Paddlers explore paradise regained
By Will Nixon
Sitting around the campfire, Dave Cilley tells of a strange encounter he had on an earlier journey from Little Tupper Lake to Lake Lila, a route only a few hardy paddlers have explored—it goes through backcountry ponds, down narrow streams and along logging roads.
Someday soon, Cilley believes, the trip will become one of the most popular in the Adirondacks for canoeists and kayakers seeking a weekend adventure in the wilderness, but first the state Department of Environmental Conservation must clear carry trails through dense spruce and brambly fields.
For now, Cilley brings along a small saw and suffers the scratches on his legs—which are built like fireplugs after a lifetime of hiking and years of carrying canoes and kayaks on his shoulders as the owner of St. Regis Canoe Outfitters.
Cilley, a stocky, muscular fellow, expects most paddlers will take two to three days to travel the 20 miles from Little Tupper to Lake Lila, which entails 15 to 18 hours of paddling and portaging, but he and a friend made the journey in May in a single day.
That’s when it happened.
As Cilley tells it, he was walking along a logging road near Lilypad Pond, while his friend carried the canoe. Suddenly, Cilley noticed up ahead a giant bird with a big bobbing butt lope down the road and disappear up the bank. His friend thought Cilley might have lost his sanity, but then they found footprints bigger than their hands, pressed deep into the dirt by a heavy bird.
Cilley had just seen his first Adirondack ostrich.
Or was it an emu?
“It won’t live through the winter,” Cilley predicts, poking the dying fire.
His traveling companions, Addison Bickford and Dell Jeffery, who work as guides for St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, pause to reflect on the fate of an ostrich running amok in the Adirondacks—perhaps the oddest story in an evening of odd stories about wildlife and people. And yet Cilley, an orderly, mild-mannered man, isn’t given to exaggeration or tall tales.
“It’s gotten to where I wonder if I saw it myself,” he remarks. If he had seen a moose, at least people would believe him.
We are left to ponder the mystery of the ostrich as we settle into our tents on a small island in Rock Pond near Little Tupper. We fall asleep listening to the croaking of territorial bullfrogs that have carved up the island into miniature Balkan republics that manufacture pine trees and blueberries.
At St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, Cilley often recommends to seasoned canoeists a trip that starts in the Bog River, traverses Lows Lake, or Bog River Flow, to the Five Ponds Wilderness, and ends with a long run down the Oswegatchie River. It requires more than three miles of portaging and takes several more days than the trip from Little Tupper to Lake Lila. Once the state clears the carry trails in the Whitney Area, he predicts that our trip will appeal to many customers who want a similar but shorter wilderness adventure. It’s already one of his favorites. At his shop on Floodwood Road near the St. Regis Canoe Area, Cilley sells a green “Paddle the Park” T-shirt with the Little Tupper to Lake Lila route printed in blue and white.
Little Tupper and Rock Pond belong to the William C. Whitney Area, a 15,000-acre tract purchased by the state in late 1997 for $17.1 million and opened to the public in June 1998. The acquisition also reopened, for the first time in a century, the old canoe route from Little Tupper to Lake Lila—the two biggest motorless lakes in the Adirondacks.
Little Tupper, the centerpiece of the Whitney property, had been one of the largest privately owned lakes in the United States. Although a large house on the lake’s eastern end mars the natural landscape, Little Tupper offers Adirondack paddlers a rare opportunity to explore islands, beaches, rocky points and inlets on a lake without the distractions of jet skis, powerboats or seaplanes.
Here, the only nuisance is the westerly wind, which can push large waves down the 6-mile-long lake, turning paddling into an arduous chore. On our trip, though, we encounter only a mild breeze that helps cool us on this humid summer afternoon. My partner and I are in a red Mad River Canoe loaded with packs. Cilley, paddling a covered Bell canoe that resembles a kayak, often sprints ahead like a puppy dog outpacing a sluggish master.
At the western end of Little Tupper, we enter Rock Pond Outlet and pass over several beaver dams that turned as dry as kindling after the parched spring. At Rock Pond’s island, an irate gull hovers overhead like a child’s kite, issuing a plaintive and hectoring call. Obviously, the birds of Rock Pond, still unaccustomed to human intruders, aren’t about to give up their terrain to invading Homo sapiens without a fight.
