Lower Saranac Lake
by Jeff Bowen
October 6th – 9th 2006
There are always problems one faces when contemplating a paddling trip. The number and magnitude of the problems increase as the complexity of the trip increases. Not being as experienced as many of the great trip leaders of our club, I had several concerns organizing a four day, three night paddle and camp trip to Lower Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks during October. Overnight camping, increased travel distance from home and uncertain weather can complicate the best plans. With almost 300 miles to the put-in, our group would be leaving at different times, using different routes, and traveling at different speeds. The likelihood of us arriving at a prearranged time seemed small.
October can be a treacherous, if beautiful month, with the possibility of raw, wet weather requiring added clothing and equipment that can be bulky and heavy, complicating any float trip.
These thoughts flitted through my mind as I tried to help set up car pools, answer questions and deal with the anxiety of packing my own gear. As I tried to go to sleep on the eve of the trip, I realized that my plans were vague: meet at the put in and look for suitable campsites. I imagined a roving pod of paddlers on a windy lake in a cold, steady rain searching for suitable unoccupied campsites hither and yon, while a straggling latecomer or two would set out with the almost hopeless task of finding us at our unknown final destination, one of about 60 campsites on a lake that is several miles long.
With Harris’ and Bryce’s canoes already loaded atop my truck, I was pacing impatiently when Bryce arrived at my house early Friday. He threw the rest of his gear in the back and we set off to pick up Harris. We headed toward the Sloatsburg service area on the Thruway where we were to meet Scott and Fat Elmo who were carpooling together. No sooner had we pulled in than they pulled in behind us. After brief discussion, we headed north.
As we proceeded along the Thruway, we witnessed the progression of the scenery from incipient to full fledged fall foliage. We stopped once or twice to stretch our legs, and a couple of times were startled when Scott and Fat Elmo passed us, Fat Elmo staring out the window, his eyes wide, crumbs from the doughnut he was stuffing into his mouth exploding in all directions as if trying to escape. Everything normal so far.
We passed Lake George, and entered the Adirondack Park. Not long after, we got off the highway and headed west into the heart of the Adirondacks. We stopped at King Phillip’s spring to fill our water jugs and at the Noonmark Diner in Keene Valley for lunch. We were making good time, and enjoyed the views as we entered the High Peaks region and drove past the scenic Cascade Lakes chain. We arrived at the put in comfortably within the designated time frame to find the rest of our group with their boats already in the water.
I became a bit apprehensive when I saw the large number of cars, trucks and boat trailers in the parking lot. There were many groups of paddlers preparing to set off that afternoon; I knew we could compete with them. I perceived the groups with motorboats as more of a threat. Their gear piled high with sloppily packed loose plastic bags aplenty; their poor preparation was more than offset by their effortless and speedy transport. We might not have the pick of choice campsites that I had hoped for. The rest of the group seemed to understand this, and I sensed an anxious desire to get under way as quickly as possible.
In what always seems to be the most frenetic and disorganized part of any trip, we hurriedly launched our boats and loaded them with our gear. There was no need for the finely honed skills of a kayak camper as Bryce and I loaded the cavernous hold of his canoe with our gear. Opting for a prompt departure, we loaded only a portion of the firewood we had brought with us, leaving the bulk of it to be retrieved later.
Once we were all afloat, every member of the group had the same question:
“Where’re we goin’”?
I swallowed hard and took my best guess. Bryce and I knew the lake well, having spent a week here in the summer in each of the last ten years with family and friends. I tried to gauge where our best chance of finding the best unclaimed campsites in close proximity to each other was.
“Head towards the Duck Island / Martin Island area” I said, and the group headed up the Saranac River and into First Pond.
Before long I realized that things were going pretty well. The weather was absolutely gorgeous with bright sun and temperatures well into the 60’s. The water still retained some of its summer warmth, and there was only a gentle breeze. There were bright autumn colors on the trees along the shore which contrasted vividly with the clear blue sky.
“Wow,” I thought, “We’re lucky!”
