Monday, August 24, 2009

Testing the legal waters

Editor Phil Brown paddles through private land to assess the navigability of Shingle Shanty Brook and connecting waterways. If open to the public, the route would enhance the trip from Little Tupper Lake to Lake Lila.


If you love paddling in the Adirondacks, you put up with the portages. You might even come to regard sore shoulders, scratched shins, and blistered feet as badges of honor, bestowed on those committed to seek out real wilderness. You wear your pain with pride.

That said, you’re not a masochist. You’re smart enough to recognize that walking on a muddy, bug-infested trail with a canoe on your head and a pack on your back is not an end in itself. If you could avoid a long, arduous carry, you would. Right?

I was thinking such things as I put in at Little Tupper Lake in late May for the start of a two-day canoe trip to Lake Lila. I had been meaning to do the Lila Traverse ever since the state bought Little Tupper from the Whitney family in 1998. Now that I’ve done it, I wonder why I waited so long.

Both Little Tupper and Lila are now part of the William C. Whitney Wilderness. On the traverse, you cross four lovely ponds and explore five enchanting streams. Ordinarily, the trip requires four long carries, but I did it in just three.

The last portage trail leads almost a mile from Lilypad Pond to Shingle Shanty Brook. I avoided it by canoeing through private land from Lilypad to Mud Pond and down the Mud Pond outlet to Shingle Shanty. Apart from one brief carry around a small man-made dam and some rapids on the outlet, I was paddling the whole time.

You won’t find this variation of the traverse in guidebooks or on maps. As far as I know, this story contains the first detailed account of the route. The land is posted, and Shingle Shanty Brook has a chain across it. A group called Friends of Thayer Lake owns the land (known as the Shingle Shanty Preserve), while the Brandreth Park Association owns the recreational rights. In the past, the association has insisted that anyone who paddles the route is trespassing. But after researching the law and talking to experts, I became convinced that the public has the right to paddle these waterways.

Of course, the law isn’t always what you think it is, so I could be wrong. The Explorer’s intent is to set forth facts—in words and photographs—that may clarify the legal situation. In the end, it’s up to state authorities to determine whether or not Mud Pond and its outlet are navigable waters open to the public. Until that time, paddlers may want to stick to the waterways and trails in the state-owned Forest Preserve. See sidebar on navigation law.

Should the powers-that-be deem the route open, the Lila Traverse, already one of the best wilderness canoe routes in the Northeast, would be even better. A mile-long slog on foot would be replaced with an hour or more of great canoeing. But even if that happens, paddlers must be mindful that their rights are limited when passing through private land. Among other things, they cannot camp, fish, picnic, or swim. Basically, they can paddle and portage.

Anyone who paddles the Mud Pond-to-Shingle Shanty route should respect the rights of the landowner.

Below is a description of my entire two-day trip. The itinerary can be followed as far as Lilypad Pond. At that point, if you want to stay within the Forest Preserve, paddle across the pond to the north shore to locate the final carry trail. It will lead you to the stretch of Shingle Shanty Brook in the Forest Preserve.

Little Tupper to Hardigan Pond

The forecast called for two days of warm sunshine, but the sky and the water were leaden gray when I slipped my canoe into Little Tupper Lake. I started paddling the five miles to Rock Pond outlet, which flows into the western end of the lake. Little Tupper is a wonderful place, but I found this part of the trip a bit monotonous. I prefer the intimacy of small ponds and streams.

As invariably happens when I canoe, I found myself fighting the wind. I didn’t mind too much, because the breeze kept the black flies at bay. But then I made the mistake of stopping in the lee of an island, and the bloodthirsty buggers swarmed all over me in an instant. When I put on my jacket’s hood for protection, they pelted it so frequently and furiously that I thought it had begun to rain.

Little Tupper has several islands. For some reason, the biggest is named Short Island. Located near the southwest shore, it has two tent sites. Not long after Short, you’ll come to a small island with two tall pines growing on either side of a prominent boulder. Rock Pond’s outlet is just beyond.

Entering the marshy stream, I felt embraced by nature. The chatter of red-winged blackbirds, the whistles of white-throated sparrows, and the deep doo-wop of bullfrogs filled the air. Bog flowers decorated the shoreline. In short order, I passed a beaver lodge, flushed a duck, and spied a hawk on top of a dead tree. When I drifted toward land for a closer look, the hawk twisted its head to watch me and then took flight.

You’ll come to a fork about a half-hour up the channel. Bear left for Rock Pond. In another five minutes, you’ll reach a beaver dam. On this day, the water was high enough that I was able to paddle over it, but in summer, you may have to get out and drag your boat. A few minutes later, you’ll see a signpost on the left. This marks the start of a short carry around rapids and across an old logging road.

