After enduring cold, rain, and mosquitoes, a father and his two sons can’t wait for their next canoe trip.
By Brian Castner
When we left for the Adirondacks, I did not tell my sons that this was not only their first overnight canoeing trip, but mine as well. Dads, or at least the dads of young boys, are expected to be superhuman creatures: fearless guides, expert sailors, indefatigable woodsmen, primal bear wrestlers.
I had canoed a fair share, but never on a multi-day Big Adventure such as I had in mind for Marty, Sam, and me. Marty was eight years old, strong and energetic, eager to prove himself. Sam was five, a classic tag-along younger brother who wanted to do everything Marty did. My mission was to provide an experience that would kindle, not dampen, my boys’ enthusiasm for the outdoors. Starting in the village of Saranac Lake, we would paddle up the island-studded Lower Saranac Lake and the Saranac River to Middle Saranac Lake and on to Weller Pond.
I picked a trek that would be child-friendly and convenient—that is, no carries. I would have minimal help paddling and would have even less moving a seventy-five-pound canoe and 150 pounds of gear and food. At St. Regis Outfitters in Saranac Lake we rented a nineteen-foot Penobscot 186. You can fit a lot of stuff in such a wide boat, and I brought it: marshmallows, trail mix, candy bars, extra clothes, hiking boots, games. We played a lot of Uno while stuck in a tent; I can’t imagine the trip without that deck of cards.
Purists may howl, but I opted to use a double-bladed kayak paddle instead of a standard single blade. I decided that constantly switching sides to compensate for overpowering my sons would drive me crazy, and J-stroking for four days would mean doubling the effort required to complete the trip.
We put in on Ampersand Bay on a bright, clear day, the mountains standing in stark relief against a brilliant sky and sailboats playing on the water. We had only a short paddle to our first campsite among some cedars on the north shore of Lower Saranac. Once on the water, we settled into what would become a familiar routine. Marty paddled with great abandon until exhaustion. Sam dipped the blade in the water intermittently or used it to swat imaginary pests. I found my standard, steady rhythm, and propelled us at a decent clip; the boys could stay in the boat only for so long before the need to squirm was overwhelming. Once we found our campsite, I hauled the canoe onto a low beach, pitched our tent, made dinner, started a fire, cooked s’mores, brushed teeth, hung and hid the food, and crashed exhausted in my sleeping bag by 9 p.m.—a ritual I would repeat twice more.
Thunderstorms awoke me before dawn. I was surprised as I had assumed thunder and lightning would hold off until the heat of the afternoon, leaving us plenty of time to paddle in the morning. Though I had only a jittery signal I called up an incomplete Doppler radar map on my smart phone and saw an angry red blob to our north. A thunderous crack confirmed that the blob was not a mere abstraction. But the storm system seemed to be moving quickly to the east, in the opposite direction that we were heading. I boiled water for coffee and oatmeal and didn’t worry.
Our destination was the lean-to on Weller Pond, a northern extension of Middle Saranac Lake. This was as deep into the wild as we would go, as far off the beaten path as we could get on this water route. Despite the gray sky, we packed our canoe and paddled up Lower Saranac past assorted rocky islands into the Saranac River. The drizzle began as we entered the mouth of the slow-moving waterway. The thunder returned after we had rounded a few bends. I don’t mind paddling in rain, but I didn’t want to expose my kids to lightning. Fortunately, I had a place in mind to ride out the worst of the weather.
Middle Saranac Lake is three feet higher than Lower, a small difference that nonetheless requires an accounting. Nature’s rounding error is rectified by a quaint hand-operated lock staffed by a lucky ranger who spends the summer opening and closing heavy doors and enjoying solitude in a rustic cabin. The ranger, a friendly woman, took pity on the kids and let us take shelter on the screened porch of a storage shed, from which we watched buckets of rain lash the river and electricity dance across the sky.
