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A Saranac River (NY) NFCT Trip Report

Aug 2, 2011
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Scituate, RI
Mike & Bill (OC-2): Mad River Explorer 17
Chuck (OC-1): Mad River Explorer 16
Jim (OC-1): Mad River Tahoe
Tommy (OC-1): Swift Osprey
Jeff (OC-1): Bell Yellowstone

June 19, 2011:
Even though one of our group didn’t caravan up with the rest of us, the fifth, Tommy, pulled in to the parking lot at the mouth of the Saranac River in Plattsburgh, NY, just as we did. And about ten or fifteen minutes later, as we were unloading, Dwight pulled up with the St. Regis Canoe Outfitters van and canoe trailer! An auspicious beginning! Sweet. We loaded up and headed off to Saranac Lake Village.

So it was that right around 5:00 or so, with at least three and a half hours of daylight left, we were loading the boats and heading off downriver on our latest NFCT adventure, a test of skills and wills, fondly dubbed the “No Country for Old Men Canoe Tour 2011”.

Other than a short, easy set of Class I rapids, we paddled an easy, wide, winding ribbon of moving flatwater. We passed through a lot of marshy land that, not too long ago, had all been well underwater during the floods a month and a half earlier. We reached the mouth of Moose Creek in about an hour, where the knoll we intended to camp on was located. The knoll was obvious, but there was no obvious access and no markings. The hill was billy-goat steep. But sure enough, once we climbed through the brush to the top, we found an old fire ring and no evidence of recent usage. Also, we failed to find any picnic table or privy. Primitive indeed. Nearly no flat, clear spots for tents, so it was tough squeezing six tents onto the site, but we managed. Probably one of the roughest campsites we’ve had on the trail.

Supper was catch as catch can, we got a fire going and got some beers opened, and life was good. Frogs and toads trilled from the river and marshes, along with some type of bird we could not identify. Soon enough, we headed for our tents after a long day of travel, looking forward to whatever Lady Saranac would throw at us during the remaining miles.

Mileage for the day: 3.2 miles
June 20, 2011

Although no one really had a truly level tent site, we all slept generally well, and I awoke to the odd glunk-gerlunk call of an American bittern down in the marsh, a first for me. We started a small fire, got coffee going, and ate a quick breakfast while breaking down camp. We gingerly humped our packs down the slope to the canoes, being careful not to trip lest we tumble unceremoniously down the steep slope and into the river. We all hoped the next campsite would be less topographically challenging.
On the river again, we were soon up to and passing the pedestrian bridge for the Moose Pond Trail. After one sharp meander, we came up on the LaDuke (aka LaStupid) logging bridge and our first portage of the day, since the river was still too high to be able to squeeze under the bridge. In what became a frequent theme on this trip, both the take-outs and put-ins were steep and a bit tricky. Fortunately, the portage was short, and we were soon on our way again.

The river here generally remains pretty marshy. Once we passed Sumner Brook, camps started to appear more frequently along the riverbanks, some with obvious flood damage. A little ways past Moose Pond Road, though, the forest began to creep in closer. Soon, we could see River Road on our left, and knew we were approaching Permanent Rapids.

River gauges are funny things. They are no substitute for actually being on the river and seeing for yourself what the river is all about. Prior to our trip, I had checked the on-line river gauge on the American Whitewater website, and according to their standards the Saranac was running at a medium to low level. We never made it under LaDuke bridge, though, which was an indication of high water. Certainly it seemed to us that the river was at least close to bank-full levels.

And sure enough, as we approached the take-out for the start of the carry around Permanent Rapids, a look downstream revealed bigger water than I had expected. Four of us made the instant decision to do the carry around, and after a scout, Jeff and Tommy reported that the Gorge section was a solid Class III, and they were going to do the walk as well. Up on the portage carts went the canoes for the first of many times.

