4 great fall paddles

Mark Bowie shares his favorite flatwater trips

By Mark Bowie

Fish Creek is the author’s favorite flatwater paddle. Photo by Mark Bowie.

Fall on flatwater in the Adirondacks: There’s no place I’d rather be than on a wild pond or stream reflecting the reds, yellows and oranges of the season. Of course, there are enough waterways in the Adirondacks to fill a lifetime of exploration, but here are four of my favorites for paddling.

Fish Creek

The gentle terrain of the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest is speckled with lakes, ponds and interconnecting streams. An enchanting waterway winds through part of it; for the diversity and scenic beauty of the forests, bogs, and ponds it passes, I rank it as my all-time favorite flatwater trip: Fish Creek.

You can reach the creek from Floodwood Pond, located along Floodwood Road immediately south of the St. Regis Canoe Area. From the pond, it flows southeast about 2.3 miles to Fish Creek Ponds, initially coursing beneath a canopy of old hemlocks and sliding over sandbars, in places forcing paddlers to navigate single file. It winds languorously to Little Square Pond, where many paddlers take out at an east shore campsite for a picnic. Beyond, the creek abuts a glacial ridge; a regal tamarack bog grows along the west shore. Just downstream, paddlers can detour into the short channel to Copperas Pond. For years a downed log, lurking just below waterline, has guarded the entrance. After having been surprised by it ourselves, my paddling companions and I have been amused to see other boaters run aground on it.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Below Copperas the channel constricts again, and paddlers enter another world  – of pervading solitude – as they drift beneath towering evergreens and over luminous river grasses bent by the sluggish current. The channel eventually widens, and the sky opens and spreads its reflection across the water’s surface. In summer, it’s smattered with lily pads, their blossoms pink and white. Boreal bogs line the channel, replete with tamaracks, pitcher plants, sundew, and cotton grass poking above water-saturated sphagnum mats. I’ve watched a bald eagle swoop upward from a bed of lilies, a large fish gripped in its talons, and alight on a pine to devour his catch. I’ve seen a great blue heron spear a catfish with his bill, deer feed in the bogs, otters frolic in the shallows, osprey wheel above.

The channel flows past the marked carry to Follensby Clear Pond, then rounds a final curve before emptying into Fish Creek Ponds. Some 355 campsites are scattered around these ponds and adjoining Square Pond. Fish Creek Ponds State Campground is the Adirondacks’ most popular camping destination. There’s a boat launch here and at neighboring Rollins Pond State Campground. Rollins’s short, navigable outlet drains into Floodwood Pond. Paddlers can also access Fish Creek by putting in on Floodwood from Floodwood Road, or carrying into Copperas from Whey and Black Ponds.

Don’t be surprised to see a bald eagle along Fish Creek. Photo by Mark Bowie

There are three informal campsites along Fish Creek and several on the neighboring ponds. The stream flow is so gentle that out and back half-day trips or multi-day loop trips via the interconnecting waters can be plotted without regard to current direction. There’s a 5-horsepower motor limit on the creek within about a hundred yards of the campground; non-electric motors are prohibited further upstream. Paddle off-hours or out of tourist season, and the only beings with which you’ll likely share the serenity and boreal majesty of this waterway are the wildlife.

Follensby Clear Pond

Nowhere in the Adirondacks have weather and seasons impressed on me such mystery and moodiness as at Follensby Clear Pond – my favorite large pond for canoeing.

As twilight descends into night, Follensby Clear exudes a mystical beauty. The surrounding forest goes ink black. The first stars glitter in the rich-blue heavens. The orange glow of island campfires is reflected in the still water. Loons call eerily to one another, and the atmosphere reverberates with wildness.

Paddlers must share Follensby Clear Pond with motorboaters. Photo by Mark Bowie

Follensby Clear is one of many ponds interconnected by tributaries and short carries immediately south of the St. Regis Canoe Area. These waters rival those of the St. Regis for their pristine beauty. As part of its Quiet Waters Campaign, the Adirondack Explorer has urged the state to make them motor-free (though electric motors would be allowed).

