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August 1, 2009

The mystery of Mud Lake


Does Mud Lake really exist? We found ourselves asking that question a lot during a recent hike that was supposed to go there and back.

The answer, of course, is that there is a Mud Lake, and if you follow the directions and pay attention to the map, most people would say you’ll get there.

The hike in question began innocently enough at Pine Lake, Hartwick College’s environmental campus along Charlotte Creek. We could have just walked around the trails there, but Susan insisted we take the hillier path, across the road, to Mud Lake. I’ve done it before, she said.

Murphy, an ol’ buddy from the ’70s who was visiting from Florida, was skeptical of the slope, since he said he was used to walking on the beach, through swamps or anywhere but up hills and mountains. But he agreed to give it a shot.

One of the students working at Pine Lake said the hike to Mud Lake and back should take about two hours. So, grabbing a Peter Blue map, we started out.

Hartwick sold the land across the road from Pine Lake to the state last year. It extends up over the hill, joins with a 217-acre Department of Environmental Conservation parcel and connects with the Riddell State Park tract that begins in the Schenevus Creek valley near I-88.

Combined, the area has more than 2,000 acres of protected public land. But all we wanted to do was go the two and a half miles to Mud Lake, which actually is a kettle-hole bog rather than a lake.

The steepest part is at the start, but as Murphy stopped to catch his wind, Susan insisted it leveled off soon. Before long, we came to a little sign that said Mud Lake with an arrow pointing to the right.

We don’t go that way, she said. We went straight last time.

Then why is there a sign pointing that way, we asked.

Oh, there must be other trails to the bog, she said confidently, as if she knew what she was talking about.

We went straight ahead.

Before long, we stopped to look at an old household dump while Murphy went on ahead. He came prancing back, admonishing that this couldn’t be the right trail because there was a survivalist’s trailer up ahead with American flags all around it.

It looks like the kind of place where intruders get shot, Murphy said, obviously more familiar with the redneck variety of property defenders.

After Susan acknowledged she’d never seen a trailer on her earlier hike to the bog, we turned back, figuring we should have, of all things, followed the sign that said Mud Lake that-a-way.

Of course, that would have been too easy. Instead, we noticed another trail, found what appeared to be secondary trail to the bog marked on the map and before long were following trees marked with white dots.

We should have realized that the little state DEC signs meant that maybe we were off the track, but we were busy looking at the brightly colored mushrooms and Indian pipes. And it often was such a challenge to find the next white dot, you could say we literally couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

After an hour of going over little ridges and through shallow dales, we got Susan to admit that there were hemlocks all around Mud Lake and that there didn’t appear to be any of them in any direction.

We must be half way to Schenevus by now, I said, as it became clear that we may have been the only people on that trail the whole season.

Imaginary signs began popping up next to trees’ white dots, to the effect that we should head back now or proceed at our own risk, or warning that this was our last chance to turn around before ending up characters in some Stephen King novel.

Murphy was getting impatient, convinced that Mud Lake was some mythological place and nowhere to be found through hiking.

After two hours walking, and worried that the bread and water Susan had in her pack might have some figurative meaning, we convinced her that we should have made it to the bog _ and back _ by now.

Most of the way back on the same trail was spent enjoying the woods and wondering where we went wrong. Finally, we got back to the sign pointing the way to Mud Lake.

Restraining ourselves from tying Susan to the sign as a warning to the next hikers, we realized that the walk likely turned out to more memorable than going to that bog anyway.

And she just smiled.

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Cary Brunswick is managing editor of The Daily Star and can be reached at cary@thedailystar.com.