Author and his crew find fantasies can come true on Forked Lake.
By Jack Ballard
It’s the dream of many an American, from freckled grade-school girls with missing front teeth to smartly attired executives in the Financial District who pounce on deals like pickerel on perch. Ah, to traipse the shoreline of one’s own private island. For multiple millions, you just might swing the purchase of this piece of paradise in the Caribbean. In the Adirondacks, you can have one for less than a hundred bucks. At least for a night or two.
Our piece of paradise is on Forked Lake, a mostly wild water body just north of Raquette Lake. The state runs a campground at the east end of the large lake. Most of the eighty campsites are on the mainland. We were fortunate to have reserved one of the three island sites.
Four crafts loaded, prows pointed into a blustery wind and knee-high waves, a crew of six sailors—er, paddlers—shove off into the lake to fulfill our island fantasy. Less than a mile away lies the place we’ll call home for the next three nights, a shady islet we’ll share with nary another human. For now, the trick is getting there.
Lisa, my sweetheart, and her son, Parker, lead the flotilla in a pair of kayaks. My two teenage sons, Micah and Dominic, paddle an aluminum canoe rented at the campground, piled high in its center with a mound of gear in dry bags and firewood. Zoe, my nine-year-old daughter, sits in the front of my seventeen-foot Old Town Penobscot, a craft whose stability and efficient profile I’ll surely need on this trek. For it’s Zoe and I who ferry the lion’s share of the gear to the island in the face of a pernicious wind.
Shortly after we push off from shore, Parker runs aground on a boulder lurking beneath the waves. The overbearing breeze sends waves splashing over the hull of Lisa’s kayak and nearly into her lap. True to brotherly form, Micah and Dominic squabble about who’s to blame for their canoe not running a straight course toward the island. But I’m in no position to manage the mishaps of others. It takes nearly all my strength and stamina to keep the canoe cutting into the waves.
A particularly boisterous swell breaks against the bow, sending spray into Zoe’s face. She laughs and turns to show me her splattered glasses.
“Hey, Dad, isn’t this fun?”
At least one person thinks so.
In about thirty minutes, we reach the leeward side of an island that looks like the back of some humongous sea creature protruding from the lake. Stately evergreens and a few deciduous trees thrust into the sky, their roots burrowing into cracks in the bedrock for strength and sustenance. Our abode lies just beyond on a smaller isle with a lone campsite. Rounding the point of the bigger island we’re again buffeted by the waves but only momentarily. Two dozen strokes of my paddle propel us blissfully into calmer water on the sheltered side of our island. We pull the kayaks ashore and moor the canoes to the dock. Lisa is anxious to unload, pitch the tents, and arrange a camp. I’m more interested in resting my aching shoulders.
Watching the three boys set up the kids’ tent and organize their sleeping quarters in one of its two rooms (Zoe gets the other suite to herself), I’m grateful to share their company, boundless energy, and growing competence in outdoor skills. After dinner we dip into the store of firewood. As they roast marshmallows in the dancing flames, I remember an adage from my boyhood on a Montana ranch: “He who cuts his own wood is twice warmed.” It applies just as aptly to he who carries much wood in a canoe.
Just before sunrise, in the first, bashful light of the new day, I awaken to the wavering call of a loon somewhere down the lake. At 1,248 acres, Forked Lake attracts its share of wildlife. Loons and ducks are common neighbors to campers, along with ospreys and a host of other birds. Rousing ourselves from the tent, knowing the kids will be unconscious for another two hours, Lisa and I decide to go on a loon hunt. I’ll paddle the canoe and help her spot the game.
She’ll shoot the birds from the front seat—with her camera.
Cruising back toward the boat launch, we discover a single bird that allows us to approach within easy photo range. Lisa composes a few nice images, but the water is just rough enough to rock the canoe, making it hard for her to stabilize her long telephoto lens. Looping back toward our island, we spy another loon in a sheltered bay. It, too, seems quite tolerant of our approach. Peering through her camera, Lisa focuses on the beautiful bird, its red orb of an eye intently scrutinizing our now-motionless craft.
“Look!” she exclaims. “There are two chicks on its back.”
Sure enough, two fuzzy youngsters are huddled happily on their mother’s back, enjoying the first warm rays of sunlight. Then one decides it’s time for a swim. It plops from mom’s feathered ribcage into the water, immediately followed by its sibling. Within minutes, Lisa has dozens of lovely photos.
