Fulton Chain

Paddlers make the best of a two-day trip on lakes overrun by motorboats and jet-skis.

By Lisa Densmore Ballard

Jack Ballard and his English setter, Percy, enter First Lake with the steamboat Clearwater close behind them.
Photo by Lisa Densmore Ballard

In 1977, the rock singer Meat Loaf released a love song in which he crooned, “I want you. I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. So don’t be sad. ’Cause two out of three ain’t bad.” I feel that way about paddling from First Lake in Old Forge to Fourth Lake in Inlet, the first four lakes in the Fulton Lake Chain.

This ten-miler almost met our three criteria for a paddle trip: (i) good swimming and fishing opportunities; (ii) island camping because it feels more adventurous, and (iii) getting away from civilization.

Number 3 was the question mark as these four lakes are in one of the more heavily populated and visited parts of the Adirondack Park. But how busy could they really be? After all, it’s the Adirondacks! I can rationalize anything if I want to do it badly enough.

My desire to paddle these four connected bodies of water germinated at birth. In the early 1960s, during my first two years of life, my parents owned a lakeside hotel in Old Forge that we visited most weekends from my hometown, Saranac Lake.

It sprouted when I was a teenager. At the end of each summer, I was an eager spectator and one-time course worker during the Adirondack Canoe Classic. The first ten miles of this ninety-miler went from First Lake to Fourth Lake.
The route blossomed into a must-do paddle-trip two decades ago with the founding of the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), which also starts on the Fulton Lake Chain. I had paddled other sections of the NFCT and was eager to experience this one due to my history with it.

The trip began near the dam on Old Forge Pond.
Photo by Lisa Densmore Ballard

The Fulton Chain is named for Robert Fulton, who invented the first commercially viable steamboat, the Clermont. From 1807 to 1814, the 150-foot Clermont carried passengers up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. With the success of the Hudson River trip, Fulton envisioned an Adirondack steamboat route through a series of interconnected lakes, beginning in Old Forge, but it was never created. As a result, canoeists who wish to paddle the entire Fulton Chain must portage twice, from Fifth Lake to Sixth and from Seventh Lake to Eighth Lake.

First Lake to Fourth Lake is paddle-able in a day, but the route promised island camping, and we wanted to get away, relax, and enjoy some outdoor family time, rather than grind out a long day on open, potentially rough water. In fact island camping was the only camping option on state land, either in lean-tos on Alger Island or at primitive campsites on DeCamps Island. We aimed for DeCamps Island as the campground on Alger Island required reservations, and none was available. The tent sites on DeCamps Island were available first-come, first-served. If they were full, we would paddle the whole route and go home.

My husband Jack, his daughter Zoe, and I launched our two boats, a canoe loaded with our gear and a Hobie sit-on-

Jack and Zoe paddle past Alger Island on Fourth Lake.
Photo by Lisa Densmore Ballard

top kayak powered by pedals, by the dam in Old Forge. With Jack and Zoe in the canoe, me on the Hobie, we crossed the thirty-acre Old Forge Pond and then headed up the broad, half-mile-long channel toward First Lake. Several pontoon boats motored by as we passed dock after dock, but the water was calm and the weather fair. All seemed peaceful until we reached the end of the channel.

“Get outside the buoys,” yelled Jack to me, as he and Zoe piloted their canoe quickly to the left, “Hurry!”

A gleaming white tour boat bore down on us. As we scurried out of the way, we noticed the name of the boat, Clearwater, which we immediately rechristened Clear-the-Water as it cruised past, its wake rocking our tiny vessels. The Clear-the-Water was merely a taste of what lay ahead.

Jack examines deer tracks on DeCamps Island.
Photo by Lisa Densmore Ballard

Though it was midweek and midday, as we proceeded across First Lake, we encountered all types of motorboats. Water-skiers cut back and forth. Tubers circled around and around, and personal watercraft buzzed here and there. We hugged the right (south) shore as we made our way across the small lake, the waves incessantly battering us.

We looked longingly for DeCamps Island which marked the boundary between First Lake and Second Lake. Nicknamed Treasure Island by locals because a former owner of the island used to collect tolls from steamship operators there, today it is owned by the state. Instead of one island, we discovered two, the larger DeCamps Island and a smaller hump of rock with several trees on it. Rock pylons, the remains of an old walkway, stretched across the water between the two islands.

Though a couple of acres in size, DeCamps Island lacked much undergrowth due to its heavy use, but there was a pleasant carpet of duff on the largest of the three obvious tent sites. The second site was atop a knoll overlooking the water, and the third rested beyond the knoll on a small grassy shelf. We opted for the soft duff and set up our tents.