But we didn’t wait long as I decided to roll the dice. As soon as the thunder sounded from the east instead of the west, I herded the kids back into the canoe and got paddling despite the downpour. The gamble worked, and the worst of the rain let off within the hour. Still, I’ve never been prouder of my two sons than in that moment, watching them paddle upriver with empty bellies, soaked to the skin in the driving rain, but still giggling from the sheer joy of it all. Once on Middle Saranac Lake we found a spot to stop, and after a soggy lunch of peanut butter on bagels and freeze-dried ice-cream bars, we paddled around the corner into loon-filled Weller Pond, a pristine vision that feels more remote than it is.
After two days of canoeing, we needed to stretch the legs, and a hike up the carry trail connecting Weller Pond to Upper Saranac Lake was the perfect remedy. Our camp for the night was the lean-to on the northernmost bay, and the footpath starts at the campsite. The trail climbs over a low ridge, among boulders and root-staircases, on the way to Saginaw Bay. I could not imagine shoulder-hauling a canoe on such a trail, for the footing is challenging enough even when not so encumbered. Sam agreed; not five minutes down the trail, he tumbled waist deep into a soupy mud bog. I pulled him out by the armpits, carried the sobbing mess back to Weller Pond, and washed him in the sandy shallows. After a quick change of clothes, we were hiking again, though we now watched our steps more carefully.
We had the lean-to on the right night, for the rain resumed on our hike back to camp and did not stop until the next morning. Marooned together, we played cards and talked. I told the boys family stories, tales of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, those special legends you save for the right night and the right fire and an inquisitive look in your sons’ eyes.
The mosquitoes were undaunted by the rain, and their swarming eventually forced us inside the tent that I had set up in a clearing as a precaution. The storm got worse during the night, with lightning and thunder and canopy-thrashing wind lasting into the wee ghosting hours. The tent held together and kept the water off, and the boys slept through the worst, so I enjoyed the show alone, looking out over the flash-lit pond.
The morning was clear, but the breeze picked up as we retraced our route down to the pond’s outlet on Middle Saranac Lake. The crosswind was manageable as we traversed the northern secluded bay, but as we entered the main body of the lake the gusts became gales that raised three-foot whitecaps. The boys cheered and laughed as the canoe rode up and down, from crest to trough on the living sea.
As captain and protector, I put every bit of my rafting and kayaking experience to use. I took advantage of the tailwind and directed our craft across the center of the lake, but we drifted away from the river’s entrance. I turned and pitifully crabbed into the wind, struggling to keep our broadside pointed in the right direction, but we wafted even farther off course. In a final gambit, I back-paddled a massive crosswise stroke, a maneuver that in a whitewater raft would send us on a 720-degree spin. Nothing happened. The gusts took the nose, and powerless we drifted into the reeds on the lake’s east shore. There was nothing to do but step out into the marsh and tow our boat through shallow sandy swamp back to the river. Finally sheltered by hill and pine, the wind died as if some ancient wind spirit had flipped a switch.
We passed back through the lock and headed down Lower Saranac to our final campsite on a narrow peninsula on the lake’s south shore. Marty and Sam had insisted that swimming must be part of the adventure at some point. With the sun finally complying, I knew this was our last chance.
“You boys ready to go get in the water?” I asked.
They looked at me like I was crazy.
“Dad, we’re cold,” said Marty, speaking for his younger brother.
“You’ve got your swim trunks on—you’re all ready to go!”
Yes, they were wearing bathing suits. They also were wearing sweatshirts and raingear and knit hats. In fact, we had barely taken off our cold-weather beanies at all over the past three days. Maybe it wasn’t swimming weather after all.
Soon the rain returned, and we retreated to our tent to play more Uno. Eventually, I had to venture out into the wet to boil water for our feast of dehydrated chili with macaroni. The skies cleared in time for sunset, and I made our third helping of s’mores after starting a fire with birch bark, pine needles, cedar scraps, and damp wood.
Fog clung to the hillsides on our last morning, and mist rose off the warm lake as we paddled back to our van at the Ampersand Bay parking area. Our topic of conversation? Marty wanted to know if we could do a weeklong trip next year instead of only four days. Mission accomplished. ■