The French Louie Loop has been on my to-do list since I thru-hiked the Northville Placid Trail. I specifically remember talking to another hiker* who was set up in the Cedar Lakes area and he mentioned that he and his girlfriend (who was nowhere in sight) and his dog (who was chained up to the lean-to) had come in from Pillsbury Mountain for the weekend and were doing the loop.
*I talk to everyone on the trail. Hikers are the best source of trail intel and generally great people. However, at the time of this conversation, I was hiking with two friends who do not talk to everyone on the trail and generally assume the worst of other hikers. After this conversation, they assured me this man was a serial killer because he used a “classic serial killer line: my girlfriend is swimming right now.” Needless to say, we survived the interaction (and all of the rest since then) and I got great intel about the French Louie Loop.
Fast forward a few years. I have a free weekend and lots of friends who have shown interested in backpacking but no one is really committing to a trip. So I reached out literally everyone I know via Facebook and posted a desperate plea for friends to do this loop with me. And, like magic, a small group of four with perfectly balanced personalities emerges. Everyone commits and we start pulling this trip together in about 10 days. Unfortunately, one person had to drop out last minute due to a family emergency but we certainly brought her in spirit. (Love you Rebecca!)
It was a very wet spring, but the past few weeks had been mostly dry in the Adirondacks and the forecast looked ideal: low 80s during the day and dipping into the upper 50s at night. We planned to share some gear (a water filter, stove, and GPS device) and bring along two hammocks and a tent. I am a hammocker and Kel and Mel were each going to spend one night in the second hammock to test it out. (They are hammockers now too.)
Mel is an ADK guide and runs a fabulous company Yoga Adirondacks, which, as the name implies, combines hiking and yoga in day and overnight trips. I met Mel in Lake Placid, in a hot tub, and quickly realized we had mutual friends and interests. Last year I arranged a private team-building trip with Mel and I was blown away by the experience she creates. If you are interested in getting into this stuff, but not sure where to begin, Mel is your woman.
Kelly and I have been friends for at least 12 years now. We met through a moms group when our kiddos were babies and have done many adventures over the years, mostly in the form of overnight relay races. Kel has been interested in getting more into backpacking and completed a few guided trips with ADK. I knew Kelly could handle a high-pressure situation with a smile and a sense of adventure.
In short, my confidence level in this group was HIGH.
We headed out early on Friday morning, meeting at 6:30 to caravan to the trailhead together. Kelly had been up since 2:30 with nerves and excitement. Knowing Kelly for so long, I had expected this. It’s always handy to have an early riser to help out with all the last minute stuff, which Kelly is more than happy to do. We got to the trailhead around 10am. The road into the trail was in great shape. No need for four-wheel drive this year. The loop is around 20ish miles and our plan was to have a longer day on Day 1 and then two shorter days.
The spur trail from Pillsbury Mountain Trailhead is 1.6 miles to get to the French Louie Loop. We headed clockwise (west) at the junction to get onto the loop, with a goal of getting to the South Lake Lean-to (9.1 miles total) to camp that evening.
We took a break at the first lean-to we came to, Pillsbury Lake. This lean-to was just refurbished (maybe even completely moved?). It had a distinctive carved bear head hanging in the back of the lean-to and some nice platforms for cooking on the side of the LT. Pillsbury Lake looked swimmable but mucky and I did note that this would be a trickier site for camping and hammocking. It was relatively clear around the LT but there was one potential camping site closer to the water.
We were enjoying our lunch, stretching, and checking out the site and when our first set of visitors showed up. A father-son duo, that Kelly aptly nicknamed Go-Pro and Silent Bob. Go-Pro had a go-pro attached to his hiking pole and was voice commanding it to turn on or off, take pictures, take videos, etc. He was chatty and we had a nice conversation. His son didn’t say much and had a likeness to Silent Bob. The name for the duo stuck. We would see these guys again the following night.
Go Pro and Silent Bob moved on down the trail and shortly after that another father-son duo appeared. They were on their second day on the trail and the dad was trying to convince the son to spend one more night in the woods at this LT. The son was really not interested. He just wanted out of the woods. During our conversation, the dad mentioned he was happy to see us out there since he didn’t see too many of “our kind” hiking. He was referring to us as women, but we turned this into a running joke for the rest of the weekend: the elusive women of the woods. What do you think? Are more men on the backcountry trails? I’d agree it feels like statistically more men but not significantly more.
After a short time, we were back on the trail, moving along nicely. This part of the trail was pretty easy – mostly flat with no blowdown. Along the trail, we saw some remnants of times past. Two old car front-ends, one with wooden wheel spokes, and other random bits and pieces. It reminded me of the days when the trail was used for logging, and most of the trees had probably been removed. Looking around it’s hard to imagine clear-cutting these forests but we were definitely walking through newer growth. Human impact is everywhere in the backcountry, from now-defunct dams to litter. We do our best to minimize our impact by leaving no trace (and picking up others traces). I am deeply appreciative of those in the 1970s who really cleaned up these areas because today they are so enjoyable, and I hope to be able to give back more in the future to truly keep the Adirondacks FOREVER wild and pristine.
