A river primeval
By Mark Bowie
Before dawn on an early September day, fellow paddler Rick Rosen and I drifted in a pea-soup fog on Lewey Lake, anticipating a colorful sunrise. A loon wailed nearby, tantalizingly out of sight. We waited. And waited. The mists rose, unveiling a swatch of mountain forest, some blue sky, then resettled, dashing our hopes. Well after sunrise, the mists finally lifted to unveil a range of mountains looming over the western shore, tinged with red light. Blue Ridge and Cellar and Lewey mountains formed a chain leading to the distinctive collar of white cliffs on Snowy Mountain.
We paddled toward the lake’s south end, bound for the Miami River, its major inlet. Guidebook author Barbara McMartin labeled it as “one of the region’s best short stream paddles.” The Miami originates in the eastern highlands of the West Canada Lakes Wilderness in the south-central Adirondacks. Its ultimate source is just north of Pillsbury Mountain. From there it flows southeast for about three miles, crosses private timberlands west of Perkins Clearing before making a 90-degree turn to the northeast, around Page Mountain, and then continues another five miles to Lewey Lake.
This last stretch flows through a picturesque valley, forming the boundary between the West Canada Lakes Wilderness on the west and the Jessup River Wild Forest on the east. It’s fed by several brooks: Page, Callahan, Freemont and Cellar, and Mason Lake Outlet. Still, it remains shallow throughout, never more than a few feet deep. It’s generally only 15 to 30 feet wide, expanding to 30 yards near its mouth.
The river is canoeable for about two miles upstream from the lake; above that it’s too shallow and steep. Including the 1.5-mile paddle from the boat launch to the mouth, it’s an upstream-and-back paddle of about seven miles, leisurely done in a half day.
The Miami is one of several Adirondack rivers left in limbo since the 1970s, when they were listed as “Study Rivers” for possible inclusion in the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers (WSR) System, which affords extra protections for designated waters. Perhaps for political reasons, the Miami and the other rivers were never classified. Over the past year, the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) has been looking at these and other unclassified rivers to see if they should be added to the WSR system. In the same spirit, Rick and I wanted to assess the Miami’s ecological and scenic values to see if it deserves inclusion.
We searched carefully for the mouth of the river, concealed in a virtual everglade of pickerelweed beds, lilies, shrubs and grassy hummocks, closer to the lake’s western shore than the east. The channel was as smooth as silk – the kind of flatwater that canoeists revel in with the sensuous dip of a paddle. We spooked two great blue herons. Young maples, already turning red, lined the channel. We would cruise by thousands of dewy spider webs strung across riverside vegetation.
A white mist hovered overhead, delineating the valley. It suffused the riverscape, rendering it a watercolor painting. We paddled round sweeping curves bound by low-lying grasses and shrubs to find panoramas of misty river valley bounded by forested slopes, layered with blue sky and white cirrus above. The scenery recalled pictures I’d seen of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. But instead of volcanic vents sending plumes of steam skyward, white pines reached into the mist. As the sun rose it chased the mist up the valley.
No buildings marred our views. Since much of the Miami’s shorelines lie within the forever-wild Forest Preserve, the river is largely protected from development. We paddled a river primeval. The surrounding forest flourishes with a natural selection of plant life. We passed beneath no bridges. Although Route 30 parallels the river to the east, coming within a quarter mile of it – well within earshot – the Miami’s look and feel is of remoteness and solitude. Rick commented, “When you don’t hear traffic, you really feel the isolation.”
The Miami feels even wilder and more remote up-stream. In places, false channels can lull you into dead-end backwaters. Sometimes we had to carefully read the river grasses to ascertain the main channel. About a mile in, we were forced to carry over a beaver dam, one of only two we’d encounter. A summer of dam-crashing paddlers had breached some dams; recent rains raised water levels enough for us to float over others.
Farther upstream, the river narrowed progressively, until we became enclosed in alders. A beaver dam in shin-deep water convinced us to turn back. We passed a small sand beach, which, logically, we dubbed “Miami Beach.” It lacks the glitz of the famous city, but surely the nightlife is wild. Throughout our journey we saw animal tracks on the mud banks: beaver, deer, muskrat and waterfowl. This is also moose country (there’s a moose-crossing sign on Route 30). We craned our necks round the turns, hoping to find one feeding on aquatic vegetation.
We saw no moose, but the downstream run treated us to dramatic vistas. The western mountain range towered above the marshes near the channel’s mouth. The river seemed to sweep us beneath them, insignificant in their grand presence.
What designation would the Miami qualify for in the state’s protective river system? To be granted Wild status, a river must be at least five miles long in most cases, entirely primitive or nearly so, and accessible only by water or trail. Though the Miami’s views argue for Wild status, the proximity of Route 30 rules it out. Scenic status is appropriate: Waterways granted this designation must be largely primitive in character, with limited road access, and the Miami certainly qualifies. Motorized traffic is generally prohibited on Scenic waters, so such a classification could keep jet-skis and motorboats from venturing upriver from Lewey Lake.
Fortunately, the Miami cannot be degraded by development, for the stretch that runs through private land is protected by a conservation easement. Thus, the Miami serves as an example of a pristine river – that is, an example of what the Adirondack Mountain Club is fighting to save in its campaign to keep rivers in their natural condition.
ADK plans to petition the next governor, who will take office in January, to grant protections to another river through the WSR System – the first addition in over 20 years. That river is the upper Chubb, a few miles south of Lake Placid. ADK plans to propose more Adirondack rivers for designation over the next few years. They can add the Miami to their list.
Directions: The usual put-in is the Lewey Lake State Campground, which is located on NY 30 about 13 miles north of Speculator and 11 miles south of Indian Lake village.