Paddlers find solitude in High Peaks
By Phil Brown
There are some things that you expect to find along the trail to Duck Hole in May: mud, black flies, and wildflowers and hobblebush in bloom. And some that might surprise you, such as two middle-aged men schlepping canoes.
They were Donald Perryman Jr. and Rick Cerminara, both of Saranac Lake, both in their fifties. I met them about a mile up the trail from Henderson Lake. Neither had paddled on Duck Hole before, but they were drawn to the possibility while studying a map.
“Rick and I are always getting each other in trouble on stuff like this,” Perryman later told me.
I was surprised to see them because I assumed that the only person carrying a canoe to Duck Hole on this day would be me.
Duck Hole is one of the most remote and most scenic water bodies in the High Peaks Wilderness. With its two lean-tos and mountain views, the pond is beloved by hikers of the Northville-Placid Trail. The trail passes by Duck Hole some twenty-four miles from Long Lake and twelve miles from Lake Placid.
Hikers interested in getting to Duck Hole by the shortest route start at Tahawus. From the Upper Works trailhead, it’s a seven-mile trek through Preston Pass.
That’s still a long way to carry a canoe. Thankfully, paddlers have an easier option. In 2008, the state bought 6,800 acres near Tahawus from the Open Space Institute, which had purchased the land from NL Industries five years earlier. The tract includes Henderson Lake and the two Preston Ponds (Upper and Lower). When OSI bought the waterways, it opened them to the public for the first time in 175 years. Now they’re part of the forever-wild Forest Preserve. Canoeists can paddle across Henderson, portage to Preston Ponds, and then paddle across the two ponds to reach Duck Hole.
Easier is not easy. You still have four carries, totaling about two miles, but a journey to Duck Hole is doable as a day trip if you have a strong back and/or a lightweight canoe. If that’s too strenuous an undertaking, you can limit yourself to Henderson—a two-mile lake with bays and marshes to explore and some of the best views in the Adirondacks to be had from a canoe.
The Upper Works trailhead is at the end of County Route 25 in Newcomb. The road parallels the Hudson River as it passes the abandoned NL mine, an eighteenth-century blast furnace, and the ruins of Adirondac, once a bustling mining settlement.
After parking, I hoisted my carbon-fiber canoe on my shoulder and headed north on the Indian Pass trail, an old gravel road marked by red disks. (Those with canoe carts will find the trail friendly to wheels.) In less than a quarter-mile, I crossed the Hudson and then turned left on a short road that leads to Henderson Lake, reached 0.3 miles from the trailhead.
The put-in is next to a large berm that impounds the lake. Before embarking, I walked along the top of the berm to a concrete spillway where the mighty Hudson begins its 306-mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean. I found the man-made setting slightly disconcerting, but once I got out on the lake, I ceased carping about Henderson’s artificiality and commenced gawking at the scenery.
Paddling up a narrow bay, I found myself gazing at the 4,607-foot summit of Santanoni Peak. Turning around, I took in a view of another High Peak, 4,714-foot Mount Colden. Upon reaching the main body of the lake, I enjoyed mountain vistas in all directions.
Apart from the dam, there is no development on the lake. If you’re just paddling Henderson, you can spend several hours making a circuit and poking around the marshes near Indian Pass Brook, at the northeast end of the lake, and Santanoni Brook, at the southwest end. The northeast marsh affords a grand view of Indian Pass and the huge cliffs on Wallface. The southeast marsh offers a close-up of Santanoni Peak. You can paddle a short distance up the winding inlet. On the return trip across the lake, you enjoy a vista that includes MacNaughton Mountain, Wallface, Mount Marshall, Colden, Mount Adams, and the North River Mountains.
I saved my exploration of the lake for later in the day. My first objective was to get to Duck Hole. From the put-in, it’s a 1.3-mile paddle to a takeout on the northwest shore, just east of a stream that enters the lake after flowing over a waterfall. OSI built a lean-to nearby, set back from the water. A short path leads from the lean-to to the Duck Hole trail.
