Canoeist enjoys amazing adventure in marsh channels
By Phil Brown
Last summer I went to the Cedar River Flow with the intention of paddling up the flow and the river to a lean-to just off the Northville-Placid Trail. Though things didn’t work out as planned, I experienced one of my most enjoyable days on the water in the Adirondacks. Whether you’d want to duplicate the experience – or whether I’d want to – is another matter.
The Cedar River Flow, a three-mile-long impoundment, lies in the Moose River Plains in the central Adirondacks. You drive to it from Inlet or Indian Lake, much of the way on dirt roads. The open field at the foot of the flow is popular with car-campers, but when I pulled up on a Monday morning in July, there were only a few people about.
I slipped my solo canoe in just above the dam, paddled across a large bay and turned east, passing an island, to reach the open water of the flow. Within minutes I heard the call of a loon and saw an osprey flying overhead with a fish in its talons.
Paddling farther out, I marveled at the mountains all around. Several of the peaks east of the flow – Blue Ridge, Cellar, Lewey, Snowy, Buell and Panther – fall just below 4,000 feet. They rank among the tallest mountains outside the High Peaks region. Barbara McMartin, the late guidebook author, called them the Little Great Range. To the northwest lies another big one – 3,760-foot Wakely Mountain, topped by one of the Park’s tallest fire towers.
The Cedar River Flow is shaped somewhat like a cricket bat. After a few miles, the flow narrows as you enter the “handle.” On the left is a primitive campsite. The water is shallow, with reeds poking up. The main channel is hard to distinguish from the many side channels – and in fact there’s little reason to stick to it.
You should reach the Cedar River on the left about five minutes after passing the campsite. If you plan to paddle up the river, you’ll need to keep a sharp eye out. It’s all too easy to mistake the river for just another side channel, something I learned the hard way.
I went blithely past the river’s mouth, wowed by the spectacular marsh stretched out in front of me, green grasses swaying against a backdrop of mountains and blue sky. At first, the marsh is watery enough that paddlers can push right through the grasses. When I did this to cut a corner in the channel, I flushed a pair of great blue herons – the first of several that I would see that day.
Eventually, the marsh turns into a labyrinth of channels lined by alders and grassy hummocks. Once inside the maze, I puzzled over which way to go at each junction: Where is the Cedar River? I’d go up one channel, discover a dead end, turn back, paddle farther into the marsh, try another channel, and so on. My notes reflect my quandary:
- 12:10. Lost in reeds, tall grass, swamp candles. Little or no current. Channel seems to be narrowing. Decide dead end, too far north.
- 12:25. Turn around. Few minutes later find another channel to right. Soon forks. I go right.
- 12:35. Reach a beaver dam requiring carry, but I have doubts and turn around again. Explore other options.
After a bit more of this, I pulled over, pointed my boat toward the Little Great Range, basked in the sunlight and ate lunch. Fortified on peanut butter and chocolate, I resolved to push on, following the main channel, or what seemed to be the main channel, as far as I could.
Within 15 minutes, I had pulled my boat over three beaver dams and flushed three more herons. In another 15 minutes, I came to yet another dam. In the pool behind it, the alders were dead. The dark spectral shapes were kind of eerie. I had serious doubts about where I was going, but after pulling over a fifth dam, I came to a footbridge on a hiking trail.
So I was on the right track all along, I thought. Now I just had to find the lean-to. I left my canoe on the bridge and went hiking, first to the south about a quarter-mile, then to the north. No lean-to. What the? As soon as I consulted my map, I realized my mistake: I had paddled a mile or so up a no-name stream to the Northville Placid Trail. What a bonehead!
The lean-to sat a half-mile away. Fortunately, my carbon-fiber canoe weighs only 12 pounds. I hoisted it on my shoulder and set off down the trail. I hoped to run into some hikers so I could tell them I was paddling the NP, but no such luck.
I reached a trail junction in less than 10 minutes, turned left and soon arrived at the lean-to in a clearing overlooking the river. Folks, if you find yourself squeezing past alders and pulling over one beaver dam after another, you are not on the Cedar. The river here was 30 feet wide, free of dams and clearly navigable beyond the lean-to.
After a short break, I started paddling downstream. On the first bend, I came to the first of several sandbars. I couldn’t pass up the chance to strip and plunge into the cool, amber water from my private beach.
The paddle to the Cedar River Flow took less than a half-hour. Balsam and red spruce lined the river much of the way, but as I neared the flow, the forest gave way to marshland – and a great view of Wakely Mountain. Continuing down the flow, I was treated all over again to spectacular views of the Little Great Range. I also passed a pair of loons with two chicks.
I got back to the car at 4:30, six hours after I first put in. You’ll shave off a lot of time, however, if you avoid my mistake and find the river. And how do you do that? The most important clue I mentioned earlier: The river is only a five-minute paddle from the narrows. Here’s another: You’ll reach the river well before the reeds give way to grasses. If that’s not clear now, it should be when you’re on the water.
That said, I thought the marsh maze was the best part of the trip. I never knew what to expect around the next turn: a heron, a red-winged blackbird, a beaver dam or a splash of wildflowers. It’s nature up close. You might want to get lost yourself.
From the hamlet of Indian Lake, drive west on NY 28. A few miles outside town, just after crossing the Cedar River, turn left onto Cedar River Road. Drive 12.3 miles (the road eventually turns to dirt) to a large field near Wakely Dam. The put-in is at the end of the field.