Paddlers say Weller Pond should be motor-free
By Phil Brown
I’d often heard Weller Pond described as a quiet oasis off Middle Saranac Lake—a place where you can find ducks and loons and two lovely islands, Tick and Toc—but I never paddled there until this fall, just as the leaves were changing.
I was happy to discover that Weller Pond, at least in late September, lives up to its reputation for natural tranquility. Yet the pond is sure to generate a lot of noise if the state entertains proposals to give motorboats the boot.
This summer, the state formed the Quiet Waters Working Group to look at the need for additional motor-free waterways in the Adirondack Park. To date, the state officials who make up the group have met just a few times (in sessions closed to the public), and they aren’t expected to issue recommendations for at least a year. Nevertheless, the initiative is already stirring hope among paddlers and anxiety among motorboaters.
Many local officials in the Adirondacks side with the motorboaters. They contend that waterways should be open to all and that banning motors is bad for tourism. They say it’s just wrong to kick motorboaters off waters that they have enjoyed for years.
One of these waters is Weller Pond. The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), the Adirondack Council and the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks want to see gas motors banned from Weller and nearby Little Weller Pond. The Adirondack Explorer also has included Weller and Little Weller on its list of waters that should be motor-free.
Neil Woodworth, ADK’s executive director, points out that the entire Saranac Lakes chain—comprising Upper, Middle and Lower Saranac—is motorized. The three lakes add up to 8,900 acres. In contrast, Weller Pond is just 180 acres and Little Weller a mere 10. That is, the two ponds account for only 2% of the chain’s water surface.
“With all the motorboat traffic on Upper, Middle and Lower Saranac, it would be nice to have a sanctuary for the paddler,” Woodworth said.
Joe Hackett, a hunting and fishing guide, contends that the Quiet Waters initiative is just stirring up trouble and creating animosity between paddlers and motorboaters. Hackett and other anglers go to Weller Pond to fish for pike. He feels it’s unreasonable to expect fishermen to paddle two and a half miles to reach the place. What if the fish aren’t biting?
“Fishermen aren’t going there for the solitude and the scenery,” he said. “They’re there for a purpose, and if they aren’t catching anything, they want to get out.”
If Weller were designated a quiet water, anglers could still use electric motors to get there. Another option would be to shut off a gas motor at the pond’s outlet and row the rest of the way. Hackett, however, said most anglers do not own electric motors and many of their gas-powered boats are not designed for rowing.
Hackett also noted that state income from hunting and fishing licenses helps pay for the fishing-access site on South Creek, where paddlers launch their canoes and kayaks to reach Middle Saranac and Weller Pond.
Canoeing across Middle Saranac can be tricky when the wind is whipping up waves on the shallow lake. On the day of my trip, though, the air was calm and the sky blue. I was paddling with Mike Lynch, an outdoors writer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, a Saranac Lake newspaper. When we arrived at South Creek on a Monday morning, a bunch of college students from Vermont were leaving. They had just canoed back from Weller Pond, where they had spent the weekend.
Immediately after launching in the creek, we paddled under a highway bridge and began winding through a boggy habitat with lots of tamarack trees. Lily pads, river grass and spears of pickerelweed decorated the water. Mallards swam away as we progressed downstream.
In 15 minutes, we emerged onto the lake, and the intimate scenes of the creek gave way to vistas of mountains, both near and far: Boot Bay Mountain straight ahead, McKenzie and Whiteface in the distance to our right, and Ampersand looming behind us. Soon we came to a giant boulder sticking out of the water. If it counts as one, it was the first of several islands we would pass on the way to Middle Saranac’s north side.
We could see lots of red and orange in the hills around the lake. “This might be the best month of the year to paddle—no bugs, and the colors are nice,” Mike said.
And no crowds. Our only company was a solitary loon drifting on the water. We went at an easy pace, often stopping to take photographs. After paddling through Hungry Bay, we came to the outlet of Weller Pond.
