A wet and wild adventure
By Phil Brown
It’s not often that you can paddle through the woods in a canoe, but we were looking forward to just such a magical adventure in mid-April, when the snowmelt and spring rains usually inundate the silver-maple floodplains along the Stony Creek Ponds outlet and the Raquette River.
We planned to put in at Coreys, paddle through the ponds and down the outlet to the Raquette, then follow the river to a state boat launch on Route 3 east of Tupper Lake—an 11-mile jaunt that always promises magnificent scenery and wildlife sightings.
While eating breakfast that morning, I opened Paul Jamieson’s Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow and was surprised to read that a hunting club had stretched a cable across the Raquette a little downriver from the mouth of the Stony Creek Ponds outlet. Apparently, the club members use the cable to pull themselves across the river to their hunting grounds on the opposite side.
A cable over a river in the backcountry? On a public canoe route? That didn’t seem appropriate. I wondered if it was even legal. That stretch of the Raquette is classified by state law as a Scenic River, which means its natural character and shoreline are to be preserved.
Legal or not, the cable, as we were soon to learn, poses a danger to canoeists when the river is running high. We capsized while trying to squeeze under it and fell into frigid waters far from dry land. Although we managed, after 10 or 15 minutes, to retrieve our canoe and continue on our way, things could have ended much worse. Imagine if this had happened to young children.
I don’t mean to scare you away from this marvelous trip. In summer, the cable is far enough above the river that paddlers pass under it without a second thought. When we went, the water was unusually high even for spring. A spell of unseasonable warmth had melted, in just a few days, much of the lingering snow in the higher elevations.
As we began our trip at Third Stony Creek Pond in the morning, it was obvious that this would be another scorcher. I was in good company: Bill Frenette, the Tupper Lake historian and veteran woodsman, and Mike Storey, a naturalist and photographer. Bill paddled a solo Mohawk canoe. Mike and I were in a fiberglass Mad River boat.
The air and the water were perfectly still, so that as we glided across the pond, our voices echoed off the hills. Although homes appear along the western shores, the views to the east from the ponds are pristine. Stony Creek Mountain dominates the foreground. To the southeast you can see the Sewards in the High Peaks Wilderness.
It took only a few minutes to reach the narrows leading into Second Stony Creek Pond. Continuing southeast, we rounded a small point and found the channel that flows into the third (and final) pond. A private road crosses here on a small bridge. Usually, you can pass beneath, but on this morning, the water was as high as the bridge, so we had to carry around it.
When we reached the southern end of the third pond, things got really interesting. Stony Creek winds more than 1½ miles from the pond to the Raquette, but there was little evidence of a creek. Instead, we encountered a virtual lake spreading into the floodplain woods. We could still follow the main channel, but whenever whimsy took over, we would zigzag among the maples, listening to the chatter of red-winged blackbirds flitting from tree to tree.
Just how high was the flood? When we arrived at the bridge where Coreys Road crosses the creek, once again we could not pass beneath. But this time we were able to canoe over the road without exiting our boats. A quarter-mile below the bridge, an hour after putting in, we reached the end of Stony Creek. Ordinarily, the creek is easy to miss if you’re canoeing past it on the Raquette, but not on this day: The flood had widened the mouth to perhaps 75 yards.
Bill took the lead as we headed down the river. In a short while, as we neared the hunting club’s cable, I saw him paddling furiously upriver. Mike was taking photos from the bow and I didn’t have time to react. If I had a thought at all, it was that maybe we could paddle alongside the cable to see if we could slip underneath. The current proved too swift. In an instant we were upon the cable, which was maybe 18 inches above the water. Mike lifted it over his head. Meanwhile, our boat drifted perpendicular to the river’s flow. I, too, ducked under the cable, but in all the abrupt shifting, we lost our balance and overturned.
The water was shockingly cold. Keep in mind that the ice on Stony Creek Ponds had melted only a few days earlier. Mike and I were dressed in nothing but shorts, T-shirts and, thankfully, life jackets. After bobbing to the surface, we hung onto the canoe and started kicking toward a large white pine and some scrub bushes sticking out of the water. When we reached this higher ground, we were still in knee-deep water, but at least we could stand. We let go of the canoe, and Bill, who was now downriver about 20 yards, pushed it into the flooded brush for safekeeping. He then paddled up to the pine.
As if things weren’t bad enough, Mike started feeling the onset of a diabetic attack, brought on by all the exertion. Bill stepped out of his canoe, and we helped Mike in. Mike needed a snack right away to control his blood-sugar level, but his food was in a pack inside the Mad River canoe. Fortunately, I had a cereal bar and yogurt raisins in my fanny pack. Once we knew Mike was OK, Bill and I waded through thigh-deep water to the submerged canoe. We lifted it as far as we could and flipped it over. It was still half-full. Bill took a paddle and started splashing water out of the bow. I did the same at the stern. When we had lightened the load a bit, we heaved the bow onto a branch and turned the boat upside-down to drain it. Then we paddled back to Mike.
The river had numbed our legs. We were lucky that it was hot and sunny. On a cold or rainy day, we might have suffered hypothermia. As it was, we dried out in short order and paddled on, no worse for the wear—although Mike’s digital camera, which he wore around his neck, ceased working.
Like Stony Creek, the Raquette in this stretch is full of twists, but now it was possible to continue straight through the silver maples at every turn. “I bet we could cut out four miles if we wanted to,” Bill remarked. For the most part, we stuck to the main channel, yet at one point, Bill casually observed: “The river’s way over there someplace. Right now we’re in a backwater.”
Both the Raquette and Stony Creek are great places for encountering wildlife. We saw ducks, mergansers and ravens, but canoeists have been known to see much more: deer, otter, great blue heron, bald eagles. Jamieson writes: “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 the beechnut crop.”
We stopped to stretch our legs at the Trombley Landing lean-to, where Bill regaled us with tales of running the Hudson Gorge with Robert Kennedy in the 1960s and patching a canoe in the wilderness with spruce gum. We took a walk in a grove of tall hemlocks (some 250 years old, Mike said) and came across a large pile of deer fur. Coyotes apparently had chased the deer down and devoured every bit of it. Not even bone was spared. “They eat it for the calcium,” Bill said.
From Trombley Landing, it’s 1½ miles to the boat launch. With the current at our backs, we got there in no time. The parking lot was partially flooded and the dock completely underwater. We canoed right up to the tarmac. It wasn’t pretty, but it was dry.
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 at Wawbeek Corners, where the highway intersects with NY 30. Go another 1.6 miles to the state boat launch on the left.