to, gather wood before it got dark again. Dropping our packs in the lean-to, we headed across the small inlet to where Dan found most of the wood last time. We would toss large pieces across the stream and then carry them to camp. We started the fire and built a tripod for the cook pot. I took out the candles I had brought and fashioned a menorah in the snow. We acknowledged the 5th night of the festival of lights.
With a big fire going, and the sun set we were sitting in the lean-to talking. Then a strange noise silenced us. We both stood up and looked around the lean-to to see a headlamp in the distance. My first thoughts were it was Chuck B, with a pulk. I had given him our itinerary before we left. It turned out to be a couple of college kids from Cornell. They were at one of their parents cottages nearby and often came to this lean-to. In their sled they dragged was a bag with cut cord wood.
We all shared the lean-to and the big fire. Cooked up some chili, while the two others had leftover prime rib and soup. As it got dark, I noticed a glow across the lake. It appears we were able to see the light from a distant city. It was towards the west, so perhaps Lowville, or Carthage. Could it have been Watertown?
Another cold night. While we were quite warm, our two new camp mates didn't fare as well. They were woefully unprepared for the temperature. I don't think they slept much. The fire restarted easy again. The two guys from Cornell left a little earlier than us. It had snowed more overnight and large flakes were continuing to fall. We hoped the trail would now be compacted enough to bareboot so we lashed our snowshoes to our packs and headed out. We passed by our companions at the cedar pond junction, the hills were long and tiring but at least we didn't have to snowshoe it. My microspikes weregetting clumped, so I took them off. The snow was still coming down providing significant powder on the trail. Easy enough to swish our boots through. We paused for a snack just after the Okara trailhead junction. I think my pack had gained a few pounds of snow. Only a short ways to go. Just as we got to our final turn, we spotted a dog up ahead. He ran back to the ladies that were hiking with them. We said hi, they asked how long we had been out here. "This is day 4", I replied. I was also still calculating in my head our total mileage which would be about 21 miles total. We asked if our car was still in the lot, and if the windows were intact. The last little bit if trail would be the steep drop on which we climbed to start this adventure. Surprisingly, we both made it down without a single spill, a haderondah hanukah miracle.