Friday, March 11, 2022

Cross Country Skiing in the St. Regis Canoe Area

This winter brought an unusual season for cross country skiing in the Adirondacks. Consistently cold temperatures didn't really arrive until the beginning of January. In fact is was the coldest month ever of my three years in the Adirondacks or eight years in Maine. Twenty nights dropped below zero, with at least a handful colder than -20F. We didn't have a good snow pack for skiing though, even with frigid temperatures. February saw snowier conditions. However, rain and warm ups between snowfalls left the skiing conditions less than desirable much of the month. 

I managed to ski a handful of days this winter. I always like to explore new areas. This year I explored the St. Regis Canoe Area for the first time by ski. St. Regis Canoe Area sits near the tiny settlement of Lake Clear, roughly 10 miles east of Saranac Lake or 15 miles northeast of Tupper Lake. Despite its name, the St. Regis Canoe Area provides recreational opportunities for more than just canoes. More than 50 lakes and ponds lie within the 18,400-acre area as well as 26 miles of trails. Some of the trails are specifically marked as ski trails. With some of the coldest winters in the eastern US, the bodies of water usually freeze solid in the heart of winter, opening up more skiable terrain.  The state manages the area similar to a Wilderness Area with no motorized use within its boundaries. Although the summer brings plenty of canoes and kayaks, the winter sees far fewer people in the backcountry here.

I skied the St. Regis Canoe Area twice this season. The main cross country skiing thoroughfare is the Fish Pond Truck Trail (trucks no longer use this trail and nature has mostly reclaimed it). This former logging road provides nearly five miles of skiing from the to Canoe Area boundary to the interior of the Canoe Area at Fish Pond. From the Fish Pond Truck Trail, numerous other trails can be accessed, as well as frozen ponds. 

Skiing to Fish Pond and back seems to be a fairly popular destination in the area allowing for a roughly 10-mile roundtrip. I skied this route my first time skiing the Canoe Area in late January. After looking at my map, I realized the possibility of more interesting excursions and loops by traveling on the other trails and ponds in the area. After a month of temperature swings and less than desirable conditions, I returned to the St. Regis Canoe Area when the snow improved. I planned on skiing a loop incorporating the Fish Pond Truck Trail with some of the ponds in the area as well as side trails and canoe portage trails. This post covers that loop, but I will include some photos from the first trip in January since I traveled on the Fish Pond Truck Trail on both visits.

Sign at the start of the Fish Pond Truck Trail

After nearly 20 inches of snow over the previous week, I returned to the St. Regis Canoe Area on Friday March 4th. The conditions of the lakes for skiing looked promising after a week of continuous subfreezing temperatures. In fact I was a little surprised to wake up to a not-so-motivating -17F. Fortunately, the temperature climbed quickly reaching a balmy +8F by the time I started skiing at 10AM with some sunshine helping take the cool sting out of the air. 

Canoe Area Boundary marker

The best place to access the area in winter is on a tiny side road near Lake Clear called Station Road. The dead end road stays plowed with parking at the end of it. This parking sits next to a main snowmobile corridor. The skiing begins along the snowmobile trail (be aware of snowmobile traffic as they travel quite fast). Skiing to the left from the parking area, you reach the first marked ski trail that circles Little Green Pond with access to Bone Pond and Little Lake Clear as well as campsites in summer. This is where my trip ended and I'll come back to that later. Passing the Little Green Pond ski trail, I continued another 2/3 of a mile and reached the turn onto the Fish Pond Truck Trail. This also marks the Canoe Area boundary.

Along the snowmobile trail

The Fish Pond Truck Trail sees a fair amount of traffic. After fresh snow fell nearly every day the past week, only one or two new ski tracks were visible. Not all the junctions are marked well. About a 1/4 mile along the Fish Pond Truck Trail I passed a junction on the right with ski markers. This is the end of the trail around Little Green Pond that I will get back to eventually. About a 1/2 mile later I reached another trail marked for skiing but no destination signs. This trail leads to a canoe carry (the Adirondack word for a portage trail) between St. Regis Pond and Little Lake Clear. I headed down this trail. Although an old trench was faintly visible, there were no fresh ski tracks on this trail and I wouldn't see any for several miles. I skied down this trail roughly a mile until it reached the boggy southeast corner of St. Regis Pond.

