Canoeists delight in a trip on two branches of the Grass River
By Phil Brown
The Adirondacks is blessed with lovely waterfalls. A number of them can be found along the Grass River. And the best of those is Lampson Falls, which can be reached by a short walk or a longer paddle.
On a gorgeous day last fall, Carol and I opted for the paddle. I had done this trip several years earlier, while research-ing my guidebook Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, and was curious to see if things had changed. As it turned out, the river and the falls were pretty much the same—that is, beautiful.
Our journey began on the Middle Branch of the Grass and ended on the Main Branch just above the falls. Thus, some kind of shuttle was called for. We first drove to the Lampson Falls trailhead and left a bicycle in the woods. After we finished our paddle, Carol pedaled the 1.8 miles back to the car while I carried our two solo canoes a half-mile from the river to the trailhead.
Don’t be fooled by the short shuttle distance: we enjoyed eight and a half miles of paddling. Most of the time we were in a wild landscape, though we passed a few camps and occasion-ally heard cars on the county highway. We didn’t see anyone else on the water, unless you count the herons and geese.
The put-in is easy to miss. It’s marked by a tiny “Canoe Access” sign on the west side of County Route 27 in the town of Clare. We pulled in and parked in a grassy clearing. After gathering our gear, we carried our boats down a short mown trail to the north bank of the Middle Branch.
Heading downstream, Carol and I delighted in the scenery, which is unlike that in most of the Adirondack Park. There were no mountains or hills. Instead of woods, we saw lush meadows, blue sky, and puffy clouds. Carol leaned back in her canoe to drink it all in.
Here and there the winding river was so shallow that the bellies of our canoes rubbed the sandy bottom. I mentioned to Carol that the water is deeper on the outer curves of streams.
“Really? I didn’t know that,” she replied. “That’s good to know.”
I stopped myself from launching into a dis-course on hydrology and centrifugal forces. I didn’t want to appear to be “mansplaining” so early in the trip. Anyway, I don’t know anything about that stuff.
After a half-mile, the banks became more wooded, and we soon had to get out of our boats to pull over downed trees in two places. In a bit under a mile, we reached the confluence with the Main Branch. For a short trip, you could turn right here and paddle about 2.5 miles downriver to the falls. Carol and I, however, turned left to see how far we could make it upriver.
We had no trouble paddling against the gentle current. We were heading south now; sunlight glistened on the river. “It’s so pretty how the water is sparkling,” Carol remarked.
We then heard gunshots in the distance. “Bear season,” Carol said. She was joking. More likely, someone was taking target practice.
A half-mile from the confluence, we reached a giant logjam. It hadn’t been there when I canoed the Grass in 2010, making me wonder if it was a legacy of Tropical Storm Irene, which swept through the Adirondacks the following year. We dragged our boats through the thick brush on the banks to bypass the obstacle.
At 2.1 miles from our initial put-in, we passed a camp on the right. We also spotted a State Forest sign. It’s worth noting here that the Grass in these parts flows along the edge of the Park, sometimes in, sometimes out of it. If you see a State Forest sign, you know you’re outside the Blue Line; if you see a Forest Preserve sign, you’re inside it. Don’t expect to see many of these signs: despite the lack of development, much of the land on both sides of the river is privately owned.
At 3.2 miles, we came to a camp at the foot of low, rocky rapids. Turning around, we enjoyed a leisurely paddle back to the confluence. Carol led the way until I passed her by taking an inside curve.
“Staying in the deep water, huh?” I inquired as I sped past.
“I like to cut corners,” I said.
“How shallow of you,” she rejoined.
“That’s my current thinking, anyway,” I said.
When we got to the logjam, we opted to pull over it instead of going around. I don’t know if it was any easier, but it almost seemed like fun. After climbing over most of the pile, we slipped our canoes underneath the last big tree and resumed our journey.
Soon we reached the confluence again. By now it was late afternoon, with half of the river in shadow, half of it aglow in soft sunlight. “The sky is gorgeous; it’s like a painting,” Carol said.
We passed a few more camps and then, round-ing a bend, came to an unusual sight: a hill. Its wooded slope was dotted with the yellows, reds, and rusts of early autumn. Apart from one or two tall sandy banks, this was the first bit of topographic relief we had encountered since putting in three hours earlier.
TAKEOUT: From the hamlet of Cranberry Lake, drive west on NY 3 for less than a mile to Tooley Pond Road, reached just before a bridge over the Oswegatchie River. Turn right and go 16.9 miles to the road’s end at County 27. Turn right and go 3.0 miles to a parking area on the left at the Lampson Falls trailhead. N 44° 24.2992’, W 75° 03.6290’
PUT-IN: From the Lampson Falls trailhead, turn around and drive south on County 27 for 1.8 miles to a right turn at a small “Canoe Access” sign. If you cross the Middle Branch, you’ve gone a little too far. N 44° 22.7769’, W 75° 03.8388′
Shortly after, we came to an island. I went left, Carol went right. We passed each other halfway round and then joined company again, unable to stay apart.
“I hear water,” Carol said less than a mile farther on. “Either that or a car.”We were now on alert. One thing you don’t want to do is go over the falls.
We were a half-mile from the takeout, as the river flows, but we must have been closer as the crow flies.
The falls were quite loud as we approached. On the right bank we saw a bedrock outcrop sloping into the water, opposite a rock island (it may be submerged in high water). Just beyond was another bedrock ledge, where we took out. There was no sign at the takeout. Nor did we see a sign warning paddlers of the cascade ahead. Since there was hardly any current, though, we never felt in danger of getting swept over the falls.
Hoisting our canoes, we followed a well-de-fined path 150 yards to a woods road that leads to Lampson Falls. The half-mile road starts at the trailhead on County 27. It’s closed to motor vehicles, but it has been hardened with fine gravel to facilitate access by wheelchair users. We left our boats near the junction and turned left to see the falls. In a moment we came to a zigzagging wheelchair ramp and followed it to a lookout.
At Lampson Falls, the Grass is a hundred feet wide and drops forty feet over sloping bedrock. Although not the longest cascade in the Park, the thundering roar, the roiling foam, and the swirling mist attest to its power. Indeed, sawmills operated here in the 1800s and early 1900s.
In Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, Paul Jamieson writes that a French noblewoman once declared that Lampson Falls surpassed in beauty any natural landmark in her native country. Perhaps she was being kind. Perhaps she had never been to Mont Blanc. In any case, the falls are worth a close look. I scrambled to the bedrock next to the cascade. Carol walked down to a beach beside the large pool below the falls. If not for the late hour and the nip in the air, she would have gone for a swim.
While we took photos, two men appeared at the top of the falls with beer cans in their hands—the first humans we had seen all afternoon. They took a few swigs and then left. Carol and I left too. When we returned to the canoes, Carol went ahead to get her bike and ride back to the car. Meanwhile, I carried first one, then the other canoe toward the county highway.
When I got to the trailhead, I peeked inside the register. Evidently, not everyone who visits bothers to sign in. Only three parties had registered all day, and yet there were ten cars at the trailhead that morning. Flipping through the pages, I found that visitors from several states—Connecticut, Kentucky, Illinois, and North Carolina—had signed the book over the past week.
Another party hailed from San Remo, Italy.
Carol and I were lucky. We had to drive only eighty miles from Saranac Lake. That’s a heck of a lot easier than going to Mont Blanc.