South Grass tests paddlers in spring

Call of the wild river

By Gary Fallesen

Al Bushnell of Rochester looks anything but stern in a trip down the South Branch of the Grass. Photo by Gary Fallesen.

He kept pestering me with the same old question: “It’s not whitewater, right?”

Apparently my answer wasn’t putting him at ease. “No, of course not,” I told him. “It’s just moving water.”

We were headed for a stretch of the South Branch of the Grass River that had been off limits to the public for more than a century. We felt like a modern-day tandem of Lewis and Clark—only our canoeing skills were more like Lois and Clark’s.

The state acquired this stretch of the Grass as well as four other river corridors—the Deer, Middle St. Regis, East St. Regis and West Oswegatchie—from Champion International last year. Since then, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has been busy building parking areas, blazing carry trails and clearing campsites. Most of the work along the rivers has been completed.

This was the first spring that the rivers were open to the public, and so we were eager to run one in high water. We chose the South Grass on the advice of Neil Woodworth, a lawyer for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). He describes all five as “wild and pristine”—the sort of rivers that paddlers drive to Canada to experience—but he calls the South Grass “the gem of gems” for its scenic beauty. It lays claim to five large waterfalls: Copper Rock, Rainbow, Flat Rock, Twin and Sinclair. The falls kept paddlers away before the Champion deal because river runners were not allowed to carry around them on private land.

Of course, the water feeding the falls isn’t exactly flat. It’s no wonder that my partner, Al Bushnell, an ADKer from Rochester, seemed suspicious of my assurances. “I think you need a paddler, not a hiker,” he muttered as we carried our borrowed Old Town Discovery canoe to a put-in off Spruce Mountain Road north of Cranberry Lake. When he saw the current, he looked genuinely concerned. “How are you in fast-moving waters?” he asked. When I didn’t answer, he added, “I don’t react real quick.”

With that, we were off. In a hurry.

After about a mile we reached rough water. We ran it, no problem. “That was actually a rapid that is marked on the map as a ‘you-might-want-to-think-about-carrying-around’ kind of thing,” I said. “So that’s good. We survived.” But my hiking friend in the stern didn’t seem to share my growing confidence.

In less than a mile, we reached another set of rapids. This time we paddled to the bank, hopped out and walked ahead to scout the hazard. We deemed it over our heads and carried the canoe around a large drop.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

About four miles into the trip, Bushnell got to utilize his landlubber skills when we reached a 0.3-mile carry around Copper Rock Falls. The three 15-foot drops on this stretch are quite picturesque—as long as you’re off the water. As we exited the river, I joked that the sign said, “Take out so you can dump out.” We’d taken on some of the white water during our run and needed to empty our 80-pound canoe before lugging it up and down a big hill. There are yellow carry markers on trees, but we inadvertently followed some blue tape that led us off the not-yet-beaten path.

“Maybe this is where the trail is going to be,” Bushnell said, thinking the DEC hadn’t completed its work.

We found our way back onto the water and continued three miles or so to a carry at First Brook. This short carry—less than a tenth of a mile—takes you to Tooley Pond Road and around Rainbow Falls.

All told, we traveled 7.4 miles, including three carries. The guidebooks tell you that few Adirondack rivers are more beautiful than the South Grass, and I’ll vouch for that. Although Tooley Pond Road was never far away, we felt as though we were in deep wilderness. Lots of wildlife frequent the river, including bear, coyote, fisher, deer, osprey and an occasional moose. We didn’t spy any big critters on our outing, but we did see a bald eagle’s nest.

We got hung up on rocks only once, but remember that this was when the river is at its highest. From the end of July through August, paddlers likely will have to time their runs just right. A good cloudburst could result in a good day for canoeing or kayaking.

“The bad news is that during the summer there are stretches that will be just about impassable. It’s pretty bony,” observed DEC forester John Gibbs. “The good news is it doesn’t take too much rain to bring the river up.”

Notwithstanding the rapids we encountered, a DEC leaflet describes our route as “very suitable for canoeing.” Below Rainbow Falls is another matter. The Grass goes over several falls and rapids in quick succession. Although the scenery is outstanding, the paddling is more technical. The leaflet suggests that this part of the river is more suitable for expert kayakers than for a couple of jamokes in a borrowed canoe.

“If you went over Rainbow Falls at the wrong time, it’s game over,” Gibbs points out.

We followed the carry trail to our shuttle car at Tooley Pond Road. Once we had secured the Old Town on the roof rack, Bushnell started laughing. “I would have loved to have seen the looks on our faces when we hit that first drop,” he said.

At that moment, I might have admitted that the water we were on was actually white, if he’s only bothered to ask.

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