Like South Creek, this was a channel bordered by bog and daubed by green lily pads—the kind of place beloved by boreal birds. When I saw a grayish bird alight on a branch near the water, I wondered if it might be an olive-sided flycatcher, but it flew off before I could get a good look. (In summer, the bog’s flycatchers must compete with insect-eating pitcher plants.)
Ten minutes later, we entered the pond, a peaceful sheet of water ringed by forest. We headed for Toc Island, where we came upon Mike Kane, a kayaker from Rochester who had been camping for three days.
“Why did you choose this place?” I asked.
“Quietude,” he replied. “Getting away from it all. I love it. I don’t want to leave.”
He had seen two motorboats over the weekend, both operated by fishermen, but he wasn’t bothered by the noise. I mentioned that some people want to make Weller Pond motor-free.
“That’d be really nice,” he said. “It’d make it even more quiet.”
Leaving the island, Lynch and I paddled to a lean-to on the northwestern shore of the pond, stopping to take photos of a loon that kept diving out of sight. The lean-to has a great view of Ampersand Mountain. We ate lunch and then hiked for 20 minutes on a portage trail to Saginaw Bay on Upper Saranac. The trail winds through a beautiful stand of old hemlocks. At the bay, there was yet another loon.
When we got back to the lean-to, we saw a motorboat on Weller Pond, occupied by two fishermen. On our return paddle, we stopped to chat. Both men were from the Albany area and had been coming up to the Adirondacks for years to camp and fish. When I asked how they felt about the proposal to ban motors from Weller Pond, neither raised objections.
“I’ve been coming here for 20 years and never caught much of anything, so I could give it up,” said Doug Kern, who lives in Glenmont, an Albany suburb.
We saw one other motorboat. As we were leaving the pond, it was chugging slowly up the channel. When it reached open water, it accelerated, leaving behind smelly fumes. The boat belonged to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is conducting the Quiet Waters study with the Adirondack Park Agency.
Steve Doxzon, owner of Adirondack Lakes and Trails, a canoe outfitter in Saranac Lake, would like to see Weller Pond off limits to motorboats. “It’s really pretty back there,” he said. “It’s just one of those small places that might be a little nicer if there were no motorboats. And they have access to the rest of the lake.”
Weller Pond is just one of many candidates for motor-free status. Others on the Explorer’s list include a collection of ponds south of the St. Regis Canoe Area, South Inlet off Raquette Lake, the Osgood River, Forked Lake, Eighth Lake in the Fulton Chain, and, once the state buys it, Follensby Pond (see Page 6).
“I’d venture to say there are more paddle craft on these waters than motorboats,” Doxzon said. If more waters were designated motor-free, he added, the Park could be promoted as a canoe and kayak destination. He even suggested a slogan: “Paddle the Quiet Waters of the Adirondacks.”
Although the waterways differ, the fundamental question in each case is the same: Should the paddler’s quest for quiet take precedence over the motorboater’s desire to access public waterways? Paddlers point out that less than 10% of the Park’s water surface is motor-free. Their opponents reply that hundreds of ponds are off limits to motorboats. To this, paddlers rejoin that most of those ponds are too remote and/or too tiny to bother with. And then there is the economic question: Will designating waters motor-free boost tourism by attracting more paddlers or cut into tourism by driving away motorboaters?
By establishing the Quiet Waters Working Group, the state seems to have answered the primary question in the paddler’s favor. “There are too few places in the Adirondacks where paddlers can experience the tranquility of a motorless water body,” Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis said in announcing the study.
The debate, then, will be over which waters should be motorless. Although DEC and the APA promise to listen to all sides, there is bound to be disagreement over this as well. Brian McDonnell, owner of Mac’s Canoe Livery in Lake Clear, is not looking forward to the inevitable controversy.
“This should not be a sportsman-versus-canoeist issue,” he said. “We are all out there to enjoy the woods and the waters.”
From the stoplight at the four corners near the town hall in downtown Saranac Lake, drive west on NY 3 for 10.4 miles to the South Creek boat launch on the left.