Paddling on Duck Hole

For the first time in a century, paddlers can enjoy this view from Henderson Lake, looking north toward Indian Pass and Wallface Mountain.

Land deal opens High Peaks canoe route

This year the Open Space Institute purchased 9,600 acres from NL Industries bordering the High Peaks. Sometime soon, the state plans to buy 6,200 acres from OSI and add them to the “forever wild” Forest Preserve. The public then will own Henderson Lake and the Preston Ponds, pristine lakes with magnificent views. But OSI has already opened the property. Photographer Carl Heilman was one of the first to canoe on these wild waters after the deal was cinched.

MacNaughton Mountain dominates the horizon as viewed from Lower Preston Pond. Although it’s 4,000 feet in elevation, MacNaughton was left off the original list of the 46 High Peaks.

Photos and text by Carl Heilman

This summer I took photographs for Sandra Weber’s upcoming book Adventures Among the Adirondack Mountains. I periodically accompanied Sandra and her daughter Marcy as they hiked, camped and explored some of the most picturesque country in the High Peaks region.

On the last leg of their 11-day journey, they camped in the western High Peaks. Since I was to meet them at Duck Hole, I decided this would be a wonderful opportunity to explore three waters newly opened to the public: Henderson Lake and the two Preston Ponds.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

To portage to Henderson Lake from the Upper Works parking lot, follow the main trail north over the outlet bridge and, just a bit farther on, turn left on a dirt road. Then it’s only a short walk to the dock at the outlet dam.

There are few other places in the Adirondacks where a paddler can enjoy such a wild, mountainous backdrop. Henderson Lake is a deep, beautiful waterbody, with rock ledges along the shore. Paddling out into the middle of the lake gives you a view in all directions. One of the most prominent features is Wallface Mountain to the north, with its sheer cliffs. The MacIntyre Range, including 5,114-foot Algonquin Peak, rises just to the east of Wallface.

At the Duck Hole dam, the Cold River begins its 14-mile journey through the High Peaks Wilderness to the Raquette River. It is the only Adirondack river that lies entirely within a Wilderness Area.

Paddle to the northwest corner of the lake, where you’ll find a wonderful cascade at the inlet. This is probably the best takeout point. It’s only a short distance along the inlet to the hiking trail that leads past Preston Ponds to Duck Hole. Be prepared for a two-mile carry to Upper Preston Pond. It’s a pretty route along a nice stream and past an old beaver flow. At the end of a plank walkway where the main trail takes a sharp right turn, there’s a footpath that leads to another dock at the south end of Upper Preston Pond.

Upper Preston Pond is a dramatic landscape flanked by steep mountains that end right at the shoreline. My only other canoe trip in the Adirondacks that compares was on Avalanche Lake. I savored the mile-long paddle down Upper Preston to the outlet at the far end. On the west side of this stream is a lightly used portage path that made for easy passage from Upper Preston to Lower.

On the way to the Upper Works trail- head you’ll pass an old blast furnace, once part of the ironworks in Tahawus. The Open Space Institute plans to preserve the furnace and other ruins.

Lower Preston Pond is another idyllic setting, with its islands supporting boreal trees. The 4,000-foot MacNaughton Mountain (not included on the original list of the 46 High Peaks) forms the backdrop. I explored the lake awhile and enjoyed a chorus of loons before heading to the outlet, where the water spills over the remains of a small dam. After a short paddle downstream, the outlet became impassable. Trees along the left bank were about as dense as timberline krummholz, but they seemed to offer the easiest passage for the short bushwack to Duck Hole.

One of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s guidebooks describes Duck Hole, the source of the Cold River, as “one of the most beautiful spots in the Adirondacks.” It’s certainly a favorite of hikers on the Northville-Placid Trail. From inside my canoe, I saw its beauty from a new perspective: wide, open lake dotted with wild islands and offering magnificent views of the surrounding mountains, including the Sewards and the Santanoni Range.

Marcy Weber takes a solo spin around Duck Hole, more than five miles from the Upper Works trailhead.

By the time I paddled across Duck Hole to meet up with Sandra and Marcy at the lean-tos by the dam, I had paddled and portaged more than five miles from the Upper Works. It’s so nice to think that my entire route soon will be protected as “forever wild” Forest Preserve. If you can’t wait until spring to do this trip, do it in winter–on skis.


From Northway Exit 29, drive west on the Blue Ridge Road (County 2) for about 20 miles and turn right onto Tahawus Road.  At 4.4 miles up Tahawus Road, bear left at the fork, following the sign for “Marcy and the High Peaks.” Continue another 3.5 miles to the Upper Works parking lot.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

Reader Interactions


  1. Richard Cerminara says

    I am planning two trip to Duck Hole this spring/summer. On one I will be bring a couple friends that are “fit” 70 year olds. Would 16″ spoked canoe wheels be advisable on the two miles portage?

    I appriciate your time and answer. Thank you in advance.

    Rick Cerminara
    Saranac Lake NY

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