Unwind on the Kunjamuk

Yellow pond lilies decorate the water on the approach to Elm Lake.

Text and photos by Mark Bowie

Though short, shallow, and lazy, the Kunjamuk River doesn’t lack for grace or beauty. For an overview, prospective paddlers would, ideally, fly over it in an airplane; barring that, they could try Google Earth. Either would reveal the serpentine and remote nature of this small waterway and the difference in character between the upper and lower sections.

“The Dam Historian,” Mike Prescott, is in his element on the Kunjamuk.

From its ultimate source—eight-acre South Pond—at nearly 2,400 feet in elevation in the mountains of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, the Kunjamuk carves a circuitous route west, falling off the state land. It turns ninety degrees and flows south into a valley about seven hundred feet below. The valley is remarkably flat, a narrow corridor scoured and leveled by glaciers over ten thousand years ago. The river wobbles in a tight series of meanders down to Elm Lake, then continues south, intersecting the Sacandaga River at Kunjamuk Bay 3.5 miles below the lake. As the crow flies the Kunjamuk River covers some thirteen miles. Using a high-resolution National Geographic topographic map and measuring device to figuratively unwind the meanders puts the actual length at just over twenty miles.

The Kunjamuk Valley has a storied past, one of potential and exploitation, its considerable natural resources coveted by lumber barons, rail tycoons, and highway engineers. Its timber has been harvested for more than a century and still is today, and its glacial sands and gravels are quarried from numerous pits for construction and road building.

Mike checks his bearings on the marsh above Elm Lake.

The flatness of the valley made it attractive for both road and rail passage. The Old Kunjamuk Road was the main route between Speculator and Indian Lake in the nineteenth century. It ran up the river valley and continued north, east of Indian Lake. It then snaked west along the Cedar River, turned north, skirting Stephens and Cascade ponds, and went on to Blue Mountain Lake.  It was used by lumbermen into the 1940s but was eventually displaced for public transport by Route 30, paved in 1947. The majority of the Kunjamuk Trail, a popular hiking track, follows the old road through Siamese Ponds Wilderness at the north end of the valley.

The Lower Kunjamuk—that below Elm Lake—is readily accessible and commonly paddled in an out-and-back day trip; only an adventurous few will challenge the crookedness and obstructions of the Upper reaches. I put in at Kunjamuk Bay in early June with Mike Prescott, an Adirondack guide and intrepid paddler who has traced the 1880s routes of George Washington Sears, a popular outdoors writer, from one end of the Adirondack wilderness to the other. He’s also a former history teacher passionate about exploring Adirondack history. With a wry grin, he tells me his work on the early damming of Adirondack waters has earned him the dubious label “the Dam Historian.”

Kunjamuk Cave lies a short distance from the river.

Paddlers can alternately start on the outlet of Lake Pleasant—the Sacandaga River—at Speculator for a 1.6-mile flatwater paddle to Kunjamuk Bay. The bay is rimmed with pickerelweed. The Sacandaga continues east, winding through more marshes before dropping over a series of dramatic waterfalls on its way to Wells. We crossed the bay to where yellow ribbons tied to swamp bushes marked the Kunjamuk’s narrow entrance. It was an idyllic spring day: seventy-five degrees, blue sky, and high cirrus peppered with puffy white clouds, a gentle breeze. The spring foliage glowed electric lime green. Despite the calendar, black flies and mosquitoes were surprisingly absent. (I spent that night at nearby Moffitt Beach State Campground, with hordes of mosquitoes and black flies. While swimming in early evening, I could see thousands of them zigzagging over Sacandaga Lake.) On the river, conditions were perfect.

The Kunjamuk is consistently narrow, languid, and just a few feet deep all the way to Elm Lake.  I wonder how it sustains a navigable flow across the seasons, but it does. It winds through the east side of the valley beneath Rift Hill and Cave Hill. Lyme Timber owns the land on both sides, but from the water we saw no evidence of logging. The river sometimes wants to double back on itself; there are numerous sharp turns to test paddlers’ maneuverability. In a couple of places multiple channels confronted us. Once selecting the wrong one and dead-ending in a cul-de-sac, we had to study the bending river grasses to return to the main channel.

The cave attracts hikers, too.

The name Kunjamuk—spelled “Cungemunk” on maps until the mid-1800s—is an Indian or French term. I don’t know its original meaning but guess that long ago someone stepped out of his birchbark canoe and into a pile of some kind of muck, which still forms the banks. Maples, alders, and other deciduous trees root en masse in them. Cardinal flowers, Canada lilies, wild orchids, turtleheads, joe-pye weed, buttonbush, and pickerelweed add colorful accents. The riverbed itself is often gravelly, providing good footing when hauling over the many beaver dams. More than a dozen confronted us. Fortunately, with the high spring runoff, we were able to glide over or, at worst, vigorously paddle over all but four. Debris in the riverside bushes several feet above the river’s surface attested to the historically high water levels in 2011.

