Whose woods these are I think I know. As I write in late March, the 20,758-acre Boreas Ponds tract belongs to the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy (TNC). By the time this magazine reaches you, this glorious gateway to the High Peaks Wilderness may be yours, the newest piece of the Forest Preserve. How and when public access will be permitted has yet to be determined, but hikers, paddlers, campers, hunters and fisherfolk are eager to explore what has been off-limits for more than a century.
Whose woods these were begins in the late 19th century, when G. R. Finch acquired virgin timberland west of Elk Lake. The tract became legendary, closely guarded by the long-time owner, Finch, Pruyn and Company—and with good reason. There were rumors of a beautiful skein of waterways ringed by jagged, trailless peaks and tales of brook trout, whitetails and epic weekends for company brass. Getting past the first gate off Blue Ridge Road was a privilege, and penetrating the distant heart—seven miles in—to see the place was an honor bestowed on only a few.
So we felt lucky, appropriately privileged, as we gathered on a cloud-cluttered August day last year, a group led by Mike Carr, Connie Prickett and Sophie McClelland from the TNC’s Adirondack Chapter. After twisting, turning dirt roads we were at the put-in, a gravelly ramp upstream of a small dam. Though we were the only people for miles, we launched quietly, spoke in whispers and paddled our canoes with stealth that was almost comical.
Stroke, stroke, stroke, the first of the three Boreas Ponds was nondescript and barely differentiated from its brothers. Dark trees marched to the shoreline, no inviting beaches or swimming rocks in sight. The woods pinched in, then rolled back like a theater curtain, and BAM!—a heart-stopping vista exploded before us. The foreground crags rose abruptly out of nothing but water, and distant peaks—Marcy, Dix, Haystack, Gothics, Skylight, Basin, Sawteeth and Saddleback—tumbled toward the horizon. Not to be outdone by terrestrial splendors, the vast sky brightened and filled itself with deepening blue and racing white. Our responses: “Whoa,” “Wow” and pure joy. Finally someone had the presence of mind to string together some words: “This is National Park quality” and “Makes me think of how I felt the first time I saw the Yosemite Valley.” The spell broken, we chattered like we had just been let out of church.
The view drew us in closer to that rugged scene, where mountains beyond mountains revealed themselves. We passed Elephant Rock, a tall erratic erupting like a sea stack and crowned by ferns and trees. In less than an hour we reached the ponds’ end, then returned, our flotilla fanning out to trace the liquid contours.
That paddle was just the magnificent first course of a full day’s tasting menu. Bumping along a sandy road, we stopped to gawk at moose tracks, so many it looked like a square-dancing herd had congregated there. Then it was on to White Lily Pond, whose trail had more moose evidence in bent-down branches and dangling strips of striped-maple bark. No wonder it’s also called moosewood. On our way back to the gate, we hiked through mixed hardwoods to pay homage to a skyscraper white pine that had been a very big tree long before these ponds, streams and mountains were named.
What we witnessed that day seemed quintessentially wild. But had we been here in 1936 or 1896, the sights, sounds and smells would have been far different—the crash of falling trees, clomp of hooves, clank of chains, the perfume of fresh-cut balsam and reek of sweat. These woods had been logged twice and the pristine flows we saw were impoundments.
Dams on Boreas River and LaBier Brook were built in 1889 to ensure abundant water for river drives, and softwood cutting by Finch, Pruyn started in 1891. Between 1892–1897 more than 40 million board feet of spruce and fir sawlogs were cut, according to Richard Nason, a retired Finch woodlands superintendent. (To put that number in perspective, a typical 2,000-square-foot home uses 16,000 board feet of lumber, so that output would yield 2,500 new homes.) This was accomplished by just manpower and horsepower, with a crew of 40 loggers and 20-some horses.
The ancient log cabin we passed six miles in was built in the 1830s, according to Nason. Repurposed as a lumber camp, Nason said it started as a structure vital to the old Port Henry to Sacketts Harbor road, which demanded that pastures and shelters be located every 10 miles. This clearing once held barns, a blacksmith shop and other outbuildings, but only the cabin remains today, home to a hunting club with a lease that expires in the next few years.
The image of 19th-century logging might conjure up miles of stumps and a bleak, barren terrain, but the Boreas parcel was treated with respect. Company woodlands—stretching from North Hudson and Newcomb to Blue Mountain and Olmstedville—were extremely productive. To protect that resource, in 1910 Finch hired one of the first professional foresters in the country. Howard Churchill began a systematic in-ventory of vast acreage, documenting softwood and hardwood stands, wetlands, streams and slopes in meticulous detail; today his maps of the Boreas tract remain valuable for showing old roads, clearings and the variety of habitats here.
