Canoe Camping in the Adirondacks: September 2015

Hey folks. It's been a while since I posted, so I want to catch up on the last few months of adventures! We'll start with a four-day canoe camping trip in the Adirondacks, just before Otis Mountain Get Down. 

September was shaping up to be a great time. In the course of writing part one of a two-part series on Otis Mountain Get Down, a music festival in Elizabethtown, NY, I had spoken with a few of the guys who run the show. They invited me to arrive at the mountain a few days early to meet in person, learn about the preparation and work that goes into the festival, and just hang out. They told me to show up anytime on Tuesday or Wednesday, with the festival beginning Friday September 11.  

As I was currently on Cape Cod, I knew it would be a bit of a journey to get to Otis, which is in upstate New York. So, I figured I might as well make a week of it, visit some friends in Vermont, and do some camping in the Adirondacks near Otis! I bought a bus ticket to Vermont for Friday September 4, with plans to meet up with a good friend in Burlington and begin a four day canoe camping trip that Saturday. We would then mosey over to Otis on Tuesday September 8. 

If you are a person who likes the remoteness of backcountry camping, but are less keen on the concept of counting the ounces of weight in your pack, strapping days' worth of supplies on your back, and walking or hiking to site miles from your car, then canoe camping might be your solution. It's advantageous because you can load up your canoe with all you need (or, as we are wont to do, far more than you need), and the canoe will do most of the work for you. You can move tons of gear and provisions in a relatively quick manner, paddling about 2 miles per hour. Another benefit is you can pack a lot of drinking water, so if you don't have a filtration or treatment system, you don't have to worry. Lastly, the canoe can help you reach remote, solitary campsites, and sometimes you'll have a lake or pond all to yourself.

We had canoe camped earlier in the year at Chittenden State Reservoir in southern Vermont and were ready to give it a second try. Knowing that we wanted to be relatively close to Otis Mountain, but really get away from the crowds on Labor Day weekend, we selected Saint Regis Canoe Area.

The Saint Regis Canoe Area is both the largest wilderness canoe area in the Northeastern US (encompassing 19,000 acres,) and the only designated one in New York state. It is closed to motorboats, so visitors must access its 58 bodies of water by canoe or kayak. 

There are developed campgrounds and some day use areas, but much of the area is known for excellent primitive camping, where one must paddle out to a site on one of the lakes or ponds. Some sites have fire rings, while others do not. None of them have standard amenities like restrooms or picnic shelters, and Leave No Trace principles apply.

The area is beloved by canoers who want to attempt strenuous, multi-day canoe trips, such as the famed Seven Carries or Nine Carries routes. Almost all of the water trails require a portage, or carrying the canoe over land from one body of water to another. 

We had an enormous 16 foot wooden canoe, which is not the ideal vehicle for multiple portages. We decided to put-in at Long Pond, one of the larger ponds, and set up a base camp at one of the primitive sites there. From Long Pond, we could paddle to nearby Turtle, Slang, and Hoel Ponds with minimal portages, mostly traveling through the water. Long Pond also features a trailhead to the summit of Long Pond Mountain, so it seemed like a perfect spot from which to explore the region.


Day 1: Saturday, September 5

Geared up.

Geared up.

With the car loaded and the canoe nested on the roof rack, we set out for the mountains in the morning. It was about a three hour drive (120 miles going 40 mph most of the way) to the St. Regis Canoe Area. Rather than taking one of the two ferries (from Plattsburgh or Charlotte) crossing from Vermont into New York, we elected to take the Lake Champlain/Crown Point Bridge. It added a little time to our trip, but were rewarded with no wait in line, and majestic views.

Crossing into New York, we hopped on state road 9N. Traversing it for roughly 45 miles, we passed through a smattering of lake towns: Port Henry, Moriah, Westport. New York lakeside towns are different than those of Vermont. While Vermont hamlets like Vergennes are quaint and filled with cafes, shops, and apple orchards or syrup stands catering to leaf-peeping tourists, the New York side feels forgotten, melancholy. Many towns are rundown, gray, almost lifeless-  like an aging horse left out to pasture. I felt intrusive, like I was watching something slowly recede into the ground.