Along the ski trail to St. Regis Pond

Ski Trail marker

Little Clear Pond can also be skied 

Following the carry trail to St. Regis Pond on untracked snow

With snow cover, it isn't obvious that you reached water, so a map is helpful for navigation at this point. Once I reached the pond, I had no tracks to follow for the next several miles, so a map was absolutely necessary to find the portage trails between the various ponds. I followed the bog until I reached the more open, main body of St. Regis Pond. With recent cold temperatures, the snow on the pond provided a solid ski surface with no slush, as anticipated.

Heading onto St. Regis Pond

At nearly 400 acres, St. Regis Pond was the largest body of water on my route. Even with rock solid ice, I wanted to limit my time skiing on a frozen body of water, so I skied the most direct route across the pond. Out of the protection of the forest, the wind on St. Regis pond put a chill in the air. Blowing snow pelted me at times on the open pond. St. Regis Pond offers the best scenery of the surrounding area on my route with St. Regis Mountain dominating the view.

St. Regis Mountain's high point is the peak on the right

I broke the traverse across St. Regis Pond into two segments. I skied the first 3/4 of a mile to a prominent point. A lean to on the point provided a nice spot to get out of the wind for a moment and hydrate. I also took a look at my map so I knew roughly where the canoe carry trail led to the next pond. The last 1/3 of a mile wasn't quite as windy as the first segment. I found the carry trail to Ochre Pond without much difficulty.

The lean to sits on the point of land on the left, with
St. Regis the background

Looking back on my track across St. Regis

Lean to along St. Regis Pond

Looking back on the length of St. Regis Pond

The skiing between St. Regis and Ochre Ponds was fairly straightforward. The snow on the carry trail looked to be untouched all winter long. The carry trail runs maybe a 1/2 mile between the two ponds. Despite the untracked snow, the path is fairly obvious at most times. I only saw one or two markers on the trail, so if you aren't comfortable navigating in remote areas, you may want stick to the marked and tracked ski trails. By now, the morning sun gave way to clouds and light snow.

Start of the carry trail to Ochre

Although not marked, the route is fairly obvious

Looking back on my tracks

A section where the trail becomes a little less obvious

This canoe carry trail brought me to Ochre Pond. The traverse across Ochre runs only about a 1/4 mile. A pretty steady wind blew across the pond, but I was able to cross quickly and head back into the protected forest. The sign marking the next carry trail on the west end of Ochre Pond has seen better days and was a little more difficult to spot at a distance. Combing the shore, I was able to find it soon enough on the narrow pond.

Ochre Pond

This sign marking the trail wasn't easy to find in the snow

My next segment on the carry trail between Ochre and Mud Ponds was the most challenging leg of the trip. This trail travels over a mile on rougher terrain. A series of eskers traverse the area. The carry trail climbs up and over these eskers, at times fairly steeply. Like the trail between Ochre and St. Regis, this trail was completely untracked. At times following the trail took some careful analysis to stay on track. Very few markers are found on this trail. Because of the eskers, the terrain gets a little tricky with steeper pitches and narrow trails with a couple of overgrown sections. The snow was quite deep in places. Because of its location and untracked nature, you get a real sense of remoteness along this section.

Skiing along an esker

Overgrown section of trail

Fairly typical stretch along the Ochre to Mud carry trail

A mild section of the Ochre to Mud carry trail

Eventually the trail descends fairly steeply off a final esker as it reaches a junction. At this point, you have the choice to ski across one more pond, or head directly to Fish Pond. I decided to ski across Mud Pond. Mud was the smallest pond on the route so far. Although difficult to tell under deep snow, it looked like would have been more shallow and boggy than the others that I traversed. One last short carry trail brought be to Fish Pond.

