Five Ponds Wilderness

The Five Ponds Wilderness stands apart from the other protected areas of its size – both literally and figuratively. It lies in a region of the Adirondack Park with no mountains of any notable elevation, and well away from many of the most heavily-traveled highways. Hemmed in by three large man-made lakes, the landscape is dotted with more ponds, lakes, and wetlands than anyone might care to count. There are rivers of water, as well as ancient rivers of sand and gravel. Wherever people can think to put a trail, a beaver can find a choice spot to build a dam.

Today this is the third largest designated wilderness in the park, and one of its most celebrated. But at the time the area was first protected as wilderness in 1972 it consisted of only 62,780 acres – about half its current size. The Five Ponds Wilderness as we know it today is the result of a successful latter-day land acquisition program by the State of New York.

At the time the Forest Preserve was afforded constitutional protection in 1894, only a few tax sale parcels were in the public domain in this region. Then came the acquisition of thousands of acres of virgin forest north of Stillwater in 1897 from William Seward Webb, followed by the ravaged timberlands south of Wanakena in 1919, which were formerly owned by the Rich Lumber Company. These tracts formed the nucleus of what would become the modern wilderness area.

More than half a century would pass before the state truly focused its efforts on this region, completing one blockbuster land purchase after another: Nehasane in 1978, the Fisher Forestry Tract in 1982, Lows Lake in 1985, Watson’s East Triangle in 1986, Otterbrook in 1989, and Bog Lake in 2006. Within a the span of a single generation, a region that had spent much of the last century off-limits to the public had been pieced parcel by parcel into a wilderness of spectacular proportions.

This is a rolling, glacial landscape, with almost as many miles of eskers as there are rivers. The eponymous Five Ponds are themselves a cluster of Ice Age artifacts, where blocks of ice from a dying glacier left watery depressions on each side of one of the area’s largest eskers. The ice has been gone for a dozen or so millennia, with a forest of tall white pine now taking its place along the shorelines.

Except for the original tax lots, most of the northern half of the wilderness – all of it located in St. Lawrence County – was once industrial timberland. The kingpin acquisition was the Rich Lumber Company tract, which was penetrated in its heyday by two logging railroads and then severely burned – all within the space of a single decade. The rail grades became fire truck trails, and the winding Oswegatchie River became a route for motorboats.

To the south, the adjoining Forest Preserve acreage in Herkimer County was acquired in a mostly virgin condition – never logged or burned, except maybe along the fringes here and there. We have Stillwater Reservoir to blame for this boon: when a state agency flooded the Beaver River, it cut off easy access to some of William Seward Webb’s extensive landholdings. The railroad baron sued for damages and won. As part of the settlement, New York State was required to purchase the marooned acreage – some seventy thousand acres of it, both north and south of the river.

The Webb land to the south is now the Pigeon Lake Wilderness. The acreage to the north of Stillwater was so remote and pristine that it impressed state land planners in the late 1960s: rather than seeing the truck trails and motorboats south of Wanakena as impediments to a wilderness designation, they were moved by the pristine old growth and glacial ponds — a living museum of pre-contact North America. For this reason we now have a Five Ponds Wilderness, with all the former motorized access that once occurred here banned decades ago.

Despite the spectacular growth in size, this is still very much a work-in-progress. No other Adirondack wilderness has as many private inholdings – or as many sanctioned access roads to reach those inholdings. To a degree, a purist might argue that not every acre of this wilderness is worthy of the designation quite yet. But the designations express a clear intent on the part of the state to protect a motorless area of truly impressive proportions. In theory, the growth of the Five Ponds Wilderness is not yet over, especially if any of the inholdings – some of which are notably large and impressive – become available for purchase.

This is a landscape to cherish, to savor, to protect. The snows are deep, the trails are long, the waters are dark with natural tannins. The old roads are filling in with new growth, and the lakes are recovering from the era of acid rain. The extensive damage from a 1995 windstorm is healing. The state has an appetite to acquire whatever land is available in this region. This very well could be the century of the Five Ponds Wilderness.

Please click through the tabs below to learn more about the Five Ponds Wilderness.

Five Ponds Wilderness at a Glance

Size: 124,710 acres

First Designated: 1972

Unit Management Plan Status: Completed in 1994

Special Regulations: None; standard Forest Preserve regulations are in effect


Water defines the Five Ponds Wilderness as much as its lands and forests; nowhere can one travel a full mile without encountering a stream, pond, or beaver flow. But despite the number of ponds – and despite the history of logging, fires, and blowdown – the forests are not to be dismissed either.

The area may be named for the Five Ponds located in the heart of the area, but the area could be just as aptly called the “Oswegatchie Wilderness.” Two of that river’s celebrated branches flow for many miles through the wilderness, including the wild and rugged Middle Branch and the ever-navigable “Main” or East Branch, which features more miles of paddle-friendly water than most people ever get to see.

The presence of a large series of marshes and alderbeds on the main stem of the Oswegatchie should be regarded as nothing short of remarkable. This type of terrain was once deemed so worthless that the state planned to systematically convert most such features into reservoirs. This was the fate for three similar flows on the wilderness boundary: Cranberry Lake, Lows Lake, and Stillwater Reservoir.

But the Oswegatchie above Wanakena survived undammed (not counting the tireless efforts of the beavers). Few other rivers of such quality extend into the heart of a wild area, far from the reach of highways. Nevertheless, even this untrammeled waterway floods into a vast lake early each spring, when the melting snow contributes a surplus of water faster than it can drain away. Locally this fleeting phenomenon is known as “Lake Oswegatchie.”

The lakes and ponds are so numerous that it is difficult to keep track of all of them. Those in the north tend to be small and scattered, with open shorelines rimmed by beaver-gnawed hardwoods and hardy white pines. The southern half of the wilderness is a stunning galaxy of ponded water, each with a tendency toward brushy shorelines and – where truly fortunate – stands of towering pine.

The era of acid rain was especially cruel to this region, rendering many of the pristine ponds too acidic to support fisheries – until the current century, when interstate agreements curbed the offending emissions of sulphur and other airborne chemicals. Thus an area that should be a fisherman’s paradise has enjoyed several decades of minimal human use, since fewer people seem to be attracted to such places when all they offer is solitude and scenery.

In addition to the lakes and rivers, the forests are equally notable. The introduction above explains how the land was acquired, with logged-over forests mostly to the north and a core of virgin forest to the south. The visual contrasts between the two regions can be stunning, with sun-loving stands of black cherry filling some of the areas that had once been burned, and pockets of stunning yellow birch and white pine in the old-growth stands. A severe windstorm in July 1995 blurred the lines a bit, leveling thousands of acres throughout the wilderness and ravaging some of the old growth. Nevertheless, the recovery has been entirely left to nature thanks to the wilderness designation, and fears of widespread forest fires never came to pass.

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