A river rediscovered
By Phil Brown
The serene charms of the Sixteen-Mile Level on the Middle Branch of the St. Regis were no secret to Adirondack sports of the nineteenth century, but it seems that they have yet to be discovered by paddlers of our day.
In his 1894 guidebook, E.R. Wallace described the level as “a grand secluded reach of boatable stillwater” that’s teemed with trout. About a decade earlier, the Adirondack surveyor Verplanck Colvin extolled it as “a picturesque stillwater which winds for miles through rich alluvial lands, now among alders and bushy swamps, and now through natural meadows.”
Some things haven’t changed: The Sixteen-Mile Level is as picturesque today as in Colvin’s time. But other things have: Access is now easier than ever.
Although the Sixteen-Mile Level had been familiar to fishermen and hunters of the 1800s, private landowners later posted the property along the river. Easy access became possible again after the state acquired about half of the level from Champion International in 1998.
I paddled the state-owned stretch in August with Phil Blanchard and his eleven-year-old son, Ben. Phil is an Adirondacks aficionado, having spent a lot of time hiking, camping, and canoeing here in his younger years. In recent years, he has been living outside Washington, D.C. A week after his visit, he left the country to take a job with a newspaper in Abu Dhabi (that’s another story), so this was sort of a farewell outing.
Getting to the trailhead is an adventure in itself. We needed two cars to carry our canoes (three lightweight solo models). From Paul Smiths, it’s a 12.4-mile drive to the start of the first portage trail, much of it on a dirt road. The trailhead is marked by a state Department of Environmental Conservation sign. We planned to leave my car here and have Phil’s wife, Cathy, pick us up later near the take-out. But first we had to find it.
According to our map, we would exit the water a little before the next bridge; a portage trail would lead us from the river back to the road. We drove to the bridge, but there was no DEC sign and no evidence of a trail. So we asked Cathy to meet us at a brushy area in the vicinity and hoped for the best.
Unfortunately, the lack of signage and trail markers proved to be a frustration much of the day. After the first put-in, we had five portages, but there were signs marking the start of only two of them. We saw only a few trail disks all day. Ordinarily, this would not be a big deal, but the trails themselves often were overgrown with brush or blocked by blowdown, making them indiscernible in places.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that few paddlers have discovered the Sixteen-Mile Level, and so the paths are not beaten. That may change with the publication of Dave Cilley’s guidebook, Adirondack Paddler’s Guide, which came out late last summer. He describes it as a “pleasant 4-5 hour day trip for intermediate paddlers” and gives it a “wilderness rating” of 9 on a scale of 10.
There is no problem following the first portage. From the trailhead, you carry your canoe down an old woods road (closed to vehicles) for 0.7 miles to a sandy put-in near large white pines. It’s a pretty spot, with a view of Buck Mountain across the placid water. If you paddle upstream from here, you’ll soon cross into private property. We went downstream, however, passing through public land the whole time.
If you don’t like portages, you could do a round trip. On the day of our excursion, there was a current, but it wasn’t so strong that you couldn’t paddle against it. Another option is to paddle up Quebec Brook, a tributary, to get back to Blue Mountain Road. Before the Champion deal, paddlers used to access Sixteen-Mile Level via Quebec Brook, but based on various accounts, it is not a fun trip: expect blowdown and rough carries.
At the start of our paddle, the river’s right bank was lined by pines, tamaracks and other trees, but these soon gave way to alders and grass, opening up a view of Azure Mountain to the northwest. Azure would be our totem mountain for the day, watching over us much of the trip. (If you have time, the mile-long hike up Azure is well worth the effort, rewarded by vistas from the summit ledges and a restored fire tower.)
After twenty minutes or so, Ben decided it was time for lunch, so we pulled into the grass and ate our sandwiches. Soon after resuming the paddle, Ben rammed into the alders while trying to get around a half-submerged log. I took a photo.
“You had to catch my M-E-M,” he said.
“M-E-M?” I asked. “What’s that?”
“My most embarrassing moment,” he replied.
This was Ben’s first long canoe trip, and notwithstanding his brush with the alders, he quickly got the knack of paddling.
The Middle Branch is a great place for leaning how to turn. The river winds back and forth through Meno Swamp, one of those streams with a new view around every corner – mountains, forested eskers, grasses bending in the breeze. In fact, the entire seven miles from the put-in to the take-out is classified by the state as a Scenic River.
The river also attracts birds. Great blue heron, osprey, woodcock, snipe, and various ducks have been known to frequent this waterway. I had hoped we would encounter a bald eagle or at least a heron. However, we were disappointed. Phil saw a woodpecker, I saw a couple of cedar waxwings, and we both saw a kingfisher – and not much else. But we kept looking.
“A big-ass blue-gray bird just went by,” Phil shouted after rounding one bend. “Not to get too technical.”
“I’m not sure I can quote you on that,” I replied.
“Sure you can.”
A bit later, Ben reminded me of the snack in my pack.
“Earlier weren’t you saying something about a chocolate bar that was in danger of melting?” he asked.
“Has it been thirty minutes since you ate something?” his father interjected.
I passed out pieces of chocolate all around and handed the rest of the bar to Ben, who mysteriously fell behind. We waited for him to catch up.
“Thanks for the chocolate,” he said after pulling alongside my canoe.
“Did you finish it?”
“Yeah, it was going to melt anyway. It’s always a shame to let good chocolate go to waste.”
About ninety minutes from the put-in, we passed grassy channels that we supposed to be the mouth of Quebec Brook. Wallace writes that “Quebec” was the name of an Indian (said to have been Peter Sabattis, the father of Mitchell Sabattis, the celebrated nineteenth-century guide) who planted an ash tree near the mouth. The brook flows out of Madawaska Pond, which also was bought by the state in the Champion deal.
A half-hour later, we reached the first rapid. It was short and didn’t look difficult, but we didn’t want to risk tearing our carbon-fiber canoes on the rocks. There was no sign marking a portage, but we pulled into a small inlet on the right bank and found a vague path. We went the short distance around the rapid and put in again. In just a few minutes, we came to another rapid. This time, a sign marked the start of a portage trail on the right.
This trail was much longer, close to a half-mile. The trail seemed to go straight from the water into the woods, but after thrashing about the trees briefly, we figured out that it cut through the brush closer to the river. We plowed through tall grasses and bushes and around blowdown. At times, it resembled a bushwhack.
“I hope you brought your machete,” Phil yelled.
My legs were quite scratched up by the time we reached the next put-in. We were happy to be back on the water, but in a few minutes we arrived at a half-mile portage around Cedar Falls. On this carry, we encountered more of the same nastiness, though it improved toward the end.
After a short carry and another short paddle, we took out for the last time just before the next rapid (again, no sign). As we carried our canoes, I wondered where the trail would come out on the road. In fact, it led right to the car, where Cathy was waiting with soda and chocolate cookies. Civilization had not crumbled in our absence.
Directions: From NY 30 in Paul Smiths, turn west onto Keese Mill Road, just north of the entrance to Paul Smith’s College. At 7.4 miles, a mile from a right bend in the road, you pass over the Middle Branch of the St. Regis on a steel deck bridge. Five miles past the bridge, you come to a parking area and 0.7-mile carry trail, marked by a DEC sign. This is the trail to the put-in. The take-out is 4.3 miles farther up the road. There are no signs. Look for a disturbed brushy area on the left, blocked by a row of boulders. A trail from the river exits the woods here, but it’s on private land (see sidebar). If you reach a one-lane bridge over the river, you’ve overshot by a few hundred yards.