Way up north, a secluded river flows through cathedral-like corridors of stately spruce, tamarack, balsam fir and white pine. The duotone dark-green and black waterscape looks ancient and primitive. Straight passages give way upstream to serpentine segments that wobble across the valley. They’re often lined with alders, but when the alders peel away, the boreal forest reappears.
This is the realm of the spruce grouse, gray jay, black-backed woodpecker, palm warbler and boreal chickadee. The river flows through classic taiga, the subarctic evergreen forest, but this is not Canada. It’s the Jordan River, which drains the remote glaciated country east of Carry Falls Reservoir in the northwest corner of the Adirondack Park.
In September, I joined Tom McGuire, chairman of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Conservation Committee, and club members Jacki Bave and Dan Dolan on a two-day trip to survey the Jordan, whose future is tangled up in a debate, so typical of the Adirondacks, over just what to do with the land in this part of the Park.
The Adirondack Council has proposed creating a 73,300-acre Boreal Wilderness, with the Jordan at its heart. Since most of the land remains in private hands, this is a long-range goal, but environmentalists want to see motor vehicles banned from the state land in the region. Colton Supervisor Hank Ford, however, wants to open the public land to snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. He has obtained a grant to build a bridge over the Raquette River that would provide motorized access to the Jordan watershed.
In August, the Adirondack Park Agency split the difference, ruling that lands west of the Lassiter Haul Road, a logging-truck route bisecting the region, be classified as Wild Forest, which could permit some motorized use, and that the lands east of the road be classified as Primitive, where motor vehicles would be prohibited. The decision pleased Ford but upset many preservationists.
All the fuss gave us a hankering to see the Jordan for ourselves. We also wanted to assess its status under the state’s Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers (WSR) System. The Jordan is classified as Scenic, but perhaps, we thought, it is deserving of Wild status, which would give it more protection, including a prohibition on motorized use.
Just reaching the river requires some effort. Access to the upper reaches is blocked by a private gate at Kildare, five miles north of Tupper Lake, so most visitors approach from the downstream end. “The difficult access doesn’t prevent human use but limits it,” Jacki observed. And that’s part of its charm.
We put in at the Parmenter Site, an informal campground owned by Reliant Energy on the southwest shore of Carry Falls Reservoir. It’s open to the public, and there’s no fee to camp, park or launch boats. The reservoir is one of six along the Raquette River northwest of Tupper Lake. Formed in 1950, it is the fourth-largest lake (more than 6,000 acres) in the Adirondack Park.
We paddled due north, bound for a take-out just north of the Jordan’s mouth. For a reservoir, Carry Falls is surprisingly scenic. Several islands dot the surface. Mixed forests of deciduous trees and pines, interspersed with spindly spruce, crowd the shores. Within a half-mile we encountered a bald eagle perched on a stump near shoreline. A loon swam in the distance, its calls echoing off the banks.
The reservoir level was 10 feet below high waterline, exposing sandy stretches alternating with boulder fields—glacial debris sluiced and rounded by wind and waves. We paddled 1.7 miles to the mouth of the Jordan. The cabins of the Jordan Club are scattered in the adjacent forest. Our take-out was a few minutes farther north, marked by two rusted 1940s trucks above a fine sand beach. From here a 1.5-mile jeep trail that club members call the Jordan Road leads to the calm waters upriver.
We had known not to try to paddle up the Jordan directly from the reservoir. Paul Jamieson writes in Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow: “At the mouth, the first 0.7 miles is canoeable when Carry Falls Reservoir is full, but above that is a steep 1.3 miles of rapids and cascades.” This section of river drops eighty feet and is laced with Class II-III whitewater.
Burdened with canoes and camping gear, we trudged east into the forest, past a few other rusted-out cars. Several other woods roads intersected our route, we bore right at all junctions. The terrain is gently rolling; the roads are hard-packed and ideal for pulling boats on wheeled canoe carts. Too bad we didn’t have one. The carry was exhausting, but we eventually reached the well-maintained Lassiter Haul Road and followed it to a bridge just above Tebo Falls, a Class IV-V drop named after a French Canadian log driver, Thibault, who lost his life here. Construction workers were resurfacing the bridge.
The Jordan is usually a quiet stream, but today it flowed swiftly, swollen by the previous night’s heavy rains. After the carry we were glad to be on it, even if battling the current. With each switchback, the hammering and whining chainsaws faded, and we eventually reached some long, tranquil stretches.
We paddled through intermittent drizzle, donning and shedding raingear throughout the day. As mists blew in, a gauzy haze settled over the valley. Then it would vanish, ethereal and haunting like the forests through which we glided. The tea-colored river coursed over a rocky bottom. We encountered several beaver dams, but thanks to the high flow, we were able to paddle or pull ourselves over them. We slipped under a monstrous downed pine blocking the channel by lying supine in our canoes, but we had to carry around one bend that was choked with logs.
