Lower Saranac Lake
21 People 13 Kayaks 7 Canoes
Wind & Rain, Wind & Waves, Wind & Cold and Wind
by Jeff Bowen
October 3-6, 2008
It is said “The third time pays for all”, and after two years of spectacularly inviting conditions and warm welcoming weather, Mother Nature said the bill was due.
The Advance Team was unconcerned on Thursday heading into the Adirondacks by the bands of rain they passed through, or the stiff breeze that was coming from the northwest. There were occasional glimpses of sun, and the mountains were bedecked in the vibrant fall colors the region is famous for. They reached the put in and their boats were launched and loaded without incident and they proceeded up the Saranac River to Lower Saranac Lake.
It became evident as they set out that the wind was brisk, and when they reached the Lake, they found the wind had gathered strength and been able to raise considerable waves as it traveled down the length of the lake.
Long sea kayaks equipped with skirts, even though heavily laden, were better able to handle the conditions than some of the open boats which were likewise heavily laden.
Scott remembers: “My Swift Osprey proved very seaworthy despite being close to overloaded with gear and FIREWOOD in 1 ft+ rollers and 25 mph winds. I forgot my double blade paddle, but time and practice have made my single blade skills up to the task. I was more amused than scared watching the waves split by the bow and roll down along the gunnels with hardly an inch to spare. Very little water was shipped but that was one advantage of having to paddle into the wind almost head-on. It surely would have been a different story paddling more broadside to the waves.
Martin recalls: “I paddled a 16’ Hemlock Peregrine solo canoe. A very fast canoe on flat open water but a bit too short on freeboard when loaded in heavy seas. Next time I’ll bring a higher freeboard boat or less crap.”
Jeff agrees, “I looked over at Martin and saw the waves curling almost an inch over his gunwales as he plowed through them. Every once in a while a set of three big waves would come our way and the bows of the boats would pitch up and down into the next wave. Once an inch of water came over the bow of my Bell Yellowstone. Even when the waves were deflected by the bow, the wind would blow the spray into the boat. It was pretty hairy, but the Yellowstone’s performance gave me confidence.”
Charlie said: “Martin had to make a stop because the canoe he chose this year wasn’t up for the conditions. I offered to take some of his gear but he said something along the lines of he would rather be drawn and quartered than accept help from a kayaker. Jeff returned and helped Martin because he could not bear to have Martin be helped by a kayaker.”
Harry agrees: “It was fun in the waves and wind after playing for a bit. I was paddling my green Impex Assateague kayak (17' 10" long). You’ll remember my kayak as it was the best looking boat on the trip. I have to mention that I fit everything into my kayak…no canoe help needed, thank you very much.”
“No, we didn’t need any support from those elitist canoeists,” said Charlie, “but my NDK Explorer HV was much better looking than Harry’s, and I didn’t have any cracks in mine.”
Bryce: “I had the Dagger Sojourn (14’-9”) which handled the wind and waves well on the way to Duck Island Thursday afternoon. Actually with the wind coming right from Duck Island and with the gear onboard she was quite stable. It seemed to take a determined and steady cadence with the paddle to keep moving ahead. The wind just kept pushing one backward away from the destination.”
Dave says: “I paddled a 16.5 ft Perception Captiva. Glad I left my canoe home for this one! The kayak handles well under choppy, wind driven wave conditions IF you have a rudder & keep a steady course into the waves. Being fully loaded may add stability.”
It should be noted that Dave arrived after dark on Thursday. Alone, with a flashlight strapped to the foredeck of his kayak, his FRS radio and some flares, he set out to find our campsites. “If you are going to cross the lake at night, have a back up light, a radio with fresh batteries, and NEXT time, if it's raining or snowing, either sleep in the car ‘til daylight, or cross with another paddler. That was fun, but if it wasn't raining it would have been 'funner'.”