It was a warm day for September, unusually so-  in the 70s. The roads were empty, with kids back in school and parents at work. The leaves were just beginning to turn, their verdant tips hastening to become brighter shades, but still not quite yellow.

Riding shotgun, I put on Springsteen's Born in the USA. We were not in working-class New Jersey in 1984, but it felt right. I'd been listening to that album often that summer, for reasons indescribable but also perfectly clear. Like any other young person, I had been idealistically, and maybe foolishly, dreaming of road trips, big skies, small-towns, and the "American experience." There is, of course, no such thing. At least, not in the universal, cinematic, one-nation-fits-all sense. And the title track is too often misinterpreted as a celebratory anthem, when really Springsteen had penned a middle-finger to the United States government and the Vietnam war.

Maybe it was the quieter songs that resonated. "My Hometown" made me think of the many homes I was leaving behind. Mostly of my adopted home of Burlington, where I had spent four dizzying, far too fast years at UVM, and two years after in the working world. I was a straggler, a townie, clutching onto all of Vermont's charms, trying to sap all I could before I inevitably fled. Then there was my teenage home of Chatham, Cape Cod in all its white sand, deep blue ocean beauty. There was also my non-geographical home of my closest friends in Vermont. I was soon moving to the South, which in some ways is another home, an older home where I was born and where my family is from. All these muddled "homes" were on my mind.

I'd always felt a special pang when I heard "Dancing in the Dark." It reminded me of nights at Manhattan's and Nectar's in Burlington, listening to a college friend's honky-tonk band kick up the dust. Now that I had permanently moved from Vermont, and knew this would be my last visit for a while, it was bittersweet.

En route, with the canoe hanging over the hood.

En route, with the canoe hanging over the hood.

With Springsteen coming through the speakers, and nostalgia on my mind, we swung through Elizabethown, giving it a once-over and promising to be back in a few days. We headed northwest, passing through Keene to stock up on provisions at Lake Placid.

Entering Lake Placid, you are transported into a world that seems never to have left the early 1980s. Driving into town, the enormous Olympic ski jumping complex imposes itself, pressing into your line of sight. The twin jumping towers rise up like alien antennae probing the sky. To me, they seem domineering, industrial, cold. To others, they bring to mind the excitement of some of the state's finest winter sports at nearby Whiteface Mountain.

The town itself is a tourist mecca, still cashing in on its Olympic glory 35 years later. Designed in the requisite Adirondack state park colors of yellow and brown, signs point the way to historical sites and Olympic lore. This is the land where the "Miracle on Ice" happened, a moment of glory at "defeating" the Soviets. Born in the cushy year of 1991, after the wall of the Berlin Wall, none of this is part of my cultural consciousness. It is like passing through a frozen time.

We stopped at a grocery store to pick up food and booze for the trip. Unable to find our preferred brand of plastic bottle whiskey (Canadian Hunter), we settled for Evan Williams, grabbed some Yuengling cans, and got back on the road. In twenty minutes, we were in the town of Saranac Lake. 

The Saint Regis Canoe Area is accessible from a few different put-ins and towns in the upstate region. Our chosen location of Long Pond required us to pass through the Saranac Lake wilderness and drive several miles down a small dirt road- Floodpond Road-  through developed campgrounds, until we passed over some railroad tracks and officially entered the canoe area. There were plenty of people staked out at the campgrounds for the long weekend. We grew a little concerned that we'd have trouble finding a remote spot when we found several cars at the put-in parking lot.

Turn for the Long Pond put-in. 

Turn for the Long Pond put-in. 

We shuffled the canoe down to the water first, then hoofed our gear down. We hit the water at about 4 pm. We intended to stake our claim at some of the northeastern campsites, numbers 11, 12, or 13. We paddled from the put in past site 1 and to our left, skirting sites 2 -5 on the western edge of a skinny neck part of the lake. We saw many of the sites already occupied and others were closed to allow for regrowth, so we continued as planned to the further sites. But, we found that 13, 12, and then 11 were also closed. A bit frustrated, with the late afternoon sun beating down on us and the hours of daylight dwindling, we backtracked across the pond near site 10.

