A quest to find the river’s headwaters
By Tom French
The main branch of the Oswegatchie winds nearly 150 miles from the St. Lawrence at Ogdensburg, southeast towards Canton then southwest to the other side of Gouverneur before heading east through Edwards, Fine and Newton to Cranberry Lake where it snakes another 20 plus miles into the reaches of the Five Ponds Wilderness. Its history includes the talc and zinc mines of Gouverneur, the millworks of the Rich Lumber Company, and the Schuler potato patch and mausoleum.
Having been as far as the carry to Lows Lake, I convinced my brother, Jon, to explore the headwaters with me. We started on a Friday afternoon from Inlet. Stands of white pines dotted the flats of the river with hardwood forests in the distance on higher ground. We passed High Rock into the windiest portions of the river where the canoe sometimes swung 360 degrees and the sun moved from our faces to our backs. For the entire leg to Griffin Rapids, we were treated to the conversations of fellow paddlers, invisible to our eyes but just a few yards away. This section also offered the first of many obstacles that required landing the canoe and hauling it over.
At Ross Rapids, we caught up to several parties and eight canoes. We glided into the shore below the rapids to wait our turn. Some tried paddling up with limited success, others jumped out and dragged. We were looking for the adventure of beating up the class 1 rapids, and after a couple of tries, succeeded.
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Above the rapids, another logjam required exiting the canoe. I’d been on the Oswegatchie before, and these obstacles change every time.
For the next three miles, the river meandered, past the outlet from Cage Lake & Buck Pond into a section of white pines and mixed woods. The current quickened as we approached Round Hill Rapids where the bridge into the Five Ponds Wilderness crosses the river.
Neither of us wanted to take the time to unload the canoe and portage to the top, so we decided to make a go up the flume. We backed the canoe into the shore opposite the chute then paddled hard and fast. We pushed past the foot and cruised into the current but were forced back into the pool.
Finally, we made a last, no-holds-barred attempt. We built speed, shot up the center, battled the current, and slugged it out.
As we approached the tongue, the closest we’d ever been, I shouted, “Pull, pull,” but Jon heard, “Pole, pole.” Suddenly, splinters flew and part of his paddle floated back along the side of the canoe.
Jon was so stunned he stopped paddling. My first instinct was to grab the pieces floating along the side of the boat. Of course, we lost momentum and the bow swung into some rocks.
I hollered, “Keep going! Keep going!” and poled myself, so close to the pillow I could taste it. I grabbed for the shore and we rolled over the top into the relative calm above. That’s when I noticed my paddle was cracked too.
Fortunately, shortly later, we came to a nice campsite. We made a fire and duct taped our paddles over dinner. We would not be deterred from finding the headwaters of the Oswegatchie.
The next day, we continued to High Falls. After the portage, we came to our first beaver dam with deep water on the downriver side and a large tree with too many branches to climb on. Jon managed to swing the stern so I could exit. Then we slid the canoe up and over. The next log jam was also a struggle and I thought it might be a difficult day.
We passed two guys heading downriver who said there were no less than a dozen ahead of us. They’d been looking for the remains of a plane on the Robinson, unsuccessfully. One of them claimed he was with the Boy Scouts that first found the plane years ago along with a wedding ring and a wallet. According to the paddler, the victim’s spouse wrote his troop thanking them because the insurance company had refused to pay the claim until proof of death.
I was nervous about our progress, but the remaining obstacles were smaller and easier with shallow waters on both sides. By lunch, we were at the portage to Lows Lake. We beached the canoe and climbed the small hill to look around – the headwaters called for us.
For three more hours we paddled upstream, lifting the canoe over more beaver dams than I can count and often willing our 18-foot Wenonah to bend around increasingly tight turns overgrown with thickets of alders. Sometimes Jon would be pressed along one side of the “river” while I was scraping the other.
As the course of the river became harder to detect, we always chose the fork with more current. Finally, we came to one last dam. Jon exited from the bow and I crawled the length of the canoe. As we hauled the canoe over, I beheld a large pond beneath a small hill with a shoreline of forest meadow. We paddled the pond’s circumference but found no discernable inlet.
But was it the headwater? I gazed into the distance beyond our little oasis to where the marsh and flood plains continued between numerous hills to the horizon.
This was no Hudson with a highest point at the col of three mountains. This was the mighty Oswegatchie and I realized the vanity of thinking there may be one point, one pool or pond or spring that could be called its source. Like the legend of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, the elusive headwater of the Oswegatchie bestows its beauty but can never be found.
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