Negro Brook

Paddler discovers that Negro Brook is not the gentle meander it appears to be.

By Phil Brown

Phil Brown paddles one of the many quiet bends on Negro Brook. Photo by Mike Lynch

It seemed like a good idea. I like to canoe small streams. Negro Brook is a small stream. Ergo, I would like canoeing Negro Brook.

Negro Brook (on the name, see sidebar) begins near Onchiota and meanders through the Oregon Sand Plains before joining Twobridge Brook and turning into Sumner Brook, a tributary of the Saranac River.

I had seen Negro Brook many times from the Bloomingdale Bog Trail, which follows an abandoned railroad corridor. The stream flows under the northern part of the trail in three places, and whenever I ran or biked the trail, I promised myself I would paddle it someday.

That day came in early May, when the water was running high. Based on my observations from the trail, my study of the topographical map, and the flat terrain, I looked forward to a leisurely paddle through alder swamps.

On a weekday morning, I drove to the take-out on Sumner Brook in Bloomingdale, dropped off a bicycle, and continued driving three miles to a put-in on Merrill Road, a dirt lane off Oregon Plains Road.

You couldn’t ask for a better spot to launch a canoe: a sandy shore beside a placid pool of dark water, the color of Guinness. When I rounded the first bend, I entered some mild rapids. I was a bit worried as my canoe—a carbon-fiber Hornbeck Blackjack that weighs all of twelve pounds—is not designed for whitewater. Fortunately, I made it through with no trouble, but I was a bit surprised to have encountered rapids. After all, I was canoeing through sand plains. As it turned out, these rapids were the first of many.

Straightway I encountered the next difficulty: alder thickets. I’ve been on streams thick with alders before, but nothing like this. The overreaching branches created an almost impenetrable latticework. My double-bladed paddle was next to useless. I would have been better off with a grappling hook—or a chain saw. I grabbed branches to pull myself through the thicket.

Next up: a balsam fir fallen across the brook. I had to go ashore and pull my boat around the obstacle. Then came more grappling with hellacious thickets.

Finally, after three-quarters of a mile, I came to a wide bend where I could relax and enjoy the scenery. I stopped for a few minutes to take photos. Pushing on, I passed under a bridge on the Bloomingdale Bog Trail and paddled through a beautiful stretch of water—wide, serene, no brushy tangles—bordered by a pristine balsam forest.

Ah, this is more like it, I thought.

A field of grass tussocks near the Bloomingdale Bog Trail.

If only it had lasted. I rode through some quick water and spied some long rapids ahead, blocked by several fallen trees. I maneuvered my canoe as close as I could to the blowdown, then carried around. More rapids and blowdown lay beyond. I put in, canoed to the other shore, and carried again. I shot some more mild rapids before the brook quieted down.

Eventually, I came to a grassy bend, where I startled a mallard into flight, and decided to stop for lunch. With the thickets, the carries, and the scouting, it had taken me nearly two hours to travel two miles. As I kicked back and drank in the sunshine, I told myself that things had to improve, even though I could hear the low rumble of whitewater ahead.

After lunch, I drifted toward the rapids. They were not that long. I figured I could get through them all right, but I hesitated as I approached a small drop, fearing I might land on a rock. My canoe swung sideways and became pinned against a boulder. It’s amazing how much power the current in even a small stream can generate. As I tried to rock the canoe free, I heard a nasty crack. With water pouring in, I jumped into the stream (quite cold) and dragged myself and the canoe ashore.

Now what? I was in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t relish the idea of bushwhacking with a canoe to the Bloomingdale Bog Trail and then carrying it two miles back to the car. When I examined the boat, I expected to see a gash in the hull, but I found only two thin cracks. The vessel might still be seaworthy!

I put the boat back in the water and gingerly slipped in. It didn’t sink, so I continued on my way. In short order, I arrived at another set of rapids. Given the condition of the boat, I opted to carry around them. However, I safely paddled through the next set.

Though the canoe stayed afloat, water seeped through the cracks. It was like sitting in cold soup. Occasionally, I’d pull over and empty the water. Later, I started using my water bottle as a bail bucket.

The brook passes under a dismantled bridge on Bigelow Road.

Negro Brook is not all thickets and rapids. There are stretches of gently winding stream that are just delightful. I especially liked the grassy meanders upstream from Bigelow Road, a dirt road that ends at a dismantled bridge. Birders visit Bigelow Road to look for boreal birds not found in most places in the Adirondacks. Unfortunately, it’s something of a party hangout and dumping ground. When I exited my boat to scout the stream below the bridge, I saw a car battery, beer cans, and other trash. Someone had painted on one of the girders “You can smell the whiskey burnin’ down Bigelow Road.”

By now, I had paddled about four miles and still had roughly four to go. The second half of the trip proved to be much easier. Leaving Bigelow Road, I passed under a wooden bridge on the Bloomingdale Bog Trail and shot a short rapid, the last one of the day. The stream continued to wind through alders, but for the most part the scrubby trees did not hinder my progress. Occasionally I saw a bird’s nest hidden among the branches.

After a while, I emerged from the alders into a land of grass tussocks, watery fields of miniature haystacks that afforded a view to the southeast of Whiteface Mountain, the fifth-highest peak in the Adirondacks. In another mile, I reached the confluence with Twobridge Brook, which flows through Bloomingdale Bog. A cement truck rumbled past on the highway between Bloomingdale and Gabriels.

I’m not sure what the stream is called below the confluence, but in any event it was wider now and pleasant to paddle its many twists and turns. At the confluence with Lyon Brook, a ways farther downstream, it evidently becomes Sumner Brook. Paddling south along Sumner, I could hear traffic on Oregon Plains Road and knew I didn’t have far to go.

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As I exited on the left bank, I saw two local whitewater paddlers—Jon Norman and Scott McKim—removing a canoe from atop a pickup truck. They planned to run the rapids downstream on Sumner and continue to the Saranac River, where they would run Permanent Rapids. I took a video of the start of their trip while standing on a bridge over the brook. They were not in a carbon-fiber canoe.

My trip was finally done. I expected to be on the water for three or four hours. It was more like seven. I had smashed my canoe. My pants were soaked. Still, I wouldn’t say I regretted canoeing Negro Brook. It was a full-on Adirondack experience, and every once in a while I need one of those. I doubt I’ll do it again, but as I drove to the Shamrock in Gabriels for a burger, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be a superb canoe trip, an interesting mix of mild rapids and meandering flatwater, if only the alders were trimmed and the blowdown removed.

Directions:

TAKE-OUT: From the intersection of Church Street and NY 3 in Saranac Lake, drive north on NY 3 about 6.4 miles to the four corners in Bloomingdale. Go straight for 0.1 miles, then bear right. The road soon bends right and crosses Sumner Brook. There is a pull-off on the left. Leave a second car or bicycle here. N44 24.7559, W74 05.3070

PUT-IN: From the take-out, drive north on Oregon Plains Road for 2.8 miles, then turn left onto Merrill Road. Drive 0.2 miles to a bridge over Sumner Brook and park nearby. N44 26.7783, W74 06.7490

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