Paddlers enjoy them, too
By Michael Zeugin
To most outdoors lovers, the Ausable River conjures up images of fly-fishermen casting into idyllic pools. You’ve seen the anglers on the West Branch, wetting their lines just outside Lake Placid, or on the flats of the East Branch downstream of Keene.
But when it comes to paddling, the Ausables, East and West, are mostly overlooked. Perhaps it’s the precipitous drops such as Wilmington Notch Falls and High Falls Gorge. When I once proposed paddling the conjoined rivers below Ausable Forks, a friend asked, “What about the Ausable Chasm?” (Never mind that I intended to exit the river miles above the chasm.)
It’s a shame, because paddlers are missing a good thing. Sure, there are whitewater sections on the Ausables, but there are also stretches suited to leisurely touring or a family paddle.
One of my favorites is the four-plus miles on the West Branch from the Route 73 bridge near the Olympic ski jumps to the Route 86 bridge. It’s an ideal paddle if you’re staying in or around Lake Placid and have a morning or afternoon to kill. Driving on River Road between the two bridges will offer you tantalizing glimpses of the slow-moving, winding river.
This stretch retains enough water for canoeing all summer, though you may have to walk the boat through a few shallows. At this time of year, it is usually suitable for novices. Higher water can make the trip more of an intermediate paddle, so scouting the river is a good idea if you have doubts. Avoid the runoff conditions spawned by spring rains and snowmelt unless you’re an expert (with a wetsuit).
The first half-mile below Route 73 can be scratchy. I often avoid this section by putting in at the steel bridge farther downriver. Look for a small paved pullout along River Road. The river under the bridge is flat and deep, with a modest flow suited to launching.
Just beyond the bridge, the river arcs left away from the road and runs through lush bottomland. You’re never far from civilization, as represented by road, farms and camps. But for many paddlers raised on touring streams that share valleys with highways and rail lines, this is a small intrusion.
The narrow river has a charming intimacy. You follow the riffles around one bend after another and enjoy the unfolding scenery. Facing north, you gaze upon Whiteface Mountain, with its stone weather observatory. Turn east, and there’s the Sentinel Range; south, and there’s Algonquin Peak, the state’s second-highest summit. In the more immediate vicinity, grassy flats merge with damp bogs and evergreens cast their shadows over the riverbanks.
Although the West Branch is visible from River Road at several points, most of the river winds through land unlikely to be accessed on foot. There’s a cat-and-mouse feel to this trip. One minute, you’ll see a car driving past; the next you’re out of sight and in the wild.
The wilder stretches are populated, too: Clusters of Canada geese waddle across a rocky spit, flocks of common mergansers swim away as you approach, sandpipers scurry across sandbars pecking for food, trout breach the river surface to gobble insects, and a heron stands poised to spear a fish. You can also expect to pass an occasional fly-fisherman in hip waders. All this entertainment enhances the appeal of the trip, especially for children.
There is an easy takeout just under the bridge on Route 86.
If you’re in the vicinity of Keene or Jay, you should consider a voyage on the East Branch. One of the most pleasant paddles starts just below the Ark Motel on Route 9N, just upriver from the hamlet of Upper Jay. You put in downstream of the motel and end somewhere above the falls near the site of the old covered bridge (now a temporary trestle) in the hamlet of Jay. Because the put-in is on private property, you should get permission from the landowner.
There are two excellent take-outs: at the scenic parking spot on a bend just before entering Jay, about 4 miles from the put-in, and at a sandy lot just above the covered-bridge falls, another half-mile farther. End your tour at the first if you want to avoid a fairly technical rock garden that requires intermediate paddling skills in moderate flow and advanced skills when the water is running high.
From the moment of put-in, the East Branch hunts the sun. The floodplain exudes a friendly broad-shouldered feeling. Forests lope away gently towards the mountains beyond. The paddler’s eye naturally focuses on river and sky. The result is a broad, Western feel reminiscent of Montana or Wyoming.
The East Branch on a sunny summer day relaxes the spirit. Even where the Ausable runs close to the road, you feel a world apart as the river slips through grassy bottomland or flirts with spruce and hemlock. The river burbles over rock riffles, shifts to deeper sandy flows and then broadens to pebbled flats.
The natural and human worlds meld. A dog watches me from a back porch in Upper Jay. Two teenage girls play in the water, while nearby a woman fishes in a shaded pool. Farther on, families gather on a rocky outcropping in the center of the river. Kids wade the flats or float face down, scanning the river bottom through swim goggles.
I steer my kayak through a rock sluice and end up flipping the boat in the pool below. I drain it, climb in again and let the current pull me downstream. I maneuver through a rock garden one pool at a time. It feels as if I am working through a roomful of dance partners. I plunge in at instinctively obtuse angles, backpaddle, twirl and plunge again, cut right, swivel left and slither down the last drop to the long pool below.
My daughter is waiting for me, cavorting on the rocks above the falls. She waves first, then guides me to a safe harbor. She’s learning to swim here. I’m also teaching her to canoe on the East Branch. I introduce her to the river’s dances: the pull of the current, the calm of eddies, the swirl of the pool. I show her how a canoe hides from the current behind a rock, just like a trout. I’m hoping that one day the Ausables will be a part of her life, just as they are part of mine.