East St. Regis worth protecting

Explorer Editor Phil Brown and Allison Warner paddle past a towering pine on the East Branch of the St. Regis. Photo by Susan Bibeau.

River born to be wild

By Phil Brown

It’s the first week of May. You can still see snow in the High Peaks. You know skiers are still getting turns in up there. On this day, however, we’ll be making turns on the East Branch of the St. Regis River.

Paul Jamieson. Photo courtesy of Duncan Cutter.

The late Paul Jamieson, the dean of Adirondack canoeists, called the stretch we’ll be paddling the Nine-Mile Level, a flatwater meander that remains canoeable throughout the summer.

We’re out to have a good time on a sunny spring day, but we have a more serious purpose in mind as well. In Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, Jamieson writes that the Adirondack Park Agency once recommended that the Nine-Mile Level be classified as Wild under the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System. But after the paper company that owned the adjacent timberland objected, the state downgraded the classification to Scenic, a less protective category.

That was three decades ago. In 1999, the state bought much of the river corridor from Champion International. Given the change in ownership, perhaps it’s time to revisit that earlier decision.

Alder thickets line the banks of the Nine-Mile Level. Photo by Susan Bibeau.

“It’s a beautiful stretch of river,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). “It’s redwing blackbird country.”

Over the past two years, ADK volunteers have been exploring rivers in the Adirondack Park to see if any should be added to the rivers system or if those in the system should be afforded additional protection. They haven’t got to the East Branch of the St. Regis yet, but give them time. If they’re lucky, they’ll have a day like we had.

The put-in is just above Everton Falls along Red Tavern Road on the northern edge of the Park, east of the hamlet of St. Regis Falls. Sue Bibeau, Allison Warner and I pull into the parking lot a little after 10 on a weekday morning. The Adirondack Nature Conservancy, which owns a 530-acre preserve here, maintains a short hiking trail that begins on the east side of the lot. Across the road, terraced steps lead down to a grassy plot beside the river.

Sue Bibeau takes life easy outside the mainstream. Photo by Phil Brown.

The carry couldn’t be easier. Each of us has brought a lightweight solo canoe—three different models, all made and/or designed in the Adirondacks. Our plan is to swap boats throughout the day.

I enter the water first in a 23-pound Spitfire made by Placid Boatworks in Lake Placid. Sue follows in a 16-pound Lost Pond Boat, the creation of Hornbeck Boats in Olmstedville. Finally, Allison puts in her 25-pound Tupper, designed by Rob Frenette, owner of Raquette River Outfitters, for Vermont Canoe & Kayak Co.

We head upstream, against a slow current. Spring has barely begun this far north. The trees have not yet budded. Except for green grasses, the vegetation along the shore is still the color of straw. But we hear a lot of birds: black-capped chickadees, phoebes, redwing blackbirds. We’ll also see several ducks, an osprey and a killdeer before the day is done.

The East Branch is not totally free of development. Photo by Susan Bibeau.

The East Branch is one of those twisty streams with secret channels and small backwaters. If you don’t pay attention, you could make a wrong turn and end up in a dead-end. Sometimes you can find a way through to the main channel; other times you have to turn back. But that’s all part of the fun.

At 1.3 miles from the put-in, we pass a large boulder on the left. Here the river splits as it flows around an island. On Jamieson’s recommendation, we take the right channel. Beyond the island, we see a beaver lodge and a patch of alders that has been cleaned out by its occupants.

“I wonder if they had an APA permit to do all that clearcutting,” Allison asks.

About four miles from the start, we stop for lunch and relax in the sun at a grassy plot guarded by tall white pines. An old woods road, now overgrown, leads away from the landing, apparently bound for Red Tavern Road (by the way, there is indeed a red tavern on this thoroughfare).

After our repast, we continue winding upriver. Throughout the trip, we have enjoyed views of small peaks in the neighborhood, but once in a while we see a bigger mountain farther away. It’s probably 3,300-foot Debar, but without my compass, I can’t be sure.

The St. Regis has many branches. Photo by Susan Bibeau.

Eventually, we come to a long straightaway, an anomaly on the Nine-Mile Level. It’s getting late in the afternoon, so a little farther on, five to six miles from the put-in, we decide to turn around. On the way back we stop at a primitive campsite on the left bank. I am surprised to find a marked portage trail leading away from the site. I follow it for a quarter-mile to a parking lot and trail register. Along the way I see trout lilies in bloom, my first wildflowers of the year.

Later, I learn that the state Department of Environmental Conservation built the campsite and portage trail after the state purchased the river corridor. It offers an alternative put-in a few miles above Everton Falls. DEC says there are four other state campsites along the river, but we won’t spot any of them on this day.

