The opening of the Essex Chain Lakes attracts a flock of paddlers on a colorful autumn day.
By Phil Brown
AFTER CARRYING our canoes a quarter-mile, paddling briefly across Deer Pond, and then carrying another half-mile, Sue Bibeau and I were eager to begin our exploration of the Essex Chain Lakes, a string of pristine ponds surrounded by wild peaks.
As soon as we put in, though, we encountered another canoeist, and we had to stop for a chat. It was Mike Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy. Without him, we wouldn’t be here.
Thanks to Carr and the Nature Conservancy, the Essex Chain is now part of the forever-wild Forest Preserve and open to the public for the first time in more than a century. The conservancy purchased the 17,320-acre Essex Chain Tract in 2007 and sold it to the state last year.
Part of the tract, including the Blackwell Stillwater on the Hudson River, opened to the public in the spring. However, the Essex Chain Lakes remained off limits until October 1, when the Gooley Club’s exclusive-use lease expired.
“This is day one of forever,” Carr remarked from his canoe on Third Lake, the largest water body in the chain. “It’s open to the public and forever wild. It’s spectacular to see people out here.”
We had been waiting a long time for this day, often looking at the map and dreaming of the paddling possibilities. Located in Newcomb, the Essex Chain comprises eight interconnected lakes. Six of them—Second Lake through Seventh Lake—can be paddled without leavingyour boat. The other two require portaging. In addition, four other ponds lie a short distance from the chain. If all these water bodies are connected by carry trails, the region could become, in effect, the Park’s second Canoe Area.
As Sue and I drove to Newcomb from Saranac Lake, we wondered if we’d see many other paddlers. Although it was the Essex Chain’s grand opening, the state had done little advance publicity. Yet when we arrived at the newly created parking area, it was just about full. Not including the rusting truck in the woods, we counted nineteen vehicles—one from Florida, the rest from New York State.
After signing in at the brand-new kiosk, we started the carry to the chain. In a quarter-mile, we came to Deer Pond. Deer is a sizable pond. You could spend an hour exploring it. However, we paddled a beeline across its narrow eastern bay to pick up the trail on the other side and then carried a half-mile to the north shore of Third Lake.
Thus, to get to the Essex Chain, you must be prepared to carry your boat three quarters of a mile, with a short paddle thrown in. If you have lightweight canoes, as we did, this is not as difficult as it sounds. Most of the carrying is on dirt roads, so it’s pretty easy. It can be done in a half-hour or less. The portage trails are well marked.
The location of the parking area could change, depending on how the Adirondack Park Agency and state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) decide to classify and manage the Essex Chain Tract. One of the main issues is motorized access. The tract is crisscrossed with dirt roads. Local officials would like it if people were able to drive right up to the lakes. Some environmental activists want the parking areas set farther back to create a larger non-motorized “buffer” around the chain.
Within moments of beginning the carry on a dirt road, Sue and I encountered a bearded fellow schlepping his canoe in the opposite direction—Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. We asked if the location of the interim parking area provided enough of a buffer for the Essex Chain. He thought so, but more important than the location of the parking area, he said, is that motorboats and floatplanes be kept off the lakes.
“Having motor-free lakes affords ecological protection and attracts people,” he said. “It’s better for the towns to have a little wilderness.”
Ah, more controversy. Janeway and other environmentalists want the Essex Chain classified Wilderness—with a capital W—which would prohibit the use of motorboats and floatplanes. Local officials are pushing for a Wild Forest designation, which would give DEC discretion to allow some motorized recreation.
Bidding adieu to Willie, we next encountered a bunch of fellow Saranac Lakers: Zoe Smith, Michale Glennon, Leslie Karasin, and Heidi Kretser of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Jason Smith of Adirondack Lakes and Trails, and Steve Langdon, a biological researcher for the Shingle Shanty Preserve west of Long Lake. They, too, were heading back to their cars after paddling.
Within five minutes, Sue and I turned off the road and followed a short trail to the north shore of Deer Pond. The pond is roughly three quarters of a mile long, but paddling across its narrow arm took just a minute. We followed another trail a short distance to another dirt road, which led us to Third Lake.
At the put-in, we stopped to talk with Bob and Holly Bearor of Schroon Lake. They were so excited about visiting the Essex Chain that they made special T-shirts for the occasion. Holly’s read, “Team Cuomo: Chain of Lakes Chapter.” Bob’s read, “Honorary Gooley Club Member.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed off on the purchase of the Essex Chain Tract, might approve of Holly’s T-shirt, but we doubt the Gooley Club members would be amused by Bob’s. As a result of the purchase, the club will have to dismantle their camps by the end of September in 2018. Meantime, the members continue to have exclusive rights to one acre around the buildings.
