State acquisition of Essex Chain Lakes Tract from the Nature Conservancy opens up Blackwell Stillwater to flatwater paddlers.
By Phil Brown
IN THE LAST ISSUE of the Explorer, I wrote about paddling a stretch of the upper Hudson River newly open to the public. As you may recall, we started in Newcomb and traveled about six miles downriver, taking out near an iron bridge just below the confluence with the Goodnow River.
I thoroughly enjoyed that trip, but I was surprised by the number of rapids, so I returned to the Hudson in July to see if the river had something to offer strictly flatwater paddlers.
I’m happy to report that it does. My friend Lynda and I spent a delightful afternoon paddling the Blackwell Stillwater (a three-mile stretch of the Hudson) and the lower part of the Goodnow.
This is a trip any paddler can do. The hardest part is getting your boat to the water. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has erected a kiosk and established a parking area about 0.8 miles from the river. Although long, the portage follows a dirt road, so if you have a canoe cart, bring it.
As we drove to the trailhead, I practically guaranteed Lynda that we would have the river to ourselves. I figured most people canoeing this part of the Hudson would start in Newcomb. Naturally, we arrived at the parking area just in time to see two paddlers beginning the portage to the river. The news is getting out.
The kiosk contains a large map of the 17,320-acre Essex Chain Lakes Tract and 925-acre Indian River Tract, both of which the state purchased from the Nature Conservancy. Most of the Essex Chain Tract remains under lease to sportsmen’s clubs and so will be off limits to the public until October 1. However, the right bank of the Hudson was opened to the public in the spring, which made our trip legal.
The carry from the kiosk to the river, much of it downhill, took us about twenty minutes. Just before the iron bridge, there is a path on the right that leads to a nice put-in. There is no sign marking the path, so be on the lookout. The put-in also serves as an official takeout for paddlers traveling downriver. Indeed, it is the one our group used on the earlier trip.
The Blackwell Stillwater, which is navigable all summer, extends from nearly a mile above the bridge to roughly two miles below it. Lynda and I opted to go downriver first, paddling to the site of an old dam, now just a collection of boulders. Finch, Pruyn & Company built a wooden dam there in the 1800s, according to John Paradis, who worked for years as the company’s woodlands manager. Finch, Pruyn’s crews would store logs on the stillwater in winter and flush them downriver in spring. A river driver once drowned on Blackwell Stillwater. If you know where to look you can still see a cross carved in a white pine by one of his co-workers.
From the put-in, we could see across the river a more recent piece of history: the hunting camps of the Polaris Club. The club has leased the land on the left side of the Hudson for about half a century. As a result of the state acquisition, the club will have to remove its camps in 2018. It has exclusive use of its leased land until October 1. Thereafter, till the structures are torn down, the members will have exclusive use only of one-acre parcels around their camps.
Chester Supervisor Fred Monroe, whose father helped found the club, said the members are resigned, but not happy, about having to give up their bit of paradise. Monroe has fond memories of fishing Blackwell Stillwater and hunting deer along its shores. He recalled that his father used to land a floatplane on the stillwater.
“He crashed one time,” he said. “He took off and got over the dam, and the engine quit. He crashed into some wetlands. He didn’t get hurt at all, but they had to swim the river to get out of there. It was November, so it was pretty cold.”
Once we passed the camps, Lynda and I saw no signs of civilization. In no hurry, we lily-dipped and drifted downstream, listening to the calls of white-throated sparrows, poking into grassy cul-de-sacs, and admiring the views of the river and nearby peaks, all against a backdrop of blue sky and cotton clouds.
After an hour, we heard rapids ahead. As we approached the site of the old dam, the current quickened. Bedrock outcrops and boulders prevented us from landing near the rapids, so we pulled into a tiny cove on the right and beached our canoes on a muddy strand. Stepping over an old sluice channel, we scrambled up the bank and then walked through the woods to a rock ledge beside the rapids. The short bushwhack proved worthwhile: the ledge was an ideal picnic spot, with a long view up the Hudson and the soothing sounds of rushing water.
On the return trip, the current posed no difficulty until we reached the iron bridge, where we encountered a spot of quick water. I was able to paddle through it, but Lynda could not. We returned to our original put-in, carried to the dirt road, and found a grassy road that led to another put-in on the other side of the bridge.
In hindsight, we could have avoided this minor inconvenience if we had put in here at the start of our outing. We could have explored the upper part of Blackwell Stillwater first (as well as the Goodnow River) and easily shot through the quick water on the trip downriver. After exploring the lower part of the stillwater, we would have ended our paddle at the takeout below the bridge.
From the alternative put-in, it’s only a two-minute paddle to the mouth of the Goodnow, which enters the Hudson from the west. The Goodnow is much more intimate than the Hudson—thirty feet wide as opposed to two hundred. It’s bordered by grassy shallows and interrupted occasionally by beaver dams. We paddled upriver for ten or fifteen minutes. We could have gone farther, but Lynda had to catch a ferry back to Vermont, so we turned around. On the way back, we enjoyed a view of the rounded hump of Polaris Mountain.
We also had to forgo the upper part of the stillwater. I had canoed this totally wild stretch during the spring but was looking forward to seeing it again. Well, I’m sure the river will be there the next time I return.
Come October 1, paddlers also will be able to enjoy the Essex Chain Lakes, the centerpiece of the newly acquired tract. Let’s hope the lakes prove to be as enchanting as Blackwell Stillwater.