Paddle trips provide much-needed catching up time
By Herb Terns
Thunder rumbled as we pushed off from the Long Lake boat launch. Four of us were embarking on a three-day canoe trip from Long Lake to Floodwood Pond via the Raquette River and Upper Saranac Lake.
With a variety of backcountry experience (from some to basically none) our adventure began before we dipped paddles in the water. There were pre-trip questions like “what’s a portage?” and “should we bring umbrellas?” and Cushy texted a photo of himself in front of a pile of gear and wrote: “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Similar in size, Cushy and Windy paddled one rented canoe, while Minnesota and I paddled another. Both boats were piled with camping gear and essential provisions like beer.
When the rains came, we found shelter on shore. After the storms, we returned to the water. The sight of my friends paddling with clouds filtering through the low-slung hills behind them will be etched in my memory. We didn’t get a bluebird day. We got a day that was raw and temperamental but beautiful on its own terms.
Our first-day goal was the north end of Long Lake with a stretch goal of the Raquette Falls portage. The storms abated where Long Lake became the Raquette River. It was 4 p.m. and decision time; set up camp in good weather or push on to the portage. We’re guys, so we pushed on.
An hour later, the sky darkened and thundered as nature pushed back. To our great joy, we found a vacant campsite at the beginning of the portage trail. Light kisses of rain told us our tent set-up had a deadline enforced by downpour.
We ate chicken tacos in rain gear beside the Raquette River. There were smiles and laughs and no one complained. If I didn’t know it before, I learned then I was traveling with the right people.
After we stowed the food in bear canisters, Cushy and Minnesota remembered an absurd amount of Clif Bars still in their backpacks. This led to one of the most entertaining late-night bear bag-hang operations I’ve ever witnessed. There were debates about the right tree, the right technique and which end of the rope to throw.
We optimistically split into two separate tents—snorers in one, non-snorers in another. The actual breakdown was liars and non-liars because all four of us were world-class wheezers.
I woke early, took down the bear bag, hid it under a tarp, and scratched the ground beneath the tree to make it look like bear claws. We were out there to have fun, weren’t we?
Windy got up and we portaged the two canoes the mile around the falls. Most of our group lives near each other, but Windy lives five hours away and I see him just once a year. The unencumbered walk back to camp offered time to catch up on family, jobs and life, conversations deeper than the Raquette.
When everyone was awake, we sipped coffee and ate oatmeal by the river. We loaded our hodgepodge of gear, wearing backpacks on our front and clipping odd items to everything. We looked like hobos. Not just hobos, beginner hobos.
We rejoined a changed Raquette beneath the falls. Swollen with rainwater, the river was high, but for the first time, we also found the sun. In late afternoon, we arrived at Indian Carry and had another decision: take a vacant campsite on Stony Creek Ponds or push on to Upper Saranac in hopes of a site.
We rolled the dice and felt a flood of relief when we found an Upper Saranac campsite. It was large and grassy and hosted a rock slab jutting into the lake.
The slab was our dinner table. We ate pasta as loons swam by. When the sun dipped behind the trees, the air cooled. We wore fleece and watched the sky turn red and orange above the silhouette of the western shore. The stars came out and someone mentioned an app that identifies the constellations. But we were not connected to cellphones or the app, we were connected to the people with us.
Windy pointed out Polaris and other constellations. We discussed the ancient mariners and dead reckoning with only the knowledge we brought with us. We did what men have done as long as there have been men—we looked at the night sky with awe and reverence.
Morning broke with a blanket of fog. We sipped coffee as two young men fished in a red canoe, reflections of our past selves. We loaded our own canoes and paddled as an eagle graced the sky.
“Herb screwed up,” I heard Windy tell Cushy some distance away, as we paddled what I’d identified as Fish Creek Bay. “This isn’t Fish Creek Bay,” Windy said. I heard them ask shore-side teens if we were on the bay, but the teens didn’t know.
“This is Fish Creek Bay,” a woman somewhere said. “Sorry for eavesdropping,” she said, “but sound travels across the water.”
“Yes,” I said, “sound travels across the water. So, I should be able to hear your apology from here.” I didn’t hear any apologies.
“You should slow down for the canoes,” I heard someone in a motorboat tell the driver. “I don’t have to do anything,” I heard the driver reply. In a few seconds, we struggled to steady the canoes in their rolling wake.
My stomach relaxed when we passed the motorboat barriers on Fish Creek to enter calmer waters. A young couple, half our age, blew past us, paddling with amazing form and speed. “If those two aren’t married already,” someone said, “they should be.”
The sky was blue with puffy clouds as we entered Floodwood Pond. All that was left was to land and unload the canoes. There are books you don’t want to end and there are trips you don’t want to end. We paddled slower and lingered in the sun, soaking up the last of this precious thing.
Herb Terns is an outdoors columnist and author in Schenectady.
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This article first appeared in a recent issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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