Falling for Fall stream

Paddlers explore a river worth protecting

By Mark Bowie

Robert Wakefield of the Adirondack Mountain Club glides through the still waters of Fall Stream in the southern Adirondacks. Photo by Mark Bowie

After each paddling excursion on an Adirondack river or lake, I return with special remembrances, mind’s-eye imagery of the unique personality of the waterway. My indelible impressions from a recent trip on Fall Stream are of canoes and kayaks cruising a ribbony channel through marshland panoramas, of getting caught in a brief downpour deep in the backwoods and of discovering two small, wild lakes strung like charms on a watery bracelet.

Fall Stream falls east out of remote hills in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness in the town of Arietta, then turns south into a broad marshy plain surrounded by rolling hills in the southwestern corner of the Jessup River Wild Forest. The stream passes through Vly Lake and Fall Lake and later crosses private lands before emptying into Piseco Lake. Total length: 11 miles.

I paddled the stream in mid-July with Tom McGuire, the chairman of the conservation committee of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), and ADK volunteers Mary Kunzler-Larmann (an Adirondack guide) and Robert and Janet Wakefield. He’s a retired biologist, she a family counselor and avid paddler.

McGuire is spearheading ADK’s efforts to systematically survey numerous Adirondack rivers and streams for possible inclusion in the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System. Armed with this new research, ADK plans to petition the Adirondack Park Agency to add qualified waterways to the rivers system. Designated waters can receive extra legal protection from development and motorized incursions.

Over 1,200 miles of Adirondack rivers and streams are protected within the system, nearly all of them added in the 1970s. In that same decade, the state legislature classified eight other waterways as “study rivers,” a preliminary step toward inclusion in the system. But no further action was taken, mainly for political reasons (the rules restrict building on or near the water). In addition, the APA recommended eight other rivers be designated study rivers. Again, no further action was taken. One of these rivers was Fall Stream.

Public access to Fall Stream is via a put-in at a bridge on Old Piseco Road. From there, it’s an upstream paddle of 1.7 flatwater miles to Fall Lake and another 2.8 miles to our outbound target, Vly Lake. It gets progressively wilder as you head upstream. The first mile or so is bordered mostly by private land; the remainder lies within the Jessup River Wild Forest.

We launched into the alder-lined channel. Nearby camps were filtered from view in a forest of sugar maple, yellow birch, white cedar, black spruce and balsam fir. Further upstream there’s an old-growth stand of beech and sugar maple. Boats rested on the bank. Round a bend, the stream opened into a broad, marshy plain, with a view to the rounded hump of Oxbow Mountain. The channel ranges from just a few yards to about 30 yards wide; the water is tannic, sluggish and deep.

As Tom took detailed notes, the rest of us called out in rapid-fire succession the inventory of plant life we passed: pickerelweed, buttonbush, bladderwort, nightshade, fringed loosestrife, golden rocket, meadow sweet, steeplebush, swamp milkweed, yellow pond-lily, pasture rose, royal fern, elderberry. Marsh wrens flitted in the streamside bushes. Rob also identified the songs of the red-eyed vireo, yellow warbler, song sparrow and white-throated sparrow. We spooked a great blue heron, which hopscotched ahead as we proceeded upstream. Miniature frogs leapt from the water as we passed.

Tom McGuire and Mary Kunzler-Larmann examine a freshwater sponge on Fall Stream. Photo by Mark Bowie

As our boats glided over their perfect reflections, noise from traffic and construction rattled the airwaves. The Piseco Airport is nearby, and we watched an airplane descend for landing. About a mile in, we encountered a dock streamside, connected to the shore by a lengthy wooden walkway over marshland. Alongside, an access channel has been dredged from the main stream through the marsh to firm ground.

Just beyond the dock, we crossed the invisible boundary of the Jessup River Wild Forest. The man-made structures vanished and the noise faded. Tamaracks guard the entrance to Fall Lake, and as we swung around them, the 24-acre expanse of water spread before us, mirroring the summer sky. Much of the shore is lined by marshes housing northern bog species: cranberry, bog rosemary, grass pink orchid and huge pitcher plants.