Arriving back at camp, we find the kids stirring. Camping on Forked Lake is a delightful exercise in doing without the conveniences of modern life to encounter a world that is big, wild, and more soothing to the soul than the lulling whispers of a hypnotist. Breakfast is simple fare: oatmeal with dried blueberries, milk, and yogurt. Afterwards, the kids disperse to throw rocks into the water, fish, and explore every nook and cranny of the island. At lunch, we’re greeted by a mother mallard and her ducklings, bold little waterfowl that surge forward in frantic competition for any crumb that drops from the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches being consumed by our brood of hungry humans. Afterward, Zoe and the boys coax the adults into the water for a swim from our island to the larger one, an activity that morphs into a daily routine.
In a 1955 article for Sports Illustrated, author George Tichenor penned words that remarkably capture our experience on Forked Lake fifty-five years later. “Forked Lake’s greatest charm lies in its wilderness look,” he wrote. “It is an area of great old trees and cool vistas. … The ground is springy to the step, the air laced with the fragrance of spruce. Camp life quickly becomes orderly and easy. … Hurry back to work? Not on your life!”
For the next two days, there is no work, save the modest chores of dishwashing and food preparation. We do find time for exercise, though, mainly in the form of swimming and evening paddling excursions to explore ever-greater portions of our surroundings. Forked Lake offers fine fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass, along with smaller, spiny pumpkinseeds, which Zoe likens to the bluegills she loves to catch at home. On our last evening, Micah and I paddle away from the dock, determined to make a fine showing of our final opportunity to fish for bass. We catch a couple of modest-size smallmouths. During one of my casts, I hear a shriek from the island. Standing on the large, rounded rock jutting into the lake near the picnic table, Zoe is cranking on her spinning reel and yelling.
“I got one, I got one.”
Ceasing our own fishing to enjoy the show, expecting to see yet another pumpkinseed yanked from the water, our mouths drop in amazement when she grapples the largest bass of the trip from its underwater lair.
Paddling back toward the boat launch on the final morning of our adventure in island living, it seems everyone is a little happier, a little stronger, and more confident for the experience. Owning a tropical island might make one feel like royalty, but it’s hard to believe it tops being the sovereign, if only for a few days, of an isle on Forked Lake.
Directions: From the junction of NY 28N and NY 30 in Long Lake, drive south on NY 28N/30 for 3.1 miles to North Point Road. Turn right and go 2.9 miles to Forked Lake Road on the right. Turn right and follow the road to the campground. If coming from the south, the turn for North Point Road will be on the left 7.7 miles from the intersection of NY 28 and NY 30 in Blue Mountain Lake.
A wild stream to explore
At 1,248 acres, Forked Lake is one of the bigger lakes in the Adirondacks. Canoeists looking for a smaller waterway can explore Brandreth Lake Outlet, which flows through the marsh at the lake’s west end.
From the state campground, it’s a five-mile paddle to the outlet’s mouth. Keep in mind that the north shore, though undeveloped, is privately owned until you get within a half-mile or so of the end of the lake. The south shore is Forest Preserve.
Paddling up the lake, you can see Pilgrim Mountain to the northwest. If you turn around, you can see Blue Mountain and other big peaks in the east.
At its mouth, Brandreth Lake Outlet is broad and sluggish. Heading upstream through the marsh, you soon encounter beaver dams. If the water is high, you should be able to paddle over all or most of them.
Beyond the marsh, the stream narrows and becomes more meandering. The evergreen forest and the alders start to close in. A mile and a half from the lake, you come to a short stretch constricted by overhanging alders. If you push through, the stream widens again.
A few hundred yards beyond the alder tunnel you come to a short rapid at a bend in the river. Pull off to the left: it’s an easy, twenty-yard carry around the rapid. In another quarter-mile, you reach a large beaver dam that you probably will need to carry around.
If the water is high enough, you can continue meandering another mile through marshland and alder swamp to the foot of a longer rapid, a good place to turn around. You may have to contend with more dams and blowdown to get that far. If you do make it, you will have traveled three miles from Forked Lake and eight miles from the campground. The turnaround is well before the boundary of the private Brandreth Park.