Upon reaching the outlet of Lower Saranac Lake I saw that the large group of paddlers that had preceded us was heading east into the maze of islands in the center of the lake. Perhaps my intuition had paid off. We turned west, headed across the less inviting open water towards the more distant islands located there.
I scanned the lake for motorboats that might be at our chosen destination, or headed that way, but was soon distracted by the pure joy of being in one of my favorite places. Bryce and I noted the status of each campsite and island as we passed, calling them by name.
The rest of our group was outpacing us, even the solo canoes, unhindered by any wind. Bryce labored along unrelentingly in his Mad River Explorer 16 as I, in the bow, succumbed to pleasurable sensations and impressions too numerous to catalog that swept over me. We made it! We’ll find a campsite! It’s warm and sunny! There’s no wind!
My reverie was broken when a fat smallmouth bass attacked my lure. He jumped twice before I got him to the boat and released him. “What luck!” I whispered to myself.
“Keep paddling!” I cheerfully announced to Bryce.
When we arrived in the cove between Martin, Duck and Goose Islands, I was elated to find that none of the campsites were occupied. Like miners in a gold rush eager to stake their claim, Bryce and I landed on Duck Island, perhaps the premier campsite on all of Lower Saranac Lake. With two way radios, I directed Phil to other sites close by. Phil and Robyn chose Goose Island. Rick chose a campsite for himself on Martin Island directly across a narrow strait that separated Duck Island from Martin Island. All of the sites were within easy earshot of one another, and looked over the small cove defined by the three islands.
There was only room for one canoe at a time to sidle up to the rocky docking area at the campsite on Duck Island. As quickly as we could, we unloaded each canoe and cleared the dock for the next boat. The canoes would be drawn up on shore in one of the more inviting, “composite friendly” locations about 50 yards from the campsite. This would involve some standing in calf deep water, but the mild temperatures and the chotas and mukluks we wore made the task easy.
Once ashore on Duck Island, Fat Elmo, Harris, Scott, Bryce and myself set off to explore what would be our home for the next few days.
Duck Island is fairly large, with only one campsite on it. Only the southwest portion of the island affords easy access from the lake. The north, east, and half of the south shore are too steep for recreational landings. The interior of the island is a mix of mature pines which cover the ground with a thick, soft, smooth carpet of pine needles, and white cedar, birch and maple interspersed with areas of some younger trees. Low bush blueberry and various other shrubs grow in patches, and wintergreen and other ground hugging flora complete the picture. In places the bedrock of the island forms low bluffs, and there are several large boulders scattered throughout. Near the camp in the southwest corner, small footpaths wind amid the knee high brushy shrubs whose leaves shone the rich red and yellow of the season.
Bryce and I were sharing a tent, and chose for our tent site a small flat-topped knoll ringed with pines and carpeted with pine needles high above the lake. Some yards distant, Scott set up his nylon domicile on a thick bed of pine needles under the trees. Harris found a flat and level nook near the waterside, and Fat Elmo erected his new expedition grade tent in a clearing on a low bluff at the water’s edge, declaring it to be “De bestest spot in de whole dang place.”
The disorganized heap of gear disgorged from our boats had been gradually transformed into dispersed tented bedrooms and a recognizable kitchen area near the picnic table and fire pit.
Over on Goose, a smaller island, Phil and Robyn set up their camp at the summit of a high bluff facing the setting sun. It afforded an awesome view of the cove about which our campsites clustered.
Rick had found a spacious campsite on Martin Island. His fiberglass Tempest 165 carried all of his camping and fishing gear easily, but Rick was unable to find a convenient spot to land, opting instead to disembark in the shallows, the Tempest’s glass hull gently caressed by the water, away from the unforgiving rocks which comprised the shore.
And so it came to pass that before the sun had set on our first day at Lower Saranac Lake we had all arrived safely to find ourselves graciously welcomed by fabulous weather in beautiful autumnal surroundings, and had established our camps in highly desirable sites.
