The adventure track
By Judy Wolf
If you drive through Old Forge, you’re sure to notice the Moose River meandering through the marshes on the western edge of town. My partner Andrew and I often heard glowing reports of the Moose’s flatwater paddle trips, which always seemed to include wildlife sightings and gorgeous scenery.
We thought about taking the trip ourselves but were put off by the necessity of a shuttle. Given the high cost of gasoline, the extra pollution created by taking two cars, the inability to socialize with your companions in the other car while driving to and from the river—well, some canoe trips simply don’t materialize.
Then we learned we could do away with the shuttle by taking a ride on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. From Thursday through Sunday from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, paddlers can put in at Tickner’s in Old Forge, travel a leisurely four hours down the Moose and take the train to the Thendara railroad station, on the outskirts of Old Forge, where Tickner’s picks up the boats and returns everyone to their car.
Dilemma solved. Andrew, who runs the outdoor program at Hamilton College, arranged an outing-club trip for some students. From Tickner’s launch (behind Keyes Pancake House in Old Forge), we set off down a small tributary, past houses and small docks, under a metal bridge and onto a broad, meandering section of the Moose River.
Our canoes separated in the marshland maze and came together again. Hummocks of tall grasses and scrub brush hid myriad wildlife. Cries of “Look!” and “Did you see that?” became the soundtrack for our voyage. Snapping turtles sunned themselves on rocks; ducks and mergansers sped away at our approach, and elegant blue herons launched themselves lazily into the air as we neared, only to land again a few hundred yards downriver.
I shared paddling duty with sophomore Ngoda Manongi, who had come to upstate New York from Tanzania and had never been canoeing before. Our cargo was photographer Nancy Ford, who appeared to take great pleasure in ordering us to paddle faster or slow down or shift sideways for the perfect angle on our companions or to maneuver our boat closer to whatever wildlife had most recently caught her attention.
Ngoda and I laughed and did her bidding, valiantly fighting the current for a perfect shot of a low-flying heron, then turning to follow a pack of baby mergansers dodging among tree roots along the edge of the river.
Our group reunited near a gentle bend just as the morning train roared past, and we waved at the conductor and passengers, who leaned out the windows to wave back at us. Since the late 1800s, visitors to the Adirondacks have ridden the rails into the backcountry wilderness. Today, nearly 700 people in a single day might sneak a peak at the brilliant foliage in the fall from the trains operated by the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society.
The railroad was originally financed by William Seward Webb to access his large hunting preserve in the 19th century. The railroad passed out of service in 1972 and was purchased by New York state in 1975. After returning briefly to run from Remsen to Lake Placid at the time of the 1980 Winter Olympics, the railroad was abandoned again in 1981. Thanks to a group of railroad enthusiasts, the four-mile section of track from Thendara to Minnehaha was resurrected in 1992.
Charmed by the classic scene that had unfolded before us—a vintage train chugging along what otherwise appeared to be a remote stretch of river—our imaginations went to work on what it must have been like to live here a century before. The river widened, becoming almost lake-like, and our group of canoeists stopped for lunch above a small dam and wooden spillway that marked an easy, 25-yard portage.
Soothed by good food, the steady sound of falling water, the smell of warm grass, and the heat of the sun as it slipped in and out among white clouds, we enjoyed the sensation of not having any place we’d rather be. Eventually we roused ourselves for the next segment of our journey, and (after a quick visit to the nearby woods) had soon entered another world.
Below the dam, the river narrowed, and the trees along the riverbank seemed to close in, draping over our heads and giving us the sensation of being alone in the wilderness. The current was gentle, and the scenery continued to unfold as we paddled a steady two hours through tight turns lined with cedars, alders and birch. We heard birds calling steadily in the trees and kept a
sharp eye out for beavers and turtles, but managed to see no wildlife beyond the occasional shadow of a fish disappearing into the depths below us as we rounded yet another bend.
Uncertain how long it would take our group to paddle to the takeout and knowing we had to make the train, we watched diligently for the regularly posted signs announcing our remaining distance to the take-out. We all experienced a little thrill of panic when the first sign alerted us that we were half an hour behind schedule. But the time allocations proved to be generous, and we found the small, well-marked beach early and without incident (unless you count bumping our way down the short, Class I rapid indicated as an optional portage on the map provided by Tickner’s). We pulled the boats up to a wooden platform next to the train tracks and sat down in the sun to rave about our day.
“This is a good beginner trip, and you get to ride the train. It’s good for all ability levels and families with little kids,” summarized sophomore Ryan Murphy.
“You almost become part of the river and the trees,” said Ngoda. “It’s very serene. As if nobody else exists except you and the river and trees. You just feel good.”
Lulled by sun and snacks, we perked up at the sound of the train, which wheezed into place beside us and opened its cargo doors to load our boats. Once canoes and gear and passengers were safely stowed inside, we set off toward Thendara Station, sticking our heads out the window and pointing at the vast stretches of scenery we’d just traversed: “Look, there are the herons again!” “Look, snapping turtles!”
Two of the train cars were boxcars, dedicated to stowing boats and gear. Two others had seats and bathrooms for passengers. We moved from viewpoint to viewpoint, watching the tracks race away from us out the back of the train as surprising vistas opened on either side.
Too soon, we were back at the station, being shuttled back to our vehicle by the efficient Tickner’s crew.