Paddle reveals contrast between developed and natural shorelines
By Phil Brown
When I told people that I planned to go canoeing on Sprite Creek, the invariable reaction was, “Where’s that?”
Sprite Creek is not on the top of most Adirondack canoeists’ list of places to go. It’s not included in the Adirondack Mountain Club’s paddling guidebooks. Nor does it carry the cachet of belonging to the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers (WSR) System.
I learned about Sprite Creek from Barbara McMartin’s book Fun on Flatwater. You can do a 10-mile round trip, reaching the creek via West Lake, Canada Lake and Lily Lake. “Lily Lake marshes are a great place for ducks,” the book says.
It sounded like an interesting paddle. But it also made me wonder why the state had not seen fit to put Sprite Creek in the WSR system, which offers rivers some extra protection against development.
In fact, Sprite Creek is just one of many navigable Adirondack rivers not protected by the WSR system. Over the past year, members of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) have paddled several of these rivers with an eye toward building a case for their inclusion in the system. They have taken photographs and made notes of the flora, fauna, and development, if any, observed along the way.
ADK Executive Director Neil Woodworth said the club plans to ask the next governor, who will take office in January, to support a bill designating the upper Chubb River as Wild, the classification offering the most protection. This stretch of the Chubb lies largely within the state’s High Peaks Wilderness, which by law must remain forever wild.
“Since almost all of it is in the Forest Preserve, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” Woodworth said. “We want to try a sure thing first.”
If they succeed, he noted, the Chubb would become the first river added to the state’s WSR system in more than 20 years.
Eventually, ADK expects to petition state officials to add other Adirondack rivers to the system and to upgrade the classification of some rivers already in it. The law prohibits any construction within a quarter-mile of Wild rivers. New buildings must be set back at least 250 feet along Scenic rivers or at least 150 feet along Recreational rivers. On all WSR rivers, no tree cutting is allowed within 100 feet of shore. What’s more, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has the power to review and reject development projects along protected rivers. Motorized access is banned on Wild rivers and discouraged on Scenic rivers.
But attempts to add rivers to the system are bound to run into opposition from politicians who see the restrictions as harmful to economic growth and tourism.
“If we’re going to do something to reduce access to the backcountry, that’s a sad situation,” said Inlet Supervisor J.R. Risley, president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages. “As more and more land is locked up, it’s only accessible to the hardy few.”
“This is about people’s rights to their private land,” he added. “Those who want these restrictions don’t have a dime invested in the land bordering that waterfront.”
As we shall see, Sprite Creek offers an example of what can happen along a river that lacks protection.
I met my daughter, Becky, and her boyfriend, Nyle, at the state boat launch for West Lake, which is located in Caroga in the Deep South of the Adirondack Park, less than 10 miles inside the Blue Line. We almost had to postpone the trip when Nyle discovered that his canoe had a bad leak. Fortunately, Brian Wetmore of Loon Spirit Kayaking, an outfitter who works out of Johnstown and Caroga, happened to be at the launch, and he rented a pair of Old Town kayaks to Nyle and Becky. (I had a solo canoe.)
We paddled down Sawdust Creek, a delightful, winding channel through marsh grasses, for about five minutes to reach West Lake and then headed southeast for Canada Lake. Most of West Lake is bordered by forever-wild Forest Preserve, but several camps can be seen on the northern shore. There was a powerboat on the lake, but the whine of the motor didn’t seem to bother the loon we passed.
We soon rounded Dolgeville Point and entered Canada Lake, which is larger than West and more developed. On this trip, though, you pass through only the western tip of the lake, a relatively quiet bay. If you look behind, you’ll have a good view of 2,180-foot Kane Mountain, the friendly giant of the neighborhood (there are three trails to the fire tower on the summit). In another five minutes or so, we reached a broad channel flowing into Lily Lake. A great blue heron stood like a statue on a boulder, as though guarding the wilder lake ahead. He was not the most stalwart of sentinels: When we drew close, he flapped away.
Linger long at Lily Lake, for it is the day’s highlight. The channel is bordered by green marshland—grasses, cattails, pickerelweed, lily pads—while the shores are bordered by green forest. On the return trip, when you’re paddling toward Kane Mountain, the view is superb. It’s a different world from Canada Lake.
At the west end of Lily Lake, the outlet channel narrows to become Sprite Creek. This name is misleading in two respects. First, this is not a free-running creek but the slow flow created by a dam at Stewart Landing, the usual turn-around spot. Second, development along the north side of the creek has ruined most of the sprite habitat.
As we paddled downstream, we passed one house after another, often with lawns running down to the water. Docks, deck chairs, satellite dishes, flowerpots, flagpoles—this is the suburbanization of the wilderness. Yet the entire south side of the creek is Forest Preserve, where no development is allowed. So you constantly have before you the contrast between a developed and a natural shoreline.
Many of the houses are no farther apart than the distance between homes in a typical suburban subdivision. I found this puzzling, because the private land along the creek is classified as Resource Management—the most protective category of private land in the Park. APA regulations allow only one house per 42.7 acres in Reserve Management areas, and these lots looked a lot smaller than that.
I asked Keith McKeever, the APA spokesman, for an explanation and was told that Sprite Creek was subdivided before the agency’s land-use controls took effect in 1973. As a result, he said, the limits on development density do not apply. McKeever also pointed out that APA regulations do not apply to dwellings that replace pre-existing structures. In other words, if someone constructs a small hunting cabin along a river, a new owner can tear it down and build a two-story house. In some cases, that’s probably what happened on Sprite Creek.
Barbara McMartin took note of the development in one of her first guidebooks, Walks and Waterways, published in 1974. “Much of the scenery is beautiful,” she wrote, “but it is not the canoe trip it once was because of the building along the outlet and the huge numbers of motor boats using the outlet.”
The development is even more conspicuous these days, but I can’t say that we were bothered by motorboats on the creek. Most of the craft we saw were kayaks or canoes. The only others were a few pontoon boats that puttered along in dutiful obedience to the 5-mph speed limit.
We turned around about a hundred yards from the large concrete dam. Although we now were heading upstream, we barely noticed the current. As we approached Lily Lake, we could see Kane Mountain bathed in the afternoon sunlight, its silver tower glinting like a diamond. With the marsh in the foreground and open water beyond, it was a gorgeous picture.
We took our time on the lake, leaving the main channel to paddle through the marshes. Nyle and I climbed a large boulder to take photos of Becky in her kayak. A bit later, we spotted a heron hiding in the grass. We could have found other reasons to stay, but we had to get back to meet the fellow from Loon Spirit Kayaking.
The whole trip took four hours. On the drive home, I reflected on the two sides of Sprite Creek. Its south shore testifies to the beauty of the forest, its north shore to the inability of the Adirondack Park Agency to protect that beauty. Anyone concerned about the future of Adirondack rivers—what could be lost—should take a trip down Sprite Creek.
I don’t mean to discourage others from doing this trip. We had fun, got some exercise and saw plenty of nice scenery. So if you’re in the vicinity, check it out. Fall is the best time to do it, after the crowds have gone.
From the hamlet of Caroga Lake, drive north on NY 10/29A to West Lake Road on the left. Soon after making the turn, bear right at a fork to reach the boat launch on Sawdust Creek.