Tips for making the most of distance trips in the Adirondacks
By Mike Lynch
In early May, Maeghan Farnham and Matt Smith set out to paddle the Oswegatchie Traverse, a classic trip in the northwestern Adirondacks.
Due to the time of the year, they had no problems finding a campsite. With high waters, they cruised down the Oswegatchie, a waterway known for forcing many paddlers out of their boats with its dozens of beaver dams.
Both expert paddlers, they finished the 35-mile trip in two days. You could definitely say that things went smoothly.
But not everyone is so lucky when they head out on paddling adventures in the Adirondack Park.
Part of the reason is that many people plan their overnight trips when conditions are prime, in July and August. As a result, paddlers looking for water-access campsites at popular places such as the Bog River, Lower Saranac Lake and Lake Lila during this period may come up empty.
But Raquette River Outfitters owner Rob Frenette says there’s at least one scenario when you might have luck during peak season.
“Paddle when the weather looks horrible,” he said with a laugh. “If the prediction is for downpour rains and high winds, everyone will be off and you’ll have the place to yourself.”
That may have been a joke, but the reality is that many summer paddling destinations are suffering from the same crowding issues as popular hiking destinations. Places like the Bog River and Lake Lila fill up fast, especially on weekends. Waters were particularly busy last summer.
“If this continues for the next few years, we’re going to have the same situation as the High Peaks (trails),” Frenette said.
So keep in mind that it takes planning and creativity to have a successful overnight paddling trip during peak paddling season—or anytime. Here are some things to consider before you head out.
Routes to consider
A good route to start with is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 740-mile water trail that starts in Old Forge and follows the traditional Adirondack Canoe Route through Long Lake to Saranac Lake, eventually making its way to Lake Champlain in New York. From there it goes through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. In the Adirondacks, this is a well-known route that it contains a lot of variety. It’s a good place to start when planning a trip.
If you’re paddling the NFCT early or late in the paddling season, you’ll have good luck finding campsites. If you’re going to explore this trip in July and August, some sections will be crowded. For instance, if you want to paddle the popular route from Long Lake to Axton Landing on the Raquette River, you’ll be competing with motorboats for campsites on the big lake and scouting groups and others along the river, especially at Raquette Falls.
You could also look at exploring some of the less popular sections of the NFCT, such as the Union Falls area, which was featured in the November/December 2020 issue of the Adirondack Explorer. Or you could try a spur trail off the route, such as going from Raquette Lake to Blue Mountain Lake.
One place in the Adirondacks off the NFCT that hasn’t drawn crowds for overnight paddling trips so far is the Essex Chain of Lakes. I spent several days there myself with a small group during the last week in June two years ago and didn’t see anyone else.
An alternative option on the NFCT might be to put together a trip that connects state campgrounds. For instance, you could start at the Raquette Lake boat launch and camp for a night or two at Tioga Point, then head to Forked Lake campground the next day. You could then finish up in the hamlet of Long Lake. You might not have the wilderness experience on this trip that you would get by staying at primitive campsites, but you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing you’ll have a campsite waiting for you at the end of the day. You’ll probably have to make reservations months in advance to secure this trip.
Guide Nick Brainerd recommends that no matter what route you do, you should be prepared for the potential that you won’t be able to find a designated campsite. That means you’ll need to know Adirondack Park rules for backcountry camping, such as setting up a site 150 feet from water, roads, and trails. You should also study up on Leave No Trace principles, which means not building a fire pit and setting up a tent on vegetation.
“Be mentally prepared for that,” he said.
Either way, you could always check in with local outfitters or guides before heading out. These professionals should have a good handle on which sites are filling up because they deal with paddlers on a daily basis. You should also plan to have a secondary paddling option in case the parking lot is full when you arrive at the put-in for your first choice.
In the Adirondacks, many point-to-point trips require navigating through a variety of waters and going over portages or carries. The farther off the beaten path you go, the more difficult the carries will be. You may encounter deep mud, brush, and other obstacles.
It may sound counterintuitive but when choosing gear for an overnight paddling camping trip—and this will depend on the route—you may want to first think about how heavy it will be on the carries.
“You need less than you think you need, for sure,” said NFCT Executive Director Karrie Thomas.
Food is one of the heavier items you’ll pack on a trip, Brainerd says. That’s why he likes to keep it simple by eating things like dried food such as ramen noodles.
He also recommends bringing two pairs of footwear: one that will hold up well during the day on portages and elsewhere, and one for around the campfire at night. Farnham recommends not only having good footwear, but also comfortable clothes for that portage.
Outdoor educator and guide Bobby O’Connor recommends keeping track of how many times you use each piece of gear. If you don’t use it, leave it home next time. Exceptions, of course, include emergency gear and other essentials.
O’Connor also recommends packing your canoe or kayak at home before heading out to ensure everything will fit properly and allow you to have a trim, or well-balanced, boat on the trip.
“In the heart of the Adirondacks, it is canoe country,” said O’Connor, who loves sea kayaking. “That is the right boat for the conditions around here.”
He means lightweight canoes. Kayaks, however, will suit you well on the big lakes, such as the Saranacs, Fulton Chain, Lake George and Lake Champlain, and on slow-moving rivers like the Raquette. But you’re likely not going to want to use a kayak when doing a wilderness trip where the portages are rough. Portage wheels might hold up on well-maintained trails on the NFCT, but won’t be suitable when slogging through mud in the western or northern Adirondacks.