Towards the end of day 1 it did seem like the miles were stretching on, and we were already to drop our packs and take a swim if we ever got to the LT. We put on a little music for motivation in the final stretch and eventually hit the junction with the Northville Placid Trail. Almost to South Lake!
I was so excited to be back on the NPT. Since my thru-hike in 2016, this trail has held a special place in my heart. It was truly a life-changing experience and I felt emotional to step foot on it again.
Finally, we arrived at South Lake!! The LT appeared occupied but no one was around. The lake looked stunning and we couldn’t wait to jump in. After a few minutes of poking around the LT occupants showed up. It turns out that they were three DEC interns, all in their early 20s. They were out on the trail as backcountry stewards and trail clearers. They were friendly and hospitable. Kelly referred to them as the Scooby Squad and it was very fitting. We decided to set up camp behind the LT, but first, we just wanted to swim.
South Lake has a very sandy bottom and is shallow forever. It’s almost weird how sandy and shallow it is. We didn’t care, we were so happy to be floating around. The water felt soooo good. As we are floating and looking up, we noticed a few clouds moving in. Of course, we didn’t think much of it. Life was GOOD. We were in a backcountry lake, at the end of a long day of backpacking, with a great group of people. Ahhhh. And then, it started to rain. Just a few drops at first (again, we mostly ignored this), and then a little more and a little more… We had left everything in a bit of a gear explosion behind the LT and suddenly we needed to cover everything. We hopped out of the lake, gathered our stuff into a pile and got a tarp up just in time.
While it rained we rehydrated our dinners, filtered water and stretched. Eventually, the rain stopped and we set up camp. I was in my hammock, Kelly was taking the first turn in the extra hammock, and Mel was in the tent. We went back into the lake for a few minutes after dinner and spent a little time at the LT campfire with the Scooby Squad, but we were so tired. Hiker midnight came early and I was asleep in minutes.
That night we all slept great. It rained lightly on and off in the night but we were dry and happy the morning of Day 2. Before we headed out we were enjoying one last moment at South Lake, soaking it all in and I noticed an eel in the water. Kelly immediately corrected me. Not an eel, a giant leech. Seriously this thing was 6-7 inches long. What in the world was it living on to make it that big? I was happy to have seen it after we swam, and not before. I’ve been swimming in Adirondacks lakes, streams, rivers and ponds my whole life and only ever had one leech on me when I was a kid and I enjoyed putting my feet into the muck. Still, it’s never fun to actually see one when you are swimming!
The Scooby Squad left early to hike out and do some trail clearing, working back to the LT. We slowly started to break camp and suddenly a trail runner zoomed by. It was the Wakely Dam Ultra, an intense trail run that went right on the trail we were on! The description from their website:
The Wakely Dam Ultra is a 55K ultra marathon through the Adirondack Park wilderness of New York State. It takes place along a remote section of the Northville Placid Trail between Piseco Lake and the Wakely Dam. The race is totally self supported, all runners will provide their own aid. It is a technical trail race with 9,111 feet of total elevation change. There are no cross roads, when you enter at the Wakely Dam there are only two ways out; emerge at the Piseco Airport or return from whence you came. Adding your name to the list of nearly 400 runners who have conquered Wakely will take a fair amount of fitness, planning, toughness, and maybe even a little bit of luck.
Throughout the morning our paths crossed with the Ultra runners, at probably the hardest part of the trail. Due to extensive beaver damage around the West Canada Lakes area, the trail has been rerouted and the footing is highly technical: roots, rocks, mud, stream crossings, narrow trails, etc. The runners had been on the trail already for 4-5 hours and they looked hot and muddy. We had some nice interactions with a few of them as we carefully, and slowly, made our way from South Lake to Beaver Point on Cedar Lake, our destination for that evening, about 6.2 miles total for the day.
Due to the technical footing on the trail, and stopping to scoot out of the way for runners, we were making slower progress than we had the day before. Plus, I think Day 2 is always a slow day. Your body is adjusting to life on the trail, you don’t have the Day 1 endorphins, things are starting to rub and hurt. It’s really an adjustment day. Luckily, we didn’t have a long way to go so a gentle speed was perfect.
We did plan to spend a little bit of time on Day 2 searching for French Louie’s rumored cave that he spent time in, which is along this stretch of trail somewhere. I had scoured the internet for coordinates and found some. We had no idea of they were accurate but Mel had programmed them into her amazing Garmin In-Reach Explorer Plus GPS (I’ll be upgrading my SPOT to this device after seeing what a better product it is) and when the trail got close to the coordinates Mel and I decided to do some bushwacking and try to find the cave. Kelly volunteered to stay on the trail with our gear and stretch and rest. Her ankle was really flaring up and she was happy to get off it for a while.