The lake lay peaceful and picturesque, and that’s what made Snowmobile Trail #4 emanating from the west shore glaringly incongruous. In winter, it runs across the frozen lake. Though DEC prefers to route new snowmobile trails away from open waterways, it plans to keep this one. Forest Ranger Tom Kapelewski, who drafted the management plan for the Jessup River Wild Forest, explains the rationale: “Unfortunately, it’s a main connector between Oxbow Lake and the airport. If you reroute it much further north, you run into substantial wetlands.”

In the draft plan, DEC proposes to build a lean-to and provide primitive tent sites on the northwest shore of the lake. One tent site would be handicapped-accessible, with a wooden dock or boardwalk.

Above Fall Lake the stream narrows, winding through some marshy sections but flowing mostly between rocky, forested shores of hemlock and balsam fir. Numerous deer, otter and muskrat tracks led to the water’s edge. We scrambled over several beaver dams and skirted around downed trees. Apart from a couple of informal campsites and two wires strung across the stream, we saw no other signs of human activity. The wires are likely crossings used by hunters. The management plan calls for their removal.

The stream straightens into a long, wide stretch before entering Vly Lake, a circular 38-acre gem in the wild. It’s mostly lined with marshes and boreal bog, but there are two campsites on solid bedrock beneath large white pines on the northeast shore. We lunched at one, with great views over the lake. Janet and I couldn’t resist a swim. Once in the water, we experienced a refreshing thermocline. The upper six inches, warmed by the midday sun, was the warmest lake water on which I’ve ever floated. But immediately below, the water felt 20 degrees colder.

We continued our explorations by boat, searching for the inlet from Mud Pond. Vly’s smooth surface reflected building cumulus and thunder boomed to the north. We spooked a deer grazing in the marsh along the north shore. Several cedar waxwings fluttered from tree to tree.

Fall Stream stretches another 6.5 miles above Vly Lake, quickly becoming too narrow to navigate. In times of higher water, or when beavers have backed up the flow, it may be possible to paddle a half-mile north on the branch to Mud Pond. But not today. As we reversed course, the gathering storm overtook us on the return leg to Fall Lake, and the deluge pockmocked the stream and soaked us. Fifteen minutes later, blue skies returned, the water quieted, and reflections again ran deep.

Should Fall Stream be accorded Wild, Scenic or Recreational status? Certainly, scenic beauty abounds in the various habitats the stream nourishes – the mixed conifer-hardwood floodplain assemblage, the grassy marshes and boreal bogs, the pristine lakes. The diverse plant and animal life it supports is interdependent and fragile. Certainly, the whole river is a riparian treasureworthy of protection.

Different sections could be classified differently. Above Fall Lake, the stream arguably meets the criteria for Wild status. To qualify, a waterway must be entirely primitive or nearly so, generally, at least five miles long and more than a half-mile from roads, free of dams, and accessible only by water or trail. Although a snowmobile trail parallels Fall Stream some distance to the west, it doesn’t mar the scenery along the stream. Motorboats and development are prohibited on Wild waterways, except footbridges for non-motorized recreation. Neither is really an issue here. This stretch courses through the state Forest Preserve, where development is already prohibited, and the beaver dams and downed trees effectively bar motorized traffic.

ADK’s McGuire concurs: “I don’t think there’d be much benefit in getting it Wild classification. I’d go for Scenic. In fact, the whole stream, from the put-in to Vly Lake, should qualify for Scenic status.” For that, a waterway must be largely primitive in character, with limited road access. Motorboats “will not normally be permitted but may be allowed,” so Scenic status would give the state a strong rationale for banning motorized craft on the entire stream. Also, any new development on the private lands would have to be at least 250 feet from shore, thereby helping to preserve the natural character of the waterway.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

DIRECTIONS From the junction of NY 8 and NY 30 in Speculator, take NY 8 west about 9 miles. Turn right onto Old Piseco Road and go 2 miles to the bridge over Fall Stream. The put-in is on private land owned by the Piseco Co. There’s a small parking lot surrounded by posted signs, but the firm graciously allows boaters to park here. The state hopes to secure parking and put-in access, possibly through conservation easements.

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