Paddlers enjoy day full of wild, unmarred beauty
By Dick Beamish
On Dave Cilley’s new waterproof “Adirondack Paddler’s Map” there seems to be almost as much water as land in the Saranac Lakes region, which is where we’re bound with our 17-foot Kevlar canoe and my 12-speed bicycle. It’s a sunny morning in June, and we know that as the flatwater paddling season progresses, it will only get better; culminating in the clear, sparkling days and crisp, starry nights of September and October.Having chained the bike to a tree at Second Pond, our take-out point on NY 3 at the state boat-launch site, we continue our drive five miles west and park at another, smaller launch site near the highway bridge over South Creek. We put in at a T-shaped dock a few feet downstream from an impressive new beaver dam. About five hours and 12 miles later we’ll pass under another bridge to complete our journey to Second Pond.
Under the road we go and down the narrow inlet. Soon the highway noise fades and the sights and sounds of nature take over. It begins with the “wichity, wichity, wichity” of a common yellowthroat, and then the slow, precise bosun-whistle song of a white-throated sparrow. A turtle plops off a log as we paddle by. Banks of pink bog laurel line the way and yellow waterlilies are blooming all around. Lacy, newly green tamaracks rise above the bog vegetation. But then the scene changes abruptly as we round a bend and move out into Middle Saranac, one of the largest and most beautiful of the undeveloped lakes in the Adirondacks.
The shoreline is mostly “forever wild” Forest Preserve, and the rest, though privately owned, is well protected. No houses can be seen anywhere except for the roofline of one old Adirondack-style place, otherwise hidden by trees, that seems to have grown there instead of being imposed on the landscape.
Middle Saranac is about three miles long and two miles at its widest, the part we’re crossing now. Steering a course slightly to the left of Boot Bay Mountain across the way, we pass a big rock sticking out of the water, on top of which a gull sits calmly on her nest, staring back at us. The wind, as usual, is from the west, but the day is early and it’s still only a slight breeze. (We tend to do our Saranac trips from west to east to take advantage of the prevailing wind.)
“Loon at 3 o’clock”, Rachel announces. I spot it just before it dives. Wild cries erupt behind us, and we look back to see another loon, rearing up and tearing along the surface with its wings beating madly. “It’s going ape”, I observe sagely.
It’s then that Rachel raises a question for future generations of naturalists to ponder. “If a loon can go ape,” she muses, “is it possible for an ape to go loon?”
Approaching Hungry Bay we pass a couple of nice camping spots, one on Rice Point, named after the Saranac Lake guide, Fred Rice. Soon we’re entering the narrow passageway to Weller Pond and passing what appears to be a meadow full of dark-red poppies. But this is a bog, and the flowers are the burgundy blossoms of insect-eating pitcher plants. We wish them bon appetit just as a swamp sparrow, close by but unseen, greets us with its musical trill. A half-mile beyond Middle Saranac the channel opens into Weller, an enchanting place with lots of little coves and crannies to explore and several small islands, including Tick and Tock (the latter misnamed on most maps as Tot, which misses the point). We stop at Tick for lunch and a swim, then paddle on to the site once occupied from May to November by Martha Reben, a young woman who had come to Saranac Lake with a seemingly terminal case of consumption. Having spent three years bedridden, Martha decided to take the “fresh-air cure” seriously, and in 1931, with help and encouragement from Fred Rice, she camped and prospered here, becoming totally absorbed in nature and making friends with the wild creatures. She later wrote about her experiences in The Healing Woods and two other books, all long out of print.
Back on Middle Saranac we head east past Halfway Island toward the outlet that connects with Lower Saranac Lake. Across the way, Ampersand Mountain steals the scene. Through binoculars we scan the long narrow beach from which a trail leads 3.2 miles to the bare summit of Ampersand and its renowned view. We also scan the big white pines along the far shore for a glimpse of a bald eagle, the long, high branches being favorite lookout spots for these fish-eating birds. Alas, no eagles today.
On to Bullrush Bay, where we plow through the reeds to the outlet and the first canoeable stretch of the Saranac River. A sign alerts us to a 5 mph speed limit on the stream. With the westerlies now whipping the lake into whitecaps behind us, we might well have been exceeding 5 mph in the open water, but no longer. We’re suddenly out of the wind and in a marshy floodplain alive with the cheks, gurgles, trills and buzzy slurs of redwing blackbirds. Green frogs add their mellow, banjo-plunk note to the chorus. Flycatchers flit in and out over the stream from the swamp maples on shore.
Then Rachel spots a swimmer downstream moving toward us. We stop paddling and watch it approach. The muskrat gets surprisingly close without seeing us, but then a motorboat rounds the bend and the animal dives and disappears. Presently we see a big boulder ahead, and then a cabin near the Upper Lock. The lock tender, a friendly fellow in residence during the boating season, comes down to let us through. If he weren’t around it’s a do-it-yourself operation, simple enough when you follow the posted instructions.
“It’s like pulling the plug in a bathtub,” he says, turning a wheel that opens a trapdoor that releases the water. Slowly we drop about three feet. When he opens the gate, we’re off on a very different stretch of the Saranac. The banks are higher now. Big pines tower above the water and crown the ridge. The delicate underwater grass bends forward in the direction of the current, which we estimate at 1 mph. This, plus the breeze on the straight stretches, keeps us floating right along when we stop paddling to admire a structure on Kelly Slough, which diverges on the left. It’s a trophy-home beaver lodge about 10 feet high and 20 feet around at the base. We wonder if the builders needed an APA permit.
High cliffs appear ahead where the river swings left, and soon we’re heading out into Lower Saranac, another wild and beautiful waterbody about five miles long, peppered with islands and a multitude of choice campsites. The twin peaks of McKenzie Mountain are in full view at the far end.
Having paddled two miles on the river, we have two miles more to go on Lower Saranac. My partner rigs a sail with her paddle and raincoat, and we zip down through the narrows and around another point. From there we see the cliffs of Bluff Island, a landmark that reminds us to turn right into the passage to First Pond. Another mile and we’re paddling under a highway bridge to the take-out spot on Second Pond. (With more time we could have continued past Bluff Island down Lower Saranac about three miles to the northeast end at Ampersand Bay, threading among the wooded islands, following the north shore past Knollwood, a complex of classic Adirondack camps, and drawing ever closer to McKenzie Mountain.)
At the registration cabin, where visitors sign up for campsites, I unlock the bike and pedal back to our car on South Creek, thankful for the wide, well-paved shoulders that make most Adirondack highways well-suited for biking. Meanwhile Rachel settles down on the dock with the Paddler’s Map to retrace today’s route and consider where we might go on our next trip. To judge by all that blue on the map, it could be a difficult choice.