The carry ends at a pretty nice set of campsites at the head of Franklin Falls Pond. Had it been later in the day, we would have considered camping right there, but it was only a little after noon when we all arrived, so we decided to lunch it and move on. Conditions on Franklin Pond were ideal…sunny, with a light breeze. We decided to head for the campsite on an island to the south of where the pond widens out. This site turned out to be really nice, with a flat landing and no major mountain climb to get up to it. Unfortunately, it also turned out to be occupied. Our maps showed another site on the right back the way we had come, in a little cove, so we backtracked the 0.3 miles to it to check it out. This site, unfortunately, has been closed by the DEC due to (I’m guessing) severe storm damage. Many large trees had been blown into the site. Jim claimed to have seen another site even farther back, but Mike’s philosophy in the event of campsite-seeking-mode is to push forward. Fortunately, it was still early in the afternoon, and we were all feeling good, so onward we pushed.
It took around an hour to finish off Franklin Falls reservoir at an easy pace, and we climbed up the eroded steps to start our third carry of the day, around Franklin Falls Dam. This was a fairly easy roll down Plank Road, but the put-ins we found (collectively we used three separate access points) were steep, rocky and grown in, with ledgy put-ins in to the river, and none of us know who, if anyone, used the “official” put-in.

A short bit of quickwater spit us out into Union Falls Pond, which is pretty narrow and river-like at the beginning. We made a beeline past Watsons Point to another NFCT-marked campsite on the right, but never found it (I remembered later, and confirmed when I returned home, that this site has not, in fact, been constructed yet). So it was onward to Bear Point, with a slight sense of desperation since the wind was kicking up a bit and we were starting to tire a bit.

We arrived at the first of two sites to find another mountain-goat climb up to the site (although this one at least had some rudimentary stone steps placed into the hill), so we sent Tommy, who appeared to be tireless, ahead to the next choice to see if it might be more favorable. He returned to report it was occupied already, so we started humping gear up the slope and laying claim to whatever flat ground we could find. We had more opportunity to spread out at this site, which was sunny and airy and commanded a nice view of the pond. The campfire was located on top of a large concrete pad that had at one time been hooked to electricity, leading us to theorize what might have been here years ago in the middle of nowhere.

It had been a long day. We lounged around the fire pit, and discussed our options for the next few days, since we were now ahead of schedule. Jeff set up a hammock that Tommy later sampled. We all had dinner around 6:30 or so, started the fire, and cracked open some beers. We were treated to a nice sunset, and spontaneously burst into singing at random moments, a habit that most of us never really thought about but that rather struck Jeff (a newbie to these trips) as decidedly weird.

Most of us hit the sack early. That night we were visited by a barred owl, which began calling from one of the pine trees right above us. We were also briefly serenaded by coyotes. Oddly, we never heard any loons.

Total mileage for the day (not including the 0.6 miles backtracked): 15.5 miles

June 21, 2011:

We woke up the next morning to sunny skies and calm conditions on the lake. Jim, who had developed the habit of periodically announcing “Gonna be a long day today”, and who also continued a habit he has developed on earlier trips of being up, packed and ready to leave before some of us had gotten coffee’d up, decided that he would leave ahead of us so that he didn’t feel obligated to paddle like blazes to keep up with the rest of us. He decided to meet us at the dam. I decided to leave on my own as well, about 10 or 15 minutes behind Jim.

Union Falls Pond was practically glass, and I enjoyed the solitude of an easy paddle northeast towards the dam amidst sunny skies and mountain views. About a mile later, I paused to enjoy the quiet morning and to filter some water to refill my water bottles. The others caught up with me soon after I finished, and we arrived at the take-out for the portage around the dam. There are several campsites here at the take-out, accessible from the road, and with a pretty manky outhouse.

This turned out to be a pretty easy, nearly entirely cartable, carry that followed the road over the river (with an impressive waterfall and some impressive Class III and IV rapids below us), and then briefly along Casey Road to a fisherman’s access that led past a parking area and cable gate to a nice grassy spot just downstream of the hydro plant. Several fishermen were plying the waters here.

Knowing that there were a couple sets of Class II rapids a couple miles downriver, we strapped in gear, put on our game faces, and proceeded downstream. This section of the river is quite nice with a remote feel. It appears that numerous opportunities for small guerilla campsites are available along this stretch, despite the proximity of Casey Road on the left for a short distance.