It was decided to meet at Duck Island for dinner. The “guests” from Goose and Martin were assisted disembarking to the island, and valet service was offered for “parking” the boats ashore. A campfire was blazing, food was cooked, and beverages flowed. Before the daylight dimmed completely, the full moon climbed above the mountain peaks at the eastern end of the lake. It reflected on the gently rippling waters of Lower Saranac Lake while the fall colors of the trees on the far shorelines were still visible in the dusk.
As the moon climbed higher in the sky, it was so bright it was almost possible to see the fall colors though night had clearly fallen. More than once we were drawn through the shadows cast by the moon to the rocky shore to gaze across the quiet waters of the lake.
Along with night, the temperature began to fall, and we all donned additional layers. Conversation and camaraderie held sway, and I felt intoxicated by our good fortune. It may seem strange, but although this constituted some of the best times of the trip, there is little to tell about it. Finally, sated and tired, we decided to retire. Phil, Robyn and Rick enjoyed a truly memorable breathtakingly magical paddle back to their camps, the full moon reflected on the glossy still waters.
The last thing I remember is watching the shadows of pine boughs cast on the tent walls by the moon.
I could tell it was morning. The light had a different hue, and it was stronger. I was halfway down the path to the picnic table when I decided to go back and get my camera.
The view from the campsite out over the lake was stunningly beautiful. Mists were rising from the lake in the still air, slowly drifting across the surface like gossamer veils. The low rays of the sun lent a warm amber glow to the rocks and trees on the shores of Martin Island. Some of the others were up and about, no-one wanted to waste the day in their sleeping bags, despite the chill. Our small stoves soon had water boiling for coffee, and breakfast was cooking.
As had been discussed the previous evening, there were several paddling opportunities that we wanted to pursue. Some of us would return to the put in and retrieve the remainder of the firewood we had brought. It was a pleasant paddle, and would afford an opportunity to fish or sightsee. Others wanted to head through the upper locks into Middle Saranac Lake. There was no rush; we had all day to paddle in a paddler’s paradise.
Fat Elmo, Phil and Robyn headed to Middle Saranac Lake.
Scott, Harris, Bryce and I set off to get the wood. Rick was intent on exploring the river. On the way to the put in, we passed a group of paddlers apparently heading out on a camping trip of their own. I was thankful that we had arrived a day earlier and been able to claim our excellent sites. The other group, still in need of finding good sites, was in high spirits, and who could blame them? The weather was warm and the sun was bright, the sky was deep blue and the wind was light. They were here and they were happy, and so were we. Greetings were exchanged.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” one of their group said.
“Unless,” I quipped, “the Swedish Bikini Team picks the campsite next to yours.”
There was some laughter, and then a grudging admission that I was right, followed by more laughter.
And so we were able to load an enormous amount of firewood from the truck, do some fishing along the way, and stop and explore some campsites along the shore.
We returned to Duck Island and unloaded the firewood. Then we set about taking pictures, relaxing in the sun, or doing some more paddling until it was near dinnertime, and the others returned from their foray to Middle Saranac Lake.
That evening was like a heavenly replay of the previous one. Food, drink, comfort, conversation, campfire and another magnificent moonrise.
I woke up, got out of the tent and looked around. There was thick fog over the lake. I grabbed my camera and followed the now familiar path through the low bushes to the kitchen area. Down at lakeside, some of the others were already awake and taking pictures. The sun, low on the horizon and shining through the fog gave the lake an eerie look. Goose Island’s silhouette seemed spectral, as if emerging from another dimension.
But, a couple of cups of coffee and hot chocolate later, it became apparent that we were in for another unexpectedly beautiful day in the Adirondacks.
Sadly, Phil and Robyn had to head back to civilization today, and the rest of us gathered in our boats below the high bluff of Goose Island and wished them well. Then Harris, Rick, Scott, Bryce and I headed up the lake for an excursion up the Saranac River, through the upper locks and out into Middle Saranac Lake.
