Seven carries add up to one great day
By Mike Jarboe
Forget Edison, DaVinci and all those other folks. The true genius of the ages was the bloke who sat down one fine day and invented the vacation. Perhaps it was one of our distant forebears who moved to a sunnier cave for a week to get away from the grind of hunting and gathering.
This marvelous innovation stays with us today, much to the aggravation of bosses who have to fill in for those who fly the coop and of parents who have to listen to kids pound each other in the back seat. But all too often, work-weary vacationers jet off to a bigger rat race of crowds and stress than the one they left behind.
For those who want something completely different from Disney World or Atlantic City, Franklin County tourism officials have come up with the Soft Adventure—a guided tour of the wilderness meant to hark back to a less-harried, more genteel age. Several inns offer Soft Adventure package deals, but the one that caught our fancy was the Hotel Saranac’s Teddy Roosevelt Tour.
The tour takes visitors through the Seven Carries in the St. Regis Canoe Area, the same canoe-and-carry route that TR and his contemporaries followed at a time when an automobile was still a contraption that inspired wonder. You start at Upper St. Regis Lake and wend your way through Bog Pond, Bear Pond, Little Long Pond, Green Pond, St. Regis Pond and Little Clear Pond. Except on Upper St. Regis, motorboats are prohibited on these waters. It’s a nice workout, a beautiful way to spend a day and, for a tenderfoot like me, a comedy and a learning experience wrapped up in one.
The challenge was irresistible. The last time I’d been in a canoe was years ago, when a fisherman invited me to share his boat on the Mohawk River. His enthusiasm for my company waned markedly about 50 yards from shore when I shifted my weight and tipped us over, drenching both of us and sending one of his rods to Davy Jones’s locker. Would I commit the same mortal sin on this journey?
My colleague Richard and I arrived at the Hotel Saranac in the heart of Saranac Lake village in the late afternoon and enjoyed a more auspicious beginning to our vacation: a fantastic dinner at the A.P. Smith Restaurant in the hotel, which is run by the hotel school of Paul Smith’s College. After a good night’s rest in one of the hotel’s charming rooms, we had breakfast and met our guide, Brian MacDonnell of MacDonnell’s Outdoor Challenges in Lake Clear. We also were joined by Les Parrish, who works for the hotel and college.
On the way to Upper St. Regis, Brian, a big, beaming brute of a man, talked about the outdoors and his experience as a guide. I soon felt confident that he would be able to handle any trouble I would get myself into when we got out on the water or when I tried to lug a 17-foot canoe without destroying the boat and a large portion of the landscape.
At the put-in, I was shocked at the weight of our boats—a mere 40 pounds each. Wonderful invention, this Kevlar. As Les and Brian steadied the canoe, I gingerly stepped into the bow. “Do the paddles float?” I asked Brian, figuring I’d lose at least three or four along the way.
The canoes were surprisingly roomy. I’m nearly 6-foot-3, and this boat gave me more leg room than most small cars do. I glanced back at Les, who would be handling the stern by dint of his superior experience at maneuvering, and I tried to imagine how angry he’d be once I’d capsized the thing and gotten us both soaked out in the middle of a beautiful nowhere.
Whoosh… off we went. “Hold the paddle at the top,” Brian advised after studying my grip, which I had modeled after that of a peewee hockey player. “Most of your power comes from the beginning part of the stroke.” Thereafter, despite the occasional backslide into rookie technique, I was able to keep us moving at a nice clip. The water on Upper St. Regis was a little choppy. Hearing the putt-putt of a motorboat, I paddled harder, eager to get away from civilization and closer to nature.
Seven carries means, well, seven carries. And so we soon came to shore for a short jaunt to Bog Pond, which was more like it. Absolute, stunning silence save for the croaking of bullfrogs and the protestations of birds who seemed reluctant to share their paradise with unfeathered friends. This carry was an easy one for me: I took the paddles and watched as Les and Brian hoisted the boats over their heads and walked the hundred yards to the next put-in.
Brian rattled off the names of the many birds that sang to us as we snaked through the tiny pond. Young Teddy himself had made a list of 15 birds he’d identified on the Seven Carries, and the list is available in the packet that is given out to those taking the tour.
“Zu-zu-zee,” Brian said.
“Zu-zu-zee,” came the reply from high amid the trees.
“What was that?” I asked.
“The zu-zu-zee bird,” Brian replied. Guess I couldn’t argue with that.
“Actually,” he said, “it’s the black-throated green warbler.”
We set out again, now on Bear Pond. The paddling started to feel more natural, although my shoulder muscles began to tighten a bit. I watched as Brian propelled his boat through the water with what seemed like almost no effort. I listened to the soothing schuss sound as our canoe glided across the water and as loons cried out in the distance.
At our next stop, Little Long Pond, we saw an osprey returning to its nest. Later on, at another pond, we watched two loons as they dived for food, shooting underwater and popping up far away with their hapless quarry. But the high point of our journey came when we paddled near a tiny island almost submerged by the rains and spotted three loon eggs huddled in a nest. It was an uncommon sight, even for experienced guides. How lucky could we get?
As for the most comic sight—that would be me carrying the canoe on the trail to Green Pond. Hoisting it over my head, I suddenly felt like a wobbling gyroscope when I tried to walk.
“Pretend it’s a 17-foot hat,” Brian suggested, and it was both funny and good advice.
We made it safely to Green Pond, and to St. Regis Pond, and finally to Little Clear Pond. In just a few short hours, I had learned to paddle a canoe and identify the call of the zu-zu-zee bird. And I had followed in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt, a great outdoorsman and a great hero. As I stepped out of the canoe at the last take-out, I suffered the only water-related accident of the trip: my pant cuffs got wet.
I’m ready for San Juan Hill.