(or the more things change, the more they stay the same)
By William Hill
High Rock and I go way back to the 1980’s. I have always held a spot in my heart for the destination, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve visited the site. I have canoed, hiked, and kayaked to the lovely rock overlooking the Oswegatchie River. Things change from trip to trip, but much stays the same.
My first time on the inlet section of the river was to accompany a Boy Scout leader with two scouts to High Falls. Now I realize that a trip like that was a pretty lofty goal for two scouts who likely had never been in a canoe before. The ill-fated trip took most of the day to reach High Rock, only about four miles above the canoe launch at the Inlet. The trip wasn’t to be and ended with an early evening paddle back to the launch.
Probably the highlight of the trek was seeing a small bear with its back to us eating berries along the banks of the river at sunset. I thought the sighting was great – the frightened scout master was less enthused. Before it was done, the scoutmaster had abandoned his seat at the bow of the canoe and was running around in the river hollering for salvation. The bear also lacked any enthusiasm for such goings-on and was last seen heading west at a high rate of egress.
Later years have come to mean an annual Columbus Day excursion for me to High Rock. The date varies a bit calendar-wise but usually falls just at the end of the autumn foliage change. Even the name of the day changes, depending on your source. Indigenous People’s Day is now an alternate name for the second Monday of October.
I missed one trek three years ago due to a broken ankle. I look forward to that Monday trip, often being my last paddle of the season. This year’s Columbus Day found the Oswegatchie River in a spring-like flood stage due to a 5-inch rain event two days before. This was a safety call for me to avoid paddling upstream in such conditions.
By the weekend, the water level had lowered by several feet and was just as I prefer it. Although it wasn’t the actual Columbus Day, I found that date-wise, it had been Columbus Day a few years ago, so close enough.
Two years ago, offered water levels so low that I had trouble finding channels deep enough to not ground my kayak. That was one of the more challenging runs up the river.
This year’s trip was different foliage-wise. It has been a bland year for colors, and many of the leaves have already fallen. The sky was murky and gloomy, so that didn’t help the scenery much.
I left the launch in my trusty wool-plaid jacket at 37 degrees. Some years I’ve worn shorts and a T-shirt. The raised water level makes the upstream paddle a bit tougher but allows you to paddle over several beaver dams and other obstructions. Plus, the cruise back is a breeze.
I always enjoy seeing certain spots or landmarks. These also change throughout the years. Last year the sign on “Sam’s Curve” was gone. I expect that the sign just rotted off the tree, unlike the lore of the battle between the state and Sam’s friends who placed the sign there in his memorial.
The story supposedly goes that a downstate fellow, Sam, used to visit the river to hunt and fish several times annually. Having consumed a few too many fermented beverages, Sam motored his boat downstream (motors still being legal at that time) into an overhanging tree and drowned. A sign was put up naming the bend in Sam’s honor. Sometime during a change in D.E.C. policy, the sign was declared unacceptable and removed. Apparently, the signage battle went on for some time with new signs being removed shortly after being placed. Eventually, the pro-sign crew won, and a weathered old handmade sign hung over the side of the curve. I can’t attest to the authenticity of all of this, but local lore has that as the way it happened.
Another standby is the pine notch. This is where a large white pine had fallen across the river and the state workers cut a notch out to allow paddlers a route. Every year it’s there, moved a bit by the cycles of nature. This year it was barely out of the water.
Missing this year was the “Big Stump.” This mammoth-weathered old stump had laid on its side for years, roots pointing skyward. This year it’s gone. I looked on the way up and on return and found no sign of it. I’ll miss it as the backdrop for a quick selfie on the way by. Several other trees along the route will eventually replace it.
When I made it to High Rock after an hour and a half, there was someone breaking camp. I gave them plenty of space, though their handsome dog did come over for a quick rub. From the rock, the classic view of the river snaking downstream was as pleasing as ever. The river plain in front was still flat and brushing. Several beaver lodges stood out of the water, ready for winter.
Last year in the same spot I caught a quick glimpse of a bear across the river. This time nobody jumped from the boat in a panic.
A young NYS Ranger was on patrol to High Falls and stopped at High Rock to check on everything. After a pleasant conversation about our shared love of the outdoors, he hiked up the trail, and I hopped in my kayak for a casual paddle back to the launch.
I have paddled/hiked to many destinations throughout the Adirondack region and its foothills. A few make it to my annual list for whatever reason. High Rock is firmly embedded on that list. Columbus Day (or Indigenous People’s Day) give or take a day or two, will still be my chosen timeframe. I have made the trek other times of the year, including a snowy April hike during the spring thaw flooding.
I expect I’ll see changes from year to year, but the appeal of the evergreens, the smell of the forest, and the wonderful remoteness will always be there. It’s easy to picture yourself here in the days a century or more ago, heading upstream to match wits with the fish and game. And I’m sure most folks will reminisce over their favorite chapters of Herbert F. Keith’s “Man of the Woods.” He too saw many changes on the river, and also that which was constant. I’m also fairly sure many have posed under the Knollwood Bridge hoping to recreate the iconic book’s cover. Whatever comes along, I’ll make an annual trip to the “rock” as long as I’m able.
Getting there- If you choose to paddle to High Rock, from New York State Route 3 in Star Lake, take Sunny Lake Road, and then immediately onto Inlet Road. This is marked with a DEC Five Ponds Wilderness Area Oswegatchie River access sign. Follow this road to the end (about 3 miles) and there you will find the parking area and launch site. High Rock is just short of 4- miles each way.
If you are going to High Rock on foot, from New York State Route 3, turn onto St. Lawrence County Route 61. Follow this, continuing straight onto Main Street. This will take you across a bridge, and onto the South Shore Road. Shortly after crossing the bridge, you’ll find a parking area near a tennis court on the right. You will need to walk back down the road (towards the bridge) and take your next left. This road has a trail sign up high on a light pole and leads past a private residence. Continuing ahead to the south-west, you will go around a yellow gate. This route is 4.2 miles each way.
William Hill is a lifelong Adirondack adventurer and author residing in Edwards NY. For more information on his blog and books, visit: https://hikingthetrailtoyesterday.wordpress.com/