Plus: Who is the Old River Rat?
By Tom French
As much as I love when my daughter comes home from college, it makes me nervous when she wants to go canoeing – she has a reputation for picking paddles with a bushwhack carry (see here, here, and here). But this summer, her schedule was so busy that I was able to trick her into an easy, two-car, mostly flatwater float along the Oswegatchie between Cranberry Lake and Newton Falls. We put-in at a marked launch two miles north of Route 3 along the Tooley Pond Road below the Class II rapids seen from the bridge where Route 3 crosses the river.
After launching in the lee of large boulder, we were soon in the channel and the current took the boat. The high water from recent (record breaking) mid-summer rains churned as we meandered through a series of short rifts. Emma watched for sleepers while I steered through tongues and downstream Vs. After one big left turn and a small bend, we exited the fast water into the yard of Bob and Linda Jones’s Wooden Fish Hatchery.
We stopped to say hello and surprised Bob in his paint room surround by the decoys he was working on. He thought we’d arrived in a sports car because of my paddling gloves. Linda showed up a few minutes later from errands in Cranberry Lake. Whether by land or sea, I encourage everyone to visit Bob and Linda’s – they will welcome you to their spot along the river, give you a tour of Bob’s shop, and provide tips on area wildlife.
They reported a family of mallards had lost all but one chick due to “eagles that work the river.” Personally, I was hoping to spot the family of otters that play nearby.
After catching up on the latest, Emma and I continued down the river with an assist from the current. The little community of Cook Corners, known locally as Windfall, is just over the trees to the north. A series of tornados ripped through the area in the fall of 1845, clearing large swaths of forest throughout the North Country from Lake Ontario to Burlington.
We passed several camps. A bridge crosses two miles from the put-in. Emma didn’t think we could flow underneath because of the high water. We broached against the side of the bridge. I sat on the floor of the canoe, ducked, and pulled the stern under.
As soon as we cleared the bridge, we spotted a bass boat with a fisherman talking to a group at one of the camps along the southern shore. A number of kayakers were also fishing. One fellow said he’d had some good hits with an especially large pike getting away.
For the next 2.5 miles, the river curls gently south toward Chaumont Pond & Swamp. We startled a blue heron which flew remarkably close over our canoe allowing us to admire its size and the details of every feather. It was along this section of the river that we discovered the first of several wood-burned signs, like you might see on a family camp, announcing “The Old River Rat.” I began to feel like a character in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.
As we entered Chaumont Pond, several stumps dotted the water, likely flooded when the original, timber crib dams were built in Newton Falls in 1895 (the two current dams were built in the late 1920s). Emma was amazed at the clarity of the roots spreading out like skirts beneath the surface. One spidery gray root system from a fallen tree hosted a river rat sign, and then we found one on the trunk of a long dead skeleton still pushing up ten feet above the flow.
A family of geese hid in the grass and turtles abounded on logs. The direction of the river can be deceptive in this large “pond.” One might be inclined to continue straight, but the channel bends toward the road that can be seen and heard to the right. As we headed into a bay, a narrow channel veers to the left and the seaweed points in the direction of the current.
After turning a corner, the River Road bridge comes into view. Like the first, we ducked and floated to the other side. The channel flows past an isthmus created by the road then enters another large body of water shaped like a doughnut because of a large island in the middle.
We passed the car we’d prepositioned at a Brookfield Power car top boat launch. We wanted to check out the old paper mill with its iconic stack from above the dam. Named after James Newton, who built a sawmill in 1884, the Newton Falls Paper Mill would eventually employ over 600 people at its peak and was partly owned by McGraw-Hill for over 50 years. After a series of ownership changes in the early 2000s, it closed for good in 2011. Much of the machinery has been dismantled and sold. A canoe carry to below the dams is on the right near the buoy barrier.
The large and historic Newton Falls Hotel (now privately owned) still dominates the top of Plank Hill. A number of Sears-style houses, the remains of a company town, can also be found by driving through the hamlet. The 46-mile railroad from Newton Falls, past Benson Mines, to Carthage was recently rehabilitated in the hope of attracting potential business opportunities for the paper mill and Benson Mines. Currently, no one inside the Adirondack Park is using the rails, though speeders have been spotted.Due to arrangements between landowners and various stakeholders, the boat launch along the Tooley Pond Road is only open from April 1 through Oct.15. The Brookfield Launch in Newton Falls is open all year.