What I Didn’t See on the Way to Pine Lake

by | Guide to the Great Outdoors 2022, Recreation

Illustration by Mark Wilson

When I told my 16-year-old daughter I was going on a seven-or-so-mile round-trip hike alone last September, she acted like I was marching to my doom. Her vote of no-confidence was, I thought, laughable. Sure, I don’t generally hike alone. And, yes, I’ve always been more at home in a library than on a trail, but I’m not completely clueless in the wilderness. I can start a fire and pitch a tent. I sign in at every trailhead and follow the tenets of Leave No Trace. I tote along plenty of food and water and layers of practical clothing. And I know my limits, sticking with easy-to-moderate, well-marked treks. My destination for this trip was no exception; the route to Pine Lake, in the Essex Chain Lakes Complex, follows a relatively level logging road.

Pine Lake Primitive Area, which has only been part of the Forest Preserve for a decade, remains largely undiscovered, though not for lack of attractions. The former Finch, Pruyn lands offer a not-too-demanding hike to a pretty, 90-acre lake with fishing opportunities and a campsite. I hear it’s really nice, though I wouldn’t know for sure. As my daughter predicted, I didn’t make it there.

I’d done my due diligence and studied the route beforehand: Park at the gate; follow the blue-marked trail—or, more accurately, backwoods boulevard—past the turnoff to Clear Pond; take in the view at the charming-sounding Mud Pond; then turn left at the junction with the Cedar River trail. From there, yellow markers trace the last mile.

But I made my first mistake before I even got out of the car. I’d read that the parking area sat by a gate at the end of Chain Lakes Road. And I did park near a gate—it just wasn’t the right one. The fact that it was open gave me some pause, but I reasoned that, with hunting season close at hand, access might be available to sporty sorts with sturdier vehicles than my own. I’d developed a healthy distrust of unfamiliar North Country roads after almost driving a Toyota Camry onto Wolf Pond Road, a glorified ATV trail that stretches between Standish and Mountain View.

I needn’t have worried. The road was perfectly passable, and—after almost a mile of extra walking—I arrived at a much bigger parking area, next to the requisite gate and trailhead kiosk. I skirted the closed gate and signed in, starting my journey with only a dent or two in my confidence.

It promised to be a happy hike—the weather was mild, the way was clear and the trees had started showing off their fall fashions. Still, with my daughter’s doubts dancing in my head, I began to feel very alone, my imagination hopping at the forest’s snaps and sighs.

As I walked farther into the wood, the snaps and sighs became crashes and grunts. I may have been the only person on the trail that day, but I wasn’t alone. That’s when I remembered something a coworker had said before I left: “Maybe you’ll see a moose,” as she had on her own solo central Adirondack hike.

The problem was, I didn’t want to see a moose. I realize that’s an unorthodox opinion, but I’ve always been intimidated by their size and strength. (Bulls can weigh up to 1,200 pounds and can stand six feet tall—without adding in a mighty rack.) And it doesn’t help that my husband hunts in the northernmost regions of the park, where there’s been a healthy moose population for years.

From his tales, I know that sharing a landscape with the largest land mammal in the state can be nerve-racking. He’s stumbled upon a huge wallow—an expanse that’s been torn up and marked by a dominant bull—with its owner at home. (The bull quickly escorted him off the property.) He’s also startled a bull who was bedded down, the giant rising from the forest floor and making a show of trotting back and forth while shaking his massive head. The message received, my husband retreated. 

So, as I walked along, I ran through my limited knowledge of moose habitat. I know they love tracts that have been logged, with room enough to move and plenty of fresh growth to browse on—the kind of landscape I was currently walking through. I also know they favor wetlands, like the beaver-flooded meadow I’d just passed.

Another meadow gave some reassurance, with a wildlife trail cutting through its tall grasses that was too small to have been tromped by a moose. But that only got me thinking about other creatures lurking nearby. Was it a freeway for irritable bucks? These were prime hunting lands, after all—the old stomping grounds of the Outer Gooley Club. Or maybe a bear byway?

As I pondered the likelihood of a bear encounter, and what I should do during that meet-and-greet, I heard the loudest crash yet, followed by what could be described as the angry croak of a 500-pound bullfrog. It was a symphony that sent me running behind the thickest stand of growth available—an irrational response that felt silly even at the time. (It felt sillier in the retelling, as my husband informed me that I had probably heard a buck; that I’d have known without a doubt if a moose came crashing through the woods; and that, in the unlikely event that a moose came loping towards me rather than away from me, whatever brush I was standing behind wouldn’t be an impediment.)

Though I recovered my composure quickly enough and continued on my way, I didn’t make it much farther that day. I stopped at a flooded section of trail near the end of Mud Pond and, as I considered negotiating it, I smelled a strong, musky aroma paired with a dollop of fresh scat. And that was enough for me—I left the forest to its denizens and took off for home.

If You Go

The trail to Pine Lake starts at the (very) end of Chain Lakes Road, in Indian Lake. The 3.7-mile route is open to bicycles, though there are some hills to navigate. There’s one designated tent site on the shore; a site across the lake is reserved for floatplanes.


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