By Phil Brown
The last time Mike and I traveled across Avalanche Lake, we wore skis. It was below zero. Mike had frostbite but didn’t know it. He remarked how cool it would be to paddle on this remote finger of water, with cliffs rising out of the lake on both sides.
So that’s what we did one gorgeous day in June.
Is it crazy to carry canoes 4.5 miles, climbing some 635 feet, to a lake that you can paddle across in 10 minutes?
A little bit. But it’s the kind of trip you don’t forget. There’s no other paddling experience like it in the Adirondack Park. We didn’t stop at Avalanche Lake, by the way. To up the paddle/portage ratio, we continued to Lake Colden and the Flowed Lands and then turned around and did all three waterbodies in reverse. Altogether, we paddled about four miles and hiked about 12.
Of course, we chose the lightest boats we could find for this trip: A pair of Black Jacks, solo canoes that weigh just 12 pounds.
We met Sue Bibeau, who would take photographs, at the Adirondak Loj, and began the long portage at 9 a.m. Taking the old Marcy Dam trail, we reached the junction with the Algonquin Peak trail, nearly a mile from the Loj, in 20 minutes.
Between the junction and Marcy Dam we met a pair of hikers—a man and a woman—who were startled to see us shouldering canoes.
“Where are you going? Marcy Dam?” the woman asked.
“We’re looking for the source of the Nile,” I replied.
“You should have no trouble finding it,” she said. “It’s right up the trail.”
We reached Marcy Dam at 10 a.m. Sue and I paddled across the pond to the inlet and back, accompanied by a chorus of white-throated sparrows. I was surprised that the pond, which is an impoundment on Marcy Brook, was often only a few feet deep.
From the dam, it took less than a half-hour to cover the mile to Avalanche Camp. The lean-to that once sat beside the trail here was recently removed to a site deeper in the woods on a ridge above Marcy Brook.
Now the real work began: the half-mile climb to the top of Avalanche Pass—on a trail steep enough to warrant ladders in a few places. It was nearly impossible to avoid bumping the canoe on roots and rocks during the ascent. When we got to the pass, Mike marveled at the jumble of trees at the bottom of the slide created by a heavy rainstorm in 1999. He felt tempted to climb it, but we didn’t have time. Then he had an idea.
“Slide canoeing—that’s the new thing,” he said. “We carry our canoes up slides and then slide down in them.”
Descending from the height of land, we arrived at the shore of Avalanche Lake about 11:30 a.m. Mike and I put in while Sue continued on the trail to take pictures. We paddled over to the rock wall of Mount Colden, which rises straight out of the water, and touched it. It was amazing to see trees growing in tiny cracks in this vertical world.
About halfway down the lake we came to the Trap Dike, a huge cleft in Colden’s northwestern flank. The first people to climb 4,714-foot Mount Colden, in 1850, went up the dike, a route still followed today by hikers and ice climbers. As we passed, we could see trees that had been snapped off in an avalanche last winter.
We ate lunch opposite the dike. Afterward, Sue got in Mike’s boat to take pictures from the water. Then it was on to Lake Colden.
From the end of Avalanche Lake, it’s 0.3 miles to a register, mostly downhill. We ran into a couple from North Carolina who were hiking for the first time in the Adirondacks. They were amazed to see two canoeists so far from the trailhead. I think they thought we were he-men, but then Mike confessed that the boats weighed only 12 pounds—less than a typical day pack. At my urging, the man hoisted my canoe onto his shoulder. “Hey, there’s nothing to it, Linda,” he said.
We soon arrived at the register. The hiking trail splits here to go around both sides of Lake Colden, but we continued straight on a ski trail that leads to a bog on the lake. The last time we passed this way, on a bitter cold day in January, snow covered everything. Today we followed a rickety plank walkway far into the bog. The carry from Avalanche Lake had taken 20 minutes.
After putting in the shallow water, Mike and I winded among the bog’s islets and logs to the lake proper. Paddling to the middle of Lake Colden, which is much broader than Avalanche Lake, we marveled at the mountain views that surrounded us. To the north, looming far above, was the bare ridge of the McIntyre Range, including Algonquin Peak, the second-highest summit in the state. To the east was Mount Colden, with its rocky cap and numerous slides. To the southwest was Calamity Mountain, which lies just beyond the Flowed Lands. Where else in the Park can you enjoy, from a canoe, such stunning alpine scenery in such a pristine setting? The closest parallel I could think of is the Preston Ponds, acquired by the Open Space Institute a few years ago.
I paddled to shore to let Sue borrow my boat and then hiked around the lake to the dam at the south end. From here, Mike and I continued, while Sue hiked back to the Loj. We portaged along the pebbly shore of the Opalescent River, which at first was too shallow to paddle. As we approached the Flowed Lands, the scenery struck me as Western—I think it was the combination of the pebbly shore, the river winding gently through a grassy plain, and the mountains rising all around.
As soon as the water got deep enough, we hopped in our canoes and continued tracking the river’s meanders past banks of green grass and blue wildflowers. The Flowed Lands were not much flowed: At times our canoes scraped the sandy bottom of the Opalescent. In 20 minutes, we reached the broken dam at the end of the Flowed Lands. A spring flood breached the dam in 1979, converting most of the former impoundment to a marshland.
We started back about 3 p.m. Within minutes, we came to one of the best vistas of the whole day: Looking north east across the Flowed Lands toward Avalanche Pass, with Colden rising on one side, the McIntyre Range on the other. We wanted to linger a while, so we pulled up to a sandy beach for a swim. The water, however, was only a few feet deep. We just sat in the Opalescent river and hogged down the scenery.
We paddled back upriver as far as possible. Soon after beginning the portage, we noticed a trail on the right and decided to follow it. The trail led us past a lean-to and campsites to a suspension bridge over the Opalescent. After crossing the river, we turned left and in a few minutes came to the Lake Colden dam.
The paddle across Lake Colden lasted 20 minutes. In another 20 minutes, we arrived at Avalanche Lake. We took our sweet time recrossing this little jewel. As we passed the sheer wall of Colden, we inspected the cracks and speculated on which ones would make good rock-climbing routes. Hey, if we fell, we’d land in the water.
When we reached the end of Avalanche Lake, we ate our last pieces of chocolate to fortify ourselves for the 4.5-mile carry. We got to the Loj at 7:20 p.m., tired, sore and exhilarated. We had seen Avalanche Pass in a way few others have. Driving home, I wondered what we could do to top this adventure.
There’s always slide canoeing.