Island treasures

Lake George delights canoeing camper

By Mark Bowie

Lake George Narrows. Photo by Mark Bowie

Although I’d been to Lake George in powerboats before, this was my first visit by canoe. The short cruise from my campsite on Big Burnt Island to Glen Island rekindled a previous impression: This is an absolutely beautiful sheet of water.

It’s the clarity that gets me. One can see islands literally rising like seamounts from great depth. Bass, resembling miniature submarines, hover several feet down, as if floating on air. I imagine the entire lake as perfectly clear. Trout swim amongst steamship wrecks and French and Indian War-era bateaux that litter the bottom. Golden bottom sands billow out in terraces where natural springs well up along fault lines. And encased in the bedrock off Diamond Island, Herkimer diamonds (quartz crystals) glisten like underwater treasure.

I share my awe with Thomas Jefferson. In 1791 he wrote his daughter, Martha:

“Lake George is, without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin thirty-five miles long [32, actually] and from two to four miles broad finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves of thuja, silver fir, white pine, aspen, and paper birch down to the water-edge; here and there precipices of rock to checker the scene and save it from monotony.”

The view from West Dollar Island. Photo by Mark Bowie

The largest body of water wholly within the Adirondack Park, Lake George occupies a down-dropped fault block, or graben (German for “grave”). From its head at Lake George village in the south, it runs narrow as a fjord between rounded mountains to its outlet, the La Chute River, which drains into Lake Champlain near Fort Ticonderoga.

From Bolton south, middle-class motels are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with upscale resorts. Each summer, millions of tourists flock to Lake George village, where theme parks, miniature golf courses and arcades proliferate as in Myrtle Beach and Orlando. Tourists dangle from parasails. Powerboats and cruise ships churn the waters.

In contrast, the lake can be wonderfully peaceful before July Fourth and after Labor Day. It wears its wildest dress at the Narrows. Just north of Bolton, it constricts from its maximum width of three miles to less than one through a six-mile corridor between the Tongue Mountain Range on the west, and Black, Erebus and Shelving Rock Mountains on the east. The summits rise over 2,000 feet above the lake.

There are about 200 islands in Lake George (the exact number is subject to debate). More than 150 are state-owned. Eight islands and two mainland areas have numerous sites reserved for picnicking.

Forty-four islands host the Lake George Islands Campgrounds, with 387 shoreline campsites managed as three groups: Long Island Campground (in the south central part of the lake), Narrow Island Campground (off  Hulett’s Landing along the east shore north of Black Mountain), and Glen Island Campground (in the Narrows). Glen Island itself has a store, post office, public telephones and a ranger headquarters. To generations of island campers, it’s been a home away from home.

Most Lake George island campsites are forested, private and primitive. All have a picnic table, fireplace, toilet facilities and a dock for at least one boat. Many sites have a wooden platform to keep tents high and dry. There is no running water or, of course, electricity. Campers should filter their drinking water.

Some 20,000 people camp on the islands each year, so advance reservations are highly recommended. But venture out just slightly out of season, as I did, and you may get an island all to yourself.

My canoe and I arrived at Big Burnt Island not by paddling but by powerboat. Two failed attempts at canoeing the three miles from Pilot Knob north to the Narrows illustrate the dangers of paddling a tiny craft, all alone, on a big lake when the winds are strong and the waves are high. Although a two-person canoe or a kayak works best in such conditions, I was determined to paddle my 10-foot ultralight canoe amongst the islands. So I flipped the little boat upside down in my friend Bernie Samter’s powerboat and got a piggyback ride out to Big Burnt.

Lake George has a history of canoeing. Indians paddled birch-bark canoes here. Warring Europeans paddled here. And the American Canoe Association, founded in 1880, held their first congress near the Canoe Islands. One of their advance scouts wrote another member: “Everything here is simply perfect. It is the ideal paradise of the canoeist.”

Indeed, paddlers who can’t recognize Lake George as great paddling water are missing the boat. The Adirondacks are noted for pond-hopping. On Lake George, one island-hops. Like ponds, each island has its own character. They come in many shapes and sizes, from mere rock outcrops with a single tree, to domed wild gardens big enough to host numerous sites.