The next morning we push off in a drizzle that soon turns to rain. In truth, this weather beats any bug repellent, as we will learn later during the clear, humid spells, when deer flies ambush us from thick green shrubs and ferns along the stream banks. At the western end of Rock Pond, we exit our canoes to portage along an abandoned grassy logging road. Eventually, it changes into a wide sandy road that can still be driven—exemplifying the Whitney Area’s dual personality.
From the lakes and ponds, the encircling forest appears wild and pristine, with numerous white pines rising above the smaller trees like shish-kebab skewers loaded with clumps of branches. Beyond the shores, however, visitors will see dense green shrubbery—pin cherry and other pioneer species—filling in a landscape once denuded by logging. One former logger for Whitney Industries joked that the area had been so heavily cut that a woodpecker needed to carry lunch.
The scattered trees that still stand above the shrub forest all seem to be spindly, crooked or dead—worthless and infirm trees that the loggers left behind. “I’ve seen a lot of forests that are 30 or 40 years old,” says Dell Jeffery, who spends upwards of 150 days a year outdoors in the Adiron-dacks. “But I’ve seen very few that are this new.”
After the carry, we paddle down Hardigan Pond into the Hardigan Pond Outlet, which proves to be the hardest part of the journey. The beavers have built so many dams on the narrow stream that we seem to be traveling through a system of locks, paddling for 10 or 30 feet, then pulling our boats over a dam, then climbing back aboard to repeat the process. At one spot, the streamside bushes crowd so thickly that we leave the boats to pull them with bow ropes. We are consoled in our struggle only by the hope of laying eyes on the Adirondack ostrich.
The Hardigan Pond Outlet flows into the Salmon Lake Outlet, a much easier stream to paddle. Its clarity contrasts with the tea-colored water, turned dark by natural tannin, that we find elsewhere during the trip. Cilley, who majored in botany in college, identifies flora along the way, such as water shield, an aquatic plant with an underwater stalk as slippery as jelly. We pass bullfrogs sitting on mats of stream grass and lilypads and spot a pair of white-tailed deer on the shore.
Continuing downstream, we soon run aground on a cobblestone streambed laced with freshwater mussels and crawling with crayfish, where we make our second carry—the place where Cilley, against all odds, saw his ostrich.
As we catch up with him on the sandy road of the second carry, he looks up from the road with a startled expression. Carved in the dirt are two fresh arrows that he wants us to believe are ostrich tracks. They’re good for a laugh, but we’re hungry for lunch. Using his life vest as a picnic blanket, Cilley unpacks cheeses, crackers, celery and humus from his cooler. “I’ve got carrots, too,” he says.
Jeffery does a double take. “I thought you said ‘parrots.’ Now you’ve gone too far.”
Still no sign of the Adirondack ostrich, so as we munch our lunch we must content ourselves with the “Sam Peabody” serenade of a white-throated sparrow. On the far side of Lilypad Pond lies the final carry of our trip over a ridge of fields and spruce stands down to Shingle Shanty Brook, which meanders into Lake Lila. In theory, we could follow an outlet from Lilypad Pond into Shingle Shanty Brook, but we would cross into private land. And the owner has slung a cable with a “No Trespassing” sign across the brook. Like many old-time paddling routes in the Adirondacks, this one still has a missing link. Fortunately, Cilley brought his hand saw to cut our way through the woods.
After loading our boats for the final time, we follow the meanders of Shingle Shanty Brook, admiring the violet blooms of joe-pye weed on the grassy banks. As we round the final bend, Lake Lila comes into view. The state purchased the lake for $1.7 million in the late 1970s—much cheaper than Little Tupper but just as important.
“Lake Lila is the prettiest lake in the Adirondacks,” state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Peter Berle said at the time of the sale.
We could not disagree. As we approach, rays of sunshine poke through the clouds and strike the water. Lingering humidity from the rain softens the hills, as in a Chinese painting. Long beaches invite us to wash off our sweat and bug dope. An osprey glides overhead. The wind is at our backs as we end our trip through a newly regained paradise.