It’s midweek, a gorgeous summer day, and I’m alone with my canoe on Quebec Brook. The narrow river, which winds from Madawaska Flow down to the St. Regis River, is a treasure that paddlers are rediscovering.
The access point, marked by a kiosk erected by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), is on a remote stretch of unpaved Blue Mountain Road north of Paul Smiths. Checking the sign-in book, I find I’m the only one on the river today. In fact, although a holiday weekend has just passed, I’m the first person here in four days. It’s this kind of solitude that draws me to this part of the Park, away from the crowds and the more developed paddling areas.
Quebec Brook is one of several waterways acquired by the state in the 1998 Champion International deal, which added 139,000 acres to the Adirondack Park’s recreational palette. Flat-water routes like this one have been reopened for the first time in more than a century.
Forest Ranger Jeff Balerno recently described the Quebec Brook tract as a work in progress. “I plan on putting a couple of camp sites in this year,” he says. “There is one site now. I’d like to put in a couple more near the carry trail.”
Yet, it’s not likely that Quebec Brook will ever be as popular as more dramatic rivers, like the Ausable or the Raquette. Here, the views are writ on a smaller scale. A backwater pool colored with lilies. A shimmering stand of birch trees. A neon dragonfly perched on the blade of my paddle.
“There’s also a problem with low water,” Balerno says. “Last summer we had a drought, and it got really bony. It’s really a medium- to high-water trip, best in spring.” But not too early in spring: Blue Mountain Road is not maintained in winter, and the snow can linger well into April.
Today it’s hot, but there’s plenty of water. What’s missing is wind. Where the trees drape the bank, there’s not a whisper of air. The deer flies are thick and persistent. In places, the turns are so tight that I switch sides with each paddle stroke—like a cook stirring too many pots.
As I meander westward, the stream is divided at brief intervals by beaver dams. Often, the only way forward is to go in waist-deep and drag my canoe over the pile of waterlogged sticks. The dams create a chain of small ponds, connected by sinuous strands of slack water, as though the river were a delicate necklace dropped on the ground. But then I reach a series of beautiful rills, little rapids where the rocks pile the water into shining curtains.
I’m soon hiking barefoot along a well-marked carry trail, the boat yoked on my shoulders. It’s easy to imagine that this country has never been explored, but in fact this area has been logged since the 1870s. One of the main portage routes traces an old rail bed. At the end of the carry is a wonderful put-in, which reminds me of an arrangement in a Japanese garden. Giant rocks punctuate the streambed. An old tree trunk lies at a graceful angle to the water. Bits of hawkweed add splashes of bright orange. Green frogs watch me with their golden-cupped eyes as I launch my canoe.
From here, the stream winds all the way to the old dam, where you carry into Madawaska Flow. (It’s also possible to drive to the dam along a 15-mile gravel road that starts near the hamlet of Santa Clara.) The 3,000-acre wetland complex, a series of open bogs surrounded by black spruce and tamarack, is a bird-watcher’s paradise, tailor-made for folks who delight in the subtleties of marsh life.
“You see lots of loons nesting in there,” Balerno says. “One trip, we counted 150 species of birds.”
Camps along the shore attest to the fact that this corner of the Adirondacks has long been the domain of hunters and fishermen. A controversial provision of the Champion deal will force these cabins to be torn down in three more years. The main rail bed that crosses Quebec Brook is owned outright by a hunting club. Even in more remote areas, special regulations for the Champion area require visitors to stick close to the shorelines. Land within 500 feet is generally open for recreation use.
Those who want to extend their journey can paddle through Madawaska Flow and continue up the inlet (also Quebec Brook), which enters from the east. But it’s late afternoon, so I choose to wind my way back to Blue Mountain Road. For the first time in hours, I hear the sound of a motor. It’s not a car on the old dirt track—there’s no traffic at all today—but a jet high overhead flying west. As the faint roar fades away, I feel the remoteness settling back over this graceful river.
From NY 30 in Paul Smiths, drive west on Keese Mills Road and continue for about 14 miles to a small parking lot at the Quebec Brook put-in. (Keese Mills Road turns into Blue Mountain Road.) The put-in can also be reached by driving south for 10.2 miles on Blue Mountain Road from NY 458.
If you’re putting in at Madawaska Flow, drive east for 1.5 miles from the bridge over the St. Regis River in Santa Clara. Turn south onto an improved gravel road and follow the signs. It’s about 15 miles to the flow. This road may be closed during big-game rifle season.