I paddled the Narrows through two calendar-perfect autumn days – after most of the tourists and motorboats had gone home – past islands with names like Hen and Chickens, East Dollar, West Dollar, Phantom, Huckleberry and Hermit. On Little Gourd, I pulled my little boat up onto a dock and lunched, with a view to wind-swept birches on Gourd and Little Harbor islands fronting Black Mountain. Later I played hide-and-seek with the afternoon breezes, shooting the gusty tunnels between islands, finding refuge in leeside windshadows.

In the evening, I photographed the sunset from igneous bluffs at the south end of my island, overlooking Uncas, Gem and Phantom. The islands turned ink black. The luminescent steel-blue water lapped gently at their shores.

At 30 acres, Big Burnt is the largest of the state-owned islands in The Narrows. It has a fanciful history. Frank Leonbruno, author of Lake George Reflections: Island History and Lore, writes, “In 1886, the steamship Ganouskie was towed to the island by its new owner, Captain G.W. Howard. Moored to the island, it served as a floating saloon for many years. A cage of rattlesnakes inside the saloon no doubt attracted many curiosity seekers.” I found no saloon here and, gratefully, no rattlesnakes. Some Eastern timber rattlesnakes do live on the surrounding mountains and occasionally swim to the islands. Though they are shy and infrequently seen, take heed of where you’re placing hands and feet.

The Narrows offers access to several nearby shoreline trailheads: Shelving Rock, Erebus and Black Mountains on the east side and Montcalm Point on the west, where the tip of Tongue Mountain meets the water.

A canoeist on Big Burnt Island looks up the lake toward Black Mountain. Photo by Mark Bowie

Before sunrise I paddled to the east shore for a jaunt up Shelving Rock Mountain. I tied my canoe to a maple tree and scrambled up the bank to the Lakeshore Trail, part of a more than 50-mile network of trails linking the east side’s loftiest summits. Black (2,646 feet) is the highest peak in the Lake George neighborhood. Both it and Buck (2,334 feet) have bare domes with nearly 360-degree views. Erebus and Sleeping Beauty offer views as well.

I climbed 735 feet in a little over a mile, through a steep gorge with a cascading brook, and along old Knapp Estate carriage roads to the summit. When Union Carbide founder George Knapp entertained here, family and guests were ferried to the shore, then hoisted some 20 stories in electric cable cars to his mountain mansion. Vegetation now filters views to the north, but there’s a vista sweeping from Bolton Landing to points south. On my descent, I spooked two deer drinking from a ridgetop pool.

Knapp and his heirs sold over 10 miles of pristine shoreline from Shelving Rock north to Black Mountain to the state for inclusion in the Forest Preserve. There’s a lakeside picnic area at the base of Black. From there, a trail ascends 2,300 feet over 2.8 miles to the east side’s finest summit views: You can see the lake’s northern arm, the Champlain Valley, the High Peaks off to the northwest and the Narrows down below. When I summited in late afternoon, the islands lay like black gems on a silver jeweler’s tray. From Black, you can hike south along a string of alpine ponds to Buck Mountain and beyond. There are lean-tos at Black Mountain Pond and at Millman, Lapland, and Fishbrook Ponds.

On the opposite side of the lake, at Montcalm Point, the Tongue Mountain trail leads hikers on a memorable, 10-mile roller-coaster journey along the spine of the Tongue Mountain Range. It’s a marvelous hike, with spectacular overlooks from First Peak, French Mountain Point, Fifth Peak and others. For a less-ambitious hike with an awe-inspiring lake view, try the trail up Rodgers Rock from Rodgers Rock State Campground at the northwest end of the lake. It’s a 1.25-mile ascent to a south-facing promontory.

Lake George is a venue for both hiking and paddling adventures. For canoeists and kayakers to dismiss it as the realm of the powerboater would be to deny themselves the joy of gliding atop its crystal-clear waters, discovering the intricacies of its islands and shoreline, and feeling the immensity of so powerful yet so intimate a body of water under my keel. This most beautiful of lakes still can be “the ideal paradise of the canoeist, –  especially in the spring and fall – and in a bigger canoe

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