The carry from Henderson to Upper Preston is 1.7 miles, by far the longest of the day. For the first mile or so, the route is fairly level and—at least in mid-May—quite wet and muddy. I ran into Perryman and Cerminara just before the trail begins the short climb to Preston Pass. They were adjusting their gear.
Like me, each was carrying a lightweight solo canoe. I didn’t ask how much their boats weigh, but I’d guess no more than twenty pounds. (My carbon-fiber model weighs only twelve pounds). After a chat, I resumed my portage and soon reached the height of land—an elevation gain of about four hundred feet in 1.3 miles. From there, the trail descends briefly and threads through the narrow pass before reaching the east shore of Upper Preston. A sign near the put-in indicates that it’s another 3.1 miles by trail to the lean-tos on Duck Hole. Paddlers reduce that distance by a half-mile.
Once on Upper Preston, I paddled down the eastern bay and soon entered the main part of the pond. OSI still owns a hunting cabin and a small parcel on the south shore. (When it sold the Tahawus Tract, the group also retained ownership of the fire tower on Mount Adams.) The seventy-two-acre pond offers views of Henderson Mountain to the south, MacNaughton to the northeast, and the Sawtooth Mountains farther away in the northwest. As I approached the outlet, the pond and the vistas narrowed. The outlet is too rocky to paddle. An unmarked carry trail—less than a tenth of a mile—begins roughly fifty feet left of the outlet. Look for an opening in the leatherleaf. The paddle across Upper Preston is a mile.
Crossing Lower Preston Pond, which is a bit smaller, I delighted in more views of remote peaks, including Seymour Mountain and the Sewards. The outlet starts a little west of a wooded island. Though shallow and rocky at first, the stream soon deepens. In less than a quarter-mile, I took out at a grassy bank on the left. The unmarked carry trail starts just before shallow rapids. Do not try to run the rapids: there is a waterfall around the bend.
This carry, up and over a knoll, is even shorter than the previous one. Of the three ponds, Duck Hole has the best views. In addition to mountains already mentioned—Seymour, the Sewards, the Sawtooth Range, and MacNaughton—you can see the summits of Panther Peak and Santanoni Peak, both of which rise above four thousand feet, as well as the fire tower on Adams.
I had lunch in the lean-to near the Duck Hole dam, the start of the Cold River—the only major river in the Adirondacks that lies entirely within a designated Wilderness Area (it flows into the Raquette south of Long Lake). Built in the 1930s, the timber crib dam is deteriorating. Unless it’s repaired Duck Hole may someday be transformed into a wetland. Given the dam’s remoteness, however, rehabilitating it would be a difficult and costly project. Many hikers want the dam to be fixed, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation has yet to decide what to do.
As I ate my sandwich, I watched Perryman and Cerminara paddle across Duck Hole. They stopped at a second lean-to a stone’s throw away. I went over to talk and asked what they thought of the carry to Preston Ponds.
“Easier than I thought,” Perryman said. “Wait, are you going to write about this? Then it’s hard as hell.”
Perryman and Cerminara are hunting and fishing guides who were doing reconnaissance. They said they may bring canoeing clients to Duck Hole. Both of the Preston Ponds and Duck Hole hold brook trout.
Bidding them good luck, I set out to explore Duck Hole and its inlets. If you haul a canoe this far, you should spend as much time as possible on this little jewel. At the very least, try going up Roaring Brook, the northern inlet. I paddled up the winding stream for five minutes before encountering blowdown. Upon returning to the mouth, I marveled in the view of Panther and Santanoni—perhaps the best vista on Duck Hole.
After I had my fill of scenery, I began the journey back to Henderson Lake. The long carry from Upper Preston to Henderson Lake, which is mostly downhill, took less than an hour.
The round trip from Tahawus to Duck Hole is usually a full day, but if you have surplus time and energy, you can get better acquainted with the big lake. Another option is to set up camp at the lean-to or one of the three tent sites on Henderson and spend one day on the lake and one day making the journey to Duck Hole.
From Northway Exit 29, drive 18 miles west on County 2 (Boreas Road) to County 25, the access road to Tahawus. Turn right and go 7.9 miles to the parking lot at the end. You will need to bear left at a junction 4.4 miles from the Boreas Road.