Floating Henderson is a quiet way to view the High Peaks
By Mike Lynch
As we paddled up to the shoreline on Henderson Lake, we ran into two young men. One was sitting on a red canoe filtering water through a pump while the other stood nearby.
The pair looked a bit worn and sweaty, as one will after hiking all day. They had just returned from Mount Adams, a nearby trail.
Max Morton and Carter Rohl were on the fourth day of their nine-day camping trip on the lake. Morton had just graduated from Horseheads High School near Elmira and this was his trip to celebrate. He started planning this trip in January, poring over maps and saving money for gear and trip-related expenses.
He chose Henderson because he wanted to go somewhere secluded, and he said the location had lived up to his expectations. When the pair arrived on a Saturday, the Upper Works parking lot was nearly full but the vast majority of visitors were hikers.
That meant Morton and Rohl, who knew each other because their dads were best friends in college, had Henderson mostly to themselves.
“It’s been calm and beautiful,” Morton said. “It’s as if no one has been here before.”
When Adirondack Explorer intern Kris Parker and I paddled Henderson in mid-July, we had a similar experience. We saw four other paddlers on land, but didn’t pass anyone on the water.
Located in the southern High Peaks Wilderness near Newcomb, Henderson is a scenic body of water that is accessible by walking four-tenths of a mile from the Upper Works parking lot to a put-in on the eastern shoreline.
When you start the portage, you go through the remnants of a village that once housed Adirondack Iron and Steel Co. workers from 1826 to 1857. The village was then used as camps for the wealthy from the late 19th century to 1947. From that point until 1963 it housed families of National Lead Industry titanium miners.
Sign up for our “Backcountry Journal” newsletter for trips, tips, info and more, delivered to your inbox every Thursday.
Once bustling with activity, the old village has been reduced to mainly chimneys and one standing building: the MacNaughton Cottage, where in 1901 Teddy Roosevelt received word that President William McKinley was dying from a gunshot. Interpretative signs tell the area’s history.
After walking through the village, you head into the woods and arrive at a put-in for Henderson Lake, which is named for David Henderson, one of the founders of the Adirondack Iron and Steel Co. Henderson played a key role in the company until he accidentally shot and killed himself at Calamity Pond in 1845.
Off to the left of the put-in is a dam that leads to a stream to the Hudson River. Some say that is the start of the Hudson, while Lake Tear of the Clouds on Mount Marcy is believed to be the river’s highest known source.
Once you paddle onto Henderson, there are views of several mountains, including Henderson to the west and MacNaughton and Wallface to the north.
The majority of the lake is surrounded by the High Peaks Wilderness, with one private inholding. The Masten House property, once owned by National Lead Industries, has a dock on the shore.
Henderson Lake has been open to the public since 2003. The Open Space Institute bought the water body and the 9,646 Tahawus Tract that year from National Lead Industries and then sold about 6,000 acres to the state. National Lead had owned the land since the 1940s and ran its titanium mine there until 1982.
Jay Chapman, whose father worked at the mine, said not many people used Henderson Lake when it was privately owned in the 1960s and ’70s. He has fond memories of swimming, canoeing and eating hot dogs over a fire from those days.
“It was such a special place to us,” he said.
Chapman, who lives in Pulaski now, tries to return to the Newcomb area regularly to explore places he knew as a kid. He paddled the lake with his wife, Pat, and four other family members in July.
Dave Olbert, co-owner of Cloudsplitter Outfitters in Newcomb, has also been visiting Henderson since he was a kid. The Olberts lived in a home where the current parking lot is located next to the MacNaughton Cottage until 1963, when he was 8.
His dad was a caretaker at the Masten House, a retreat for National Lead executives that is now privately owned. He was responsible for maintaining docks on Henderson Lake and the trail to Preston Ponds. Olbert recalled going on the lake with his dad, who had a fishing trap line that he would use to catch and remove junk fish from the lake.
Henderson has seen more paddlers over time, he said, but it’s not popular like the Saranac Chain of Lakes or St. Regis Canoe Area. It’s also more of a day-use area than those locations, which have a multitude of campsites. There are only three campsites and one lean-to on Henderson.
“It’s one of those lakes that a lot of people aren’t super aware of it, like a lot of stuff around here,” Olbert said.
He said people go there for the vistas of the High Peaks and the feeling that it was created by a glacier.
“It gives you that remote feeling,” he said.
I paddled Henderson twice in July. During the first paddle with Parker, we didn’t see anyone else on the water. It was a misty day, so the views there were obscured, but it felt wild and scenic. It was a peaceful paddle as we went along the rocky shorelines lined with cedar trees.
Later in July, I returned one afternoon in order to capture a sunset. This time, I could distinctly see Henderson Mountain as I left the put-in, and when I entered the main part of the lake, I turned right toward the High Peaks. I could see MacNaughton right away, and eventually Wallface came into view along with some hills along the eastern shore.
There were two other paddlers on the water that day, Callie and Wayne Elsaesser. Like myself, they were impressed with the views of the mountains.
“This is amazing,” Callie said.
They headed toward the put-in and I headed north. At about 6 p.m., I paddled to the northern shore and visited the lean-to and a small cascade where a brook empties into the lake. The lean-to was empty other than a coffee pot hanging on a nail and some kindling someone had left behind in a shoe box.
But when I got back onto the lake, I was in for a surprise. Storm clouds quickly appeared in the northwest, and a bolt of lightning crashed down in the hills. My plans for catching evening light on Wallface faded, and I headed for the western shore, which was a shorter distance than the lean-to.
After reaching shore, I pulled my canoe up on land and watched as clouds, rain and lightning descended on the area. After an hour, the western sky turned into a mix of blue sky and white clouds. I waited until I didn’t see lightning in the eastern sky and put my canoe back on the water.
Not wanting to get caught in another storm that might keep me in the woods for the night, I glided south down the lake toward the bay with the put-in. From the main lake, I sat in my canoe watching as an orange glow appeared over the hills to the northwest.
After the glow faded, raindrops began falling around me creating little circles in the water. It was time to leave.
I reached land at 9 o’clock. Looking forward to getting into my heated car, I grabbed my headlamp from my bag, but its light was dim. I had extra batteries, but didn’t want to waste time looking for them.
There was enough twilight to see the path through the woods, so I grabbed my canoe and placed it on wheels. I pulled the boat up a small hill, and headed for the trail, disappearing into the dark woods.