Pharaoh Lake Wilderness
Friends and I are currently in training for the Wakely Dam Ultramarathon. The race is three weeks away, which means that this weekend is the longest workout before starting to taper off and rest up for the big day. B, H, and I are running it, and after no small amount of planning decided on heading to the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness for a 22 mile loop.
Map of the run:
We started off by parking at the wrong spot and heading down the wrong trail a few hundred yards from the actual trailhead. (** Note: There is a very official DEC trailhead and parking area: start there! **). We ended up wandering nonsensically through misc trails for 4 miles before returning to where we started to find the real trail head. The run from West Hague Road to Pharaoh Lake was absolutely treacherous. It was a mucky swampy mess. Mosquitoes and deer flies were horrible. The trail is marked but we could never get going for more than a short bit before we had to navigate repeated giant mush holes. The occasional stinging nettle patches were almost a welcome change from the atrocities of the trail. At least the stinging pain helped you forget your true miseries for a short time. Ugh. Partway through, my morale severely crippled, I hit my low point. I started shrieking and running in hopes that a forced berzerker rage would pull me out of my funk. It half worked, which was good enough to keep me moving forward. As we say in the business, "hope is your biggest enemy". Lucky for us we had absolutely no hope at this point, so reaching our first waypoint, Pharaoh Lake, came as an unexpected happy surprise. This section of trail is one that as of right now (two days later) I hope to never see again.
We headed towards a lean-to on the lake. Friendly people were staying there who had hauled a boat or two for several miles to the campground. We greeted each other and they took a look at us covered in Hell and seriously asked us if we swam here. We explained our story, and they explained their's (dragging a giant boat 4 miles uphill over 8 hours). No strangers to a hard day's work, they offered us a dive into the refreshing water below.
After wasting 4 miles and dealing with a really tough 7 or so after that, we had a great swim and snack by the lake. We had several options at this point, all of them terrible. We were obviously not going to stick with the plan, which would mean another 15 miles for a total of 26. The easiest option would be to run back from whence we came (as terrible as it was) for a total of 18 or so miles. The remaining option would be to take a diagonal shortcut through Grizzle Ocean, for a total of 22 miles back to the car. We had no reason to believe that this trail would be any friendlier than the last, but at least it would be different. There was some hesitance to take on the long route, but a campground 6 miles in left an option to bail-out if need-be, which sealed the deal and put us all in agreement.
We hopped back on the trail and honestly at this point I don't remember much besides running, getting chased by angry dogs, H making an aggressive hail mary run for the campground, B bonking, and me losing a sandal deep DEEP in the mud and probing for it with a black arm for several minutes. Oh, and getting stung by something really nasty. I had been bitten by so many things that when a real stinger stuck into my calf I freaked out. Luckily B recognized the tone of my yelling and asked, "you got stung by a wasp"? To which I responded, "Oh yeah, that's what it was!". Up until then I didn't know what had happened except that it hurt a lot more than all the other bites combined. It is now several days later and the red spot is the size of a silver dollar. Do they still make those? At the campground, H chose to hang back while B and I ran the last 5 mile section to the car.
Oh man was it sweet! We got on the trail and ran! Yeah! Then it got even better, the trail turned to doubletrack and we were cruising side-by-side and making great time! This lasted just long enough for a bit of hope to creep into our psyche. Never a good thing. We crossed a small stream, after which the trail turned awful and got continuously worse from there. If beavers ever built a Manhattan, this was Damhattan. The trail pointed straight into miles of beaver pond. It appeared that much of the pond was recently built, because orange tape marked a detour over beaver dams, and through shallower sections of pond. Over miles of beaver pond we encountered one man-made bridge, but the left beam was gone, tilting the bridge 45 degrees, so we could not walk on the bridge, or even on the side of the bridge, but had to walk on the corner of the bridge. That's a first for me.
Just as we were hoping to have left Beaver Pond Hell behind us, the trail markers clearly marked the way into a big old pond. The trail looked like a boat ramp into the clear water. B came up to a halt in front of it and said with a thoroughly defeated look on his face, "you have got to be kidding me". We were down to our last straw, but bucked up and waded across. After that it was just a matter of pressing on and on, an eventually we reached the car.
If there is one thing that makes this area unique, it's the distance. Everything looks so easy and short on the map, until you measure it out and find that you could easily run a loop of 30-40 miles or more. It would not be a good place to take a wrong turn near the end of a run.