After a couple miles of flatwater, and following a prominent turn to the right, the river current quickens as it turns again to the left. Easy quickwater gives way to rocky Class II water as the river rounds the bend to the left. Many of us hung back here, letting Tommy be the one to probe this rapid. He turned the tables on us, though, grabbing an eddy on river-right just before the gradient dropped off. Mike, who was right behind him, told Billy, “Looks like we’re probe boat now”, and entered the rapid, with Jim not too far behind, followed by me, Jeff and, finally, Tommy.

After that initiation, which we ran on the right, the river becomes very busy with rocks, and the rapid takes on more of a Class III look to it. But Mike and Bill, both of whom have many years river-running experience, saw a clear route down the left side, and we all followed their line down to the bottom of the rapid, which seemed quite a bit longer than I had anticipated, but which turned out to be pretty straightforward once we made that shift from river-right to a left-of-center line.

We then had a half-mile break of moving flatwater before coming up on the second rapid, known as “Trail Rapid”. This rapid is also pretty infested with rocks and waves, but is pretty straightforward, with several lines that work. Most of us generally again started right-of-center, with a quick adjustment to the left near the bottom of the rapid. A couple osprey observed our run from their nest in a dead pine on river-right halfway down the rapids.

At the bottom of this second rapid the river widens considerably, and we initially confused this for the “scenic cove” that several guidebooks mention is just upstream of the carry trail to Casey Road. But after a quick scout (me by land, and Tommy by water), we confirmed that the actual cove was just past where the river narrowed again through some easy quickwater, appearing just as the top of the next rapid comes into view. It is an abrupt cove that has the appearance of an old river channel, and which is marked by a prominent ledge at river’s edge on its downstream side. The start of the carry trail is just past this on the left in a moderate-sized eddy. We went down one by one and pulled out.

Although it was still only lunch time, this spot was our originally scheduled campsite, and on a 4-2 vote we decided to call it an early day and stay. After some lunch, and owing to having plenty of extra time on our hands, we elected to carry our canoes and any other unneeded gear down the roughly quarter mile of trail to Casey Road and conceal it all in the woods out of sight of the road, saving the need of doing so the following morning. Although the beginning of the trail is a bit tricky to discern (look for the yellow canoe-carry discs on the trees), it is easy to follow once you’re on it and not too difficult gradient-wise. A couple sets of trees are positioned only a canoe-width across the trail from each other, but even the widest of our canoes was able to squeeze by. And none of the three trees that had fallen across the trail were difficult to step over with a canoe on your shoulders.

This carry being done, and after the tents were set up (we were all able to find fairly level sites, although Jim’s tent was rather precariously perched along the trail on a two-foot high ledge), the rest of the afternoon was devoted to hanging around the campfire pit, drinking, napping, snacking, or what-have-you. Many of us made multiple visits to enjoy the vista looking upstream from the ledge at the entrance of the cove. It had been a nice short day. So far, Lady Saranac had been going pretty easy on us, with the exception of the difficult campsites. She would change her tune the next day, though.

Total Mileage for the day: 6.0 miles

June 22, 2011:

We awoke ready to implement the plan for the day: our destination would be Baker’s Acres campground. This would require three portages for the day, the first and longest of which started right outside my tent door. I heard Jim predict that it would be a long day, and by the time I was able to extricate myself from the grip of sleep, most of his gear had made it down the trail out to Casey Road. The rest of us followed suit, and before you could say “looks like rain” we were on Casey Road loading the boats onto the portage carts.

Once loaded, we rolled our way north along Casey Road, shortly coming to Silver Lake Road. As we strolled and rolled our way past the occasional house, we could hear the river to our right from time to time, roaring its way through the gorge we were bypassing. The skies were mostly cloudy, but so far the predicted rain was holding off.

At the gravel turn-off just before the bridge, we found the trail continuing northerly down the road grade, and put our boats in just below the bridge abutments onto the North Branch Saranac River just above where it flowed into the Saranac. We were greeted by easy Class I riffles where the river widened over rocky gravel beds.