Dense forest encroached on both sides. The tamaracks were some of the largest I’ve seen. White pines branched out with massive girth. White asters and goldenrod were among the few remaining flowering plants this late in the season. Large ferns were morphing from summer green to russet red and gold. Occasionally splashes of red enlivened the waterscape: early-turning maples, nannyberries and bunchberries. The forest understory was thick and luxuriant (you’d have to be a trained botanist to identify several dozen species of groundcover and bushes).
The twisting river was usually 30 feet wide, though it narrowed to a paddle’s length on many bends. We passed numerous cutoff lagoons, their entrances guarded by marsh grasses and giant ferns. Numerous game trails and beaver and otter slides led to water’s edge. A beaver splashed his tail at Jacki and Dan as they rounded a turn. Kingfishers, chickadees and other birds flitted above the river. A great blue heron fished in a quiet backwater. We wouldn’t have been surprised to come upon a feeding moose.
Despite the variety of animal life, I came to regard the Jordan as the River of the Ruffed Grouse. We startled several of the birds and heard their wingbeats, sounding like chainsaws revving, as they fluttered away. Alas, we saw no spruce grouse, a rare cousin that dwells in boreal lowlands.
In late afternoon, we selected a campsite on a low hummock on the south shore. Bear scat lay on the pine needle floor. With some trepidation, we kept the site. And why not? Where could we camp to escape them?
According to Dan and Tom’s GPS measurements, we paddled about six miles, climbing some 100 feet in elevation. They measured the river’s flow at a moderately swift 1.5 to 2 mph. It made for a hard pull upstream at times, especially on the tighter turns, where the current would sweep us sideways toward the cut bank. But we were rewarded with a thrill ride of a descent the next day: The return to the bridge took an hour and 20 minutes, about three times less than the upstream leg.
What surprised me most about the Jordan was the lack of bogs along its shores. We saw no spaghnum mats or pitcher plants or sundew so prevalent in boreal country. But that inveterate canoeist Bill Frenette, who’s paddled the Jordan as a guest of the Kildare Club, informed us that the river changes dramatically upstream of our campsite, with plenty of tamarack bogs and boreal plants. “It’s like the Oswegatchie—curvy with large marshes on both sides,” he said. “Upstream is very crooked; you meet yourself coming back a lot.”
We wished we could have seen it all, but we had seen enough to conclude that the Jordan is a special river that deserves protection. The Scenic designation under the WSR System does forbid development within 250 feet, except for minor structures, such as docks, fences or bridges. If it were classified as Wild, however, no development would be allowed within a half-mile of the river.
Yet the criteria for the Wild designation include the requirements that the river must be more than a half-mile from roads and accessible only by water or trail. The proximity of the Lassiter Haul Road, the Kildare Club Road and other woods roads would seem to disqualify the Jordan—for the moment, at least; as the history of the Forest Preserve shows, roads left unused soon revert to wilderness.
The larger question is what will become of the Jordan watershed decades from now. The Adirondack Council envisions a Boreal Wilderness Area that would encompass the entire Jordan River valley and border 14 miles of the Raquette River and 13 miles of the St. Regis River. In addition, the council proposes establishing a 185,000-acre Low-Elevation Boreal Heritage Reserve, which would include not only the Wilderness Area but private lands as well. The reserve would give legal protections to a significant portion of the 350,000 acres of the boreal biome in the northwestern Adirondacks.
Earlier this year, the council urged the APA to take a first step toward the Boreal Wilderness by classifying 12,533 acres of Forest Preserve east of Carry Falls Reservoir as Wilderness or Primitive. Such a move, the council argued, would protect the sensitive boreal habitat from motor vehicles. “We had wanted to have Primitive [status] everywhere that wasn’t a contiguous piece and have the largest block declared Wilderness,” said John Sheehan, the council’s spokesman.
Instead, the APA opted to create a Raquette River Wild Forest west of the haul road and a Raquette-Jordan Boreal Primitive Area east of it. APA spokesman Keith McKeever defended the classifications, saying they reflect the existing use of the lands.
It’s uncertain what, if any, motorized recreation will be allowed in the Wild Forest portion of the Jordan River valley. That’s a decision that will be made down the road as the state develops a management plan for the area. But Hank Ford, the Colton supervisor, said he wants to see it opened up to snowmobiles and ATVs.
The tussle over the land classifications may not be over. Although the APA has submitted its classification proposals to Gov. George Pataki, he has yet to sign off on them. And as Explorer contributor Fred LeBrun notes elsewhere in this issue, Pataki may ask the agency to revise them.
What hangs in the balance is the fate of the remote, beautiful Canadian taiga of the Jordan River Valley.