We also stop at the big rock on the return trip. Sue takes some photos from the “summit,” perhaps eight feet above the river, and I take some shots of the women basking in the sun. Although it’s too cold to jump in the water, we conclude that the rock would make a good swimming spot in summer.

We get back to Everton Falls a little after 5 p.m., seven hours after putting in. Sue and Allison head for home, but I stay to check out the little-used Nature Conservancy trail. It loops through a young hardwood forest and takes only 15 minutes to complete. In season, you can see trillium, trout lily and other wildflowers in bloom. After spending hours in a canoe, I welcome the opportunity to stretch my legs.

On the drive home, I ponder the future of the East Branch of the St. Regis. After our enjoyable outing, I certainly would like to see it given the protection it deserves. But is it at risk?

The East Branch flows about 20.5 miles from Meacham Lake to the Main Branch of the St. Regis north of Santa Clara hamlet. Back in the 1970s, the APA recommended classifying the first 6.5 miles Scenic and the next 8 miles Wild. Instead, the state legislature classified the entire stretch Scenic, “probably at the insistence of a paper company and its lessees [hunting camps],” according to Jamieson.

One major difference between the two classifications is that no development is allowed along a Wild River, except for footbridges. On a Scenic river, development is allowed if it is at least 250 feet from the water. Another difference is that motorboats are banned on Wild rivers. Although DEC can ban motors from a Scenic river, it needn’t do so.

Sue and Allison enjoy their day in the sun. Photo by Phil Brown.

The proposed Wild stretch of the East Branch begins about a mile above Everton Falls and so includes most of the Nine-Mile Level (the start may have been omitted because of its proximity to the road). Virtually all, if not all, of the Level is now owned by the state or the Nature Conservancy and thus is safe from development.

But ADK’s Neil Woodworth said Wild status would give this stretch of the river extra protection from motorboats that could pollute the water and disrupt the natural serenity. Even though few powerboaters venture onto the Level, given its shallowness, the threat exists. “You can get a 2-horsepower motor that weighs 20 pounds,” Woodworth said. “Theoretically, you could power a canoe or small boat with one of these motors for quite a distance above Everton Falls.”

Classifying part of the East Branch as Wild might also give the river, which sees limited use, more cachet among the paddling crowd. Most of the Wild rivers in the Adirondack Park are too frothy or too far from roads to appeal to the average paddler.

When the Explorer raised the classification issue with the APA, spokesman Keith McKeever said the agency agrees that the Nine-Mile Level should be Wild. “The big impediment to that classification was that it was private land, and that’s no longer the case,” he said.

Woodworth said ADK will push the governor and legislature to modify the classification.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

Actually, though, Woodworth is more worried about the future of the river between the Nine-Mile Level and Meacham Lake—the Scenic stretch that cuts through timberlands owned by the Clerical Medical Group, an investment company. This could be subdivided for vacation homes.

“People want to be near water, and they’re buying up waterfront all over the Park,” he said. “When lake frontage is hard to get, people are looking at rivers. And rivers where you can cruise for long distances are especially desirable.”

Woodworth wants the state to buy the entire 3,000-acre tract from Clerical Medical and add it to the forever-wild Forest Preserve. Barring that, he would like the state to acquire the river corridor and purchase conservation easements, which prohibit development, on the rest of the property.

In either case, he said, the deal would give public access to a 25-mile canoe route that would start on the lower Osgood River, north of Paul Smiths, cross the southern end of Meacham Lake and end at Everton Falls. “It’d be a wonderful two-day paddling trip,” he said.

At the very least, Woodworth would like the state to buy an easement to allow access to Rice Brook, a tributary to the East Branch. This would enable paddlers to canoe a tenth of a mile down the brook and then 15 miles downriver to Everton Falls—a pleasant float trip for those who wouldn’t mind the car shuttle. It would require some portaging around rapids in one section.

The APA had recommended establishing the 15-mile canoe route, by securing access and constructing a parking lot and a portage trail, in the same report that pushed for the Wild classification. Three decades later, paddlers are still waiting.

DIRECTIONS

Everton Falls: From the junction of NY 30 and NY 86 in Paul Smiths, drive north on NY 30 for 17.5 miles and turn left on Red Tavern Road (there may not be a sign). Go down Red Tavern Road to a parking lot on the right.  The put-in is across the road.

Alternative put-in: From Paul Smiths (see above), drive north on NY 30 for 9 miles and then turn left onto NY 458. Go 7.2 miles to a road on the right marked by a Santa Clara Tract sign.  Just after entering this road, turn right at the fork and drive a mile to the trail register at the end.  A carry trail leads a quarter-mile or so to a campsite beside the river.

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

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