We rode these riffles all the way to The Separator, passing a few islands on the way, and catching occasional glimpses of Route 3 up to our left. Although the river is clearly shallow here, we had enough water that finding clear channels required little to no effort. Brief periods of inattention might occasionally hang one up on a pesky rock, but these interruptions to floating bliss were infrequent. Still no rain, and temperatures were comfortable. Bugs were non-existent. Life was good! And then we came to The Separator.

Nearly all of us decided to portage around the rapids, but the condition of the portage trail did not make it an easy decision. It was narrow and rocky, with some tricky steep sections and drop offs, and one big ugly tree that had fallen across the trail that required some contortions to get across with canoes and gear. It was bad enough to seriously considering running the rapids. In fact, Tommy carried his gear, but decided to run the first set of ledges in his empty boat, which he did with skill and aplomb, eddying out at a nice little beach with a fire ring located at about the halfway point of the trail out to the road. From this point, the trail was quite a bit easier, with only one steep section. At the road, there is a small gravel parking lot, where we had some lunch and licked our wounds from the portage, which was as yet not completed. This is when the rain finally started.

After our respite, we set the boats up on carts for the short roll down the street and to the bridge that spanned the lower section of The Separator (which Tommy decided not to run). There were some ugly rocks and holes in there! At the other end of the bridge, we had to heave the boats over a guardrail and slide them down the road slope, and then along some ledges to put in by a cove below the last rapids.

Tommy and Jeff played for a bit in the fast water here, and then we continued downstream on more of the enjoyable quickwater that this section of the Saranac is chock full of. At the next bridge, we debated the merits of getting out and hiking to the nearby convenience store for a B double E double R-U-N, but, with an adequate supply for the rest of the day, we decided to wait until we reached Bakers Acres.

As soon as I noticed that the current was dying out, I called a Duckhead Muckle to order, and we all joined up to enjoy a nice float into High Falls Reservoir enjoying some beers and a bit of Sailor. There is little to no development along this peaceful waterbody.

During my initial planning for the trip, searching for an “unofficial campsite” somewhere along this reservoir had been considered, and as it turned out, there was a nice site on the left just as you get to the warning buoys. Free of fees! But alas, also free of beer, of which we would be in need, considering the drizzle that was still threatening to morph into a respectable rainfall. So we stuck to our plan to get to Bakers Acres.

But between us and our intended camp was a big dam. And our third portage of the day. And almost three miles of river! So after some sightseeing at the dam (which is quite impressive) and once again setting our boats up on the carts, we began the last carry. This involves carrying the boats and gear up to the top of the dam, and getting everything up on the portage carts. From there, after a short stretch uphill, the road starts to seriously lose altitude. Hang on to your boat if it is on wheels, because if you let go you’ll never catch it.

When we had almost reached Soper Road, as I was being dragged downhill by my canoe, I started to hear an intermittent “psst…..psst….psst….” When I could finally get to a point where I could reasonably control my canoe on the slope, I stopped it and investigated this sound, which turned out to be air escaping from my cart tire, and which seemed to be coming from the valve stem. Visions of tough portages becoming unbearable swam before my eyes! I started picking up the pace a bit, and was fortunately able to reach the end of the portage, below the hydro plant, before the tire was completely flat.

Here, the river resumes its gravel and riffle character, but starts some sweeping turns back and forth. At the end of the first loop, we paddled under Hardscrabble Road, after which we encountered occasional islands. Choosing routes was pretty easy. After the second loop, we paddled under Bowen Road, where a nice boat launch exists. Just past that is an island, and we went to its left and found the (of course) steep and muddy take-out for Bakers Acres, marked by a sign. We hauled up the boats onto the lawn path, and headed up the road past many RV’s and camper trailers in search of the camp office.

This we found pretty easily, and we were greeted by the proprietor, who somehow seemed to be expecting us, and who registered us onto a couple tent campsites through a little window, as if he was selling us tickets to roller coasters and bumper cars. We returned and got to work. Jeff broke out his CCS tarp and we rigged it up with the picnic table, some string and Jim’s kayak paddle. Tommy set up a tarp over his tent with a couple canoe paddles. The rest of us just set up the tents and called it good.

