Going with the flow
When Gov. George Pataki reached a deal with Champion International in 1998 to save 139,000 acres in the northern Adirondacks, canoeists and kayakers rejoiced at the paddling prospects: Stretches of five major rivers, long off limits, would be open to the public.
But the deal also made possible another marvelous trip that starts on a little-known pond called Madawaska Flow and continues up the pond’s inlet, Quebec Brook, into the heart of a boreal landscape rarely seen in the Adirondacks.
Birders especially will enjoy this trip. Madawaska Flow is one of the Park’s premier wetlands, teeming with birdlife. On our trip in late May, my colleague Dick Beamish and I saw herons, loons, ducks, kingfishers, red-winged blackbirds and assorted flycatchers.
To reach the flow, we drove 7.1 miles on a gravel logging road (the timberlands are protected by conservation easements) to a pullout beside the pond’s small dam. We later learned that we should have parked in a lot that we passed at 6.5. In the future, the main road beyond the lot may be gated (at least until the state develops a management plan for the area), and paddlers will be expected to portage down a side road that begins across from the lot.
On the day of our trip, the gate had been open for the owners of hunting camps. Although the state purchased the mile-long flow and the adjacent lands, several camps overlook the water. Under the terms of the Champion deal, the owners retained the right to use the camps until July 1 of this year. Eventually, the structures will be dismantled.
After putting in, we noticed that the water is warm by Adirondack standards and rather shallow. The lack of depth helps account for the tufts of grass, no bigger than foot stools, sticking out in many places. Besides these islets, the pond contains a number of genuine islands, some covered only with bog plants, some supporting trees as well.
We headed straight for one of the bog islands and entered an intimate cove for a close-up view of its wildflowers, which included bog laurel and leatherleaf. We continued paddling eastward and soon passed a beaver lodge at the edge of another island – the first of many lodges we would encounter on our journey. A little farther on, we passed two more islands and noticed wood-duck nesting boxes on a couple of white pines, presumably placed by hunters.
Madawaska Flow lies in a land of low hills. The most prominent peak in the neighborhood is 2,520-foot Rice Mountain. Rising just southeast of the pond, it formed a scenic backdrop for much of the day. It was in our sights as we made our way to Quebec Brook, and we skirted it as we proceeded up the inlet.
“When I first came to the Adirondacks, I thought I was hearing a generator starting up,” Dick said of the grouse’s drumming. “I couldn’t figure out what a motor was doing way back in the woods.”
Although it probably was a ruffed grouse, spruce grouse also inhabit these parts. The spruce grouse is rare in the Adirondacks, but it is found in boreal habitats. Its ritual drumming, however, sounds different.
After an hour of paddling, we thought we had left civilization behind, but then we came to a piney island with an abandoned hunting cabin in a state of collapse. (A huge beaver lodge next to the island was much better maintained.) On the mainland we saw a sprawling two-story cabin (a house, really) with a satellite dish on the lawn.
Eventually we came to a fork in the stream. The main branch was on the right, but we paddled up the left branch first, flushing a great-blue heron in front of us. The stream narrowed as it meandered through a broad peatland adorned with bog laurel, leatherleaf and cottongrass. We might have been in northern Canada. We followed the tapering stream for 20 minutes before a downed tree forced us to turn around.
Returning to the fork, we went up the main branch. It soon divided into several narrow channels snaking through an alder thicket. We took the widest channel and came to a beaver dam in no time. Figuring we’d run into more obstacles if we pushed on, we decided to turn around.
The day had been overcast, but the sun came out on our way back to Madawaska Flow. When we looked over our shoulders, we saw Jenkins Mountain rising in the south. The peak had been obscured earlier. On a clear day, paddlers would have the mountain in view as they traveled up the brook, making for an even more scenic trip.
We stopped for lunch on the island with the rundown cabin. With the sun out, the view was fetching: a still blue sheet of water, beaver lodges, lilies and water grasses, gnarled snags. Someday, if the cabin is removed, the island will make a great campsite.
We got back to our put-in about four hours after starting out. But first we checked out a curious feature on the western edge of Madawaska Flow – a canal-like channel that forms a huge semicircle, enabling paddlers to circumnavigate a large boggy mat. We went up the channel only a short distance, just past a hunting camp with an American flag flying outside. Right then the owner pulled up in an SUV and went inside.
Seeing this man, I realized how difficult it must be for him and his fellow sportsmen to give up their exclusive claims on this beautiful place. Nevertheless, their pain must be weighed against the pleasure that Madawaska Flow will give to the public for generations to come. My guess is that posterity will say the state did the right thing.
The brook, especially at first, appears to be just a narrow extension of the flow. We encountered no current as we paddled over yellow pondlilies and water grasses. The shores of the pond and the brook are lined with evergreens – spruce, balsam, tamarack and pine. It was totally quiet save for birdsong and spring peepers. Then we heard a low, muffled thumping: a grouse beating its wings to attract a mate.
DIRECTIONS: From Paul Smith’s College, at the intersection of NY 86 and NY 30, drive north on NY 30 for 9 miles to NY 458. Turn left and go 1.4 miles, looking for wooden sign for Madawaska Flow. Turn left onto gravel road and follow signs to the flow. You’ll reach a parking lot on the left at roughly 6.5 miles. Portage down a rough road that begins across from the lot.