Oswegatchie: A North Country River

North Country Books, 2006, 152 pages Hardcover, $24.95 Softcover, $16.95
North Country Books, 2006, 152 pages
Hardcover, $24.95
Softcover, $16.95

Afew years ago, a friend and I made the long carry from Lows Lake to the upper reaches of the Oswegatchie River. Neither of us had hiked the trail before, so we had no idea how long it would take. Humping our dry bags and my big fiberglass canoe through endless blowdown, witchhobble and slash, we felt like a couple of big-city suckers tricked into a snipe hunt.

We eventually found the black, shining thread of the river and were rewarded with a couple of ripe summer days spent swimming, hiking, and scuttling gleefully across moss-slick beaver dams. I’ve been back a half-dozen times, exploring the Whitney and the Five Ponds Wilderness Areas in different seasons and from different angles. It’s arguably the most rugged, remote and varied corner of the Adirondacks, a part of the world where every hour is precious and every pound of extra cargo makes itself felt.

The bad news is that Christopher Angus has just added another piece of essential equipment to any foray into the Oswegatchie country, meaning a slightly heavier load as you bust across the ridge. The good news is that his anthology of writings about the river (available as a sturdy, lightweight paperback, thank God) is by turns funny, scholarly and luminous. The tone of the selected writings is conversational, as if a dozen of the Adirondacks’ best writers and outdoors folk were swapping tales in a lean-to.

“The river rises in the absolute silence of the great north woods,” Angus writes, in his introductory essay, “and empties beneath concrete bridges shaking with the roar of trucks. Few see the river in its wilderness setting.”

This book will inspire you to push into the wilds, but it isn’t a guidebook. Paul Jamieson’s Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow is still the primary source of technical information. But Angus, who wrote a good biography of Adirondack conservationist Clarence Petty in 2002, manages to offer plenty of fresh voices and insights.

Oswegatchie, A North Country River includes graceful poems by Maurice Kenny. There are a couple of cautionary accounts of people going lost in those tangled woods—one by Saranac Lake guide Chuck Brumley and another by former Paul Smith’s College professor Michael Kudish. There is an intimate account of surveyor Verplanck Colvin’s sojourn in the northwest Adirondacks, where he nearly drowned in quicksand while searching for an elusive boundary marker.

Hallie Bond, a curator at the Adirondack Museum and a collector of North Country paddling lore, contributed an essay on the early human history of the river: “There are many stretches of the Oswegatchie River where humans seem incidental,” she writes.

It turns out that a lot of great stories have played out on those winding switchbacks, not all of them involving six-packs of beer, trout and fly rods. In 1653, a French Jesuit priest named Joseph Poncet was kidnapped by Mohawk warriors and taken on a long, forced march that included a journey by spruce-bark canoe down the Oswegatchie.

Other famous people followed in Poncet’s footsteps, usually at a more leisurely pace. In the early 1800s, Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow fame visited the lower reaches of the river, where farms and river towns were being carved out of the desolation. Toward the end of that century, the artist Frederic Remington paddled from Cranberry Lake to the St. Lawrence River, praising “the quietness of the woods, with all their solemnity.”

Of course, Oswegatchie journeys aren’t always quiet or solemn. Photographer and conservationist Gary Randorf describes another survey trip, this one organized in the 1970s by an early (and definitely more freewheeling) incarnation of the Adirondack Park Agency. The team included himself, author Anne LaBastille and Clarence Petty. “I recall that Anne was hiking barefoot,” Randorf writes, “an amazing feat to all who know the roughness of Adirondack trails.”

High Falls is a popular destination on the Oswegatchie.
High Falls is a popular destination on the Oswegatchie.

In a separate account, Clarence Petty describes his years working in the area as a state conservation warden. He was on duty during the Big Blow of 1950 that leveled thousands of acres of trees, trapping scores of hunters. “After crawling around through all that downed timber,” he recounts, “I figured it would take a crew of four about three days of work to clear out that trail.”

Another powerful microburst racked the northwestern Adirondacks in 1995. Dick and Barbara Tiel describe a night spent out in that storm: The wind flattened their tent and blew away one of their canoes. During my maiden portage, long stretches of the trail were still hemmed by stump butts and slash. Many of the woods roads and herd paths that conservationist Bob Marshall once wandered have been swallowed by nature’s muddle.

But there is still plenty of open trail and water to explore. By Angus’s reckoning, the three branches of the Oswegatchie total roughly 135 miles of navigable streams. “Paddling these sinuous waterways, one can almost see the old guides who once plied the river,” he writes, describing the journey as a sort of time travel.

“One can almost hear the raucous singing and hard paddling of a boatload of voyageurs. One can almost imagine a full-laden Iroquois canoe, weighted down with a hundred beaver skins. It is here on the East Branch of the Oswegatchie, in all its protected glory, that one can today view the river almost as those Indians and early guides first encountered it.”

The pristine character of the river’s upper stretches accounts for much of the trip’s delight. It’s also charming to find Adirondack countryside outside the High Peaks where the scale is almost Western in its grandeur. Scrambling the bluffs above Lows Lake or skirting the beaver meadows near Cranberry Lake (itself an impoundment of the Oswegatchie), one feels the greatness of the primeval woods. “This river is measured in breath, dark beauty,” writes Maurice Kenny. “Its spirit not in inches and miles as a map might say.”

Paddlers delight in the intimate twists and turns of the upper Oswegatchie.
Paddlers delight in the intimate twists and turns of the upper Oswegatchie.

There are things to quibble with in Oswegatchie. One of the essays written by Angus treats the idea of wolf reintroduction in the Adirondacks. The topic seems out of place here and doesn’t contribute much. Our mountain rivers face plenty of serious conservation threats. Most biologists will tell you that the absence of wolves isn’t one of them.

It would have been nice for casual readers taking up this volume to learn more about real ecological concerns, such as dam management, acid rain and seasonal overcrowding by paddlers and hikers. There are, thankfully, several poignant allusions to the delicacy, the ironic fragility, of the rugged place honored in this book. Mason Smith, an author and boat builder who lives in Blue Mountain Lake, suggests that we’re still growing into the amazing bounty of the Oswegatchie.

“We humans and our works on the face of the North Country need to get much older, until all of our works are four or five hundred years old, as honored as the lands and water are,” Smith writes.

Maybe the best work we can do in those wild river valleys is to pass lightly, allowing the human footprint in the upper reaches of the river to continue fading. Those who follow after us will take ownership only in the tales they tell one another about navigating the Oswegatchie’s tight oxbows or lying like seals on the Stonehenge-size boulders, or listening at night to peepers chirruping along the bank.