A plan was hatched over a beer or two to get cleaned up (hot showers!) and changed up, and to head over to a nearby restaurant called the Rustique (which Jeff was pretty sure had Chicken Parmesan even though he had never been there). Afterwards, we would walk up the road past Picketts Corners to a convenience store in search of more beer. We executed the plan to perfection. The Rustique did in fact have a very good chicken parm, and other fine choices. The walk to the convenience store was totally bearable, even in the pouring rain. We were initially thwarted in our search for decent beer in cans, but Mike found a back room that contained half-cases of Saranac Pale Ale and Summer Ale in cans! We restocked big time. Jeff got more ice.

This store had an inviting porch with chairs to hang out on, so a few of us did. In fact this store had it all, except for a payphone (WTF?), so I ran across the street briefly to a pizza joint, who also had no public phone (wha?) but who let me use a calling card on their business phone to call my wife and let her know I was still alive and mostly sober.

Back at camp, Jim helped me to get the tube out of my bum tire, and we located a small pinhole leak, probably caused by a spoke. Tommy had a patch kit, so we scraped, glued, and got the patch in place. After slightly inflating the tire tube, we left it aside to set until morning.

At some point the rain subsided a bit, but we pretty much stayed under the tarp, drinking beers and recounting our individual experiences of the day. Jeff had concluded that he is not a fan of portages. Everyone universally agreed that the portage around the Separator totally sucked; even Tommy, who avoided half of it. The river, on the other hand, was beautiful, with easy riffles and nice scenery. Looking ahead, we hoped for more of the same, except that instead of three portages, we only expected one. Which would be nice, because on this day we basically portaged more mileage than what we paddled yesterday.

Total mileage for the day: 13.2 miles, including a little over 6 miles of portaging.

June 23, 2011

Skies were still threatening rain, and Jim was threatening a long day, when I woke up, but there was no actual rain, and Jim had already extended his own day a couple hours by being up and about at the ungodly hour of 5:30. Not that I was complaining…Jim had taken my cart wheel to the convenience store and filled up the tire with air. This involved a little help from a local to operate the compressor (What ya gotta do is take a pebble from the parking lot, like this one heah, and jam ‘er in the stem, and then latch on the nozzle like so, and Bob’s yer uncle, there you go.” So he got the tire inflated, walked back, put the cart back together, had some coffee and breakfast while reading half a novel, and packed up. Then the rest of us woke up and did the same, minus the wheel repair and novel.

We were able to break camp and get on the water fairly efficiently, and were soon headed downstream on slowly moving flatwater with occasional riffles. We passed a lot of farms and forest and the occasional island or sandy beach. Every once in a while the river came within eyesight of the road to our left. Occasionally, rain sprinkled down on us. Tommy forged on ahead, and we soon lost sight of him.

After six miles or so, we entered the backwater of the dam in Cadyville. The ledges near the Harney Bridge Road overpass, which are all that remain of the former waterfall here, marked a change in the geology we would be traversing. Soon after, we were jockeying for position at the start of our one and only portage of the day (although some later argued, with some merit, that it was merely the first of two portages). This is not an easy landing with a lot of room by easy means…space is limited and the rocks on the bank are slippery and shifty. Fortunately, the trail out to the road was short and not too steep.

This was one of the oddest portages I have ever had the misfortune to experience. Now, there are quite a few river segments interrupted by short portages, but seldom are there ever any lengthy portages interrupted by short river segments! This was one of them. After about a mile and a quarter of walking along various roadways (which provided nice, easy wheeling with my newly repaired cart), one comes to the notorious closed bridge that so many paddlers before us had encountered. It was still closed, with no easy way to get across. So we took the official route of carrying down to a ledge by the river, loading the boats, paddling less than a hundred yards downstream and across the river, and unloading the boats again so we could hoof all the gear up a couple ugly ledges to the continuation of the portage on the road. Never had I looked forward less to paddling on the water! Tommy named this carry “Portagus interruptus”.

