Spending an afternoon on an underutilized stretch of the Middle Branch of the St. Regis River
By Tom French
When New York State acquired the 72,000-acre Santa Clara Conservation Easement in 1999, it opened up some of the most wild and remote rivers in the Adirondacks to greater access, including a six-mile stretch of the Middle Branch of the St. Regis River with a “rocky chasm” and a number of whitewater sections that even Paul Jamieson & Donald Morris skip in their “Adirondack Canoe Waters – North Flow.”
My daughter and I decided to explore the lower half of this fast water via a DEC access known as the Four Mile Road Hand Launch. We almost didn’t find it.
With two cars, we dropped one off at the launch in Santa Clara before driving the 6.7 miles to the access. A small parking area is one mile off the Blue Mountain Road. An old parking area and unmaintained register is on the left shortly before the current location.
The road beyond the gate was heavily overgrown with blowdown. We first explored without the canoe. After 130 yards, the road opened up and turned sharply to the left. It was a pleasant walk, but after a few minutes, it didn’t seem right, so we started back. Fortunately, Emma spotted faded pink flagging at the sharp turn. Upon investigating, we spotted another – a very disused path through a field of prickly brush to a nice launch 100 yards away.
We retrieved our canoe and gear. Thinking we were actually on the river, we paddled “upstream” to find the fast water that begins near a bridge on the Blue Mountain Road. Alas, the river petered out. We weren’t on the river, but an oxbow. So, beware – steer to the left unless you’d like to meet the oxbow.
Heading back, we spotted the launch, though nothing indicated its presence. Five minutes later we came to a point bar. The waters of the oxbow were 18 to 24 inches higher than the river.
We again headed upriver. Property line markers appeared on the western side of the river, and shortly, we were at the bottom of Class 1 rapids. We tried to ascend to the top, but quit half-way up and turned around.
We passed the point bar leading to the access, but no markings exist for anyone trying to find it.
For over a mile, this flat-water section moved at a brisk pace through a series of turns. Despite the meandering, the floodplain is narrow with high banks on both sides.
A large erratic on the left marks the beginning of Class 1 rapids. I warned Emma to look for a carry and instructed her that fast water might require scouting. Fortunately, we could see ahead as the river changed to Class II. Each flume was followed by a pool where we could bail if necessary, and it became increasingly clear that we would need to withdraw.
My search for a marked carry (which is indicated on an old 1999 DEC Map) intensified until a large yellow arrow on a big boulder pointed to the right. A trail seemed to head up the bank into the woods. We landed, organized our gear, and I shouldered the canoe.
Within yards, the trail became difficult to follow. I stepped over blowdowns and found myself muck-holing to my knees. The forest became too thick to shoulder the canoe. Emma was laughing, but I knew this could become a bad afternoon. It was a half mile to the bottom of the carry, and we’d gone only 50 yards.
I dragged the canoe. The land between us and the river was rocky and thick with underbrush. I decided to head up the bank and hope for open space. At one point, Emma helped flip the boat sideways to fit between trees.
Then we found the trail, clear as day, with markers. I suggest people search for the trail before shouldering your canoe. It is there. You just have to find it.
Several small trees crossed the path as we continued, but I was able to step over them. A quarter-mile later, Emma saw a portage sign on a tree.
We were near the bottom of the rapids, but not completely. We could have launched, but it would have been scratchy, so I carried the canoe further downriver. We clearly weren’t the first to have done so.
The river travels generally north for the next mile with only a couple turns. We passed the remains of a bridge for an overgrown road from Spring Cove that is indicated on old topo maps. Spring Cove was along the New York & Ottawa Railroad with a siding servicing charcoal kilns.
Eventually the river meanders more significantly. Just over 2.5 miles below the portage, we passed under a bridge of the New York & Ottawa. The abutments indicate 1927, but the deck is much newer and the property of the Spring Cove Fish & Game Club, which owns the right-of-way from Santa Clara south to the Madawaska Flow.
At one point, Emma asked if I heard a motor. We stopped paddling to the deep, booming “jug-o’-rummm” of bullfrogs.
The delta as the river flows into the impoundment above the dam at Santa Clara is shallow and narrow and required some pushing along the soft bottom.
Clouds filled the sky and the wind picked up by the time we turned onto the long, 1.5-mile straightaway to Santa Clara. The distance to the take-out is deceiving as the launch isn’t visible until you’re on top of it, but as camps appeared on the left, we knew the end was near. Just in time too – as we approached the dock, the sky let loose.
We’d been on the water for four hours. Even the downpour made for a perfect day. We dashed to the car and ate lunch as we drove back to the upper launch to retrieve the other car.