Kanoeing the Kunjamuk

Dave Hurteau negotiates the twists and turns in the Kunjamuk River, which begins in the hills of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness visible in the background. Photo by Robin Ambrosino.

By Robin Ambrosino

If you’ve ever driven north on Route 30 through Speculator, you may have passed a gem of a river without realizing it. The Kunjamuk, a wild, meandering stream, flows into the Sacandaga River just east of Speculator. It’s hidden from the main highway, but with a little effort you can find it and enjoy a delightful paddle through peaceful surroundings where the wilderness is palpable and the northward views outstanding.

My canoeing partner, Dave, and I went to the Kunjamuk in September. All the guidebooks talk about the mysterious Kunjamuk Cave, so we added that to our itinerary. Since the cave is on International Paper land—known as the Speculator Tree Farm—our first stop was at Tanner’s Outdoor Sports on Route 8 in Speculator to purchase a day permit. We learned that IP also leases the land to hunters, which is something to take into consideration in autumn. Although our visit fell on the first day of deer season, we heard only an occasional gunshot and saw few people. For the most part, we had a sense that we had the place all to ourselves.

Most guidebooks recommend that you put in on the Sacandaga River at the outlet of Lake Pleasant in Speculator and paddle 1½ miles downstream to Kunjamuk Bay, where the two rivers meet, or just slip your canoe into the Sacandaga directly across from the bay. People usually paddle 3½ miles up the Kunjamuk to Elm Lake. We chose to put in at the lake and paddle downriver to Route 30. Since we had two cars, we did an end-to-end trip.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

It was a gorgeous fall day, the sun was warm, and the wind was light. Looking north across the lake, we were entranced by the sweeping expanse of the Siamese Pond Wilderness. The dusky rolling mountains, the mixed forest of hardwoods and evergreens, the blue sky glinting off quiet water—the scene gave us an impression of being far away from the world.

As we pushed off, we spotted a blue heron skimming the marsh grasses. The wind picked up as we crossed the lake, but it subsided where the river narrowed and began the twists and turns we’d been looking forward to. Alder branches reached into the water like tentacles, and there were signs of wildlife everywhere. During spring and summer, the river and its environs teem with ducks, songbirds, kingfishers, otters, muskrats and other wild residents. Orchids, elderberry, high-bush cranberry, cardinal flowers and swamp milkweed are plentiful. Even on our fall visit, we saw two woodcock, three mallards and an osprey nest.

Alas, there is such a thing as too much wildlife: We were warned that we might encounter leeches while carrying over the river’s many beaver dams. But as we were riding with the current, we found that we could charge over the dams without leaving the canoe. This was a pleasant surprise, because we came upon more than a dozen dams and two lodges throughout the day.

The cave we’d been so intrigued by turned out to be an interesting side jaunt, but not nearly as remarkable as the river and its surroundings. We had some trouble locating it. Our guidebook told us to watch for a footbridge built for cross-country skiers, but the first bridge we came to was reinforced with huge wooden trusses and its tracks were wide enough for an 18-wheeler. We paddled for another 20 minutes until we came to a second bridge exactly like the first. We stopped for lunch and learned from a passing hunter that the cave was just around the corner. So we started hiking and, sure enough, after crossing a new clearing and climbing a hill, we found a shallow cave in a tall rock ledge, camouflaged by the trees, moss and lichen growing all around it. The cave is about 15 feet deep with an 8-inch hole in the roof. No one knows whether it was carved by glaciers or by mining prospectors, but it has become a part of the natural landscape.

From Kunjamuk Bay, the cave is a 30-minute paddle. The next time we go, Dave and I plan to start from the bay, head upstream and camp on state land beyond IP’s holdings. It’ll be a longer trip and we’ll have to portage over beaver dams and maybe put up with a few leeches, but now that we’ve seen the southern stretch, we want to find out what the northern end of the Kunjamuk has in store.

DIRECTIONS:

If you put in at Kunjamuk Bay, look for a pulloff near highway marker 1296 along Route 8/30 south of Speculator. Or you can put in near the bridge over the SacandagaRiver in Speculator and paddle 1.5 miles to Kunjamuk Bay.

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