By Tim Rowland
Some conservationists look at Lower Saranac Lake and they see the High Peaks. Not the High Peaks of today, but the peaks of the pre-selfie days, when it was still possible to get a parking spot at the Roaring Brook trailhead on the weekend, and not be confronted with sadly necessary signs instructing hikers on the finer points of human waste disposal.
Concerns of overuse on Lower Saranac are being raised following completion of a bigger state boat launch at Second Pond and the proposed expansion of the Saranac Lake Marina. By a circuitous route, motorboats can also access Lower Saranac from as far away as the marinas on Lake Flower in the Village of Saranac Lake, not to mention from a number of private camps.
Along with higher numbers, there is also a change in boater behavior. Boating used to be a Point A-to-Point B endeavor, but with the advent of the pontoon boat, aka party barge, boaters anchor offshore, playing music, picnicking, imbibing and using the lake for a restroom. Power boaters are supposed to respect kayakers and canoers, but not all of them do. The rules relating to boat speed and wake size are lightly enforced.
By Lake George standards, traffic on Lower Saranac is still reasonable. But if it’s going to stay that way, many believe hard questions need to be answered now.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful lake, so we need to be asking what we can do to protect it,” said Jack Drury, a resident of the lake who has had a long career in conservation. “We need to know what kind of use is too much, and to figure that out we are in desperate need of more data.”
That data would come in the form of carrying capacity, a term that was originally used to calculate the number of cows that a pasture could support. In Adirondack parlance, it’s the number of boats of all sorts that can reasonably use the lake safely and enjoyably. Carrying capacity is currently being studied by the Adirondack Park Agency, but it’s a tricky business.
Not only is carrying capacity subjective, but Lower Saranac is difficult to classify. Part of the lake is wide, with a privately owned shoreline that is more conducive to motorboats. But much of the shore is publicly owned and dotted with campgrounds. Still other parts are reedy and shallow, where a propeller can churn up harmful sediment. The APA is closing in on carrying capacity reports, but the finished product is probably still a couple of years away. Conservationists hope the boat isn’t already out of the boathouse by then.
In 1924 Harry Duso built a marina on Crescent Bay, catering to tourists at the lake’s resorts. Ninety years later, the marina was insolvent and falling into the lake. Mike Damp, the marina’s managing partner, has a picture of what it looked like when his group bought it in 2014. In the photo, the old marina looks barely salvageable. But salvage it they did, and today it has a gleaming clubhouse, a stable of nice boats and ambitious plans for expansion.
When LS Marina LLC filed its application with the APA, it became apparent in the permitting process that, unbeknownst to just about everybody, the marina had no title to about 11 acres of lake bottom—which, under the law, can be bought and sold like any other property —lying beneath the waters in which it hoped to expand. Once the owner was identified, it became a race to see who could purchase the lake bottom first. The winners were four neighbors of the marina who oppose expansion. They formed a partnership called Acme of Saranac LLC, and paid $50,000 to one of the owner’s descendants for the property, effectively blocking the expansion. But in July, a court ruled that, under adverse possession, LS Marina was the true owner, because the Duso family had been using the property for boat moorings without anyone’s objection dating back to the early 1970s.
William Curran, one of the Acme partners, said the group is considering its options, but that its attorney had advised against further comment. If there are no more legal proceedings, the application goes back before the APA.
Damp doesn’t agree that Lower Saranac is facing a crisis. “I don’t see an overuse issue at all,” he said. “There’s a lot of room for more boats.”
The marina has strong support in the community and people were happy to see it saved. “It’s a local asset, a community asset,” he said. “I really haven’t seen a lot of opposition to this other than from a couple of neighbors.”
The marina, whose expansion would add room for more than 100 additional boats, has commissioned its own capacity study using multiple models and assumptions. With the expansion, LS Marina would have room for 186 boats at its main Crescent Bay marina and 114 at its Crescent Bay annex. At peak use as measured on a July fourth holiday, the study projects that 16 percent of these boats would be in the water, for a total of 48 boats originating from the marina. Including other boat launches and private properties on the lake, 173 boats are on the lake at peak use, which translates to the lake being at 67 percent of capacity—with the expansion.
Different scenarios come up with different percentages, but only one—assuming all boats launched on the lake at a time of high use stay on the lake—exceeds capacity.
Conservationists aren’t sold. They say that Lower Saranac is unique, and that data taken from other lakes isn’t applicable. But they do appreciate that it’s brought carrying capacity into the discussion. It also shows the effect of the state’s expanded Second Pond boat launch, which has room for 100 boats—most all of which, presumably, are out on the lake. When the launch was upgraded, the DEC said roadside parking would no longer be allowed. Once the lot was full, that was it. But observers say the rule isn’t enforced.
Lorraine Duvall, author of the 2016 book “In Praise of Quiet Waters,” said she had been paddling Lower Saranac for 15 years, but seldom does anymore, especially in the summer. “Every day of the week it was terrible,” said Duvall, whose book recounts several unhappy encounters with reckless power boaters.
Duvall said the lake has gotten more crowded as the years have gone by, and now the boating season seems to be getting longer. If the lake used to be all but deserted in September, it isn’t anymore.
Drury, who has lived on the lake since 1972, said opposition to expansion isn’t a NIMBY, or “not-in-my-backyard,” issue. “I don’t know anyone who was against renovation of the marina,” he said. “I don’t blame them at all for wanting to expand. But it’s going to almost double in size. What do we do when we look out there one day and realize it’s too crowded?”