As Jack and I finished laying out our sleeping bags, Zoe wandered over to the north side of the island.

Getting into the swing of things.
Photo by Lisa Densmore Ballard

“There’s a rope swing on the other island!” she shouted with excitement. As if on cue, two motorboats roared up, then beached their boats below our tents. A dozen people swam to the rope swing, laughing as they splashed. Zoe dearly wanted to try the rope swing. I encouraged her to swim across and join the crowd. Jack ignored the whole scene, grabbed his fly rod, and went fishing.

Ten minutes later, another half-dozen boats pulled up. Over thirty people now took turns launching themselves with varying degrees of skill off the rope swing, including Zoe. The atmosphere was party-like with people traversing across the channel, some swimming with beverages, and lots of exuberant screaming. The rope-swing action lasted several hours; then as the sun sank in the western sky, everyone had their fill of it and motored off. Zoe and I returned to the tents looking for Jack.

“Catch any fish?” I asked.

“Only a six-inch bass,” he said glumly, and then I noticed his wet hair.

“Did you go swimming?”

“Not on purpose.”

Amidst the rope-swing comings and goings, Jack’s canoe had swamped.

“At least I didn’t lose anything,” he added with relief.

As we settled down to dinner, the Clear-the-Water cruised by, its PA system announcing, “On your left is DeCamps Island.” Then the fireworks started. With July Fourth only two days away, a number of camps felt obliged to ignite early acknowledgements of the holiday. The lake finally settled down around midnight.

Two white-tailed deer swim to the mainland after crossing DeCamps Island.
Photo by Jack Ballard

The next morning, mist lay thick on the lake. We awoke to birds singing, and as we sipped coffee, two white-tailed deer wandered across the island and then swam past the rope swing to the mainland. It was a welcome contrast to the pandemonium of the previous day, but the harmony was short-lived. As soon we began paddling, a couple of bass boats sped by, then a wakeboarder, a mail boat, three jet-skiers, and six more party barges. Rather than paddle a straight line, we zigzagged up Second Lake and Third Lake, heading into each wake to avoid getting swamped, then returning to our northwestern course. Though we needed to be vigilant of motorboat traffic, I concentrated on the view of Bald Mountain (or Rondaxe), its cliff band, and fire tower ever present on our left.

The author relaxes outside her temporary domicile.
Photo by Jack Ballard

As noon approached, we entered Fourth Lake, the largest of the eight lakes in the Fulton Chain, covering 2,050 acres and stretching five miles. About a quarter of the way up the lake, we passed Shoal Point Lighthouse, a historic landmark on the north shore of the lake. Built in the late 1800s, its kerosene-powered beacon warned boats of a rocky outcropping just below the surface of the water. The lighthouse fell into disrepair but was relit in 2001 by the Fourth Lake Property Owner’s Association with partial funding from the state. Now powered by electricity, it comes alive every evening both warning and enchanting boaters.

The lighthouse lies across the water from Alger Island. We pulled up to a deserted lean-to on the island, ate lunch, and took a quick swim. A large brood of young ducklings swam by, catching our attention because they lacked a mother duck. They bobbed up and down in the waves trying to get away from us, but soon gave up in the chop, and veered closer to the island. As we finished eating, we watched a bald eagle dive into the water; then a great blue heron flew by, its great wings beating slowly and deliberately, as it looked for a place to land. Considering the amount of people and motorboats on First to Fourth lakes, there was a surprising amount of wildlife.

The last part of our paddle trip, from Alger Island to the public boat launch in Inlet, proved the toughest. Though the day was calm and beautiful, the water was not. The endless boat traffic made conditions terribly rough and unpredictable. Our muscles ached with the effort of constantly power-pulling our paddles, or in my case pedaling the Hobie boat, but our headway was slow. We finally reached the takeout by late afternoon and celebrated getting across Fourth Lake with a round of gelatos. As we sat in Arrowhead Park, licking our frozen treats, I watched the watercraft on the lake race here and there, as I reflected on our trip. That old Meat Loaf song crept into my thoughts again: I wanted to paddle from First to Fourth Lake. I needed the escape, but I was never gonna love it. I wasn’t sad ’cause two out of three ain’t bad.

Fulton Chain
Map by Nancy Bernstein


Put-in: Town of Webb Visitors Center in Old Forge on NY Route 28.

Takeout: Public boat launch just north of the center of Inlet on NY Route 28.

Shuttles can be arranged with Mountainman Outdoor Supply Company in Thendara (315-369-6672) or Tickner’s Canoe in Old Forge (315-369-6286).

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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