“I just wanted to crash,” said Harry, “but then I heard that Dave was on his way out to the island in the dark and rain. It was the worst game of Marco-Polo I have ever played.”
Friday dawned brighter and less windy. After a hearty breakfast, the Advance Team did a quick recon of site 38 and Scott moved his tent and gear there. Then the members delegated as the Welcoming Committee returned to the put in to await the arrival of the rest of the group.
Christine Slaunwhite: “I was paddling Charlie’s Necky Tahsis 18' kayak. I was using my Werner Kalliste Bent Small Shaft Paddle. Heading out from the put in we could tell that conditions must have worsened as we hadn't even gotten to the lake yet and couldn't deny the wind.”
Lori Anders: “I paddled my 12-foot Old town Dirigo -- a recreational kayak, which I like because it feels very sturdy around me, which was important to me in the wind and the waves. The trip out on Friday reminded me of a canoe trip in Moosehead Lake -- also very windy and wavy.
“I wasn't too happy to hear what happens when too much water gets in a recreational kayak. Fortunately I didn't learn that from experience. I'm not so much about speed, but way more into sturdy. It was not too difficult to paddle into the wind, but it did take longer than it did when I was there two weeks prior--like an hour longer. I was very glad I had purchased a skirt to fit my boat, so I stayed warm and dry.”
Ben Hershfield: “2004 Prijon Kodiak with thigh braces and rudder removed, IR backband in place of standard seatback, 230 cm Bending Branches Stealth paddle - for the record, I am 6'5", 240 lbs, with size 16 feet and was able to wear my regular wet shoes in the boat. I thought the kayak was ok going into the wind, definitely was slower reacting to a brace when fully loaded - as far as I can tell. Has minimal weathercocking and I have gone to the short paddle to improve tracking a bit more. That having been said, I did not feel confident enough in Friday's wind to play around on the waves.”
Ken Bald: “I paddle a 12' Dagger Delta Kayak. It handled pretty well in the rough water, white caps and all. I was surprised when I got hit broadside with a rogue swell that it stayed right on the swell with no indication that it wanted to roll. The boat does have a flat bottom which might have helped.”
The Betancourts: “Andrea and I paddled our Old Town Discovery 158. I like it as it holds 1,200 pounds. You can bring a lot of gear. Andrea is not so fond of the canoe as she is a seasoned white water kayaker. It handled well, but was a bit of a challenge heading into the winds and white caps paddling out to Martin Island on Friday.”
Phil: “I paddled my 16 foot plastic Necky Zoar, which handles fine in waves, although better when loaded with gear. Rudder helped balance the boat, especially when going with the waves at an angle.”
Lori Baumann: “I paddled my 17.4' Looksha IV sea kayak with rudder and although it was loaded down with gear and the elbows on my jacket got wet, I felt very safe and was never in any danger of tipping over. I am really proud of my Looksha!”
Upon reaching the campsites, the crews unloaded their boats and began to set up camp. Many of the sites were exposed to the prevailing westerly wind.
Tom and Andrea and Lori A. and Pam were at site 32 on the western side of Martin Island.
“Our campsite was on the windward side of the island. No one should ever book this campsite in the future,” said Tom emphatically. “There are not enough words of profanity in the English language that would adequately describe how much we did not like this site. The wind blew through constantly.”
Bryce, who has extensive experience paddling and camping on Lower Saranac agreed: “Sites 32 & 33 suffered with the wind but I think 29 was quite calm with the high part of Martin Island rising behind and blocking much of the wind. Duck Island also benefited from the wind block of Martin Island.”
Of course, with any group this size, there is bound to be disagreement.
“Site 29 on Martin Island was terrible,” complained Harry, “It was completely blocked from the wind and had a supply of fire wood from a downed tree. I was very upset that I didn't get to sleep in a wind tunnel like the rest of the group.”
To deal with the conditions, several tarps were set up to shelter the dining areas from the sporadic rain showers and to deflect the wind.
