By Phil Brown
We had not got far on Lake Kushaqua when Jaime told me what happened the last time she went canoeing with Sue: a great blue heron flew overhead and splattered them with white stuff—not snow.
Some of it landed on Jaime’s head.
“It’s supposed to be good luck,” she said.
“What’s bad luck?” I asked.
Yet I was thinking we could use a little of that heron magic now to stop the stuff falling on our heads. No, not that stuff. Rain.
Jaime, Sue, and I had a long day ahead of us. Having put in our canoes at the east end of Kushaqua, we planned to paddle to the Rainbow Lake Narrows and eventually to the far end of Rainbow Lake, after lengthy detours up the North Branch of the Saranac River and a wild and weedy waterway known as the Flow.
We ended up traveling thirteen miles. If this seems like too much, you can do one of several shorter permutations described in the adjoining article. Fall is a great time to paddle Rainbow Lake, when the leaves are changing and most of the motorboats are gone.
You wouldn’t want to do it in the rain, though—even a warm rain like the one that soaked us on Lake Kushaqua on a weekday in late July. As we glided past forested shorelines and listened to loon music emanating from the mist, we reminded ourselves that the forecast called for clearing skies, but this being the Adirondacks, we didn’t let optimism about the weather get in the way of a miserable time.
I had never been on Kushaqua before and wished I could have enjoyed it more. Though widened by a dam, the lake has a wild feel. Nearly all of the shoreline is in the Forest Preserve and hence undeveloped. We saw no buildings except for two homes on the north shore.
After a mile, we paddled between some islands and entered the Kushaqua Narrows. Soon we spotted colorful tents in the Buck Pond State Campground on the south shore. At one and three-quarters miles, we came to a piney peninsula where Buck Pond outlet enters Kushaqua on the left. We bore right here. Approaching the head of the lake, we passed through a tunnel under an old railroad bed (great for echoes). Shortly after, at 2.2 miles, we went under a highway bridge and came to the Rainbow Narrows.
We didn’t see any rainbows, but the sun was now shining. Our spirits lifted. We could hear lots of birds in the woods.
“I wish I knew more birdsongs,” I said, “so if a bird craps on you, you’ll know what it is.”
“Yeah, it’s important to know that—if it’s good luck or not,” Jaime said.
“So not all bird crap is equal?” I inquired.
“If you’ve ever seen a heron take a dump, you’d know that,” she replied.
After a hundred yards or so, we veered right from the Rainbow Narrows to paddle up the North Branch of the Saranac. At the entrance, the North Branch looked more like a bay than a river, but it soon narrowed. Traveling up the sluggish stream, we flushed a family of ducks and saw a few turtles basking on logs. White-throated sparrows and hermit thrushes serenaded us from the woods.
About a mile upriver, we left the forest and began meandering through a floodplain. The banks were now lined by alders, bog plants, and grasses. The views broadened to take in neighboring peaks. After a while, we spotted the fire towers on Meenahga Mountain to the south and Loon Lake Mountain to the north, framed by blue skies and puffy clouds. Talk about picture perfect.
“This is one of the prettiest rivers I’ve been on,” Sue said.
We kept going until a beaver dam blocked our way, about two miles from the Rainbow Narrows. There we met some other paddlers who had carried around the dam and pushed on a little farther, but we decided to have lunch and turn around.
On the way back, we passed through a section of river teeming with lily pads and aquatic weeds and grasses.
“Doesn’t it seem like a place that should have alligators?” Jaime remarked.
“Or swamp creatures,” Sue interjected.
Upon returning to the Narrows, we went right and soon came to a rope swing where two teenage boys from nearby Bloomingdale were taking turns plunging into the water. We stopped to chat, take photos, and shoot a short video (available on our website).
Just beyond the rope swing, we started to see camps. Eventually, we passed under a private road and entered Rainbow Lake proper. This large lake is not ideal for paddlers seeking a nature experience, given the amount of development and motorboat traffic. Fortunately, they need stay on the main lake for only a short time.