Sporadically, mysterious cone-shaped piles of stone rose above water level. Mike and I speculate that they were crafted by swirling meltwater.

Numerous beaver lodges poked above the foliage. Beaver and otter slides were plentiful, and deer and bird tracks were imprinted on the mud.  We encountered a playful otter near the mouth of the river and a couple more upstream. At one point, three turkey vultures wheeled overhead.

About 1.7 miles from the put-in we pulled our boats ashore at a logging-road bridge for a 0.4-mile walk east to the enigmatic Kunjamuk Cave. This egg-shaped cavity was dug maybe thirty feet straight into exposed bedrock. A skylight lets in sunlight. No one knows who dug the cave, but it was likely mineral prospectors. Iron, graphite, and garnet have been mined nearby. Mike recounted a story that the hermit French Louie would go on drinking binges in the village about twice a year and sleep them off here.

A second logging-road bridge crosses the river another 0.5 miles upstream. Both bridges make handy lunch stops, especially since the dense brush and muddy shores impede riverside picnicking.

Tiger swallowtail butterflies and ebony jewelwing damselflies fluttered above us all day.  Several times I spied Mike bent over in his boat, photographing damselflies hitching a ride on his knees.  We passed wood turtles sunning on a log, and just south of Elm Lake, we startled a great blue heron fishing the shallows. Luxuriant aquatic grasses bloomed here, glowing green in the sunshine. They carpeted the river bottom from side to side, gently swaying in the current. The river widened, boreal bog took over on both sides, and soon we entered Elm Lake, about one mile above the second bridge.

Elm is an elongated oval, 0.7 miles long, in a bowl between low hills. East Mountain and Dug Mountain rise to the northwest (Dug’s conical peak is distinctive). Though three private camps sit on the east shore, the lake feels isolated. I envy the occasional fishermen and hunters the magnificent starry nights they must spin their tales under.

The Dam Historian explained that in 1922 there was a proposal to build a dam on the Kunjamuk between Kunjamuk Cave and the outlet of Elm Lake. Intended to control flooding, it would have raised the lake level thirty-seven feet and backed up water ten miles into the Upper Kunjamuk. It was never built.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

The hills above the southwest shore of Elm once hosted the Rhinelander Estate, owned by the secretive Philip Rhinelander. He married eighteen-year-old Mary Colden Hoffman in 1814. She gave birth to a girl four years later. Philip loved his wife but was intensely jealous. He sequestered her in their remote home by threat and force. She tried to get messages out, but he found them and tore them up. A peddler who engaged her in conversation at the front door was found dead on the estate the following spring. A local servant girl who befriended Mrs. Rhinelander was also found dead. The lady herself died prematurely, only four years into the marriage. Some townspeople suspected Philip had slowly poisoned her. He remained at the estate until 1823 and died in 1830. Relatives occupied the mansion for a short time, then abandoned it. It burned in 1874. Today trees grow through the foundation ruins.

Our pleasant breeze strengthened to wind, ruffling the surface. We rode the waves to the far end, knowing we’d have to battle them on the return. Most paddlers turn around at Elm Lake. The downstream journey back to Kunjamuk Bay will take an hour or so, completing a ten-mile round trip. We couldn’t turn back yet. Beckoned by the quiet blue ribbon of the Upper Kunjamuk winding toward a mountain panorama, we paddled another half-mile upstream, pulling over a couple large beaver dams. East and Dug mountains loomed to our left. In the distance a copse of evergreens rose in the middle of the valley, with Upper Pine and Mossy mountains to the right. We took a side channel into a still lagoon. Oversize lily pads and yellow blossoms floated in the blue-and-white sky mirrored perfectly on the surface. Scale changes here. The lilies grow big, the sky and the panoramic vista expand. Beyond, the Upper Kunjamuk winds for miles into the mountains. Up there it’s a different river from the one we’ve paddled: wilder, more remote. We drifted silently, tantalized by the beauty beyond.

DIRECTIONS:

Kunjamuk Bay: Put in from a small dirt and grass parking area on the north side of Route 30, 1.2 miles south and east of the bridge over the outlet of Lake Pleasant in Speculator.

Sacandaga River at Speculator: Park in the large Speculator Ball Field/Pavilion parking lot and put in the outlet of Lake Pleasant (the Sacandaga River) at the east end of the lot.

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