It takes only a minute to walk to the road. The official carry trail jogs left, then makes a quick right off the road to lead to the calm water below Rock Pond. I saved a few steps by putting in right from the road. In no time I was at the pond, admiring the views of Moose Pond Mountain to the southeast and Salmon Lake Mountain to the south. Both peaks are on property still owned by the Whitneys—some thirty-five thousand acres dotted with ponds and laced with streams. Environmentalists hope the family will someday sell this land to the state.

Rock Pond is large enough to be a lake. Then again, Little Salmon Lake, which I would see the next day, is small enough to be a pond. I long ago gave up making sense of Adirondack nomenclature. Mud Ponds aren’t muddy, Round Ponds aren’t round, rivers are streams, streams are rivers, and Short Island isn’t.

Anyway, I had this big pond to myself, unless you count the one loon and million black flies. The sun was out, and I had time to kill, so I paddled around the island and then explored the inlet on the west shore. With the water running high, I was able to go upstream for fifteen or twenty minutes. It was a smaller, even more intimate version of the outlet. I turned around at the second beaver dam.

After this pleasant diversion, I endured the first long carry—nearly two miles to Hardigan Pond. The trail begins at a tiny knoll on the northwest end of Rock Pond’s western bay. Although there’s no sign, the start is indicated by surveyor’s tape tied to tree branches. The same goes for the rest of the carries. Throughout the portages, you find garish bits of colored tape—red, white, blue, yellow, orange. It’s a shame that more than a decade after the Whitney purchase, the state has failed to properly mark the carry trails. Wilderness paddlers drive hundreds of miles to do this trip. It’s a showcase for the Adirondacks. The lack of signs and trail disks makes it look like no one is taking care of this natural treasure.

I had heard that the start of the trail to Hardigan Pond is mucky. Today it was underwater. I floated my canoe for the first few hundred feet, walking behind. After that, I got onto higher ground. The portage trail follows an old logging road and intersects several other old roads on the way to Hardigan. At each turn, follow the tape. It’s ugly, but you’d be lost without it.

Even to a non-forester, it’s evident that these woods were logged extensively. Unlike the majestic evergreens ringing the ponds, the trees along the carries are young and skinny, mostly hardwoods. The roads remain wide and grassy or gravelly. There’s not much relief from the sun in these parts. Some local residents objected when the state classified this tract as Wilderness. True, it may not look like wilderness today, but imagine walking these trails a half-century from now, when the forest has grown up, providing a green canopy. That’s the future our tax dollars purchased.

Beavers are already at work reclaiming this land. In a few places, they have built dams along the road. One dam flooded the road so much that I put in my canoe and paddled across the water. An hour into the portage I came across another surprise: a state sign and trail marker. It’s there for the benefit of hikers who walk the eight miles to Hardigan Pond from Sabattis Road. Like the hikers, paddlers should turn left here onto another logging road. A few hundred feet after the turn, look for a beribboned cairn on the right. Turn here to follow an old railroad bed to the southern shore of Hardigan.

I got to the pond about 6 p.m., more than eight hours after starting my journey at Little Tupper. Before setting up my small tent, I put on long johns, long-sleeve jacket, hat, sneakers, and socks—as protection against the flies. Even so, they often became unbearable. While cooking dinner, I’d often dash to the shoreline to catch a breeze. I ate as quickly as possible, then dove inside my tent. A wise man once said that pleasure is the absence of pain, though I have no idea what he was doing at Hardigan Pond in bug season.

Hardigan Pond to Lake Lila

On my second day, I planned to meet Sue Bibeau, the Explorer’s designer and sometime photographer, at Lilypad Pond at noon. She planned to approach the pond from Lake Lila. I figured I had plenty of time, so I lazed awhile in my tent, putting off my next battle with the flies. I’ll spare you the details, but the flies won, and I fled ignominiously in my canoe.

Hardigan is a pond, not a lake, and I reached the end in ten minutes. The outlet is quite wide but seems to stop abruptly at a beaver dam. Left of the dam is the muddy start of a half-mile carry trail to the Salmon Lake outlet. Yet my guidebook (Adirondack Paddler’s Guide by Dave Cilley) suggested that it’s possible to paddle Hardigan’s outlet in high water, even though “it can be a bit of a thrash.” Always one to avoid a carry, I decided to give it a shot.