Ken noted that “It is worthwhile to pack a tarp. It’s worth the money and the small place it takes up in the boat.”
“I liked the way the guys at site 38 set two tarps to deflect the wind up and over the large tarp at their site,” Bryce said, “It is a lot like the way Scott set his tarp over his tent.”
Scott responded, “I gladly invest in a few extra tarps to use as group shelter from both wind and rain. One sturdy rope with some stakes and lighter guy-out lines for each tarp will make a big difference in managing the weather rather than being managed by it.”
On site 33 Charlie set up his Kelty Noah’s Tarp 16. “It’s new this year and proved itself in some high winds,” he said.
“The wind gods must have been watching us set up the new tarp as it only decided to gust at the most inappropriate times,” Said Christine.
Martin’s tarp was a Cook's Custom Sewing Silicon tarp. “It’s nicely made with a nylon web reinforced perimeter hem - lightweight but very strong,” he says.
After the campsites were set up the campers were able to relax a bit and enjoy some food and drink and company. The menus were as varied as the participants. There were groups of people who had banded together with a shared dinner menu, each person presenting his dinner one night and enjoying the meal prepared by the other folks on subsequent nights.
Of course, some had opted for fast and lightweight travel and dining, subsisting on MRE’s for most of the trip. “They taste good.” Charlie assures us. “It’s true, they’re very good,” says Christine, “as well as being a good space saver. Just stay away from the omelets and you'll be fine.”
“I’m still intrigued by the meals Charlie, Christine and Harry use,” Bryce said, “And although I didn’t taste it I heard reports that Scott’s experiment with the reflector oven went well.”
“I was surprised how well it baked a loaf of bread in front of the campfire,” said Scott, “Very edible on my first try!”
On Duck Island, it was Herta’s dinner that garnered rave reviews.
“What saved the trip for me was Herta’s sauerbraten dinner!” said Martin. Bryce and Jeff agreed that her dinner was delicious and satisfying, and a perfect example of fine dining in the outdoors.
Over on Site 32, Tom said “We pre-cooked our dinners and placed them in individual serving Ziploc bags. I then froze the dinners and vacuum sealed them. All we had to do was boil water and slip our dinner bags into the pot. This worked real well and dinner was the highlight of the campsite; that, and the several liters of wine we had.”
Ah yes, the emotional and spiritual balm of the North Woods.
“We were happy for the collapsible water bags that I purchased and filled with red and white wine,” Notes Lori Anders with a smile.
“Yes,” said Dave, “But you don’t need as much beer when it’s in the 30’s. Four cans were sufficient”. Dave did not indicate whether that was for the entire trip, for a day, or for each meal.
Having a good stove and kitchen set up was very important.
“We were well equipped,” said Tom, “I brought the Coleman two burner stove as I had the room in the canoe.”
Jeff and Bryce both brought Coleman single burner stoves. “Those old Peak One stoves just keep cooking, I see no reason to upgrade to anything newer at this time,” said Bryce.
“I really like the one-pot high efficiency alcohol stove set-up I have as it is designed as a cone shaped wind screen/pot holder which works fast to boil water and allows me to eat with minimum cleanup,” said Scott.
Ben said “I used a Jetboil stove which was somewhat balky during the trip - when I got home, found that the piezo element had gotten bent towards the center ring so I bent it back towards neutral.”
Eventually it would be time to retire for the night, and the weary campers would seek out their tents and sleeping bags. The tents that were brought by the group covered a variety of styles and sizes.
Among the most popular was the Eureka 1 person tent with an entrance on the side. Lori Baumann was using her new one and found it very nice.
“I used a down mummy sleeping bag and slept like a baby” she said. Scott had an identical model with which he is much pleased.
Harry brought two tents. “I brought a Eureka four person tent and a Eureka two person tent. I used the four person tent and a Slumberjack 0 deg. sleeping bag with a Thermarest air pad. I was very warm and comfortable at night.”