In 1937 logging resumed at Boreas Ponds, this time for softwood pulp to supply the Finch paper mill in Glens Falls. Woods work still depended on muscle power. The cut lasted until 1949, and during the war, crews of Finns, Russians and French-Canadians augmented the Americans. They worked from mid-May through March, got paid after nine months in the woods, and some even signed on for the river drive.
Trucking pulpwood to the mill was a breakthrough more than a decade in the future; floating logs was the method of the day. The downstream trip from the Boreas to the Hudson took two to three weeks, with an army of cooks and helpers setting up camp along the way to feed the river drivers. Again, this tract was extremely productive, providing about 100,000 cords of pulp; if arranged in a single cord the stack would be 75 miles high.
From 1950 on, Finch leased portions of the Boreas tract to hunting clubs and used the property for recreation and corporate retreats. In 2007 the privately held firm was at a crossroads: significant investment was needed to modernize the mill and the old model requiring paper companies to own the resource base no longer held true. The land went up for sale.
“Although borrowing $110 million to purchase all 161,000 acres of the former Finch lands was daunting, we just had to take this chance,” said Mike Carr, executive director of TNC’s Adirondack Chapter, based in Keene Valley. The group assessed the potential to keep key lands in production yet closed to development, as well as add other important parcels to the Forest Preserve and protect habitat for threatened species such as Bicknell’s thrush. According to Carr, “When we made this bet in 2007 the economy appeared strong and our board and our staff were wrapping up the 104,000-acre Domtar deal near Lyon Mountain on the heels of the International Paper Lakes project, which included Round, Bog and Clear Lakes near Little Tupper. Timber markets were changing and huge commercial timberland owners were divesting. It really felt like now or never.”
As the bridge between corporate landowner and New York State, TNC has been a driving force in increasing public access for the Essex Chain of Lakes, between Indian Lake and Newcomb, and the McIntyre parcels on the western border of the High Peaks Wilderness. These recent purchases continue a tradition that began in the 1970s, when the group acquired Santanoni Preserve and Lake Lila. All have become prime recreation destinations.
“Since the Nature Conservancy has owned the [Boreas]property for nine years we’ve had a chance to see its really special parts,” said communications director Connie Prickett. “There’s so much more to discover on a tract of this size.
“There’s great potential access to the High Peaks. Allen Mountain—with a round-trip hike now more than 18 miles—certainly seems very close to this land. Cheney Cobble, which is nearby and already state land, has a rocky summit and offers a great view,” she said. “I have been eyeing Ragged Mountain for a few years and I got up to an outlook and the views were amazing. You look across Hoffman Notch Wilderness and it sweeps all the way around to the fire tower on Blue. That’s an opportunity for a short hike with a big reward. Moose Mountain has open ledges and looks interesting too.”
She continued, “Hiking along Snyder Brook is really beautiful; it’s a cold mountain stream with cool rock formations and cascades. On a warm day you just feel the temperature difference.” She also mused about White Lily Pond: “It’s so very peaceful, not so much a paddling opportunity but just a tranquil spot.”
While more than 91,000 acres have been sold by TNC to remain commercial forestland, New York has been accumulating Finch parcels since 2012. In fiscal year 2016–17 the Environmental Protection Fund is at an all-time high, $300 million. Once the $14.5 million Boreas deal is inked, the Department of Environmental Conservation begins the long process of planning for public access. This entails looking at existing roads, parking areas, put-ins, clearings and fishing spots as well as determining where primitive campsites, new trails, signage and other amenities should be built. These decisions are just a piece of the puzzle; the parcel may be designated as wilderness, primitive, wild forest or a combination (see “Classified Information,” below).
Preserving this special place is a tremendous legacy, and as Governor Andrew Cuomo said when he first laid eyes on Boreas Ponds, “You couldn’t really paint this place. Nature has a better brush.”
In the Adirondack Park, New York’s public land is the Forest Preserve, which the state constitution says will be “forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, … nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” Beyond this legal protection, tracts have special classifications that guide recreational use and resource management.
Wilderness Areas are places “where man is only a visitor.” These large, remote parcels are off-limits to motorized vehicles and bicycles.
Wild Forest Areas are less remote than Wilderness and are intended for more intensive use. Bicycles and snowmobiles are allowed.
Primitive Areas are essentially Wilderness but contain structures and other manmade features; adjacent private land may trigger this classification.
The classification for Boreas Ponds will be decided by the DEC and Adirondack Park Agency; leading up to a unit management plan, there will be public information sessions and opportunities to express opinions on wilderness, wild forest or primitive designation.