Heading up the lake I was again astonished at our extreme good fortune. The weather was perfect. The lake was as smooth as glass, and Bryce and I remarked several times that we had never seen it like this in the summer. Indeed, typically we would be bucking strong headwinds at this location. I took time out from fishing to take several pictures to document this uncanny experience, my fellow paddlers, the bright fall colors, the blue sky and their reflected images in the glassy lake. Bryce kept paddling.
We entered the outlet of the Saranac River and paddled past the high rocky cliff faces framed by the northern forest. The river wound past shallow open areas filled with the dying remains of last summer’s water lilies. Past forest, slough, and fallen trees on either side the buoy-marked channel wound. Soon we came to the upper locks and the small Ranger’s cabin where the DEC employee who operates the locks in the busy summer season stays. The cabin was now closed and deserted. We pulled our boats to shore, and I hopped out to operate the locks to let us through. It would have been a simple matter to carry past the locks, but it seemed like it would be more fun to travel through them.
As I was getting out of the canoe, Bryce spotted a mink using the locks to cross from one side of the river to the other. Fast and nervous by nature, he disappeared before anyone could get a picture of him.
It is a simple matter to operate the manually powered locks, and our group gladly helped a bunch of guys on a motorboat who were unfamiliar with the process, letting them go first so they could proceed on away from us. Preferably far, far away from us.
Then Bryce, Rick and Scott rode their boats in the lock as the waters quickly filled it, while Harris and I took pictures and worked the gates. As we were leaving, we again spotted the mink on the shoreline, darting and hiding among the large boulders.
Above the locks, the river winds through an open swampy plain as it leaves the eastern end of Middle Saranac Lake. Proceeding up the river around a bend, I noticed a Great Blue Heron on the bank only a couple of dozen feet from our canoe. As we rounded the bend, the heron was facing me directly, less than a boat length away. Bryce and I stopped paddling and reached for our cameras, but that is all it took to unnerve the heron, who spread his great wings and flew upstream and into the swampy area about a hundred yards. His wingspan must have been at least six feet. We proceeded leisurely upstream, but with cameras now ready. The heron continued hunting and feeding, seemingly unconcerned by our presence.
At last we reached the narrow spit of land that separates the eastern end of the lake from the river. We beached our boats on an uncommon sandy area, and walked through a narrow belt of trees to the pebble strewn beach that makes up the eastern end of Middle Saranac Lake. Beyond, tall rushes grew from the shallow sandy lake bottom in a band about a hundred feet wide. We stopped for lunch and to take in the scenery.
After lunch, we decided to head towards Weller Pond, at the northern reaches of the lake. The breeze was freshening, and we figured we had a couple of hours to explore before we should head back to camp.
Our boats spread out over quite a wide area as we headed up the lake. The breeze, the strongest we had encountered on the whole trip, seemed mild compared to the winds that Bryce and I had encountered in our summer forays to this area. We stopped for a while to get our binoculars and observe a pair of Bald Eagles that had been flying over the lake as they landed high in the treetops of one of the islands about half a mile south of us. We were quite excited by this scene, and watched with interest as a pod of canoes approached the island from the west. The paddlers must have seen the eagles land, because they slowed as they drew near the island, and it seemed they were taking pictures and observing. The eagles seemed to ignore the paddlers even when they were almost directly beneath them. Then, a loon and some ducks in one of the bays closer to us drew our attention, and we continued on our way.
We passed several occupied island campsites, and explored the shoreline of Umbrella Point, where we knew a large campsite was located. Like many of the campsites in this area, there was no “composite friendly” docking area at this site. We rounded Umbrella point, and headed north toward Weller Pond. The wind was picking up a bit, and we had used up much of the time we had allotted ourselves to reach Weller Pond. We had just about reached the point where there was general agreement that we should turn back when someone yelled “Look! Look! Look!”