Eventually, Sue and I stopped talking and started paddling. We couldn’t have ordered a better day—sunshine, puffy clouds, leaves at peak color. Third Lake offered views in all directions of peaks near and far, including Dun Brook Mountain, the Fishing Brook Range, Blue Mountain, and Vanderwhacker Mountain.
We paddled southwest to Second Lake, which is much smaller than Third. The two are separated by a wide channel with a submerged net, apparently a fish barrier. We landed near Second’s rocky outlet and walked a hundred yards through the woods to get a glimpse of First Lake. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore First, but if you paddle this lake, you might also consider portaging to Grassy Pond, which lies just to the north.
You also will want to explore the outlet of First Lake. The day after our visit, Mike Lynch, the outdoors writer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, paddled a half-mile down the outlet (which flows to the Cedar River) and called it one of the highlights of his trip. The stream is meandering, marshy, and wild.
“It has the feel of a place where you might see a moose,” he said. Indeed, the caretaker of the Gooley Club told him a moose has been hanging out around First Lake and Grassy Pond.
After returning to our canoes, Sue and I paddled back to Third, where we passed a canoeist wearing an Adirondack Explorer cap—Bob Brand, who was exploring the Essex Chain with a group from the Adirondack Mountain Club. A few days later, I corresponded with him via email and asked for his impressions.
“Regarding the Essex Chain, it certainly is a jewel added to the public’s paddling options,” he wrote back. “Third Lake is the most interesting because of its size and islands. If I were to spend time on one of the ponds, like on an overnight camping trip, it would be Third.”
No doubt most paddlers would agree that Third, which is more than a mile long, is the most spectacular of the lakes, given its stunning views. But much of the charm of the Essex Chain lies in its variety and the pleasure of paddling from one lake to another and wondering what’s ahead. The sum is greater than its parts.
Incidentally, camping on the Essex Chain Tract is prohibited under the interim-access plan prepared by DEC. Presumably, the department will establish campsites next year.
About halfway up Third is a large island that guards the entrance to a bay on the south side of the lake. The Gooley Club camps are on this bay. Until the club’s lease expires, paddlers are forbidden to land there.
While circumnavigating the island, we paused to chat with two more paddlers, Frank Baehre of Plattsburgh and his son, also named Frank. The elder Frank is a volunteer for the Adirondack Park Invasive Plants Program. Each year, he surveys several lakes for invasive aquatic plants. We asked if he had seen any exotic species in his trip around the Essex Chain.
“From what I’ve seen so far, everything seems to be native,” he said. “Then again, we’re here to paddle, not survey.”
Continuing up Third, we eventually reached a winding channel that led to Fourth Lake, where we were greeted by a cacophony of blackbirds (species unknown) flitting back and forth between a wetland and the adjacent woods.
To get to Fifth Lake, we passed through a large culvert beneath a dirt road. The Gooley Club has made this task easier by running a knotted rope along the roof. We used it to pull ourselves through the tunnel and wondered if the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan allows for culvert ropes in Wilderness Areas.
By the time we reached Fifth, the sun had sunk low, casting a soft glow on Sixth Lake Mountain dead ahead, illuminating the reds, yellows, and oranges of the hardwood slopes. The quarter-mile channel between Fifth and Sixth was shallow: we had to dodge islands of mud and push through lily pads. The scenery must be gorgeous when the aquatic plants are in bloom.
As we paddled up Sixth, we were partly in shadow, but upon rounding a point and entering tiny Seventh Lake, we were showered with sunshine and treated to a splendid view of Cedar Mountain. There is an Eighth Lake, too, but it requires a longish carry. Given the hour, we turned around.
Altogether, Sue and I spent three and a half hours on the water, but we were a bit rushed. I’d recommend setting aside more time to explore the chain, especially if you visit First Lake and Grassy Pond. When you add in the portages, you can easily put in a full day.
By the way, we saw and heard loons on Third Lake and Fifth Lake. We also saw ducks, great blue herons, and belted kingfishers. Of course, there also were signs of civilization, such as the Gooley Club camps and docks, the fish-barrier net, and here and there paraphernalia in the woods—plastic chairs, a picnic table, a small grill. All of these will be removed sooner or later. Yet even now the Essex Chain showcases the wildness and natural beauty of the Adirondacks. ■
DIRECTIONS: From NY 28N in Newcomb, turn south on Pine Tree Road (a short loop road west of “downtown”), then turn south onto Goodnow Flow Road. Go 4.3 miles on Goodnow Flow Road to a junction with Woody’s Road. Turn right onto Woody’s Road and go 1.5 miles to Cornell Road. Bear left and go another 4.4 miles to the parking area. After the turn onto Woody’s Road, most of the driving will be on dirt roads. The roads are often rocky. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended.