Grasse River along Tooley Pond Road ‘not for faint of heart’
By Tom French
My adventurous 20-year-old daughter has eyed this trip ever since I took her to the top of Copper Rock Falls last year and she saw the yellow “canoe carry” discs. Like most paddles with her, I knew it would entail bushwhacking multiple miles with our 18-foot canoe. Ah, the things we do for love.
This section of the Grasse River is so remote that even Jamieson skips over it. At the time of his writing (1994 edition), it was privately held complete with “caretaker patrols” and the risk of “confrontation with this game club,” but that all changed in 1999 with the New York State acquisition of the South Branch Corridor along the Tooley Pond Road, which runs between Degrasse and Cranberry Lake in St. Lawrence County.
Our original plan was for May, shortly after Emma’s return from college, but recent rains had swelled all the creeks and streams. I reconnoitered the access along the Spruce Mountain Road (off Tooley Pond Road) and it was ripping. Further research suggested caution was advised. Rapids could be technical, water cold, and carries rough. Plus, information from various sources was incomplete, contradictory, and incorrect. I decided to postpone the trip, and boy, am I glad we did. This river is not for the faint of heart. A trip in the spring when the water’s high and cold is best left to experts with the right equipment including a wet suit.
We tackled it in mid-August. We scouted the takeout at the First Brook Hand Launch, about one-quarter mile south of Rainbow Falls, when we dropped a car. It was clearly marked just downstream from Class II rapids.
A half-hour later, we were parking the Highlander at the Spruce Mountain Road hand launch where a bridge crosses the river. Riffles that had been submerged in May were just below the bridge, but we carried the canoe along the shore and launched below them.
Emma’s first response as we headed downriver was “Wow, this is beautiful.” Something she said multiple times during the day despite our hardships.
We passed a campsite on the right with signs of use, a beaver jumped from shore and slid under our boat, and then we came to our first gravel bed that required exiting the boat and floating 30 yards. A large conifer, complete with a DEC designated camping site disc nailed to its trunk, had been deposited in in the middle of the shallows during some flood – demonstrating the potential power of the river. Cedar waxwings dive-bombed us. I suspect they were nesting in the deadfall.
A second, more challenging rock garden was a third-of-a-mile farther. Below that, I began looking for signs of the Long Rapids portage on the right, but we were quickly into the bones and never found the trail. Dave Cilley, in his “Adirondack Paddler’s Guide” (Paddlesports Press, 4th Edition), says “Most people… run the rapids.” Or walk them, which is what we did, though we were able to float through one 20-yard pool and then navigate some pillows and chutes for another 20. Ninety minutes later we reached the bottom. Maybe a bushwhack would have been easier.
Cilley’s map shows a short carry (with a campsite) across a point of land on a bend, though I think Cilley confuses the portages because he implies a length of 375 yards for the second carry. It was less than 50. No sign of the campsite despite a disc.
We relaunched the canoe with the profound hope that it might be flatwater the rest of the way to Copper Rock Falls, but sleepers continued to jump through the murky waters and bite the bottom of our boat, and then we spotted a well-marked carry on the left – clearly the real Brumagin Rapids.
‘Wilderness Factor 9’
Cilley rates the river as a “Wilderness Factor 9,” but his descriptions have several inaccuracies including a trip distance of 20 miles, the missing carry across that point, and the distance of the Brumagin Portage. My calculations put it at a half-mile.
The good news is that it’s well marked and after a short jaunt up a hill, you reach an old woods road that will make you think you should have brought wheels, though it quickly devolves into brush with thickets of high ferns and multiple blowdowns that require weaving right and left or stepping over. Watch for the yellow discs as the trail eventually leaves the road back to the river. Don’t get excited when you see the water. You’ll need to carry another 200 yards further through the roughest section. Expect scratches on your arms and legs unless you’re well-dressed.
A long flatwater ensues that makes you think you finally have a clear shot to Copper Rock Falls, but a Class III drop to a pool before the portage felt like every other wade of the day.
It was 4 p.m. by the time we reached the bottom of the Copper Rock Carry, a 100-foot drop over a half mile. We could have bailed and walked to the car along the Tooley Pond Road, but decided to push on with the knowledge that we could bail again at the Newbridge bridge. We left the marked trail to reach the actual bottom of the Copper Rock Cascades. It quickly became another bushwhack for access to the flatwater.
But this flatwater, almost all the way to the takeout, was the most pleasant of the day. Perhaps it was the lateness of the afternoon and the glow of the sun. We passed under the bridge and decided to keep going.
We navigated several sections of fast water that were almost exhilarating. We spotted the railbed to the Clifton Mines on the left. The DEC may open it for vehicular traffic at some point. Perhaps it will provide better access to this part of the river – an easier put-in at the bottom of Copper Rock Falls or at the bridge would truly provide recreational paddling.
A half-mile above the takeout, we encountered our final significant rapids. Perhaps because we were tired and it was pushing six-o’clock, it seemed like the most difficult tenth-of-a-mile of the day. The water was dark and hard-to-see rocks slippery.
The canoe carry sign was within sight when we reached the last Class II drop. By then, we knew our day was done other than fetching the Highlander.
I wouldn’t recommend this paddle except for the most hardy. It’s a serious Adirondack wilderness adventure. With more rapids and riffles than I can count, most requiring an exit from the canoe, plus the challenging portages, it was a long day that took eight hours to cover eight miles. I told my wife that if Emma ever says she only does it for me, to let me know, because I only do it for her.