Family’s three-day adventure includes swimming off sandy beaches, jumping off cliffs, fishing for monster bass, dodging a giant turtle, and nursing a bullfrog hangover.
By Lisa Densmore
MY SON PARKER gave me a thumbs-up from atop the fifteen-foot cliff and then jumped. Briefly suspended, his arms and feet froze in mid-leap. A moment later, he plunged into the glassy surface of Long Lake. His entry into the calm dark water barely raised a splash. He surfaced, grinned with delight, then took several quick strokes toward the shore where his canoe was tethered.
“Can I do it again?” he beamed, as his stepbrother and canoe-mate Micah bounded off the cliff into the spot that Parker had just vacated.
“We’d better get going,” I replied, knowing we still had a couple miles of open water to cover before reaching the north end of the lake where we planned to camp that evening. Though the lake was exceptionally calm, as the clock ticked past noon, I feared the wind and boat traffic would increase, turning the surprisingly benign start to our canoe-camping trip into a challenging ordeal. At least that’s how I remembered the nightmarish paddle on Long Lake the first time I did this trip, about a thirty-mile paddle from the state boat launch in the hamlet of Long Lake to the Crusher, a takeout on Route 3/30 on the Raquette River several miles before it enters Tupper Lake.
In a canoe-camping version of history repeating itself, I remembered jumping off that same rock in 1977 when I was exactly the same age as my son, sixteen. It was one of only three things I recalled about the other time I paddled down Long Lake and the Raquette River. My other two memories were of endless whitecaps for all eight miles on the lake and of a portage, the details of which had dimmed with time. On this bluebird day, the water was calm, the portage was not until tomorrow, and we were unplugged from work, electronic devices, and other accouterments of civilization. My sweetheart Jack and I had looked forward to this family adventure for a long time.
Luckily the lake remained relatively calm for the rest of the day. Our tiny fleet of two canoes, one sea kayak, and a Hobie boat (a sit-on-top kayak that one can paddle or pedal) made good time to our campsite. We dragged the boats ashore by 2:30 p.m. despite a midmorning departure and two stops along the way, one for lunch and the other to leap off the cliff.
Our campsite was a slice of Adirondack nirvana, our tents scattered amidst a stand of tall pines above a natural sandy beach with a view up the length of the lake. The beach is a popular day-use spot for motorboat owners who come to picnic, swim, and fish. Shortly after we arrived, the half-dozen people who were already there left for home. We had the entire fifty-yard strand to ourselves. It was one of the nicest campsites I’ve ever had in the Adirondack Park.
As soon as the tents were up, our four kids—Micah (age eighteen), Dominic (sixteen), Parker (sixteen) and Zoe (twelve)—relaunched one of the canoes and headed for a rock island two hundred yards offshore to go swimming. Jack hopped aboard the Hobie boat to look for fish and began casting close to the eastern end of the beach.
As I cooked dinner, I watched Jack pull in a bass now and again, then release it. Suddenly he shouted, “Lisa, get your camera! I’ve got a big one!”
I grabbed the closest Nikon and waded in, the pull of the water against my legs turning my sprint into a pace closer to a slow-motion walk. As I neared Jack, he hoisted an impressive seventeen-inch, five-pound smallmouth bass from his net with some effort. It was one of the largest smallmouth bass I had seen.
When the kids returned and learned of the monstrous bass Jack caught, they made plans to rise early the next morning to catch big ones of their own. They didn’t need an alarm clock. No one slept. A chorus of bullfrogs began their tone-deaf serenade just as we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. Like a thousand cellos tuning up for a concerto with their strings as loose as possible, the frogs croaked and croaked endlessly and loudly.
At daybreak the next morning, I crawled from my tent nursing a bullfrog hangover and wandered over to the beach to check on the boats. A fine mist rose from the lake. I savored the quiet while taking in the view. Then I saw it. A sizable snapping turtle, with shell over a foot in diameter, was extricating its head from the sand, backing out of the sizeable divot it had dug. Was it laying eggs or just awakening from slumber?
I watched the turtle make its way past the canoes. It slid into the water and disappeared instantly, making me wonder what other creatures lurked in the lake’s dark depths. Later that morning, we discovered a few more of them, both under the water and above it, some friendlier than others.
After breaking camp, we fished around the outlet of the lake where it flowed into the Raquette River before floating downstream with the current. Micah, Jack, and Parker caught several more bass. Zoe landed a perch, then things got more interesting. Micah’s next fish was longer, with a more streamlined girth and yellow markings, a northern pike! Nervous about its teeth and struggling to hang on to its slimy sides, Micah showed everyone his prize before letting it slip back into the water.