Junction to Mud Pond

Mud Pond

Final carry trail to Fish Pond

Fish Pond covers more than 100 acres and is a decent size pond. I skied roughly 1/4 mile over the pond to reach the Fish Pond Truck Trail at the southeast corner of the pond. If skiing this loop in reverse, the canoe carry trails toward Mud Pond and Ochre Pond didn't have any signs. With snow, these trails are very difficult to find if you don't know where to look.

Fish Pond

Hills around Fish Pond

Obscured visibility on Fish Pond as snow falls

Looking back at my tracks on Fish Pond

Now that the harder skiing was behind me, I took a break to eat and drink before closing out the last five miles of my route. Although there wasn't a fresh track on the Fish Pond Truck Trail, it sees a decent amount of traffic and was fairly packed under the fresh few inches of snow. It's also wider than most standard trails making it a good choice for even most beginner skiers.

Transitioning from conifers to hardwoods

Gentle terrain on the Truck Trail

Generally the Truck Trail travels gentle, rolling terrain with no major elevation changes. There is one modest hill in the middle section of the Truck Trail that could be a little tricky in icy conditions. The hill features about 200 vertical feet of elevation gain before dropping back down. In good snow, it can be climbed with minimal herring bone climbing and descended without much danger. Both times I skied it, I had prime conditions. On harder snow, it may pose a little more challenge.

Icy cliff near the height of land

Skiing from Fish Pond, you pass a few junctions. The first obvious trail leads down a marked trail to Ochre Pond. Another trail leads to the western side of St. Regis Pond. About four miles from Fish Pond, I passed the start of my loop at the ski trail that leads to the southeast corner of St. Regis Pond. Finally I reached the ski trail that travels around Little Green Pond that I mentioned at the beginning of the post. The skiing on the Truck Trail went by quickly on the packed surface compared to the untracked ponds and carry trails.

Skiing through conifers

Nice forest on the Fish Pond Truck Trail

To add a little variety from the Truck Trail, I headed down the ski trail around Little Green Pond. The trail begins on a narrower path that's easy to follow with ski trail markers. A short detour leads to tiny Bone Pond. The trail turns into the wider Bone Pond Truck Trail before reaching the campsites on Little Green Pond. The marked ski trail eventually passes a clearing of Little Green Pond and finally Little Lake Clear before ending back at the snowmobile trail a few hundred yards from the parking lot, about 1.3 miles from the Fish Pond Truck Trail.

Narrow start to the Green Pond loop

Bone Pond

Trail around Little Green Pond

Little Green Pond

I don't have a specific measurement on the distance of this loop, but going by a rough mapping estimate on CalTopo, I measured this loop out to about 13 miles, but it didn't feel quite this long. With perfect snow conditions, I couldn't have asked for a better day of cross country skiing. Despite the chilly start, it warmed up to the low 20sF. Apart from some wind on the ponds, the forest sheltered me from the wind most of the time. It snowed for about 90 minutes but nothing too serious. Even with sections where I had to break trail for nearly half of the trip, I still managed to ski the route in less than five hours.

The red line shows my approximate route

I passed one skier not to far from Fish Pond and skied a mile or two with another skier for a couple miles near the height of land on the Fish Pond Truck Trail. I saw one other person at a distance near Bone Pond. My previous outing skiing the Fish Pond Truck Trail, I encountered only one other group. I'm sure the area sees more traffic on weekends with good snow, but the area doesn't seem to get too busy or over skied.

If you choose to ski the ponds, be sure to check the safety of the ice before committing to a crossing of a body of water. Also be aware that the ponds are prone to wet and slushy conditions after heavy snow or warmer periods that make skiing miserable. If you aren't comfortable with route finding, stick to the marked ski trails or tracked snow. The area is fairly remote and sees little to no traffic off the main trails in the winter.

If you ski this area and have a sense of adventure, there are plenty of options to create your own adventure on the various ponds and trails. If you are looking for a less adventurous outing, the trail around Little Green Pond and the Fish Pond Truck Trail both make good skiing options.

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