First up, find the outlet. Turns out you can’t until you get on top of the dam. Then you’ll see a brown stream maybe four feet wide hidden in the alders. I launched my canoe and paddled about thirty seconds before coming upon the first beaver dam. The next one lay fifteen feet ahead. Beyond that, the stream either got really narrow or disappeared. Fortunately, I had not traveled far, so I was able to drag my canoe to the carry trail. A piece of blue tape let me know just where to go.

Most of this trail is dry. A few hundred yards from the start, it turns right to follow the same railroad bed that led to Hardigan Pond. It reaches the Salmon Lake outlet near the ruins of a wooden shed. The outlet is a delightful stream. The banks are open and grassy, allowing nice views. The stream has enough current—at least in spring—that you could drift much of the way to Little Salmon Lake, the next destination.

It was already 11:45 when I got to Little Salmon (where I saw a loon). Though I was slightly behind schedule, I didn’t have far to go. I quickly crossed the pond and started down the outlet. Shortly, I spotted white tape along the right bank and pulled over, thinking this must be the carry. Then I saw a campsite sign.

My map indicated that the take-out was downstream of a campsite, so I got back in my canoe and soon found myself approaching rapids. Not a good place for my lightweight boat. Apparently, the portage trail did begin at the white tape. I ended up bushwhacking to the trail, first carrying my gear, then the canoe. Once on the trail, it was easy going, but I arrived at Lilypad Pond forty minutes late. I didn’t see any canoes. I called Sue’s name. Silence.

After reaching Lilypad, you paddle north to find the next carry. However, I paddled west into the broad channel connecting Lilypad to Mud Pond. There I saw a no-trespassing sign posted by the Brandreth Park Association. Brandreth Park is a private estate adjoining Shingle Shanty Preserve. Although the association doesn’t own the land, it does own the recreational rights.

However, these rights would not supersede the public right of navigation—if these waterways are indeed navigable under the law.

I ate lunch near the sign (before leaving the Forest Preserve) and waited for Sue. She didn’t show. Nothing to do but continue as planned. Just after 1 p.m.,

I crossed the property line. The channel soon entered Mud Pond. I saw a deer on the shore, staring back at me, and a goose in the grassy shallows, perhaps on a nest. The pond ends at an artificial dam. Below the dam is a short stretch of rapids.

I took out my canoe at a slab of bedrock left of the dam and followed a path to the flatwater below the rapids. The carry took about four minutes. (I saw moose scat on the way.) There is another no-trespassing sign at the end of the portage, directed at paddlers who are coming upstream. Obviously, though, people are using this path. Some of the paddlers may be members of Brandreth Park, but I doubt that they account for all the use.

The Mud Pond outlet below the rapids was plenty deep and wide enough for paddling. It also was quite scenic, gently winding through alders and marshes. Rounding a bend, I suddenly encountered Sue.

“Am I glad to see you,” she exclaimed.

“And I you,” I replied.

She then explained what kept her. The plan called for her to put in at Lake Lila, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation had not yet opened Lila’s five-and-half-mile access road. Ever the trouper, Sue began schlepping her canoe down the dirt lane. Eventually, a private landowner gave her a lift, but not until she had hiked most of the distance.

We canoed together down the rest of Mud Pond’s outlet, which eventually joins Shingle Shanty Brook, though we failed to notice where the two streams merged. In hindsight, we thought it must have been in a labyrinth of grassy channels. Much of the brook, too, is in the private preserve. At 2:15, we came to a cable strung across the water, with no-trespassing signs facing paddlers coming from Lake Lila. Ducking under the cable, we re-entered the Forest Preserve. Incidentally, this is where the carry trail from Lilypad Pond emerges from the woods.

In all, it took me an hour and ten minutes to cut across a small corner of Shingle Shanty Preserve, from Mud Pond to the cable. Except for the carry, all of the waterways—the pond, the outlet, and the brook—were obviously navigable in the everyday sense of the word. Indeed, they epitomize what I like best about Adirondack canoeing: closeness to nature, ever-changing scenery, remoteness from roads.

As for the carry, it ranks among the shortest and easiest I’ve done. And the law does allow you to portage around rapids and other obstructions.

Sue and I still had a lot of canoeing ahead of us. Over the next hour, we meandered for miles through marshland to Lake Lila. Shingle Shanty Brook is delightful, but after two days of paddling and portaging, I kept hoping that the next bend would be the last. Once on the lake, we had to contend with wind and whitecaps for nearly forty minutes. Finally, we made it to Lila’s beach, glad to get our land legs back.

Now we just had that five-and-a-half-mile trek to Sue’s truck. Surely, the gods have a sense of humor.

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