Soon after we resumed our walk down the road we came upon the huge penstock that diverts water from the dam to the turbines. We speculated that this would make a nice alternative flume ride if properly modified. When we reached the public boat access, the sun started poking out and the humidity really dialed up a notch. From the parking area, it is a short drag through the woods to reach the rivers edge, where we encountered some nice rapids. We decided that this spot was as good as any for a lunch break.

The put in here is, of course, a little tricky, with a steep bank and fast moving water. I was really starting to believe I had made the right choice in boats…the Royalex took a real pounding at these access spots. Jeff got in first, saying he would eddy out downstream somewhere to wait (assuming we had eddies). Jim was next. I got in right after Jim, and found the current to be quite quick and exhilarating. I was looking ahead to spot either Jim or Jeff when I realized I had forgotten to put on my PFD. Yikes! Fortunately it was right in front of me, so I shipped the paddle, got it clipped on, and grabbed the paddle just as I went cruising past Jim and Jeff.

There weren’t many eddies, and none of them were in the middle of the river where I was, so I worked my way to river right and finally glided into a small bankside eddy to wait for the others. And wait, and wait. Finally I spotted Tommy coming down, with Mike and Billy right on his stern. I peeled out, and away we went.

This section is described as a “liquid ramp”, and I think that is as good a description as any. The water was high enough that we didn’t scrape too many rocks. We just cruised past the scenery at a good 7 mph clip without hardly wetting our paddles, other than to sideslip past a rock or two. We saw a lot of woods and a few houses.

After we had travelled about three miles or so, it occurred to me that although our best potential campsite had been marked by my GPS, the only one who knew this factoid was me! And when I glanced down at the GPS, I saw we were only about a mile away and rapidly approaching it! Tommy, Mike and Billy were pretty far ahead of me at that point, so I started digging hard to catch up.

I caught up to Mike and Billy almost a mile later and let them know that we were getting close to the site I marked, and to keep an eye for it as I tried to catch Tommy. About a minute later, we all saw the clearing in the trees. “There it is! Head left”, I said, as I gazed far ahead at Tommy way downstream, blissfully unaware that he had some upstream paddling in his immediate future. We all pulled our whistles and blew the alert while headed for shore. I saw Tommy acknowledge our signal, and turned my attention to finding a landing spot just downstream from where Mike and Bill had ended up.

Now, to this point we had experienced plenty of campsites with steep access, but this one was clearly the steepest. Nearly vertical! With no convenient steps and more broken glass in the bank than strictly necessary. Mike was a bit disappointed. I think “I’m not climbing that farking bank” were his exact words. But climb it he did…once. As did we all, and up top we found a large flat area divided between pine forest and an old field, connected by an ATV trail that did not seem to have been used recently. A little scouting established that the nearest house was about a tenth of a mile away, with nothing else nearby. We also found several ancient campfire rings that were all but hidden in the forest duff, so we felt comfortable that a precedent for camping use had been established. We decided to call it home.

Tommy had landed a bit downstream of us, and seemingly had found a decent way up the hill. My spot was quite dicey, with crumbling rocks and no good handholds, but I managed to get my gear up. This is when I found out that Jeff and Bill had set up a rope and were roping gear up a steep path near a big tree. Together, they roped everything up from their boats as well as Jim’s. So far as I know, Mike didn’t tackle that slope again, except to get more beer out of his boat, until the next day.

Thanks to the rapid ride we’d had from our lunch spot, it was still fairly early in the afternoon, so once camp was set up, we had a lot of time to kill. I walked up the trail to where it came out on a cul-de-sac about a quarter mile away, and then walked the other direction through the field to catch a glimpse of the fairgrounds. The rain was long gone and the sun was peeking intermittently through the clouds. Back at the site, Jeff set up his tarp, and we all broke out snacks and started into our beer and Sailor Jerry supply. Besides the bottle or two of Sailor that it seemed everyone had brought, Jim had also found packs of Sailor in little nip bottles when we had been in Warrensburg days ago. We probably had enough Sailor to invite the rest of the Town to party with us!