Martin had a Eureka K2 tent, and Ben had a Mountain Hardwear Lightwedge 2 three season tent with a Mountain Hardwear Lamina 15 sleeping bag. “I was more than warm enough,” says Ben, “slept without gloves or hat. The only real trick is I use an air pad under my Thermarest mattress. Bryce was kind enough to reorient my tent so the flap was away from the wind. Thanks, Bryce.”
“I have no idea what kind of tent I was in as it was borrowed from Tom,” said Lori Anders, “but whatever it was, it was comfy after I shivered in my LL Bean Zero Degree sleeping bag for 20 minutes to get it warm.”
Saturday the weather seemed marginally better, a great day to relax and recover from Friday’s excitement. There was time for some local short distance paddling, especially earlier in the day, but for the most part we avoided the wind on the larger portions of the lake. There was plenty to do on land. Foraging for firewood or visiting neighboring campsites on the islands took up some of the time. “I love a good campfire and was amazed that despite the cold nights and a full day spent lounging by a fire in camp we had plenty of wood. I still will tend to bring more than enough because it is nice to sit and enjoy the fire instead of hunting and working hard to supply wood while camping,” says Scott.
“With Friday's adventures behind us, we took a nice leisurely ADK type day,” said Christine, “Charlie and I hiked around the island and marked the other sites on the GPS. We kept the paddling very local and a lot of the social scene seemed to revolve around Duck Island’s site 28. The delectable cuisine that evening, if my memory serves me right, was Bryce's Jacques Pepin chicken chasseur.”
At one point Dave found himself a bit bewildered in the wilds of Martin Island and used his radio to ask Harry to bang some pots together so he could home in on the campsite. “I wonder whether if Jeff had banged some pots at his site Dave would have swam over there? I guess we’ll never know,” Harry mused.
“Saturday was OK as we finally got off the campsite and into the boats for a short paddle over to the nice campsite on Duck Island,” said Tom. “It was good to get out and mingle with the rest of the club.”
Sunday was even nicer than the day before, and people felt refreshed and ready for a day trip. A large contingent of us got in our boats and headed up the lake into the somewhat subdued wind, our sights set on Middle Saranac Lake. Jeff and Tim were fishing along the way. Tim hooked a large Northern Pike just past the Narrows, and Jeff claims he had a fat Smallmouth Bass on the line, but has no pictures to prove it.
At the mouth of the river leading to the upper locks and Middle Saranac Bryce and Jeff put ashore with the intent of climbing up to what Dave called “Devil’s Pulpit”, a vantage point at the top of a high cliff overlooking a bend in the river. The rest of the group continued upstream. They negotiated the locks with Martin acting as the Lock Master, and then to Middle Saranac where they observed two Bald Eagles and took several pictures.
“The Bald eagles were nice, and going through the locks with so many boats was fun,” said Dave.
“It was great to see the pair of Bald Eagles waiting for us at our lunch stop,” said Harry. “As we made our way back downriver a small float plane flying very low knocked off Ken’s hat.”
“I heard Dave yell ‘INCOMING’ and turned to see the float plane flying below the level of the pines,” says Charlie.
Christine said “All I recall is Lori A. saying "Hey I hear a plane"... and not two seconds later from seemingly nowhere it came out of the trees, perilously close overhead. My judgment was confirmed when I heard over the radio that Ken had his hat blown off from the offending plane, and they were in the process of retrieving it.”
“I did find my hat,” said Ken. “The pilot of that plane that buzzed us was smiling and he was missing his front tooth. Thank God we did not hear the banjo music from Deliverance.”
High atop Devil’s Pulpit awaiting the return of the group for a photo op, Bryce and Jeff heard the plane’s approach and then saw it emerge from behind the hills, following the course of the river. The plane was below eye level from where they stood. It headed down the lake, Bryce and Jeff watching it and listening to the excited chatter on the FRS radios.
