Buck Pond and beyond

From Buck Pond paddlers can explore watery wilds

The author’s friend paddles on Buck Pond. Photo by Mark Bowie

Way up north in Franklin County glacial country, eskers snake through boreal lowlands and kames and kettle hole lakes pepper the landscape. Here a canoeist becomes intimate with the geology.

From Lake Kushaqua and Buck Pond, he can venture southwest for 12 miles on a string of waters interconnected by channels or short carries: Rainbow Lake, Jones and Osgood ponds, Little Osgood and Church ponds. He can detour back in time past primeval bogs on the North Branch of the Saranac River and the Osgood River. And if these but whet his appetite for watery wildness, a short hop from Church Pond into the St. Regis Lakes at Paul Smiths will bring him to a maze of backcountry waters stretching southwest—the St. Regis Canoe Area.

Straddling a strip of glacial gravel dividing Buck Pond from the Lake Kushaqua Narrows, Buck Pond State Campground makes a convenient base camp for these paddling excursions. It’s one of only three state campgrounds in the Adirondack Park with sites on two waterbodies.

Of Buck’s 116 campsites about 20 are on water, including two island sites in the Narrows. The campground is little known and used mainly by local fishermen. When I visited last summer, the week after the July Fourth holiday, only about 40 sites were occupied. Neither of the island sites was, so I reserved one. I pitched my tent beneath young pines. That night I watched the moon rise across the water. Coyotes serenaded me from the wild northwest shore. Next morning the plaintive wails of a loon signaled the dawn.

I slid my canoe into still water, skirted some islands, then ventured into Lake Kushaqua’s southern lobe. Open and susceptible to wind, Kushaqua isn’t exactly paddler-friendly. It’s bass fishing and motorboat territory, in season crisscrossed by water-skiers and jet-skiers.

Though paddlers may not find Kushaqua’s winds refreshing, others have. Tuberculosis sufferers came to its shores seeking relief. The remnants of the Stony Wold Sanatorium, where thousands of locals treated thousands of patients from all over the world, can be seen on the west shore.

Kushaqua is a segment of the North Branch of the Saranac River and is dammed at its north end. You can paddle into Mud Pond just downstream, but after that the river falls 360 feet over the next five miles. There’s a trout trophy section from the junction with Alder Brook downstream to the mouth of Cold Brook with numerous public access points.

The best flatwater is found south of Kushaqua. I returned to the Narrows, bound for the finger that leads to Buck Pond. The two bodies don’t connect, but it’s a short carry up and over the campground road to put in at Buck. The pond is round, about a half-mile in diameter. Only electric and non-motorized boats are allowed. I paddled the perimeter and spotted a bald eagle perched on a crag above the southeastern shore. I pulled close enough to photograph him, then headed back for breakfast.

From the campground, several single-day, out-and-back trips and two-car shuttle trips are possible; so are multiday trips, with overnight stopovers on Jones Pond and in the St. Regis Canoe Area. On the shuttles, paddlers may prefer to start from the south so as to paddle downstream, though the current is negligible.

After setting up my camp that first morning Griz Caudle, my companion for the day, and I paddled southwest on the Narrows for 1.2 miles to the Mud Pond Road bridge (a good alternate put-in, 0.7 miles north of Onchiota). We had entered the milelong Rainbow Narrows, the riverlike northern extension of Rainbow Lake. Just past the bridge we turned right into the North Branch of the Saranac, and entered as charming and as primeval a waterway as we may ever encounter.

Near its mouth, the river widens to resemble a pond. On the northwest side a sandy ridge slides into the water. It’s an esker, deposited by a glacial meltwater stream eons ago. The typical esker is a long, narrow, sinuous ridge—formed by the deposits of a glacial river. In 1953 geologist A.F. Buddington grouped this one with a series of eskers stretching southwest to Stillwater Reservoir, interpreting them as a single esker about 85 miles long. He called it the Adirondack esker.

Eskers are frequently found near kames, rounded mounds of debris dumped along a glacier’s margins. They’re also often near kettle ponds, formed when giant buried chunks of glacial ice melt, creating local depressions that fill with water. Several ponds in the St. Regis Canoe Area were born this way. Many other kettle ponds dried out long ago.

