This island is your island
By Mark Bowie
On an autumn evening tagged with the first freeze warning of the season, I pitched my tent on campsite No. 2, Kirpens Island, Indian lake. My neighbors had introduced themselves on the outbound paddle: three seagulls and a family of common mergansers. I would be the only human soul spending the night out here.
I scampered onto a rock ledge to scout the terrain. The lake spread before me, a 15-mile-long blue-black jeweler’s velvet sprinkled with dark gemstones. The crescent moon hung above several islands to the south, but I focused my camera on a panoramic silhouette of mountains looming over the tiny hamlet of Sabael, midway along the northwest shore. Twilight clouds blazed in a golden glow. A smattering of lights lit the community.
Above, pinpricks of starlight materialized. Nautilus and the Big Dipper soon appeared. The Milky Way, becoming luminescent as a cloudbank, formed a canopy over the axis of the lake. Adirondack islands offer balcony seating to celestial shows far from extraneous light. And on clear, cold nights like this stars shine so brightly they seem to sizzle. I shot several time exposures: a five-minute image shows the Dipper streaking north, a 10-minute record reveals hundreds of multicolored stars raining down upon the town.
Amidst this nocturnal majesty they came – invisible squadrons of Canada geese flying south, navigating by starlight. I strained without success to see their V formations. They remained hauntingly stealthy; some flew so near I could hear their wingbeats. Hour after hour, wave after wave flew by, fervently honking to one another. There’s magic in this wild place.
For many Adirondack lovers, owning waterfront property may be a romantic dream; an entire island, the ultimate sanctuary. Take up island camping, and you can experience hundreds of waterfront sites without a major financial investment. Lake George alone has 387 shoreline sites on 44 islands. You can have an island in Indian Lake for $12 a night.
Writer John Thaxton has made numerous island-camping excursions on Adirondack waters. He has written, “With a little luck you can secure a two-acre island all for yourself and camp there for two weeks, listening at night to the calls of loons and the splashes of leaping smallmouth bass, in the morning to a song sparrow’s startling explosion of music. Islands always face the sun and in the Adirondacks almost always offer thick woods and deep-green shade. They are at once the noisiest and quietest of places.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) operates campgrounds with island campsites on Lower and Middle Saranac lakes, Indian, Fourth, Forked and Cranberry lakes, Stillwater Reservoir, Putnam Pond, Lake George, Lake Lila and Lake Champlain. Reservations and a fee are required. Predictably, island sites are very popular in season. You’ll find more choice sites available midweek or even slightly out of season, with more solitude.
Other Adirondack waters also have island campsites. Designated sites on Upper Saranac and Lake Placid and in the William C. Whitney Wilderness and St. Regis Canoe Area are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no fees, and permits are not required for groups of less than eight people staying less than three nights.
The major island campgrounds have minimal facilities: picnic tables and fireplaces, but no running water or electricity. All but Stillwater have privies. Plan on bringing your own fuel and water; firewood is scarce, the lake water unpotable without purification.
Islands make enchanting base camps from which to explore the region’s woods and waters. Lake- and pond-hopping by interconnected waterways or short carries can ferry you into some of the state’s remotest waters. Hiking trails from the water allow you to explore the wilds on foot.
I put in my ultralight canoe at Clark’s Indian Lake Marina in Sabael. The mile-long crossing brought me to an island cluster near the east shore. Pervasive drought conditions had lowered water levels about five feet below normal. The exposed bedrock resembled the rugged coast of Maine, though not with picturesque pink-granite boulders, but fantastically banded metamorphics laced with magnetite and garnet.
I searched for a particular shoreline gap and, after a couple false openings, found it – Norman’s Cove, as perfectly round, as idyllic a secluded pirate’s cove an Adirondack lake could offer. I quietly entered. The beige boat drifted into blazing autumn reflections. I beached at the Baldface Mountain trailhead for the 1.1-mile hike to what Thaxton extols as “the second most spectacular view in the southern Adirondacks.”
The late afternoon sun dappled the forest floor. I paused to photograph lime-green ferns, their fronds artistically splayed above maple leaves. The trail rambled through shaded glades and drying creek beds, then ascended a steep rock staircase to a summit ledge capped with red spruce, red pine and blueberries. The plants overlook a breathtaking 180-degree vista of Indian Lake, from the Jessup’s Bay arm in the southwest, past a jumble of mountains, including Snowy and Blue, and toward the lake’s outlet into Lake Abanakee at the northeast end. Norman’s Cove, imitating a pothole on a riverbank, lay at our feet.
Across the lake, the reciprocal views from the knob summit of 3,899-foot Snowy Mountain are perhaps the most spectacular in this part of the Adirondacks. From Snowy several of the area’s most prominent peaks stand out: Gore, Eleventh and Crane. On the clearest days, most of the High Peaks are visible. The trail to Snowy starts off state Route 30 on the north side of Indian Lake. It’s a challenging ascent with precipitous cliffs just below the summit, but the sights justify the effort.
More moderate hiking trails lead to other local destinations worth exploring. The 1.2-mile trail up Watch Hill, also off Route 30, climbs to ledge views of Snowy and the south end of Indian Lake. Trails accessible only by boat lead to beautiful, seldom-visited ponds east of the lake. It’s an easy 1.6 miles to John Mack Pond on the western edge of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. Another trail branches from here, traveling two miles to Long Pond, a remote favorite of rock climbers wanting to scale its 150-foot shore cliffs.
At the south end of Jessup Bay, Dug Mountain Brook tumbles in scenic cascades into the Jessup River, just before it, in turn, feeds the lake. A half-mile hike along the brook leads to 40-foot waterfalls.
On a sunny day several summers ago, my family and I launched canoes from Lewey Lake (which connects with Indian’s south end) bound for its inlet, the Miami River. Once there, we glided through a maze of channels, past white lilies, over and around beaver dams. Until it began sprinkling. Reluctantly, we retreated. We reached open water when sprinkles turned to rain.
Then the clouds burst. We hadn’t seen the storm approach, couldn’t sense its presence on the breeze. We fled to a tiny rock island, overturned our aluminum canoes, and scrambled beneath them. The pelting rain was deafening. Then it got wild. Lightning flew around us. Figuring metal boats stranded on bare rock was probably more dangerous than metal boats briefly in water, we struck for the nearest mainland, paddling with fear-inspired vigor, paddling, literally, for our lives. We were fortunate. We made landfall before becoming lightning rods.
Beware the weather. By the nature of the activity, island campers are exposed. Monitor weather reports and avoid camping if storms are predicted. A portable weather radio isn’t a bad idea. Because I go camping in open canoes, I store gear in waterproof pouches and sealed garbage bags lashed to the thwarts.
There’s a certain nervous excitement involved in paddling to an Adirondack island with all your provisions loaded in your boat. For there you can live on the water, immerse yourself in its daily rhythms, become intimate with its charms and wonders. Go out of season, and you may do so in complete solitude.