Next, Jack caught a small fallfish, a type of chub native to the Northeast. Then Zoe snagged her lure in a tree. Jack, who shared a canoe with his daughter, paddled over to the snag intending to release it. Unbeknownst to Jack, the tree also housed a wasp nest. Along with freeing the lure, he aggravated the wasps, which swarmed toward him. Our pace changed instantly from leisurely to a mad dash as we all raced around the bend to escape being stung.
There were other wildlife encounters that morning. A mother black duck swam by with her brood. A dozen Canada geese honked at us from a small bay. We spotted doe and fawn tracks, several beaver lodges, and a giant spider with a three-inch leg span, but the fishing quickly petered out. As noon approached, our attention turned from the wildlife to the portage.
The Raquette River was eighteen inches above normal due to a month of rain. We could hear the roar of Raquette Falls a half-mile before we came to the pullout for the portage around them. We ate lunch so we didn’t have to carry it and then began to relay our gear.
The portage is a challenging one for its distance, one and a quarter miles. It climbs to a rise of land above the falls and then drops back to the river. The state Department of Environmental Conservation maintains an outpost near the north end of the trail.
It took us three trips to complete the portage, the first with the boats, the second with half our gear, and the third with the rest of the gear. On the first trip, a group of six canoeists passed us carrying their high-end Kevlar boats on their shoulders and their drybag-packs on their backs giving me an acute case of canoe envy as we lugged our seventy-five-pound Royalex canoes, kayaks, random assortment of dry bags, food bin, and loose odds and ends down the trail. I didn’t remember the carry being so long or so arduous, though perhaps that’s the difference between doing it at age fifty-two versus sixteen.
As the Kevlar troop went by, I asked them where they planned to camp that night so we didn’t head to the same spot. Like most other DEC-maintained lean-tos and tentsites, the ones along the Raquette River are available without a fee, first-come, first-served.
“We reserved Raquette 1 and 2” he replied, referring to the first campsite just below the falls.
“Reserved?” I pondered. “How did they reserve a campsite?”
They hadn’t officially. After repacking our boats, we headed down the river. As we passed Raquette 1 and 2 (the two lean-tos are next to each other), I noticed a small outboard motorboat moored to the shore. Partially submerged green and red buoys marked a channel down the river. Other members of the Kevlar-canoe party had arrived earlier in the day and not by human-powered means. I was disappointed that motorboats could travel this far up the river, but it turned out to be a minor nuisance. We encountered only one other on our trip.
Though we had hoped to camp just below the falls, we spent the second night a mile farther downriver at the Palmer Brook lean-to. We had lots of options. There are at least six lean-tos and over a dozen tent sites between the falls and the Crusher. We picked the Palmer Brook site only because it was the next one we came to. A pleasant spot on a curve of the river, it proved a fine place to catch a few more bass and take a swim. The lean-to gave us a welcome platform on which to stage our dinner and a sizable fire pit over which we could roast marshmallows. It also had lots of space for tents.
The last day, we rounded oxbow after oxbow. By midmorning, we passed the confluence with Stony Creek, the access to the Saranac Lake chain and the point where the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail splits from the Raquette River system.
Hemmed in by forest on either side, state land on the right and the private land owned by the Nature Conservancy around Follensby Pond on the left, we paddled steadily onward, never quite sure when the Crusher would appear. Named for a gravel-crushing plant that once stood nearby, the Crusher is best known as the finish line for the second day of the three-day Adirondack Canoe Classic, the annual ninety-mile canoe race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake. For us, it was the finish of our three-day canoe-camping trip.
As raindrops began to fall, we became more and more anxious to reach the takeout, which finally came into view by midafternoon. As we unloaded the boats, I asked everyone what their favorite part of the trip was.
“Jumping off that cliff” replied Parker.
“Catching that pike,” added Micah.
“Not the bullfrogs,” said Dominic.
“Not the portage,” said Zoe.
“The beach,” said Jack. “That was a great spot!”
And my favorite part of the trip? Giving each member of my family an adventure they would fondly remember and hopefully paddle with their kids one day.
Canoe Rentals/Car Shuttle: Raquette River Outfitters. $35 per day for Royalex canoes, $55 per day for Kevlar canoes, includes paddles and PFDs. $50 per vehicle for shuttle from put-in to take-out. 518-359-3228, www.raquetteriveroutfitters.com.
Maps: Northern Forest Canoe Trail Map 2: Adirondack North Country (Central), New York, Long Lake to Saranac Lake (The Mountaineers Books); Adirondack Paddler’s Map (Paddlesports Press).
Guidebooks: Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, by Paul F. Jamieson and Donald Morris; Adirondack Paddler’s Guide, by Dave Cilley; Adirondack Paddling, by Phil Brown.