Mel and I headed into a wall of cliffs, assuming the cave was in these cliffs somewhere. It was rough bushwacking. We tried going up and over the cliffs (no luck), searching the cliffs for the cave (no luck), circumventing the cliffs, etc. Eventually, we realized we had made almost no progress towards the coordinates and we were concerned about going much further without any gear so we called it a day and headed back to the trail. (Note: we did find A cave, just not THE cave.)
After the bushwacking, and given Kelly’s ankle, we were all ready to get to our destination and take a swim, but we were still about two miles out. Luckily the trail had mellowed out, and, with the exception of some elevation changes, it was easy walking. We stopped to check out a very nice campsite along the trail and ran into the Scooby Squad, just heading back to South Lake. They had trimmed a lot of trail brush and removed two trees from the path, with five more to go. They asked us if we had noticed all their clearing – we hadn’t – and seemed so disappointed when we answered honestly. I guess the thing about blowdown is that you only notice when it’s not cleared. BUT, I always do appreciate a clear trail when I am on it and have so much gratitude to all of the people who work to clear it during the year.
I have a friend that I met on a trip a few years ago that spends a lot of time on the NPT. He does leadership development work and takes several groups out on the trail throughout the summer and fall. We ended up sharing a LT and camping spot with his group two years ago when I had my oldest daughter and two other kids and parents on the trail for a 3-night excursion. The NPT has a very active and involved community and uses Facebook as a forum for sharing trail reports and advice. Back then we had communicated before our trips because our itineraries overlapped and I found Keith to be very easy and helpful when it came to having two larger groups at one spot and coordinating that. We’ve remained connected on social media and when I posted a question about the road condition leading to the trailhead, I got a message from Keith. He was also planning to do the loop this weekend with his son and his son’s girlfriend. It worked out so we would overlap again on this trip. We planned to meet up at Beaver Point LT for the night. IMO, it’s always better to share LTs with people you know, and I was really looking forward to catching up with Keith and introducing him to Mel and Kelly. I had a feeling they would all hit it off.
When we (finally) arrived at Beaver Point, Keith, Jack and Zoe were already there. I made up a cocktail hour platter of backpacking food and veggies from my garden (there is a reason my pack was so heavy!) and we dug in. After enjoying some rehydrated hummus, cheese, crackers, cured meat, peppers and cucumbers… it was time for a swim! And, again, it felt *so* good.
After swimming, we set up our hammocks and tent. It was a beautiful evening and Go Pro and Silent Bob stopped over to say hello. They were camping across the way at another campsite. We decided to cook and eat dinner on a bridge on the trail. We loved eating and watching the sun go down while listening to and observing all the wildlife. Later we returned to the bridge to look at the stars. Basically, the bridge was a magic spot and a perfect ending to another long day. After star gazing we spent a little time at the campfire by the LT and then called it a night.
The night at Beaver Point was a noisy one. There were loons, and more loons, loons protecting their young, loons arguing, owls, ducks, beavers, etc. It is beautiful listening to all of that right outside your hammock, lulling you to and from sleep.
The morning arrived and Kelly was up before the crack of dawn, thus earning her her trail name, Early Nerd. Like an early bird, just a smart one. It turns out the hammock was just a bit more comfortable and the night a bit too noisy and Early Nerd was ready to go about 7 hours before we actually left camp.
Breaking down camp was done at a leisurely pace. No one was anxious to leave the woods. We broke fast with our friends we sharing the LT with and then said our goodbyes. We did pass along the cave coordinates we had and wished them luck getting to the spot. (Spoiler: They FOUND the cave!!) Eventually we, too, found our way back to the trail and heading out.
The day of hiking went quickly. We did come to another LT with two men at it, and one happened to be the LT adoptor. It was nice to chat with them. I want to adopt a Lean To. Basically, you take responsibility for the checking on the LT, reporting any issues, cleaning up trash, etc. It seems like a great excuse to get out there a few times a year and I would love to be able to give back this way.
As quickly as it had start, it ended. We came to our car in the (now very full) parking lot. Kelly was so grateful to be done. Her body was feeling the 20+ miles for sure, because, backpacking is no joke. And the only way to prepare for the journey is to take the journey.
We were *starving* on the ride home and stopped in Speculator for a less-than-spectacular dining experience. Not that it mattered. We were happy to still be together, sharing pictures and getting all our messages we had missed while we were off the grid. I rolled home around 4:30pm and my awesome 9-year-old had made a surprise for me that wasn’t ready yet so I was forced to take a shower and stay in my bedroom, relaxing, until dinner and dessert. (Dessert was the surprise: vegan cupcakes with vegan buttercream frosting. YUM!).
All in all, it was a great trip. One of the best really. I couldn’t ask for two better hiking partners, a better loop, better weather, better stars…
Until next time.