By Dick Beamish
Herewith some impressions, recalled fondly and with anticipation on a mid-winter day, of a three-season canoe and kayak trip that starts at Coreys and ends at the state landing a few miles east of Tupper Lake. About 12 miles in all, the route leads through the Stony Creek Ponds and then snakes down Stony Creek and the Raquette River.
This is a fine outing on a sunny day in summer, when the living is easy and you can cool off with refreshing dips in the river along the way, or in the fall, when the maples are in full color and the days are crisp and clear. But it’s another, wonderful world altogether in April, when Stony Creek and the Raquette are at flood stage.
The normal paddling time from start to finish is under four hours, but who wants to paddle non-stop when there are so many tempting places to pull over and lounge on a riverbank, pore over maps (this being a classic “Where the hell are we?” trip), eat lunch and take a snooze, or just watch the river go by and try to guess, from a passing leaf or fleck of foam, how fast the water is moving? On warm days you can swim at any number of miniature beaches beneath the low, sandy bluffs along the river, and on the higher, level ground above, it’s fun to check out the attractive state campsites, set among big white pines with views out over the river.
If you go in April, as Rachel and I did last year with photographer Mark Bowie and two other companions, Griz and Deb Caudle, the snowmelt from the nearby mountains will have lifted the water level six feet or more, flooding way beyond its natural borders and creating a string of connecting ponds and lakes. The high water transforms the narrow, corkscrewing Stony Creek, and much of the winding and looping Raquette River, into an Adirondack version of the Great Cypress Swamp. Forget the normal twists and turns, forget the need to “switch and draw” if you’re with a partner in a tandem canoe. During this two-or-three week window of opportunity in early spring, you can paddle straight through the floodplain forest of silver maples (also known as “swamp maples”, for good reason) and over the grassy lowlands that will, before long, be alive with red-winged blackbirds. In April the maples are not yet in leaf, which means the views everywhere are wide open and starkly beautiful, the trees a delicate reddish tint from the blossoming catkins.
Paul Jamieson captured this mood in his guidebook, Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow.
The canoeist can make cutoffs [from the normal channels], shortening the trip measurably – or lengthening it if he has a poor sense of direction. Gliding through maple groves is such an effortless kind of bushwhacking that you feel like a disembodied spirit in a strange, ghostly realm.
The attractions of this journey begin at Coreys, before you’re even on the water. In the late 19th and early 20th century, this was a small settlement of Adirondack guides and their families, the place where Clarence Petty spent his growing-up years (see Questions for Clarence, Page 56). Today it’s a colony of largely seasonal homes, most of them evident on the west side of the ponds. The carry to the put-in, near Clarence’s homestead, is what every carry should be – a short path extending a few hundred yards from your car.
Paddling through the Stony Creek Ponds provides a picturesque departure from civilization, with Stony Creek Mountain dominant to the east. A narrow neck separates Third Pond (where you started) from the second, with a pair of official campsites flanking each side the passage. From here you head diagonally across Second Pond, steer right around a point, and make for the causeway dead ahead. In summer or fall you can usually slip under the road, but at flood stage you’ll need to carry over it to First Stony Creek Pond just beyond.
It’s about a mile from here to the outlet of the ponds. You’ll want to avoid the common mistake of veering left up Ampersand Brook, which seems the more likely channel. Keep to the right instead and begin the mile-and-a-half voyage down Stony Creek to the Raquette River. (In April, as noted, you won’t have to worry about channels – just go full steam ahead.) You’ll pass under another bridge about a mile downstream, and soon after that Stony Creek joins the Raquette River, the longest waterway in the northwest Adirondacks, which begins at Raquette Lake and reaches the St. Lawrence River 170 miles later.
In summer and fall, paddlers on the Raquette between Stony Creek and Tupper Lake can expect some help from a current of maybe 1 mph. In April you’ll get a more generous boost when the flow reaches 3 mph or more.
What is particularly appealing about this trip is the sense of wilderness you experience, especially in spring and fall when there are few other boaters about. After leaving the Stony Creek Ponds, you won’t see another human habitation all day. And once you’re on the Raquette, it’s comforting to know that it’s all wild country for 12 miles in both directions. No homes, boathouses or docks, no roads, bridges or locks; it’s “forever wild” state land on one side and the vast, private preserve of Follensby Park for much of the way on the other. (The only real intrusions are the red and green buoys that mark the channel, and the cable crossing just below the Stony Creek junction, which you’ll need to watch out for and duck under in high water.)
Along the way you’re likely to encounter ducks and geese, kingfishers and great blue herons. Otters and muskrats frequent these waters, and beaver signs are everywhere. You have a good chance of spotting bald eagles, which have made a strong comeback in these parts. At high water last April, we even encountered a swimming garter snake (how else was he to get around when his neighborhood was flooded?), and Paul Jamieson also reported, in his famous guidebook, another unlikely swimmer crossing the Raquette.
Once I watched a red squirrel, with urgent business on the opposite shore, shorten its crossing by running out to the end of an overhanging maple, take a belly flop, swim lustily ahead of the canoe, and, after a shakedown, scurry up the bank to check on a beechnut crop.
Several miles downstream, you’ll pass the outlet of Follensby Pond just before the Raquette curves north toward Trombley Landing. If you can find the outlet, you can work your way upstream to the causeway that marks the north end of Follensby Pond, the large private lake set among 12,000 acres of private land, a long-dreamed-of addition to our Forest Preserve. If and when this acquisition happens, a new dimension will be added to wilderness canoeing in the Adirondacks. (Meanwhile, if you’re exploring the Follensby outlet, be sure to stay in your boat to avoid trespassing.)
As you approach Trombley Landing you’ll see a lean-to on a height of land directly ahead. After another 20 minutes on the river, you’ll round a bend and see the boat ramp where your journey ends. At flood stage, however, the ramp disappears under water and you can paddle almost to the parking lot.
Another, final bonus for those needing to stretch their legs: As you return to Coreys, about three miles east on Route 3, watch for a sign on the left for Panther Mountain and a small, parking turnoff on the right just beyond. The trail climbs 0.6 miles through an impressive stand of old hemlocks to a rewarding view from the summit, where you can look out over the Raquette River country that you’ve been part of for most of the day.
From the intersection of NY 3 and Main Street in Saranac Lake, drive west on NY 3 for about 12 miles to Coreys Road. Turn left and go 0.6 mile to the carry trail to Third Stony Creek Pond on the left.
To reach the take-out, continue west on NY 3. After 3 miles, bear left where the highway intersects with NY 30. Go another 1.6 miles to the state boat launch on the left.