Chasing snow at Cranberry Lake

Susan Miller from Saranac Lake to the Burntbridge Pond trailhead.

When it comes to good skiing conditions, Cranberry Lake offers

Story and photos by Tom French

When my buddy Doug Miller is looking forward to skiing early or late in the season, he looks west to St. Lawrence County in hopes of lake-effect powder. He is rarely disappointed.

Two of his favorite destinations are the Burntbridge Pond Trail or the Cranberry Lake 50 East Connector Trail at the Gilbert Tract Parking Area, although he’s never done both loops (sort of) so he invited me for a two-car exploration.

Even though it was mid-winter when we did the hike, the area clearly had a lot more snow than Potsdam or Higley Flow (my hometown) or Saranac Lake – Doug’s playground. Susan, Doug’s wife, also joined us which was a pleasant surprise. I knew his cool head would control the bears in Doug and me.

We started at the Burntbridge Pond Trailhead (also known as the Brandy Brook (Flow) Trail), a parking area on the south side of Highway 3, 2.5 miles east of Cranberry Lake. The trail climbs from the parking lot about 30 feet for a tenth of a mile to a spur of the Grasse River Railroad.

Penetrating the forest for five miles, records suggest the Brandy Brook Tram was active from 1913-18 and possibly again from the 1920s to the 1940s, although Barbara McMartin states the tracks were removed in 1933 when the state acquired the land. The spur started at Brandy Brook Junction, currently a rest area on the south side of Route 3, just east of the bridge over the Grasse River. Route 3 was built along the spur road until it diverges east of the trailhead.

rail bed
Along the snowmobile trail and rail spur of the Grasse River, known at the time as the Brandy Brook Tram.

This isn’t your grandfather’s railroad bed; it was a roughly hewn logging railroad with serious grades pushing 12% and climbing nearly 85 feet in less than a mile to its highest point. It also makes for a nice descent, especially if you’re doing an out and back. I should know – realized a mile ago that I forgot the keys to my Highlander. My shame was to ski down to Doug’s truck to pick them up.

This section is also part of the St. Lawrence County snowmobile network. Although no one had had a chance to use a sled recently, it was compact enough to make skiing easier. Along the way, we met a DEC employee from the Potsdam office. He was nailing new snowmobile trail markers and keeping Doug and Susan busy with conversation while they waited for me to return with the keys.

At 1.5 miles we left the Burntbridge Pond Trail and railroad bed, turning west on Cranberry Lake 50, although the trail was originally built to provide access to Bear Mountain without having to pay the day-use fee at DEC Cranberry Lake Campground. A register also marks the junction. My copy of Barbara McMartin Discover the Northwest Adirondacks (1990) call it the “fairly new” Bear Mountain (Camping) Trail. DEC maps seem to call it “Camping Trail”. The Cranberry Lake 50 board sees it as part of the east connector.

cranberry lake skiing
Doug and Susan Miller at the junction where the Bear Mountain trail veers left and the Cranberry Lake 50 East connector continues to the Gilbert Tract parking area.

The trail begins with the most significant hill of the day. Doug descended first, using his telemark technique and, I guess, the deep, virgin, powdery snow to reduce his speed. Susan followed, and I went last, picking up speed on the now well-trodden path. Doug and Susan both clapped as I approached the final few meters – a jog around a log. Alas, I knew how to fall, taking my only fall of the day.

Faint traces of former skiers could be discerned in the snow, but they were so old they offered no assistance. We cleared the trail for the full 1.1 miles. Several times, Susan exclaimed, “I can’t believe how much snow there is here.”

Several walks through Bear Mountain Creek and parts of the marsh were tight for skis. In the 19th century it was known as Bear Mountain Lake because it was flooded. A few blowdowns, possibly storms from last fall, forced us to change course, and a layer of ice was sometimes detected under the few centimeters of more recent snow. I knew you had to keep a ski out of Doug and Susan’s tracks on the hills. Several inclines had to be avoided, especially a few yards before the bridge at the junction of Bear Mountain and Cranberry Lake Campground.

Still, the deep snows and effort were a welcome change from the machine-groomed trails I usually pursue at Higley Flow. Doug and Susan also appreciated the differences from their native mountain of Dewey.

The last mile might have been the nicest. We started the day with partly sunny skies which turned into heavy showers along the mid section. Maybe a band of lake effect had rolled over the area, but as we skied down the wide path to the car, the puffy flakes stopped and the clouds parted. The sky turned blue and dappled through the trees making the shadows dance. The elevation we gained along the Grasse River railroad was repaid by a mostly descending schuss in powder snow towards the Gilbert Tract parking area.

The only issue we encountered were post holes, but they were more of a bother to Doug as he opened up the trail. Although not required (as in the High Peaks), snowshoes or skis are always recommended on Adirondack trails when there is snow – not only for safety reasons, but also to preserve the condition of the trails. trails for other users.

I just enjoyed the last of three different sections which offered varying conditions ranging from flat snowmobile trail, railroad bed to break trail through backcountry single track to lay first runs in wide powder snow.

When we reached my car at the Gilbert Tract parking lot after three hours of skiing, Doug suggested checking out the 2.2 mile loop ski trail, but I declined. I thought I had already skied an extra round trip when I picked up the keys. The Gilbert Tract would have to wait another day.

If You Go There: The Burntbridge Pond trailhead is located about 2.5 miles east of Cranberry Lake along the south side of Highway 3. Located at a bend in the highway, it can easily be missed if you drive too fast. The Gilbert Tract parking area, also on the south side, with access to both the ski loop and the Cranberry Lake 50 East Connector trail, is only about a quarter mile outside of Cranberry Lake .


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