Middle Branch proves you can’t paddle same river twice
By Tom French
I like to think I was the first person to access the 16-mile level of the Middle Branch of the St. Regis River when it opened to the public in 1999. A parking area near the bridge where the Blue Mountain Road crosses the river was established by the DEC with a put-in just 150 yards away. Below a series of cataracts, several short portages were carved out of the wilderness. A half mile of carries was a small price to pay to reach the miles of flat water. Plus, the views of whitewater made it all worthwhile. My wife and I explored several miles and had lunch on what seemed like an island with a tall, sentinel white pine at the head.
Within a few weeks, I returned again. This time from the north with friends. Parking at the Indian Rock hand launch, we drifted downriver to a brand-new designated campsite on the town line between Santa Clara and Waverly. We found an I-beam post just beyond the freshly cleared perimeter of the campsite. We’re pretty sure we were first there too – the fire ring was unused.
We’d gotten it into our heads to paddle up the Quebec Brook to the road where we’d stashed a car. It turned into a debacle – so narrow and rocky we essentially sloshed up the stream in our sandals, dragging the canoes behind us. Until 1999, the Quebec was the only access to the 16-mile-level. Jamieson described it as a kind-of hop, skip and jump between corners of state land and private property. (Hear a conversation with Jamieson at the age of 102 recorded by Todd Moe in 2006).
I revisited the St. Regis recently with my daughter. Nothing looked the same. Due to an “ongoing boundary discrepancy,” the access near the bridge has been removed and not considered on conservation easement property. The DEC sign at the Indian Rock hand launch is currently missing (look for the post and horizontal); the DEC reports it was stolen. The .6-mile carry is level and straight, but twenty years ago, the put-in was a series of timber steps (see picture). Now it’s a sandy beach covered with turtle egg shells, some clearly pilfered by critters.
We explored the river in two trips. According to the DEC website, the flatwater stretches 10 miles upstream and 2 miles downstream from the launch site, though my Google Earth calculations measured it as almost equidistant in both directions – five downriver and six up.
We went downriver first with the channel wide and straight, but the gentle turns quickly morphed into a snake – all the way to the rapids. A family of at least three otters floated ahead of us for a good distance, playfully lifting their heads above the water, almost standing to check us out before sinking beneath the surface and reemerging a few yards further downriver.
All the landmarks from my memory are gone. That island where I had lunch with my wife and which I recall seeing again with the boys? Gone. Well, at least I didn’t recognize it. No sign of any campsites other than a grill grate hanging from a tree along the shore. I think I found the Quebec Brook inlet. It was difficult to find 20 years ago too. At that time, we all started up separate narrow channels, yelling to each other so knew where everyone was.
After 90 minutes, Emma and I reached the rapids. The carry wasn’t marked well, but we found a path in a little bay to the right at the top of the fast water. Someone had trimmed branches recently. After exiting the canoe and walking twenty yards into the forest, I found a carry marker. The path led to a launch area beneath the rapids – again, looking completely different from 20 years ago.
We ate our lunches, relaunched, took some pictures, and headed upriver. Two hours later we were at the put-in.
We returned a week later to explore the upper reaches and quickly realized that’s where the magic is found.
Trip No. 2
The river enters Brandon Park, also known as Ross Park, 300 yards above the put-in. Originally part of William A. Rockefeller, Jr.’s 110,000-acre Bay Pond estate, it has a history of private ownership including by heiress Wilhelmina du Pont Ross. The entire property is protected by a conservation easement donated to The Nature Conservancy by Ross in 1978. The property includes several homes, dozens of structures, a fish hatchery, and forty miles of roads. It was purchased by Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, in 2015. Ma has been involved with Nature Conservancy China for a number of years and it has been reported that he purchased the property for conservation reasons.
A posted sign is visible from the beach. Barbed wire dangles from cracked and gray posts on both sides of the channel and appears to have once been strung from shore to shore as a barrier.
The first three miles is wide with gracefully turns. We disturbed a pair of mergansers and passed a black spruce graveyard. At three miles, we entered a pond. I steered toward a grassy delta on the upper left where the river enters. White pines arched over from both sides forming a gateway into a different landscape, narrow with stiff current, a wide plain of grasses instead of alders. Emma immediately spied a bald eagle taking off from the top of a white pine.
I was expecting an excessively winding course, and the turns were often tight, but they were followed by straight sections through fields of marsh grass topped with purplish panicles. At one tight turn near an inlet, I was tricked by a reflection. Thinking it was a beaver dam, I prepared to accelerate over when it dawned on me that we were heading upriver.
A few yards beyond, we spotted a no trespassing sign next to what appeared to be an access onto an esker. Above the landing, I could see a wider path. Fifty yards later, we eyed an elegant lean-to sitting above the plain with a sweeping view of the alluvial expanse.
Two miles after entering this eden, we came to a tree spanning the channel – I assumed the one I had seen on Google Earth as part of my recon. We were able to paddle under it near the left-side shore. Alas, another large trunk was just one bend away. Fortunately, its lower side was like a dock, so we were able to haul the canoe over, though the debris on the upper side created the feeling that loggers must have had when birling or walking from log to log. It was the only obstacle of either day.
About a mile further upstream, we heard the chatter of rapids and then they came into view – a treat of unexpected beauty. I knew the rapids would be the end of our journey, but it was far more stunning than I expected, reaching straight up into the distance. We ate lunch in the canoe with the wind just strong enough to keep us against the shore in a pool with a perfect view upstream into the wilderness. It had taken us 2.5 hours.
The perfect trip would be from the closed access near the bridge. Perhaps someday the property dispute will be settled so people can launch upriver for the 12 miles, followed by a downriver glide.
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