The silence here is white-great, muffling drifts of white piled to improbable depths when snow squalls roll in off Lake Ontario and crash against the mountains in Five Ponds Wilderness. This region of New York's Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve routinely registers some of the Northeast's biggest snowfalls, meaning the silence is profound and snowshoes are the norm.
For first-time winter campers, Five Ponds is an ideal training ground. The relatively easy trails deliver challenge without fright, log lean-tos offer a homey alternative to tents, and the sights and sounds of the North Woods in winter are just steps from the trailhead. You may hear coyotes baying in pursuit of snowshoe hares, or spook a ruffed grouse from its bed beneath a snowdrift, or find tracks in the snow where a drama between a deer mouse and a great horned owl played out.
The easiest access into the 107,000-acre wilderness is via the Dead Creek Flow Trail, which cuts through a spruce swamp alongside an arm of sprawling Cranberry Lake. Just a half mile from your car you enter a blast zone of felled timber, the vestiges of one of the biggest natural disasters to strike the Adirondacks. In summer 1995, a freak storm roared through, snapping and flattening trees and sending campers and canoers scurrying for their lives.
The blowdown, or "microburst" as meteorologists called it, altered the face of Five Ponds Wilderness and created a haven for woodpeckers. Lean on your ski poles to catch your breath and you'll hear the incessant tapping of downy and hairy woodpeckers and the jackhammer hits of the pileated variety.
Janack's Landing, where you'll find a lean-to facing frozen Cranberry Lake, makes a good first-night stopover or basecamp for the weekend. Whether you push on and complete one of several loop hikes or stay put, definitely include a climb of nearby Cat Mountain in your itinerary. From the summit you come to appreciate the grand scale of the blowdown and the sheer power of nature. Stand in respect, and take comfort in the fact that the land will heal-in more than a human lifetime. It's here that you begin to comprehend the timelessness of wilderness.
QUICK TAKE: Five Ponds Wilderness, NY
DRIVE TIME: 400 miles (6 hours) north of Philadelphia, 350 miles (51/2 hours) west of Boston, and 330 miles (51/2 hours) northwest of New York City.
THE WAY: From NY 3 at the west end of Cranberry Lake, turn south onto Wanakena Road and follow it for 2 miles through the village of Wanakena. After crossing the bridge over the Oswegatchie River turn left onto South Shore Road. Half a mile later, you come to a plowed parking area marking the Dead Creek Flow trailhead.
TRAILS/MILEAGE: About 40 miles of trail penetrate the northern portion of the Five Ponds Wilderness. Via the Dead Creek Flow Trail, the Janack's Landing lean-to is 3.3 miles. Add another 2 miles to Cat Mountain. Seasoned winter travelers may want to attempt a 16-mile loop by taking the High Falls Trail at the Cat Mountain junction. The trail ends in Wanakena about half a mile from the Dead Creek Flow trailhead.
ELEVATION: Janack's Landing is the low point at 1,500 feet; Cat Mountain is the high point at 2,261 feet.
CAN'T MISS: The vista from Cat Mountain and the two-story-high frozen waterfall at High Falls.
CROWD CONTROL: You'll encounter only a handful of other people, most of them daytrippers, on winter weekends.
MAPS AND GUIDES:Trails in the Cranberry Lake Region, New York (DEC pamphlet). Guide to Adirondack Trails: Northern Region, 2nd edition (1997; Adirondack Mountain Club Books, 800-395-8080; $16.95). USGS 1:24,000 topos Wolf Mountain and Five Ponds (800-435-7627; www.usgs.gov).
PIT STOP: The Wanakena General Store sells camping supplies, topos, and food.
WALK SOFTLY: All the lean-tos have primitive outhouses. Use these when possible. Otherwise, pack it out.
MORE INFORMATION: Adirondack Mountain Club, 814 Gogguns Rd., Lake George, NY 12845; (518) 668-4447; www.adk.org.