The pond is aligned north-south, irregularly shaped with a narrow constriction in its midsection. An esker snakes along its western shore, dividing it from Polliwog and Horseshoe ponds. Peninsulas shelter bays from the wind, allowing every nuance of color painted on the sky to be reflected with mirror-like precision. White pines, often leaning out from shore, their crowns whipped by the prevailing winds, occupy every point on Follensby Clear. The water is crystal clear, the bottom sandy. Seven islands break the monotony of open water.

Follensby Clear is much loved by canoe campers. There are 26 first-come, first-served island and shoreline campsites and one island lean-to. Paddlers can put in from two launches along Route 30, one at the south end, another on the east shore. Paddlers can also reach the pond by carrying from Green, Polliwog or Horseshoe ponds, from Fish Creek, or through Spider Creek via Fish Creek Ponds.

Jabe Pond

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Massive mountains rise west of Lake George near the hamlet of Hague. Nestled among them is a 151-acre gem fed only by precipitation from above and springs below: Jabe Pond, my favorite small waterway for canoeing.

Jabe sits some 1,000 feet above Lake George, but the nearby hills rise even higher, cradling the pond in a rocky setting: No. 108 Mountain on the east, Middle Mountain on the west and Catamount Mountain to the southwest.

The put-in is on the north shore. The view from here is rather uninspired, divulging little of the grandeur that lies around the eastern peninsula. Paddling round the point, you see a fleet of islands setting sail from shore, 10 in all, like schooners to sea. I once spent a memorable morning paddling among them. The remains of a large fireplace, once part of an island home, rise on one. Local legend claims rattlesnakes inhabit it.

Located within the Lake George Wild Forest, Jabe has the look and feel of the grand lake itself, on a miniature scale. Gray bedrock crops out beneath a mixed evergreen-deciduous forest. Autumn’s palette is striking: red blueberry bushes, green pines, orange oaks and white birches glow beside foliage blazing brilliant scarlet, peach and bubblegum. The water sparkles royal blue under cloudless skies.

To reach the pond from Route 9N, turn west onto Split Rock Road midway between Hague and Silver Bay. At 1.8 miles, turn left onto Jabe Pond Road. You can park here and walk 0.8 miles to the pond. The state maintains the dirt road seasonally; it’s gated during spring mud season. At all other times, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended. The designated parking lot is 300 feet from shore. Only hand-launching is permitted; no boat trailers, and there’s a 10-horsepower limit on motors. Seven campsites rim the pond, and there’s another on the southernmost island. Camping on the other islands is prohibited.

Lake Durant and Rock Pond

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Lake Durant is a narrow, 2.5-mile-long sheet of water spread thinly over the same bedrock that fortifies mighty Blue Mountain, which looms to the north. I’ve been on Durant’s summery blue waters when layers of fall foliage crisscrossed up Blue, the rocky summit encased in snow and ice – a magnificent microcosm of the North Country seasons.

The lake’s allure lies in its varied looks. Although Route 28/30 runs the length of its northern shore, Durant draws your attention to its wilder states. Tranquil bays are tucked behind rocky peninsulas. The reedy shallows reputedly yield large Northern pike and muskellunge. At least 10 islands break the water’s surface; balsam fir, white pines and hemlock cap them, seemingly frozen against the onslaught of prevailing winds that frequently whip the lake to whitecaps. But on calm days the water lies flat, and the scenery and paddling are delicious. At night, from the state-campground beach at the east end, I’ve photographed the Big Dipper and other stars encircling Blue Mountain that were reflected in the quiet bay.

A white birch stretches its branches over the waters of Lake Durant. Photo by Mark Bowie

The campground and a handful of informal campsites at the west end, off Durant Road, make convenient access points. From this end a channel leads to Rock Pond. A footbridge separates the two waters. Large rocks just below the surface guard Rock’s entrance. It’s a quaint pond, with a tamarack bog growing from the far shore, home to the largest pitcher plants I’ve ever seen. Beavers have carved a network of channels through the sphagnum mats, most just wide enough for them to swim through. (I pulled at vegetation to traverse them.) Rock is within the Blue Ridge Wilderness,which means that no motorboats are allowed. It’s so intimate, there’s no need for one.

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