Classic canoe route is an ideal Nordic tour
By Phil Brown
We couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous day. Sunny, mild, hardly a breeze. “We don’t deserve this,” Brian remarked as we glided through the unbroken snow.
“This winter?” I replied. “Yes, we do!”
For cross-country skiers, this winter had been the pits. Here it was Feb. 5, and we had yet to see a major snowfall in Saranac Lake. And now we were verging on the fourth thaw of the season. The temperature this day would hit 50 degrees.
With so little snow in the backcountry, Brian and I decided to ski the route of the Seven Carries in the St. Regis Canoe Area. We began at Upper St. Regis Lake south of Paul Smiths and finished at Little Clear Pond near Saranac Inn, skiing across five other lakes and ponds on the way. To get from one pond to the next, we followed portage trails normally used by paddlers.
Despite the warm weather, we had no doubt that the ice remained thick enough to support us. As we drove out of Saranac Lake, we saw ice shanties, snowmobiles and even a few pickups on Lake Colby. Our first stop was Little Clear Pond, where Brian left his car and hopped in my jalopy. Then we drove six miles to the public boat launch on Upper St. Regis.
By far, this was the biggest lake of the day and the most civilized. Opulent camps and boathouses dot the shoreline. Snowmobiles had packed down the lake’s frozen surface. Not too far away, we heard the high-pitched buzz of a chainsaw. As we set off along the south shore, we could see the fire tower on St. Regis Mountain straight ahead. In 10 minutes, we reached a short carry trail to Bog Pond.
Suddenly, we were in a different world. Less than four acres, Bog is the smallest pond on the Seven Carries. In summer, a diminutive channel winds through a garden of leather-leaf, cranberry, sundew and other bog plants. The last time I was here was on a canoe trip with my daughter Martha. Spying a great blue heron standing in the shallows, we paddled stealthily forward and got within 20 yards before it lifted off, giant wings beating, and disappeared over the tamaracks. Now the frozen surface was all white and laced with deer tracks. Only the tops of shrubs demarcated the canoe channel.
It takes only a minute or two to cross Bog. Another short trail led us to Bear Pond. The end of the carry, exposed to sun, had lost all its snow. I stepped gingerly around roots and rocks, but Brian, seizing upon the chance to demonstrate his superior intelligence, removed his skis and walked the last 10 yards. Once on the pond, I drilled a hole in the ice with an ice-climbing screw. I drilled as deep as I could, about six inches, without striking oil or water. Since you need only two inches of ice to ski safely, this confirmed that we had nothing to worry about (as long as we stayed away from inlets and outlets).
To get to the next carry, we bore left around a point with a privately owned lean-to (the east shore of the pond is private land) and passed two tiny islands. As soon as we entered the woods on the trail to Little Long Pond, we were awash in birdsong, punctuated by the steady tapping of woodpeckers. Not only did it feel like spring, but it also sounded like spring. I waited several minutes while Brian recorded the sounds for a story on North Country Public Radio, where he works as a reporter.
When we arrived at Little Long Pond, we saw no other ski tracks. Brian and I pushed through three or four inches of unbroken snow as we headed toward the pond’s narrows and entered the larger basin, where we enjoyed another view of the St. Regis fire tower. Next we skied a quarter-mile trail through a hardwood forest to the northern shore of Green Pond. Green’s nearly round shape suggests that it is a kettle pond, formed by a giant block of ice left behind by the last glacier, roughly 10,000 years ago. In fact, all of the Canoe Area’s ponds owe their existence to the last ice age.
After Green, we arrived at St. Regis Pond, the largest waterbody in the Canoe Area. A dead log jutting from the shore onto the ice reminded me of another encounter with a heron. It was standing by the same log, just 15 yards away, when Martha and I reached this point on our canoe trip. The great bird remained as still as a statue as we climbed in our boat and shoved off. We spent a happy hour on St. Regis, picnicking on an island and taking a swim. For part of our paddle, we followed eight or ten merganser chicks following their mother. When we returned to shore, the heron was still by the log, in the exact same pose, and never batted an eye as we disembarked and began the portage back to Green. Perhaps it was a statue!
Brian and I set off down the 1.5-mile length of St. Regis Pond toward a fish-barrier dam at the outlet—the start of the West Branch of the St. Regis River. On the way, we passed a variety of animal tracks. We had seen tracks all day, but they seemed especially abundant on this pond. The most unusual were the furrows created by otters that bound and slide along the ice. Several times we came across tracks so large that I wondered if they had have been made by a bear aroused from hibernation by this false spring. But we concluded that they probably were coyote tracks that had deteriorated. You might also see the tracks of mink, fox, red squirrel, raccoon and grouse, among other animals, on this ski trip.
We had lunch in the middle of the pond, lounging in the sun with St. Regis and Long Pond mountains as backdrops. As we ate our sandwiches, we heard other voices for the first time since we began our tour. In a few minutes, a party of four skiers rounded a peninsula, coming from Little Clear Pond. A black dog loped ahead of the group, pausing every so often to wait for the slow pokes on two legs to catch up. I wondered if the dog could possibly be enjoying this day more than we humans.
The group was heading toward Green Pond. After lunch, Brian and I resumed our trip down St. Regis Pond. At some point, we looked back and saw Whiteface Mountain and the McKenzie Range on the horizon. When we got to the small wooden dam, we were tempted to take a short path to the truck trail that leads to Fish Pond deeper in the Canoe Area, but it was getting late in the day, so we turned back.
Skiing up St. Regis Pond, this time we kept to the south of the peninsula where we first saw the other skiers. In all, it took us 30 minutes to reach the trail to Little Clear Pond. This portage is more than a half-mile, the longest on the Seven Carries. We were a little worried that the trail wouldn’t be skiable the whole way, but it turned out to be in good condition. At the end, we enjoyed a short downhill run and coasted onto the surface of Little Clear. About halfway down this pond, we rounded a bend and found ourselves face to face with the western High Peaks, bathed in late-afternoon sunlight. What a way to end the day.
Some of you bean-counters may note that our trip entailed only six carries. That’s because the traditional route of the Seven Carries began at Little Green Pond, a stone’s throw from Little Clear. Paddlers coming from Upper Saranac Lake would reach Little Green first and so put in there. Nowadays, there is a state parking lot at Lake Clear, and that’s where most people start or end their trips. Not that we have anything against Little Green. We have camped there many nights, listening to the music of the loons. But that’s a story for another season.