Many members of the group had FRS radios. These radios are fairly inexpensive, and have a limited range, but are very useful.
As Scott observed, “I have been converted and already bought my own set when I returned home from this trip. Most club trips involve a low level of risk and a group will usually all be within sight of everyone. The few times I have been asked to man a radio I was reluctant to deal with the distraction and idle chatter it brought to the experience. These radios were the heroes of the day, however, on this trip. They were instrumental in allowing the group to monitor everyone and when assistance was necessary we got the right people to assist with a rescue immediately by the communication capability they provided. I will be bringing this new piece of gear on many trips in the future. I hope they are rarely needed, as in the past, but will gladly bear their cost and space after seeing them in action on this trip.”
Scott was referring to what might be the signature event of this trip, the paddle out to the campsites on Friday during which one of our members flipped his kayak.
On Friday some of the Advance Team was waiting at the put-in to act as a Welcoming Committee for the rest of the members when they arrived. In addition to bringing out more firewood to the sites, they were there to orient, advise and assist the members. The typical hectic launching and loading scene ensued.
Small groups that had completed loading headed out for the campsites led by one or two of the paddlers from the Welcoming Committee.
However, during the hours between when the committee had arrived and when they set out with the newcomers, the wind had risen with renewed vigor.
“It’s worse than it was yesterday,” Martin announced over the radio upon reaching the lake.
Christine remembers: “In my piece of the world weather conditions rarely get "better"; they usually get far, far worse, so I decided to make a run for it to Martin Island with Lori A and the Betancourts. Even though it proved slow going, especially when the wind gusted up, once I reached a nice cadence it was exhilarating. The Tahsis is a wonderful boat for these conditions, it handles so well, and I am certain that my new paddle was instrumental in me not fatiguing. Lori A was strongly ahead with Andi and Tom taking up the rear with their canoe. We ducked behind Duck Island and took a breather before heading to our sites.”
At the entrance to the lake, many wisely sought shelter in a cove in the lee of a point of land just into the lake to wait for the conditions to improve. At the put in Jeff anxiously monitored the chatter on the radio as he waited for a latecomer to pack his kayak.
Jeff recounts his impressions: “I sat in my boat anxious to get underway and rejoin the bulk of the group at the cove. It was like listening to battlefield reports coming over the radio. I was hearing reports from several different people. Robyn was at site 38 and Bryce was at Duck Island, each of them monitoring the progress of the group with binoculars. I heard Martin with the group in the cove, and Charlie and Harry and Christine back and forth among themselves. There were estimates of wind speed and wave height that were daunting. The situation seemed serious inasmuch as there were several paddlers whom I knew to be experienced and skilled expressing concern. I and others were concerned that we might be delayed in arriving at our campsites until the winds abated, which might not happen until after dark, if at all. Several of our party had boats which were not well suited to the type of conditions we faced. I had not paddled with some of the members and was unsure of the level of their ability and strength. In the conditions that were being described, rescue would be difficult even if the boats were not fully loaded. With all that going on in my mind I was also aware that I myself would be challenged by the conditions. By the time I reached the cove several paddlers had put ashore. Some were changing into their drysuits…an indication of how they regarded the conditions.”
“Water temperature was not a factor on this trip so dressing for immersion was not as critical, but air temps were a factor and having dry gear was critical,” notes Scott.
Some of the group in the cove needed to get across the lake to site 38 which meant traveling with the wind and the waves abeam. They would be able to travel in the lee of a couple of islands in the lake for part of the journey. Those that were heading over to Martin and Duck Island, however, had a long, hard paddle directly into the teeth of the wind and waves.
Later, Scott would say “I think it was wise to wait out the worst of it when I estimate the rollers were closer to 1.5 ft and winds up to 35 mph.”
After an hour or more of waiting for conditions to improve, the group in the cove decided to make the attempt.
The group rapidly became spread out as some of the stronger paddlers and faster boats pulled ahead. It was tough going.
