Day-long paddle from Raquette Lake to Blue Mountain Lake is a trip through Adirondack history
By Alan Wechsler
The kayak trip from Raquette Lake to Blue Mountain Lake is one of the great paddles of the Adirondacks. In about 13 miles, you traverse four lakes, a major river and two inlets. You pass beautiful homes and quiet woods and follow the path of what was once the nation’s shortest railroad. You will see wildlife.
There is a portage, albeit an easy one. You never fully escape the sound of traffic, or at least loud motorcycles. And you need two cars, or a ride back to the start to retrieve your vehicle.
I’ve been wanting to do this through-paddle for years, ever since I learned about it while staying with friends on Blue Mountain Lake. A year ago on Labor Day weekend, I finally made it happen.
The route begins at the tiny hamlet of Raquette Lake, located at the western shore of the lake of the same name. From there, you cross the lake to the Marion River.
My girlfriend Beth and I took this meandering route through the portage, which leads to, respectively, Utowana, Eagle, and Blue Mountain lakes. There’s a brewery at the finish, for which you’ll be thankful after such a long day.
You can also do the route in reverse, starting at Blue Mountain and ending at Raquette.
This was our second time paddling on Raquette. Our first, where we went up the Marion River and returned, was on a July 4 weekend. The lake was choppy and filled with power boats, the town was mad with people and traffic, and the temperature was uncomfortably hot.
But at 10 a.m. on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, things were decidedly mild. The town was quiet, there was plenty of parking, the lake was calm, and there were few power boats about.
After buying some snacks at the charming Raquette Lake General Store, we launched at the local boat ramp. After about 20 minutes of hugging the western shoreline, we reached Golding Point and paddled east, traversing the lake to Big Island. It’s not a long stretch of open water, but you’ll want to time your crossing to avoid power boats.
Big Island gets a bit confusing, and somehow on both trips we wound up in the wrong bay. From the east end of the island, look north to the next point of land. You’ll see a dock and a large flagpole, and a cluster of ornate log cabins that make up Echo Camp. That’s the end of Long Point, and just on the other side is the bay that leads to the Marion River.
We reached the Marion in an hour and it’s another 90 minutes to the portage. The river is deep enough that small power boats can go up quite a way, but we only saw one on our trip.
In a short time, it’s easy to feel like you’re deep in the wilderness, at least until you hear motorcycles. There’s really no spot on this route that you’re far from highway. But for most of the trip, we were barely aware of it.
Wildlife abounds. At one point, we watched a kingfisher dive into the water, and emerge with a tiny fish in its mouth. Then a great blue heron took off, its massive wings lazily lifting the great bird over the marsh. We paddled past lily pads and flowers, and frogs plopped into the water as we floated by. We passed beaver lodges and trenches where they dragged fallen trees into the water.
Still, nothing beat the sight from our first trip, when the head of a black bear, standing on hind legs, emerged twice from the rushes at the edge of the river.
We had to surmount one beaver dam, which was low enough for me to get out and yank Beth’s kayak over the top while she was still in it.
I was slightly worried we might miss the portage, but it is impossible to miss, because the river suddenly gets too shallow and rocky.
At this point, we caught up to a couple in a Kevlar canoe that had raced by us earlier. The couple was discussing how to best cart their boat.
“You folks training for the 90 Miler?” I asked. That’s the three-day, 90-mile canoe race in early September.
“Something like that,” the woman said. Then they took off. A few minutes later, I noticed they had left their carbon-fiber racing paddles against a tree. Clearly, they needed to fine-tune their technique.
We took some time to eat lunch, and I assembled the single, lightweight kayak cart we had brought along. When the boat was ready to roll, I grabbed the forgotten paddles. I figured I’d see our racing friends on the way.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, they appeared. I held up the featherweight paddles.
“Don’t do that on race day,” I said, smiling. “You’ll be up the creek.”
They didn’t offer much of a laugh – canoe racers are so serious! – but thanked me as they grabbed the paddles and headed back. By the time I arrived at the next shore, they were gone. I left the kayak, returned with the cart and loaded Beth’s boat for the 10-minute trip.
At the put-in at Utowana, there are several interpretive signs that tell the story of this historical route. The path was once the site of the nation’s shortest normal-gauge railroad, a 3,900-foot route built by the famed turn-of-the-century builder William West Durant in 1899 to carry vacationers and supplies from Raquette Lake to Blue Mountain Lake.
At the time, Blue Mountain Lake was a popular summer escape for city folks who could afford to leave, looking to avoid heat and disease. Before the rail, the only option was a long horseback or stagecoach journey over a bumpy, muddy road.
The rail and boat combo made for a far more pleasant journey, according to Jerry Pepper, acting librarian at the Adirondack Experience museum. “You could go to sleep in Grand Central Station and wake up at Raquette Lake,” he said.
Here’s how it worked: passengers took the train to Raquette via the New York Central Railroad and a Raquette Lake trunk line. They boarded a steamship to cross the lake. Meanwhile, the freight car (with baggage) was winched onto a specially built barge. When the ship, barge in tow, arrived at the end of Marion River, the passengers disembarked to the train and the boxcar was latched to the back. At the other end of the line, another steamship and barge waited.
Among the inns and cottages on Blue Mountain Lake, the biggest was Prospect House, a 300-room hotel, said to be the first in the world to have electric lights in every room. The hotel was demolished in 1915, although the railroad was not abandoned until the completion of Route 28 in 1929.
By the time of our visit, there was no sign of the rail, except for the remains of the docks. Today, the original Porter locomotive and some carriages rest nearby at Adirondack Experience.
Another sign tells of how this premiere paddling route was almost lost to development. For decades, the portage went across private land, allowed by permission of the landowner. In 2013, a developer wanted to build private homes here, potentially closing the carry for good. The Open Space Institute stepped in to acquire nearly 300 acres, including the portage and acres of lake and river frontage. In 2017, the land was transferred to New York, which also resolved a series of land disputes that dated back a century.
As we launched our boats for the second time, we now appreciated the route’s long history.
Lake Utowana is a beautiful body of water, with only a few quaint homes to break up the wooded shoreline. Despite the proximity of the hidden highway, it’s easy to feel like you’re lost in time. (For those who would like to explore the lake without doing the through-paddle, it’s also accessible from a small pull-off on Route 28.) It’s roughly 2.5 miles from one end of the lake to the other, and we took our time.
Another thrill: the further east you go, the closer you get to Blue Mountain. At a certain spot on Utowana, we float around a point and there it was, all 3,750 feet.
At the east end of the lake was an industrial-looking green building that puzzled us. It turned out to be a large airplane hangar, gates open, holding two experimental seaplanes, one with wings folded.
From here, it’s a short journey through a scenic inlet to Eagle Lake. At the other end is the 1891 Pioneer Bridge, a stone-and-wood structure that holds a plaque for Dr. Thomas Clark Durant, builder of the transcontinental railway, and father of William West.
This led to another inlet, which connects to Blue Mountain Lake. And there was the namesake mountain again, now larger than life and only a few miles away. As the mountain grew and the distance to our car shrunk, it was hard to imagine a more fitting conclusion to such a scenic day.
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