Map of campsites on Long Pond, via New York state's  DEC website

Map of campsites on Long Pond, via New York state's DEC website

We saw two kayakers and paddled over to ask them if they knew of any open sites. They told us to keep going past site 10 and shoot for one of the three open sites (numbers 6, 7, and 8) that were located a small, western inlet near the mountain trailhead. Relieved, we hustled over. By now we had been on the water for two hours and were anxious to set up.

Site 6 was entirely swampy, so we explored site 7 before finally settling on 8. We scurried to set up camp and get dinner going before dark. It was nearly 7:30 when we relaxed and began cooking.

Keeping warm.

Keeping warm.

The forecast for the next two days was clear and dry, so we decided to forgo using our rain fly and enjoy the night sky and cool air. We built a fire and settled into the woods. I was surprised how loud each little sound seemed.

Day 2 : Sunday, September 6

Morning came soon, since our tent directly faced the eastern sunrise. We stayed in the tent for a bit, listening to birds (perhaps cranes) stomping through the forest, searching for grubs. 

We decided to spend the day exploring the nearby ponds, paddling and swimming wherever we fancied. We left the majority of our gear at camp, loading the canoe with a small cooler of beer, water, and snacks for the day.

We retraced our steps from the previous evening's frantic paddle, this time taking it slow and admiring the landscape. We passed several loons, who were largely unafraid to get close and say hello. Or, perhaps they were getting close to make sure we knew this was their territory, not ours.

Large tracts of Adirondack wilderness, like the Saint Regis area, are ideal for loon viewing because the birds breed along the waterways of lakes and ponds. This day, they floated along serenely, black and white plumage gliding across the water. We happened to see a mother loon and a few baby loons. They spied us, approached, then turned around and dove under instinctively. 

We also saw several groups of people out on the water. What struck me the most was how we were twenty miles, by canoe and then by slow driving on a dirt road, from anything of consequence. And yet, a tiny band of weekenders had all landed here. It was comforting, but we also secretly craved the solitude we had expected. In due time, we would find it.

On our paddle we were surprised, and excited, to find that site 2 was now unoccupied. This was a gorgeous site in an excellent location, on a peninsula with east and west facing views, a good breeze, and sandy beach. We disembarked to have a look around. Since we had two nights left, we contemplated moving to this better site. Our current one was alright, but very far from most things, a little swampy, and had minimal views or a good swimming place. Permits are only required if staying in the same site for three nights or more, so we were clear there. We chewed it over for a few minutes, deciding if it was worth spending a few hours to move. It was.

Take two. Our second campsite, with our Marmot tent, canoe...and some fun floats peeking out.

Take two. Our second campsite, with our Marmot tent, canoe...and some fun floats peeking out.

We hustled back to our camp, about a 45 minute paddle. We broke down camp quickly and got back in the canoe in another 45 minutes, so we finally arrived and set up new camp in about 3 hours from finding it.

It was nearing 4 in the afternoon, so we still had some daylight left. Tired from our ambitious paddling, we spent the afternoon playing in the water and sipping Yuengling. 

Later, we made stuffed peppers with rice and beans, and grilled corn on the coals. The night was clear and calm, so the rain fly stayed packed and we got some spectacular views of the sky. With no light pollution, you can really get a look at the whole cosmos, and individual constellations or clusters. I found myself wishing I remembered more from my astronomy class sophomore year of college.

Late afternoon sun through the pine trees.

Late afternoon sun through the pine trees.

Day 3: Monday, September 7 (Labor Day)

This was our hiking day on Long Pond Mountain (3.2 miles roundtrip), and it dawned hot, in the 80s. Whatever was keeping the Adirondacks so warm this time of year, I was thankful for it. We didn't have to worry about frost, and we could enjoy swimming in the pond.

It was about an hour paddle to the hiking trail, and we got going around 11 am. On our way out, we noticed that every campsite was cleared out. We were alone. It brought a calm peace, knowing we still had a full day and night ahead, and could enjoy the pond in solitude.

We nosed into the trailhead and pulled up the canoe. The land immediately by the water was marshy and thoroughly muddy, but in a few steps we entered the typical thick Adirondack pine forest. Soft ground under our feet, we began the trek, reaching Mountain Pond, about twenty minutes into the hike. We admired it briefly before continuing on up the summit trail. It was relatively short, a little over an hour. Steep in places, with rock scrambles and lots of protruding roots. We, admittedly, stopped several times to catch our breath.

