By Mark Bowie
What intrigued me most about the 1965 aerial photograph by Adirondack photographer Richard Dean was the foreground: a wildly vibrating, curvaceous channel, which led my eye toward a tiny, tear-shaped bay—Dunham—in a large lake sprawling obliquely into the distance. Here, in the southeastern corner of the Adirondack Park, as part of the largest body of water wholly within Park boundaries—Lake George—was classic flatwater. Why hadn’t I ever noticed it on maps?
The photo’s image is deceiving. The forests surrounding Dunham Bay marsh seem unbroken. But 38 years after that aerial was shot, the marshlands are an oasis in suburbia. They are encased by busy Queensbury routes: Bay Road borders them on the west, Ridge Road on the east, and Route 9L on the north, which bridges the marsh at the lake. Pickle Hill Road connects Bay and Ridge Roads across the south end.
Maybe because of its proximity to development and the summer resort lake, Dunham Bay marsh is an easily overlooked paddle. For me, it proved a hidden gem.
Though the marsh channel looks as if it’s an inlet to the lake, technically it’s not, but rather a twisting extension of the lake. It’s analogous to a marine estuary in natural equilibrium with its ocean. This marsh’s ocean is Lake George, and it’s dependent upon the lake for its ebb and flow.
This is but one of many intriguing Adirondack marsh paddles, whose charms lie in the intimacy of contact afforded by a small boat on quiet water. There are navigable marshes off other large lakes, notably Champlain, Raquette, and Lila, and along river and stream systems, such as the Chubb and Browns Tract Inlet.
Dunham Bay Marsh is a wonderful family paddle, a leisurely three- to four-hour round-trip. In contrast to the hubbub of powerboat activity on Lake George, each successive stroke furthers an escape into flatwater tranquility. After paddling the marsh in 1973, then-Adirondack Life editor Tony Atwill proclaimed that “Dunham Bay and its sister bays to the north, Harris and Warner, constitute the finest wetland area in the Adirondacks, if not in New York State. They cover a thousand acres with marsh grasses, cattails, pond lilies, and duckweed, and their twisting networks of streams and fertile bogs provide an ideal habitat for countless species of wildlife.”
I launched my ultralight canoe this spring, accompanied in another canoe by my parents and young nephew, Neil, well before the powerboat armada had arrived and before most bugs had hatched. No one was at the commercial docks at the junction of Route 9L and Bay Road, the only launch site on the marsh, to collect the $10 canoe access fee.
We negotiated the first of many switchbacks and came upon the second set of docks. Here, a few days earlier, I had met “Trapper John” Hamilton, a local log home-builder and avid fisherman. It was the finest morning of the new season. Mist obscured nearly everything but the U-shaped channel before us. As we talked the mist lifted, like a theater curtain, revealing a backdrop of trees adorned in pastel greens. Blue hills receded in the distance; ribbons of mist lingered in their folds.
Trapper John has fished this water for 30 years. “There’s good crappie fishing,” he said. “They come in from the lake to spawn.” Like salmon returning from an ocean, crappie, northern pike, trout, bass and panfish spawn here. And fishermen stake out the channel mouth in anticipation of their arrival.
“There’s big snappers in here too,” Trapper John told me. And he spread his arms in a wide ring to indicate the girth of 100-pound snapping turtles that nest on the sandy shore, near two beaver lodges.
Being on water again felt refreshing. This was our inaugural spring excursion, just weeks since ice-out. Wispy cirrus clouds etched artistic swirls in a royal-blue sky. Hardwoods, mingled with cedars and white pines in the marsh, were leafing-out in muted shades of lime-green, rusty orange, peach, pink, even some reds. Blueberry bushes and tufts of marsh grass lined the length of the channel. Water lilies hadn’t yet surfaced; they adorned the mucky bottom, glowing with vivid color. It seemed a landscape frozen in time, yet the season was advancing, inexorably, toward the explosion of summer greenery. My father wondered aloud how beautiful it must be come autumn.
A billowy breeze pushed us along. The meandering channel beckoned us inland. The waterway is consistently 20 to 30 yards wide for much of its length, two miles as the mallard flies, quite a bit longer for canoeists who can’t “take to the wing” over the curves.
The marsh is an aquatic wildlife sanctuary, home to beaver, otter, mink, muskrat, raccoons, reptiles, amphibians and waterfowl. We spooked great blue herons, their spindly legs dangling on takeoff before they could be gathered beneath them. Canada geese hopscotched ahead of us. Red-winged blackbirds jumped between shrubbery and shrieked at us. Once, much to our surprise, we rounded a bend and found a common loon fishing. I hope he was as fortunate as the fisherman we saw catch a sizable bass near the southern set of docks.
The marsh most assuredly isn’t a wilderness paddle. Continually, I sensed the looming presence of the grand lake. And canoeists may be assailed by activity on the nearby roadways. The Dunhams Bay Fish and Game Club is along the north end of Ridge Road. Halfway through our outbound paddle what sounded like a gunbattle erupted as shooters began practice simultaneously. It spooked us, but the wildlife seemed used to it.
The further we paddled, the fewer fishermen and waterfowl we encountered. As seen in the aerial photo, false secondary channels veer off the main course. Unsuspecting canoeists may find themselves in cul-de-sacs, but any exploratory diversions may be worth the additional paddling. About two-thirds of the way down the east side, a subsidiary arm forms a nearly circular oxbow. During high water, paddlers may completely encircle it.
The main channel fizzled out in a morass of bayou below Pickle Hill. We searched for solid ground on which to disembark for a stretch and snack break, but found only grassy tussocks and tangled bushland. We turned around, hoping for terra firma aside the main channel. Finding none too soon, we clamored onto a triple-towered beaver lodge. Though precarious to walk on, it proved a fine picnic spot, with commanding views of the “marshscape.” I took some pictures of Neil posing with my canoe.
The wind obediently died down, and we paddled on liquid glass. I once stroked into an offshoot, unknowingly headed towards a Canada goose on her nest. She fluttered up in an explosion of wings and feathers, honking wildly to divert me. She succeeded.
It was good to be on still water again, where the rhythmic act of paddling is soothing…where, in the absence of wind, the intricacies of the land are reflected with precision, and the dip of the paddle sends those reflections reeling in abstract motion. For some of us, flatwaters are the ideal pathways for soft-spoken canoe travel. And the flatter, the curvier—the better.