By Phil Brown
In his classic guidebook Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, Paul Jamieson describes the Jordan River as a mysterious stream flowing through a wild land “where spruce-fir swamps are as hauntingly primitive and boreal as anything to be found in the Adirondacks today.”
The mystery of the Jordan lies not only its primeval backdrop, but also in its remoteness in the northwestern corner of the Adirondack Park. You can’t drive to the Jordan, and if you paddle to its mouth on the east side of Carry Falls Reservoir, you’ll find your progress blocked by rapids.
At the time Jamieson wrote, canoeists got to the long, enchanting stillwater above the rapids by paddling a good ways north of the mouth and then portaging south through state land along jeep trails for 1½ miles. The access is a bit easier today, thanks to recent additions to the Forest Preserve, and may get even easier if the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) follows through on plans to mark a carry trail around the rapids.
It’ll still be a long haul, but the Jordan is well worth the effort. I went with Brian Mann, a reporter for North Country Public Radio, and both of us thought this was one of our best outings in the Adirondacks. Of course, it helped that we had great weather—blue skies, puffy clouds, temperatures in the low 80s.
We began at the Parmenter Site, a public campsite and boat launch owned by Reliant Energy on the southwest shore of the reservoir, which was created in 1950 by a dam on the Raquette River. There is no charge for putting in your boat. Neither Brian nor I had been on this water before, and both of us were astounded. We were alone on a 6,000-acre lake—the fourth largest in the Adirondacks, not including Lake Champlain—and surrounded by coniferous forest. Imagine having Tupper Lake all to yourself, before it was developed, and you get the idea.
After a half-hour of paddling, we passed an island off the eastern shore. Just past the island is a cove where the Jordan flows into the reservoir. The Jordan Club, founded more than a century ago, owns several rustic camps hidden among the trees near the mouth.We stopped in the cove to talk to a few of the club members and learned that Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. plans to build 23 homes on the western shore directly across from the club’s lands. Although they say the homes will be hidden, they are worried about an increase in motorboat traffic.
We wondered how such a development would change this peaceful place. A reservoir is not a primitive lake, but the scenery here allows you to indulge illusions of wilderness. In fact, parts of the shoreline reminded Brian of southeast Alaska, where he grew up.
Leaving the cove, we continued paddling north for five minutes or so until reaching a beach. This is where you’ll find a jeep trail that the club members call the Jordan Road. How do you know it’s the right beach? You’ll pass a rusting vehicle in the weeds just before it, and there’s another rusting vehicle right after it. Look for a small cairn on a skinny stump at the start of the trail, which crosses a grassy meadow before entering the woods.
By the way, the beaches on the east shore are irresistible. With no one else in sight, we felt like castaways on a deserted island. We went skinny-dipping in the lake before and after the portage to the Jordan. I hasten to add that this was a Wednesday. If you make the trip on a weekend, when the lake sees more traffic, you might want to pack a swimsuit.
The Jordan Road heads generally east. If you have a canoe cart, you can use it. Otherwise, you’ll have to tote the boat 1½ miles or so, which took Brian and me about 40 minutes. Although this portage is about the same length as the one described in Jamieson’s guidebook, it has two advantages. First, you have to paddle farther north to reach the other route. Second, the other route requires a quarter-mile bushwhack.
You’ll find that the Jordan Road meets a number of other jeep trails. Just bear right at all the intersections. Eventually, soon after glimpsing the river through the trees, you’ll come to a well-maintained gravel road. Turn right again, and you’ll reach the put-in at a bridge in a few minutes.
The bridge was the last reminder of civilization until we returned. We paddled for nearly two hours upriver. We wanted to go farther, but we got a late start and had to turn back to avoid being overtaken by nightfall. The Jordan is 18 miles long, and it’s estimated that 88% of it is canoeable.
The stretch of Jordan we paddled differs from most Adirondack rivers in its utterly pristine character. No buildings, no carry trails, no DEC signs, no campsites and not a trace of litter. Oh, yeah, and no people. As we headed upstream, we imagined ourselves the first travelers on this remote stream, certain the fantasy would not be dispelled by the sight of someone else’s boat around the next bend.
Another thing that’s different about the Jordan: There are no mountains looming in the distance. This is a small, intimate world. At times, the alders hang so far over the water that you can touch the horizon with your paddle. Tamaracks, spruce and balsam also grow close to the river, and occasionally you’ll pass a stately white pine that dwarfs the other trees.
The Jordan has many twists and turns, so the perspective is constantly shifting. We seemed to find a surprise around every corner: A spit of sand where we stopped to swim in the tea-colored water, a squawking kingfisher we flushed from the bank, a clump of Queen Anne’s lace adorning the shore.
We had to pull out of the river twice to carry around fallen trees. In a few places, beavers had made half-hearted attempts at a dam, but we managed to paddle over these obstacles without trouble. We turned around at a slightly larger dam, but only because we ran out of time.
The Jordan River country isn’t true wilderness, at least not now—it’s crisscrossed by dirt roads, and the river’s mouth and upper reaches remain in private hands—but the Adirondack Council has proposed that the state eventually acquire the whole drainage, if the owners decide to sell, and establish a 73,300-acre Boreal Wilderness where no development and no motors would be allowed. If that came to pass, the Jordan would become only the second river in the Adirondacks (after the Cold River) to lie entirely within a Wilderness Area.
Surely, anyone who takes the trouble to explore the Jordan would agree that it is a special river. As Brian remarked, “It’s like paddling through a really fine cabernet sauvignon.”
I’ll drink to that.
From the intersection of NY 3 and NY 56 (Seveys Corners) between the hamlets of Tupper Lake and Cranberry Lake, drive north on NY 56 for 4.1 miles to Hollywood Road. Turn right and follow this road about a mile to the water.