To the north, Rainbow Lake is bordered by an esker, a slender ridge of glacial debris deposited at the end of the last ice age. About a mile up the lake, we paddled through a cut in the esker to enter Clear Pond. Except for a few houses on the east end, this narrow waterway is totally wild. Paddling along the esker, admiring the red pines, we spied a great blue heron standing in the shallows.
“Jaime’s over here,” I informed the bird.
But Jaime had wearied of this theme. She immediately changed the subject.
“Does anybody own the esker?” she asked.
“Here it’s state land,” I answered. “Otherwise that heron would be trespassing.”
At the end of Clear Pond, we reached another cut, this one leading to the Flow, an even wilder annex to Rainbow Lake. We stopped for a snack at the campsite next to the cut. There is concrete slab under the water here. Also, the sides of the cut are made of concrete and stone. Later, I learned that a family’s summer retreat once occupied this area..
Our repast over, we canoed through the cut and then turned right just before an island. As we paddled north, the Flow became choked with weeds and lily pads. Dead trees rose from the still water—gray specters from a time, evidently, before this land was flooded by the Kushaqua dam. We traveled up the Flow for nearly a mile, turning around near a beaver lodge and the occupants’ own sturdy dam. The serene wildness here seemed far removed from Rainbow Lake.
On the return, after passing the island, we headed southwest through a water body known as the Inlet. Soon we were back in the land of summer camps. Another cut in the esker led us back to Rainbow Lake, but we avoided the main part of the lake by taking an immediate right into a quiet channel, bordered by the esker on the right and a bog on the left. We were able to follow this channel to its end, about four tenths of a mile. Our takeout at the far west end of the lake was just a few hundred feet beyond.
In all, we paddled thirteen and a quarter miles, but we were on the busy part of Rainbow Lake for only a mile. As a result, we saw only four or five motorboats. In fact, only two passed us all day. Chances are you’ll encounter even fewer in the fall.
From the intersection of NY 86 and the end of Bloomingdale Avenue in Saranac Lake, drive north on NY 86 for 8.3 miles to County 60 (Rainbow Lake Road) in Gabriels. Turn right and go 2.0 miles to County 31 (Jones Pond Road). Turn left and go 0.3 miles to Clark Wardner Road. Turn right and go 0.4 miles to a parking area on the left. A 0.1-mile carry trail across the road leads to the west end of Rainbow Lake. This is the takeout. Leave a car or bicycle in the parking area.
Now drive back to the intersection of County 31 and County 60.
Turn left onto County 60 and go 4.1 miles to Kushaqua-Mud Pond Road, reached at a right bend. Turn left and go 3.6 miles to the bridge at Kushaqua’s outlet. The put-in is on the far side of the bridge on the right. If you intend to skip Kushaqua, put in at the first bridge, reached at 0.7 miles.
Other trip ideas
If you’re looking for a shorter paddling adventure, consider one of the following variations on our route. Only the last one requires a shuttle. We regarded the North Branch of the Saranac as the scenic highlight of our trip, so you might want to bear that in mind.
North Branch of the Saranac. If you put in at the east end of Lake Kushaqua, as we did, and paddle up the North Branch as far as the first major beaver dam, you’ll have a round trip of eight and a half miles. You can shorten this to four miles by putting in near the highway bridge at the Rainbow Narrows. Another option is to put in Lake Kushaqua at the Buck Pond State Campground. After the campground closes on September 7, you can launch without having to pay a day-use fee. This option allows you to experience the Kushaqua Narrows.
The Flow. Put in at the west end of Rainbow Lake, cut over to the Inlet, and paddle to the end of the Flow for a five-mile round trip. You can extend the trip a little by visiting Clear Pond. You also can do a seven-mile loop (including the trip up the Flow) by paddling through the cut from Clear Pond to Rainbow Lake and returning on Rainbow.
A shorter one-way trip. Do everything we did, but put in at Rainbow Narrows and skip the Flow, taking out at the west end of Rainbow Lake.