The Little River

A lot to the Little

By Phil Brown

The Little River meanders through marshes and alder swamps in the flatlands of the western Adirondacks. Photo by Pat Hendrick

I knew the Little River was wild. I could tell that by looking at a map, where it appears as a blue squiggly line winding through a vast wetland. In the section I planned to paddle, the Little crosses under only one road in 12 miles.

But is it Wild? That’s what I wondered as I drove to the put-in near Star Lake. To be more precise, could the Little be classified as Wild under the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act?

One requirement of the law is that a Wild river be free of impoundments. If this included beaver dams, the Little wouldn’t stand a chance. On our trip, photographer Pat Hendrick and I encountered three dozen beaver dams – 20 in the first 3½ miles.

We also encountered a gaggle of geese, garrulous blackbirds, hopping mice, wild orchids, riffles and rapids, brook trout, tracks in the sand, a delightful waterfall, and a mysterious creature making noise in the woods.

In 1975, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) proposed that the Little be designated a “study river,” a preliminary step toward classification as Wild, Scenic or Recreational. Both steps require an act of the state legislature. Since the legislature didn’t act, the proposal died.

But Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) believes that the Little – along with several other rivers in the Park – deserves the extra protection from development and motorboats that comes with inclusion in the rivers system.

Woodworth expects to canoe the Little sometime this summer to build a case for it. We couldn’t wait that long, so Pat and I visited the river in early June. We put in at the bridge on Route 3, just east of the village of Star Lake, paddled south and west, and took out at Aldrich, a community of hunting camps miles from the main road.

For the first 3½ miles, from Route 3 to Youngs Road, we meandered through a large marsh under a big blue sky. The river twists back on itself so often that at the outset we wondered if we would ever get out of earshot of the highway. Slowly, but surely, we did, and we found ourselves deep inside a realm of tall green grass and brown cattails ruled over by a vociferous army of red-winged blackbirds.

It certainly seemed Wild to me. State regulations, however, usually require a Wild stretch of river to be at least five miles long and at least a half-mile from roads. Another strike against it is that this stretch of the Little has suffered from pollution, a legacy of the old iron mines outside Star Lake.

If this part of the stream fails to meet the Wild criteria, ADK would push for it to be classified as Scenic. A Scenic river can be less than five miles long. As defined by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Scenic rivers have limited road access and are “essentially primitive and undeveloped.” Since there are no signs of civilization along the entire stretch, it would seem to be a shoo-in. Much of it, in fact, flows through the Five Ponds Wilderness.

At Youngs Road, the river enters a large culvert. In early June, the water was high enough to enable us to kayak through the pipe, but paddlers sometimes have to portage over the road. Because of all the beaver dams, it took us almost two hours to get this far. We paddled or nudged our boats over most of the dams, but in summer, when the water level drops, you may have a harder time. I enjoyed myself, but I can understand why many paddlers choose to put in at Youngs Road instead.

The wooden abutments of a former bridge are the only signs of civilization for 8 1/2 miles. Photo by Pat Hendrick

Not that the Little from here to Aldrich is free of obstacles. Within a few minutes we came to a nasty bit of blowdown that necessitated pulling our boats through the weeds for 50 yards. Soon after, we encountered more blowdown and then a beaver dam that required a carry. Pat and I started to despair, but after this we had an hour of easy paddling through an alder swamp, until we reached a small gorge and Schuler’s Falls.

Just above the falls, we pulled off to the right and clambered up a steep bank. There we found an old woods road that led to a clearing and then past a gravel pit to a path in the woods – an informal carry trail. Before portaging, we explored another path that runs alongside the river, with several views of the gorge. (Don’t try to carry on this path; it stops before reaching the end of the rapids below the falls.)

The gorge had been in private hands until the state bought it in the 1990s. As a result, almost the entire 8.5-mile stretch of the Little from Youngs Road to Aldrich lies in the Forest Preserve. We saw only one posted sign farther upstream, at a spot where the river barely touches a corner of private property. Except for the wooden abutments of a vanished bridge, we saw no man-made structures.

After the portage, Pat and I put in just upstream from a boulder garden. Over the next hour or so, we ran several riffles and class I rapids, separated by stretches of flatwater. Although I generally had little trouble navigating the rapids in my small kayak, I did get hung up on rocks more than once. In low water, a paddler probably would need to line the boat in several places.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

This stretch of the Little is bordered by tall spires of balsam and tamarack, but after a while the river starts winding again through an alder swamp. Often we spotted animal tracks on the small sand beaches that dot the river. It’s no wonder that Peter O’Shea, a veteran tracker, says the Little is his favorite river.

“I’ve never seen a river with more animal tracks,” he told me shortly before my trip. “Bear, coyote, deer, beaver, otter – there are more tracks there than in a barnyard.”

Having been out of earshot of civilization for hours, we were startled to hear a vehicle rumble past somewhere on the left, apparently coming from Streeter Lake. Although it can’t be seen from the water, the dirt road that leads from Aldrich to the lake parallels the river for a while. Checking the map, I saw we were in the homestretch.

Just before the take-out, we navigated through one last boulder garden. You’ll know it’s the last one by a big iron ring in a rock near the shore. Barbara McMartin says in her guidebook Fun on Flatwater that the ring had once been used to hold a log boom. Her book, by the way, recommends making a round trip up the Little from Aldrich as far as the riffles and rapids. That would be a great trip, too – about 4.5 miles each way – and suitable for novice paddlers.

A minute later, we paddled to the left bank, pulled our boats ashore and followed a faint path to our shuttle car, which we had parked on the road to Streeter Lake.

For most of the last 8.5 miles, we had been far from roads. We paddled through marsh, forest and alder swamps, carried around a gorge, seen not a soul. A good argument can be made that the Little River from Aldrich to Youngs Road should be classified as Wild. If it were so classified, jet-skiers and powerboaters would be officially banned, though given the numerous beaver dams and rapids, they stay away from here anyway. It would also prohibit snowmobilers from crossing the river.

Downriver from Aldrich, the Little flows through private land for about 6 miles until reaching the Oswegatchie. This is for whitewater paddlers only, capable of navigating Class II and Class III rapids. The state stocks this stretch with brown trout and has obtained access rights for fishermen. Although the land is private, it is largely undeveloped. No doubt this part of the river also could benefit from protection.

Peter O’Shea feels strongly that the Little should be included in the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System. “I think that’s a fantastic idea,” he said. “It’s an idea whose time was here and never seized on, and it should be now.”

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

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