Underwater expeditions offer views of mountains, caverns, boats and fish
By Michael Sean Gormley
My scuba diving and marriage buddy and I have logged well over 100 dives including off the shores of Florida and New England where we were lucky enough to see lots of technicolor flora and exotic, toothy critters. But diving in the Adirondacks has an allure all its own.
Lake George and Blue Mountain Lake attract divers from several states and Canada and are considered among the best cold-water dives in this part of the United States, but that’s an unnecessary qualifier.
Sure, it’s chilly, but these lakes aren’t exactly hot tubs at the surface. But in diving, the 7-millimeter wetsuits provide entry to a world missed by most.
Contrary to what many expect, the fish are curious, even friendly. They don’t scatter. They often surround you and sometimes they follow you about. Frequently the bass and lake trout are huge, bigger than anything you see mounted on a paneled den. Hovering among a school of fish, many more than 20 inches long, I see just how smart they seem to be in living their long lives, and just how bad a fisherman I was.
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This article first appeared in a recent issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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It is mostly the silent world that Jacques-Yves Cousteau wrote about and filmed when we were kids, except for the occasional drone of powerboats overhead like World War II bombers. But down there, 20 to 80 feet or so, it’s all quiet background noise for fish and divers.
Night dives provide another cool element altogether, where even more fish gather around us and await their cue for the spotlight from your dive light as it knifes through the darkest dark you’ll ever see. There’s just so much to experience.
Lake George is the big draw. Divers see some distinctly different settings from the state parks at Hearthstone and Rogers Rock and the Fort Ann town beach at Pilot Knob.
There’s the sunken dock that the fish have converted to a crowded condo, the forests of sea grass, the bottoms of mountains that form ledges down more than 100 feet where some fish live in tiny caverns; the Sunken Fleet of 1758 including the radeau, an incredibly well-preserved French and Indian War boat of international historic value.
Diving to the radeau from a charter boat in the middle of the lake is a special event. Sinking slowly to 100 feet or so you enter a darker, colder world and the pressure squeezes you harder than an aunt at Christmas. But that’s forgotten as you see a foggy outline of what is considered North America’s oldest intact warship.
As the 52-foot vessel comes into focus you see the wooden, covered ship of the Land Tortoise Radeau with its openings for seven cannons that was the state of the art before there was a United States. The water, often 35 to 45 degrees, remarkably preserves the boat in what was a fortunate mistake for divers.
Shortly after the radeau and its supporting gunships were built, the British intentionally sunk the fleet to keep the French from commandeering the vessels. The British planned to raise them in the spring, but the radeau slipped deeper than anticipated and couldn’t be retrieved. Now it’s cordoned off as if in a museum, and a well-protected artifact from the days of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans.”
There’s much more to see in the Adirondacks including a massive coal car sunk on its last winter over a frozen lake a century ago; sunken rowboats, a racing boat, a car and, oh, yeah, a plane.
The small aircraft, the car and a couple of boats are part of a unique array of attractions in Lake George, just offshore from the Hearthstone Point State Park. These are intentionally sunken items that are used by police and fire department scuba teams and for classes of new scuba divers.
Once they dive beyond a couple stone-carved busts, divers can follow a guideline to the plane at a depth of about 40 feet. Fish are the passengers now, with dozens of perch and bluegill within the cabin, where a mock skeleton at the helm advises divers that scuba is less risky than flying lessons.
A bit deeper and further south is a small car used in rescue training that gives divers a chance to examine inside, above and below the automobile that resembles many of our first junkers.
There are ledges, really the bottom, unseen parts of mountains, full of life. As a diver you can explore the ledge without being restricted by that pesky falling-to-your-death thing along dramatic drop offs at Rogers Rock and Pilot Knob. Both sites, however, have their restrictions.
The best entry point at Rogers Rock is part of a group camp site and some campers aren’t happy about allowing divers through. The Fort Ann town beach is restricted to town residents during schools’ summer vacations, but some divers still slip through for excellent night dives.
Blue Mountain Lake has its own show. The bottom is described as moonscape by some master divers.
There’s a long stretch of sandy bottom rather than the eel grass and seaweed that is more common in Adirondack lakes. But the scene becomes weirder as you see huge boulders of mysterious origin in piles or standing alone like something painted by Salvatore Dali.
For a lake on top of a mountain it is oddly littered with these massive, random boulders, as if you stumbled into a giant’s bocce ball game. The old coal car is the draw for many divers and gives a glimpse of a time when the frozen lakes of the Adirondacks provided roadways for travelers and merchants.
There’s a lot more to say about going under in the Adirondacks including the camaraderie of divers, the friendly questions from beach goers as you walk through them in a strange getup, that incredible view of autumn colors atop a sheer cliff you can only get to by water, and the spiritual touch of floating through a lively ecosystem, but without the blackflies and gaggle of tourists.
It all adds up to a little-known world of life and natural art, proving the beauty of the Adirondacks is far from skin deep.