Exploring 3 lakes and a river
By Christopher Angus
This water is cold. The ice has barely been out a week despite the unseasonably warm and snowless winter just past. Cold water and brisk winds capable of tipping our heavily laden canoe always seem to greet us here. But truthfully this is an uncomplicated and thoroughly enjoyable voyage, suitable for even moderately skilled canoeists. (Besides, cold weather has its advantages: On a day like this, you’re likely to see more ducks than paddlers.)
The best place to launch is on a sandy beach across from the quaint red firehouse that looks as though it has not answered the call since Holland’s Blue Mountain Lake Hotel burned in July of 1904. You may encounter modest whitecaps as you head out past the islands recently acquired by the state and continue east toward Eagle and Utowana lakes. Together, the three lakes make up the Eckford Chain.
Today’s adventurers no longer expect to stay in the great hotels or to have their routes navigated for them and gear carried by professional guides. We find our own way and make do with a lightweight tent. My many trips through the chain have generally continued on down the Marion River and finished at Raquette Lake village. But on a few occasions, I have also made the days- or even weeks-long continuation via Forked Lake, Long Lake, the Raquette River, Tupper Lake, down Moosehead Rapids (where I once took a very cold dunking) and on through the impounded waters of the Raquette all the way to the village of Potsdam.
Today’s route is a paddler’s fantasy, redolent with history. You can almost imagine the Towarloonda and Killoquah, steam yachts that once plied these waters, chugging along beside you. As you enter the channel into Eagle Lake, you’ll pass beneath the lovely stone and wood memorial bridge erected in 1891 by William West Durant in honor of his father, Thomas Durant.
Eagle and Utowana lakes are long and narrow – natural wind tunnels. Though the land here is privately owned, there are few camps, and so paddlers enjoy a feeling of solitude. Harold Hochschild’s former Great Camp, now a summer retreat for writers and artists, sits on the north shore of Eagle Lake. Hochschild, a major Adirondack figure, used to swim the seven-mile length of the Eckford Chain. Much of the land around the lakes is preserved through conservation easments made possible by the Hochschild family.
A half-mile above the dam at the foot of Utowana you’ll spot an inviting lean-to on a narrow corridor of state land. But it is too early to contemplate stopping. Continue on to the head of the Marion River Carry – a half-mile trek to the winding stream that empties into Raquette Lake.
Here a local entrepreneur is attempting to re-establish the Marion Carry Railroad that once ran along the portage trail. We discover that the dam at the head of the carry has been profusely posted and a new road scars the woods. According to the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, the landowner wants to open a sand-and-gravel pit nearby. Other plans call for a train depot, gift shop and boathouse. Yet the quiet seems to tell us that the days of luxury transportation in the wilderness are rightly past.
Today, as snowflakes fall and the temperature plummets, Jim and I haul our gear along the old rail bed to a put-in on the river. From this point, we snake through an increasingly wild marsh and swamp, as we proceed five miles to the rocky promontory that marks the entrance to Raquette Lake.
The snow begins to fall more heavily. Huge flakes float straight downward, as the headwind gives us a brief reprieve. In the sudden calm, the water surface flattens and reflects the sky. All at once, Jim exclaims, “Look at that!” And we both stare in wonder at a phenomenon I have never seen before. The reflections of the falling snowflakes on the water’s surface make it appear as though it is snowing both up and down at the same time. It is an unworldly thing to see, almost unbalancing us, as we seem perched between two dimensions.
All too quickly, conditions change and the strange image is gone. Once again, wind is our opponent. Raquette Lake’s long open reaches greet us with near gale-force blasts. Exploring the many miles of shoreline here can be a treat, for there are a number of interesting old camps, including Camp Pine Knot itself. But we balk at the high winds and turn back.
A more reasonable solution might be to do the trip in reverse, starting at Raquette Lake village. The wind would most likely be at your back and the best mountain views, including Blue Mountain dominating the eastern horizon, are in front of you. But speak softly of your plan, lest the wind gods, always ornery in spirit, reverse their thrust.
DIRECTIONS: If you plan to paddle west to Raquette Lake, put in at the beach on Blue Mountain Lake a half-mile west of the intersection of NY 30 and NY 28. If you choose to paddle east to Blue Mountain Lake, put in at the town beach in the hamlet of Raquette Lake.