With distance the North Branch narrowed and assumed the unmanicured look of the raw wild. We drifted through a corridor of red spruce, balsam fir and white pine. Stately tamaracks, many strung with lacy mosses reminiscent of Spanish moss in Southern swamps, stood like sentinels. Scattered bogs added a feel of antiquity. A young bald eagle took flight from a pine.

A large boathouse on Rainbow Lake. Photo by Mark Bowie.

I lingered, photographing as I went. Griz cruised ahead round a bend. “Wait till you see this!” he erupted. I glided forward and found him anchored against a boulder midstream, transfixed by what lay before him. He seemed to be floating on cumulus in a rich blue sky, the mirror image of the heavens above. The channel ahead of him was a bountiful garden of yellow waterlilies, the closed blossoms poking above waterline, looking like lollipops.

Several mesmerizing meanders later, on the rim of an alder-choked beaver valley about one mile in, we reluctantly reversed course. Further passage upstream depends on seasonal water levels and beaver activity. Between the campground and here, plan on the seven-to eight-mile round trip taking most of a day.

One of the most intriguing day paddles from the Buck Pond base is an 11.4-mile round trip to Rainbow Lake and The Flow, home to what may be the region’s most spectacular glacial remnant, an esker that runs three miles, dividing Rainbow Lake from The Flow, and from Clear and Square Ponds.

South of the Mud Pond Road bridge, the Rainbow Narrows winds through coniferous forest to another bridge. Once through, you’re on Rainbow Lake. Camps line the south shore and the western end of the esker. Powerboat traffic can be heavy in summer.

You can paddle alongside the esker for 2.5 miles. A man-made channel cuts through it on state land to mile-long Clear Pond. At the lake’s southwest end there’s a cluster of camps at Inlet, a navigable channel in the ridge leading to a beautiful backwater called The Flow. A two-mile traverse on its moody waters through boreal forest, alongside the Rainbow esker and yet more eskers, is enchanting. A canal about two-thirds of a mile up The Flow leads into Clear. A Colonel Brett once built a house over the canal. He also owned the northern half of the esker and arranged, upon his death, to donate it to the state for inclusion in the Forest Preserve, to keep it forever wild. Included in the property is a wonderful island campsite in the channel between The Flow and Clear Pond.

A 0.75-mile carry rides the esker from the southwest end of Rainbow to the north end of Jones Pond, where there’s about a dozen informal first-come, first-served campsites that make convenient layovers for extended trips.

A half-mile crossing of Jones brings you to a picturesque tamarack bog fronting the western outlet. The stream skirts an esker and meanders for 1.6 very shallow miles into the eastern end of Osgood Pond. When I paddled it with friends in late summer we had to plow through muck in several places. Once on Osgood Pond we headed northwest for a mile, past White Pine Camp, the 1926 summer White House of Calvin Coolidge, to the head of the Osgood River.

The Osgood flows 14 miles to Meacham Lake. The upper 2.5 miles of classic flatwater through spruce, balsam fir, and tamarack bogland ends at a dam. This is a beautiful, meandering stretch of wild river, with insectivorous pitcher plants awaiting unsuspecting flies at water’s edge. We retraced our wakes back to the pond.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

From Osgood’s south shore a short, hand-dug canal leads through dark forest into Little Osgood Pond. Another canal takes you from there into Church Pond, whose east bank hosts an idyllic stone church, St. John’s of the Wilderness. From there it’s a short carry from Lower St. Regis Lake at Paul Smith’s College—then on through Spitfire and Upper St. Regis Lakes into Big Pond and the 18,000-acre St. Regis Canoe Area, with its scores of interconnected, motor-free ponds. And that’s not all. Paul Jamieson, author of Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, noted: “The 15-minute St. Regis map shows over 150 lakes and ponds ranging from a stone’s throw to eight-mile-long Upper Saranac Lake. To paddlers this generous display of blue nudity is the centerfold of topographic maps.”

As you can see, the canoeing and kayaking possibilities in this glacial landscape are limited only by one’s time, ingenuity and endurance.

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

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