Bryce remembers “I was exhausted by the time I got into the lee of Martin Island and then to the landing. I was happy just to sit and use the binoculars to watch you guys and use the radio. This was a good thing. With the wind I’m not sure that when Dan went swimming any one could hear Martin shouting.”
Charlie agrees. “With the wind blowing there was no way we would have heard Martin telling us of the capsize.”
Bryce continued “The radio allowed me to broadcast the alert ‘this is Duck Island lookout, there is a paddler in the water’. I should have given more info to you (like at the sweep position or end of the fleet) but at least the word was out.”
“We heard about the capsize over the radio and that it was being more than adequately looked after” remembers Christine, “Although since Pam had not gotten to her site yet and we were not sure who went over, there was a bit of anxiety there.”
“I was just worried about getting everyone where they needed to be safely,” said Harry, “It was great the way all the spotters on land worked with those on the water to keep everyone safe and accounted for. We had one person have the waves and wind get the best of him. Charlie and I got him back in the kayak quickly. With the waves we had to do an assisted "T" rescue which only works if one person takes the lead and the helper follows instruction. I have to say that Dan was very calm and easy to work with while being rescued.”
Dan had indeed flipped in his Manitou Sport kayak. He and Martin had been broaching in the trough of a wave, fighting to get pointed upwind when Dan fell over. Martin attempted rescue, but with limited freeboard, arduous maneuvering and shipping water in the difficult conditions he could only attempt once. Fortunately Charlie and Harry were nearby and sped to the rescue.
Dan was able to get back in his boat and was able to paddle. Luckily most of his gear was recovered, except for his tent poles.
“This is where the extra tent came in handy,” said Harry, “and Dave had warm tea and clothes waiting for him at the island when we got there.”
After the trip was over, Scott had these thoughts:
“Paddling and the outdoor settings always entail some risk. An awareness of personal responsibility and being prepared for the risks goes a long way to ensure your safety and makes you an asset to a group. This trip served as a good example of the two characteristics which people who chose to venture into the outdoors should be mindful of in their approach to outdoor experiences: Self Reliance and Safety in Numbers.
“First, strive to educate and equip yourself to be self reliant. There is plenty of information available from experienced members and in publications to determine what skills and equipment are appropriate for the conditions you may encounter. Less experienced members should make it a point to have a thorough check by an experienced member before any new trip experience. Issues I saw on this trip include use of cotton clothing and lack of waterproof bags to store essential gear.
“Second, elevated risks are mitigated by paddling with others. New paddlers who have first sought to understand if a trip is within their capabilities should then realize it is the collective capability of the group which will often get them through tough times. Make it a point to be a part of the group and take advantage of that safety margin as well as the opportunity to observe and learn from others. Remember, if you are going with a group; be aware that you have responsibilities to the group too. Stay flexible. A stubborn mindset is often the first step to getting into trouble or just having less fun than could have been had. Some members originally chose campsites further from the group (perhaps to emphasize a wilderness experience) but as conditions were harsher than hoped, some readily (and some not so readily) made wise decisions to change plans and camp closer to the group.
“Since a wide range of conditions were possible on this trip, I knew my hopes to join some others on an overnight foray to Middle Saranac could change if conditions would not allow me to enjoy the experience or would make it too risky. That is what happened, and the other experienced members and I all came to the conclusion that it was better to wait for another time to realize those hopes. My decision was governed by my analysis of my own safety and fun factor but also included concern for how my actions would affect the group. If I was out of touch in risky conditions, it would cause anxiety among the group and potentially put others in harms way if they felt compelled to accompany me or search for me if I was not back when expected.”
And so it is that things that are good and peaceful are soon told about with few words, but things that are difficult and challenging require many.
“And best of all,” Martin said, “Jeff didn’t sing his Indian song…then everyone would have died…by suicide!”
Tom & Andrea Betancourt