St. Regis Canoe area is a rare escape to personal wilderness paradise
By Lisa Ballard
The loon was either truly loony, primping with great fanfare, or just having fun. Only 20 yards from the bow of our canoe, it waved a wing, scratched its “armpit,” and rolled onto its back with a whoosh. Its black, webbed feet danced a jig, then the spirited bird rolled upright again, glancing at us with its striking red eyes. It poked its head under the water, then sent a delicate fountain into the air as it lifted its dark beak skyward.
My husband, Jack, and I giggled at the bird’s animated antics, then dug our paddles into the crystalline water of Little Clear Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area. The only designated canoe area in New York and the largest wilderness canoe area in the Northeast, its eastern edge lies about 10 miles northwest of Saranac Lake. Little Clear Pond is one of about 50 bodies of water in this 18,600-acre pearl of a paddling destination, open only to nonmotorized watercraft.
We had barely started our overnight canoe-camping trip after putting in at the fish hatchery on the south end of Little Clear Pond. The pond contains the state’s brood stock for landlocked salmon. Camping and fishing are not allowed there, which were the two activities we most wanted to pursue. We dreamed of pitching a tent on a picturesque island and perhaps catching a couple of fish to grill over a campfire.
Our route required us to paddle 1.5 miles across Little Clear Pond (one of the few launching points into the canoe area), carry our boat and gear for half a mile, then paddle another mile to one of the two islands on St. Regis Pond. We could have spent an hour watching the loon, but we were loath to dally. Tent sites in the canoe area are first-come, first-served, and sometimes people stay at a site for multiple days. There’s no way to know what’s free until you get there. We had singled out St. Regis Pond as our destination because it was one of the few spots in the canoe area that offered island camping, and the single carry to get there sounded moderate.
Perhaps it’s the absolute separation from the mainland that gives a welcome sense of complete escape and privacy. While camping on an island, I can let go of my everyday cares, relax and observe nature’s minutiae.
We had camped on an island a decade ago on Forked Lake and still treasured the experience, hence our quest to set up a tent on one of the islands on St. Regis Pond.
“Do you think we can do the carry in one trip?” asked Jack as we neared the take-out at the other end of Little Clear Pond.
“If you put the boat on your shoulders and wear one pack, I can get the rest,” I replied.
Luckily, the carry was fairly flat and smooth. Once Jack got the boat on his shoulders, he set off at a brisk pace through the forest, a mixture of conifers and hardwoods. The woods were so lush, even the air felt tinged with green.
After crossing a long stretch of sturdy bog bridges, we came to a rickety dock in a weedy, lily-filled backwater. The entire setup tilted to one side, undoubtedly the victim of too many ice-outs. Jack flipped the boat adroitly off his shoulders onto a few tufts of grass, then dragged it along the dock until it cleared the murky bottom. A few minutes later, we had reloaded it and were paddling again, now along a defined water trail through the lilies.
The trail soon opened up onto St. Regis Pond. Heading north toward St. Regis Mountain on the far shoreline, we passed three empty tent sites on the bank to our right. “At least we’ll have options if the islands are taken,” I thought.
According to our map, the larger island had two tent sites, and the smaller island had one. We paddled toward the smaller island, but as we got closer, the obvious place to camp—an open spot with a privy in the bushes—had a “No Camping” sign.
Disappointed but not discouraged, we headed toward the other island, expecting to share it with another party. Who wouldn’t prefer an island campsite? No boats were at the pullout, though perhaps they were on the water somewhere.
Arrows pointed the way up a shallow slope, guarded by a large toad squatting in the middle of the informal footpath. What luck! The site was deserted. Towering hemlocks shaded the soft duff. We pitched our tent and were back on the water with our fly rods before lunch.
Casting here and there, we circumnavigated the island to see if anyone else had claimed the other tent site, but it was also now closed to camping. We would have our own private island after all.
Later in the day, I took a nap under a 100-foot pine tree. When I opened my eyes skyward, I marveled how straight and how tall it was. A couple of loons yodeled from the water to my left. A couple more answered somewhere in the distance. A chipmunk chattered at me while a chickadee scolded it from a perch not far from my head.
A rain shower passed through around dinner time. When it cleared, we tried our luck at fishing again. It was a magical moment, watching the sunset as mist teased off the water in delicate tendrils. The pandemic, political turmoil and the rest of life’s pandemonium no longer mattered. Island camping in the St. Regis Canoe Area is indeed a dream come true.
Read it in print first
This article first appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine. Subscribe for early access of all our great content.