By Tom French
The Deer River begins along the slopes of Debar Mountain and winds almost 70 miles before dumping into the St. Regis River at Helena. It’s a little river with a big personality that’s mostly impenetrable above the Deer River Flow – an impoundment created by an almost 300-foot-long dam at the northern end. With views of Debar, Baldface, Furnace, and Orebed Mountains along with fishing opportunities, the flow may be the only part of the river that’s easily accessible, with a DEC hand launch along the Cold Brook Road (See Phil Brown’s Let the Good Times Flow). No public carry exists around the dam for access to the 2.4 miles of flatwater below, though an easy access can be found along the Red Tavern Road.
Beyond that flatwater, adventure awaits those who dare bushwhack around a series of rapids (See Paddling the Deer: Bushwhack Required) or carry along an overgrown railbed into the Deer River Meadows, described by Paul Jamieson in Adirondack Canoe Water – North Flow as “other-worldly.”
Strong words which inspired my daughter and I to investigate further earlier this summer. In order to avoid a difficult portage around rapids below the iron bridge on the official, unmarked DEC carry from Red Tavern Road, we hiked in via an old railbed along Mile Brook.
A gate is on the north side of the road in the brush, slightly east from where a snowmobile trail enters Red Tavern Road from the south. After gathering our gear and passing the canoe over the gate, I shouldered it while Emma carried the pack and paddles for the 3/4-mile hike to the river.
The railbed begins on Santa Clara Easement land and enters the Deer River Primitive Area in 600 yards. Look to the right just before the Forest Preserve sign – you may see another spur that went across Mile Brook. Satellite imagery suggests a bridge may still be there. Any no trespassing signs are out-of-date.
Tom French writes about paddling a stretch of Deer River with a series of difficult portages, as well as several beautiful falls and cascades that few see.
The section on easement land showed signs of vehicles with deep ruts in places, but once in the Forest Preserve, the path quickly became thick with brush that snagged my feet. We hiked with boots and pants to avoid ticks and ankle breakers. Countless saplings have sprouted in the path which will likely make canoe access impossible in a few years, which is too bad – no easy access to this gem of the Adirondacks will exist.
Only one blow-down required unshouldering the canoe until the end where we discovered a significant pile of trees. We scouted ahead and found a launch site a few yards away – but it was still a slog maneuvering the boat into the water.
Clearly on an oxbow, we paddled north 100 yards, found the main river, and tied a handkerchief to an overhanging branch so that we could find our way out on the return.
I suspect Jamieson’s “other-worldly” description was intended for the “meadow” or “long marsh,” which may have been more open when explored in the mid-1980s. A lot of alders crowd the shoreline, though numerous views open up across the floodplain with Mutton Ridge to the west. But it’s also “other-worldly” in its remoteness and abundance of simple wildlife. We heard the clatter of water bugs as they scurried away from our boat. We startled several American bitterns (or the same one several times). Black-winged damselflies jigged and jagged. Bright red cardinal flowers bloomed along with pale pink Joe Pye weed, and we spooked something very large just beyond the bank. I saw a bear in the area last fall, but I suspect it was a moose (I’d spotted tracks in the muck along the rail bed), its feet thumping on the ground as it bolted through the brush. We went into stealth mode after that.
The river meanders in all directions, offering views to Stacey and Ragged Mountains to the south and Cherry Hill in the north. We passed over several beaver blockages, though only one required us to exit the canoe on our trip downriver (two on the way back up). A couple beaver dams created flumes that we sailed through. No sandbanks along this river, so we ate lunch in the boat.
The river flowed quickly enough that it was noticeable when we turned around after a couple of hours. Tropical Storm Henri was battering Rhode Island and the forecast called for unsettled weather later in the day. We were concerned the upriver paddle might require more time, but we were back to the handkerchief more quickly than anticipated, still in stealth mode in case the moose was to be seen.
Jamieson describes the Deer as a long-day, two-car, 14-mile trek (with another 12 potentially after that) requiring extensive planning and questionable access around dangerous gorges, drops, falls, and rapids. Not much has changed.
GPS indicated that we made it past the Blue Line, but if we had continued north approximately 5.5 miles, High Falls would have awaited us with potentially no legal way out other than a return upriver. Jamieson reported a carry on the eastern side, though the property is privately owned on both sides of the river for the first 300 yards of the drop. Maps show access via the Dale Road (incorrectly marked as the Eddy Road on some maps), but inquiries to the Town of Brandon indicate it is a private road. Significant signage confirms such “except for fishing access” — part of a public fishing agreement that allows anglers the right to walk along the bank. More information can be found on the DEC website, though a camp at the end of the Dale Road, yards from the river, suggests parking could be questionable.
Perhaps one could float their boat to where the Deer enters the Deer River State Forest, but Jamieson reports that High Falls begins as a “narrow, twisting Class VI drop.” Even if one managed to make state land, Jamieson says “the carry… is actually an unimproved bushwhack, best attempted a little way back… where the woods-wise may… discern an overgrown logging trace.” The DEC confirms there is no official marked path around this “display of gymnastics” performed by the Deer. Any carries that may have existed in the Deer River Forest are no longer maintained and “likely to be overgrown.”
A legal, but unofficial access to the Deer River Meadows can be found along an old railbed along Mile Brook. A gate on the north side of the Red Tavern Road is one mile east of the Red Tavern or five miles west of Route 30.
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