It was the most blasé great-blue heron we’d ever encountered in the Adirondacks, or at least the most single-minded one, so focused on the task at hand that it didn’t notice as we coasted by about two canoe lengths away. The tall, elegant bird was poised motionless in the water at the edge of the marsh as we rounded the bend. Then came the lightning strike of its spearlike bill. The heron snagged a small fish, gulped it down and only then seemed to be aware of the two spectators drifting past.
Rachel and I are paddling up South Inlet from Raquette Lake. We parked just before the state bridge and carried the canoe down the path to a put-in spot. After five minutes of paddling, the highway sounds faded away and were soon replaced by the chatter of a belted kingfisher, swooping along the edge of the stream. We followed it with our binoculars as it came to a stop on the branch of a dead tree, an excellent vantage point above the water.
Our map tells us we have two navigable miles up the inlet and two more miles of hiking to reach Sagamore Lake, the source of this stream and home of Great Camp Sagamore, where Alfred Vanderbilt and his family rusticated their summers away, assisted by armies of servants and caretakers in what was essentially a self-sufficient village. Today it’s run by a nonprofit organization and is the only Adirondack Great Camp open to the public for meals, lodging, conferences, educational programs and a memorable infusion of Adirondack history in a wilderness setting.
Luring us to South Inlet were two glowing testimonials. John Nemjo, proprietor of the Mountain Man outfitters in Old Forge and impresario for the PaddleFest canoe/kayak extravaganza in Inlet, had identified this stream as one of his favorite getaways in the central Adirondacks. And no less an enthusiast than William H.H. Murray, writing 150 years ago in his Adventures in the Wilderness, declared South Inlet to be “one of the loveliest bits of water” in the Adirondacks.
That was more than enough for us, and as we paddle quietly through the wide expanse of wetland the surroundings look every bit as wild and beautiful as Murray must have found them. The water is broader and less meandering than a typical wetland stream, but it offers enough slow bends to make it interesting. The current moving our way is almost unnoticeable, though it will hasten our return later in the day.
The heron we came so close to has flapped off around the next bend. The vegetation is less marshy (cattails, etc.) and more boggy as we progress. Tamaracks and black spruce punctuate the vast wetland. Leatherleaf and bog rosemary grow by the shoreline. It being late summer, bracken ferns here and there have turned a rusty brown, adding early dabs of fall color.
After an hour or so, we find the stream suddenly beginning to narrow, and we can hear a roaring sound up ahead. Flecks of foam drift by. Around the next turn, the roar becomes the unmistakable sound of crashing water. Rachel and I, with thoughts of African Queen and Deliverance and River Wild still vivid in our memories, wonder for a moment if we might be about to go over a waterfall. “But how can that be when we’re paddling upstream?” I observe scientifically, setting our minds at ease. We paddle around the final bend and confront, a few hundred yards ahead, a gorgeous cascade tumbling down into a natural pool. (Since our research for the trip was limited to a map, this scenic climax to the waterborne leg of our journey is an unexpected bonus.)
The only other craft we will see all day is a sizable motorboat beached at one side of the pool. A family of two adults and three kids is fishing from various spots along the shore. No luck yet, they tell us, but they seem to enjoy being here anyway. We pull our canoe up on the bank and climb a path to some ledges just above the splashing cataracts.
A black duck is loitering in the backwater just below us, apparently used to handouts from picnickers even this far from civilization. Thanks to several days of heavy rains earlier in the week, the rushing water provides a spectacular backdrop to lunch. It occurs to us that this scene would be even more dramatic in late April or early May – that window of two or three weeks between the melting of the ice and snow and the arrival of the black flies – and we make a date to return when the water should be even higher and faster than today.
Above the falls, South Inlet becomes a mountain stream. We follow along the east side on a footpath where there was once a tote road. It’s a delightful walk, as we’re never far from the sight or sound of water. We get so distracted by the stream on our right that we miss the fork on our left that would take us to Sagamore Lake.
Soon we spot an overgrown brick building off the trail near the water. On inspection, it appears to be a small hydroelectric plant, abandoned years ago. From here we follow an old sluiceway to a smaller brick building, not much larger than an outhouse, containing machinery that apparently controlled the stream flow at a small, partially disintegrated dam nearby.
Farther along the path we encounter two fly fishermen from Maryland who seem to have stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. They tell us the water level is too high for good trout fishing right now. They’ve hiked in from the Sagamore Road not far ahead.
Soon we come to a big clearing. Off to one side, where a path has been mowed through the high grass, we find a small sanctuary with a series of large stones arranged in the shape of a cross. (It was here, we later learn, that the body of a young girl named Sara Ann Wood was reputed to have been buried about 10 years ago by a sexual predator from Massachusetts; that winter a large contingent of State Police, and a force of National Guard the following spring, sifted through every square foot of this meadow and the surrounding area, but to no avail – the body of the murdered girl was never found, and all that remains of this sad episode is the half-hidden memorial we stumbled upon.)
The trail ends just beyond at the gravel road connecting Sagamore with Raquette Lake. We turn around and follow back along the stream, this time watching carefully for the turnoff to Sagamore Lake. It’s marked by a light-green ribbon on a tree. We go right and follow another long-ago tote road about a half a mile to the north shore of the lake, leaving the trail to cut down through the woods to the water. Across the way is the octagonal corner of the dining building where the Vanderbilts and their guests once took their meals.
Later we reread what Harvey Kaiser had to say about Camp Sagamore in his book, Great Camps of the Adirondacks, including this observation:
Hunting lodges like Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s Sagamore, with sleeping space for up to one hundred guests, offered that peculiar graciousness of the English country seat, where guests might see their host occasionally at the dining table while enjoying the full hospitality of the estate. For the camp-bound traveler who didn’t care for the hunting, fishing, hiking, or boating, indoor bowling alleys, amusement halls, and putting greens were available.
We’re glad the public can now enjoy this place, and equally glad that the rest of the lake, which is today safely within our “forever wild” Forest Preserve, will remain as naturally beautiful as it was a thousand years ago.
Rachel and I retrace our route to the stream and follow it back to the cascades. After lolling about and finishing the remains of our lunch by the rushing water, we pack up and paddle down the inlet, assisted by a gentle breeze and a slight current – a happy ending to an outing we intend to repeat next spring.