When we finally got to the top, it was about 1 pm. The sun radiated Indian summer glory. We unpacked lunch and sunned on the rocky summit, admiring the far-reaching views. The entire Saint Regis area spilled out beneath us.  We identified nearby ponds to the Southeast: Turtle, Slang, Hoel- as well as Upper Saranac Lake-  and gazed at the cobalt and evergreen blur of distant mountains and waterways unknown to us. 

We lingered for an hour, enjoying the total isolation and bird's eye view. We felt like loons, perched and observant. Dozens of electric blue dragonflies zipped around us, darting to and fro, landing on a branch or rock for the briefest of moments before taking to the wind again. We must have counted fifteen or twenty. A few butterflies meandered through as well.

On our descent, we did pass a middle aged couple heading up the trail. Once we hit the water, we saw they had claimed a campsite. And then, there were four, I thought. 

Back at camp, we enjoyed our last afternoon of swim time. We let the sun sink low, chilling ourselves for two or so hours before finally climbing out. 

View to the left (northeast-ish) from campsite 2.

View to the left (northeast-ish) from campsite 2.

Unfortunately, we had to put the rain fly on, as the sky portended a shower. It did rain all through the night, but we didn't mind too much. Sometimes a rainstorm clears the mind.

Day 4: Tuesday September 8

Our time at Saint Regis came to an end all too soon. Waterlogged from the night's storm, we made a quick breakfast, stowed our damp gear, and packed up. We paddled against a strong headwind back to the put-in, taking a while to work our tired arms.

We were a little cranky getting everything back uphill to the car, loaded, and strapped down. Things take longer than expected, and it happens, but it's easy to get frustrated.

We stopped at nearby Fishpond Campground for a shower, some dishwashing, and water refills before heading into the town of Saranac Lake. We gobbled deli sandwiches and checked emails while doing our laundry at a local wash spot. 

We resupplied and headed for Otis Mountain, winding back the way we had come, through Lake Placid, Keene, and ultimately to Elizabethtown. On the way, we pulled over to a spectacular river spot.

Tree in relief, etched against evening sky. Quite the spot.

Tree in relief, etched against evening sky. Quite the spot.

We ultimately arrived at Otis around 6 pm. We spent then next three days and nights hanging out with the crew and helping with last minute tasks for the festival. I won't spoil all their secrets (or ours,) but I will say that it was simply magical. There were late night mountain truck rides, bar games, games of stump, conversations over slowly dying fires, beers upon beers upon whiskey, and a sense of brotherhood. These dozen or so guys are really something. I felt lucky to witness some of their antics, in addition to their hard work,

What did I learn from the canoe trip? Well, first that it is by far the best way to "luxuriously" backcountry camp (meaning, you can bring beer, non-dehydrated food, and fun add ons like floats and camp chairs.) Not "glamping" but any means, but as close as you'll get to it out in one of the most rural park areas of the Northeast.

Secondly and more seriously, that I have an itch for these kind of things. I'd camped before but this was by far the longest stretch of camping (and lack of a shower. Not as bad as you'd think!) As soon as I was gone, I was ready to be back. It's something I've tried to keep doing down South now that I've relocated.

And lastly, be choosy about who you do these kinds of adventures with. Make sure your travel companion has similar interests, pace, and temperament. No one wants to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with someone who has a completely different and contrasting energy or agenda. And, it sounds obvious- but this person should also be someone you trust to get you out of a bad situation. Discuss, but don't stress, over possible scenarios and what you should do if someone gets injured, sick, or a natural disaster happens. When you're in the backcountry, it's literally you and that other person, so it's no exaggeration to say "trust them with your life." 

Luckily, I'd known my canoe buddy for several years, we had camped like this before, and we were well suited to do this kind of backcountry trip together. Spending a week together ended up being a mix of fun and strange. But that's how it goes.

A month later, I missing the upstate beauty of this region. The loons, so regal and graceful. The pond, blue and inviting. The treetops, forcing me to look up and get out of my own head. Thanks for the memories, Saint Regis.

(P.S. : To read about the incredible weekend that is Otis Mountain Get Down, head over to Offprint Magazine , or find it under my articles tab on this site!)