An eagle soared over our boats and landed on the craggy limbs of a dead tree less than a hundred yards ahead. Our cameras were out in an instant, but we could have taken our time. The eagle made no attempt to move off as we moved closer, even when one of us pulled his boat almost directly under the majestic bird. Another eagle landed in the branches of a tall pine tree a hundred yards inland as we floated in the lake taking pictures and marveling at our good fortune. Finally, we decided to move off and head for home, but we had barely started when one of the eagles took wing and flew over us. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind why the Bald Eagle was chosen as the symbol of the United States. In flight, they are a stunningly, awesomely beautiful and impressively majestic sight.
After exploring one more island campsite, we headed back down the lake, aided by the breeze at our backs. Bryce and I spent some time along the shore, looking at campsites and getting a closer look at a group that had pulled up to a sandy beach and where some of the girls had gone swimming. We saw no Swedes or bikinis, however.
Back down the river, and through the locks, except for Harris, who decided to run the short rapids adjacent to them. “What rapids?” he bragged. None of us had taken a picture of him, and we wanted him to perform this minor feat again, but he declined.
Finally back at our camp on Duck Island, we noted that Goose Island had some new visitors since Phil and Robyn had left. They were a couple of women, and they were swimming. If they were from Sweden, it was Sweden, NJ. They were not in bikinis. Despite this, the group managed to hide their disappointment in a mature and adult manner.
Dinner, drinks, a campfire, another lovely moonrise on the water and a symphony from a couple of loons on the lake punctuated by a coyote call rounded out the evening. Spectacular though it was, we were now used to a highly elevated level of surrounding natural beauty. We were now acquainted with this place. When leaving the campfire area to get something from our tents, we often would not bother to turn our headlamps on. The light from the moon was enough to guide us across the now familiar rocks and through the soft, winding trails. We felt at home, we felt at peace. Life was GOOD!
Sunrise came with a few high thin clouds in the sky. I found Scott fishing from the rocky shore, trying to catch one of the fish that had enticed us the night before with their occasional jumps and splashes.
This was the day we had to pack up and head back home. It had been dry, so we did not have to contend with packing up wet gear. We had eaten most of our food, and drank most of our water and beverages, and so our load was lightened. Also, we would be leaving any excess firewood (of which there was quite a lot) for the next fortunate camper on that island.
The paddle back to the take out was no less lovely than any other paddle we had enjoyed during the trip, but I felt a tinge of sadness just because we were leaving. I was sure that the long drive home would yield animated conversation at first as we recounted the events of the past days, but then we would all grow quiet and introspective.
What a great trip! It turned out that we had encountered none of the problems I had anticipated we might face. The trip description that I had posted before the trip now seemed shrill and alarmingly pessimistic. Indeed, the greatest problem with this trip was that it would be nearly impossible to surpass. How could anyone possibly outdo a trip like this? Unless, of course, they could arrange something with the Swedish Bikini Team….
Trip Leader, Bryce’s useless bow man.
Quotes: “I can’t believe how lucky we are…”
“Have you ever operated these locks before?”
Paddled his Kevlar Mad River Explorer 16’ Teal color (except for the places where it scraped on the rocks) on its second trip to Lower Saranac Lake.
Paddled while Jeff fished. Forgot sunscreen, got his Norwegian face sun burnt.
Paddled his new Kevlar Swift Osprey in Red with Ash gunwales.
Quote: “Well, at least I don’t have to worry anymore about getting the first scratch on this thing after paddling in this (expletive deleted) rock infested lake”
Paddled a green Old Town canoe he lovingly referred to as a “Mack Truck” with lots of floatation.
Quote: “I need something big to hold me.”
Paddled a Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 in fiberglass. Was able to pack all of his camping and fishing gear into his kayak. Had neat reflective deck lines. Couldn’t carry any firewood.
Quote: “It’s kind of tricky getting out with all those slippery rocks”
Paddled a seriously overloaded Old Town Cascade 14’6”. Packed more video gear than spam.
Quote: “Wha Ho, Pilgrim!”
Paddled his old does-it-all Zoar.
Quote: “Yeah, I noticed a few new scratches”
Paddled her Kevlar Bell Flashfire, 13’ long, 26” wide, in bright red. Has a love affair with it.
Quote: “I love my boat.”