After dinner, a couple of us went out to gather firewood (there was plenty around), and, for the second time during these NFCT adventures, Mike broke out his GMC-hubcap fire pan. You wouldn’t think that a fire in a hubcap could be anything special, but as far as I am concerned this thing provides the finest social campfire atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. Jeff and Tommy, who were not on the Missisquoi trip when we first tried this out, were duly impressed. It was a fine time, drinking and smoking around the fire, sharing stories and recounting our adventures past and present.

Before we headed off to bed, Jeff came back from a walk to lead me and Tommy back towards the field. There we witnessed a pretty spectacular display of lightning bugs flashing their way around the tall weeds. It was an impressive end to the day.

Mileage for the day: 12.2 miles

June 24, 2011:

We woke up to partly cloudy skies and a forecast from Jim of a long day. It turned out that Jim was right. Although only 8 miles lay between us and Plattsburgh, there were also three portages on the menu, and nasty rumors of a fourth portage for dessert. We also had some more whitewater to deal with. It was our last day of the trip, and we went about our preparations in a fairly business-like, no-nonsense manner, using the rope to assist our descent with our gear from the campsite to river level.
The rapids downstream of our campsite were easy Class I riffles which petered out a little over a mile downstream as we entered the backwater of Treadwell Mills Dam. We noticed two or three unmarked campsites at the upper end of the pond on river-left that could have been used in a pinch if our last site had not worked out (and which would have had far easier, less-cliff-like access).

The takeout to the right of the bridge at the dam was, of course, steep and inconvenient, but we had gotten used to such conditions at this point. The carry up to the road was fortunately short, and we set up the canoes on the portage carts on the road shoulder. The directions for the portage were easy to follow, and as we rounded the end of the diversion canal (totally off-limits for boating) we found ourselves looking down a very steep (and recently paved) access road down to the powerhouse and our put-in near the bridges for I-87. Once again, I was thankful for having brought a Royalex canoe that could take the punishment that these put-ins were dishing out to us. Most of us left small Royalex sacrifices on the sharp rocks to appease the Portage Gods. We found the rapids under and past I-87 to be straightforward.

If yesterday’s 300-foot paddle under the Kent Falls Road Bridge was the shortest distance between portages on the NFCT, surely the next stretch is the next shortest. After a mere 0.4 miles of river we found ourselves at the carry around the broken Indian Falls Dam. And evidently the Portage Gods had found our Royalex sacrifices unworthy, as this turned out to be the ugliest portage of the lot. A real trainwreck of a portage. Poor Tommy, who had no Royalex whatsoever to sacrifice, paid penance by walking headfirst into one of the fallen trees across our path. Three times. The path out to the dam was narrow and heavily patrolled mosquitoes, with at least three fallen trees and some mud to contend with. The put in, which is in an old tailrace that flows parallel to and then joins the river, is at the bottom of another steep slope.

After the briefest of floats along some riffles, we entered yet another backwater, this one from the Imperial Mills Dam. Here, again, we saw a couple potentially nice campsites on river-left as we entered the pond. We got to the dam itself a little over a mile later (the third shortest distance between portages on the NFCT? I think so), where we saw a marsh backed by a steep bank (of course), which itself was topped by a chain-link fence that had on it a canoe portage sign with no arrow indicating direction nor any obvious point of exit from the pond.

The portage runs through the marsh (with pretty solid footing) and then runs left along the base of the embankment, eventually climbing up to the top and reaching a cart path. A 180-degree turn at the top brought us along the top of the dam embankment, where another dirt cart path led downhill towards “Adirondack Circle” and our put-in on the river. Looking upstream, I thought the Indian Falls Dam was far better looking than it appeared from above, with unique wings jutting out from its face.

Downstream, the rapids began in earnest, with continuous Class II rapids. These rapids were more ledgy in character. They calmed a bit as we approached the big island (we went left), but they really picked up again after the river made a sweeping right turn after the island. I’ve never seen a greater concentration of perfect ledge surf waves! The water was pretty high, still, so we had no problems finding a route, except to try to avoid the biggest waves. It was a fine ride, and I felt like whooping it up! Not even the pouring rain, which showed up at the same time, could dampen our parade. But alas, a little over a mile past the big island, around a curve to the left, we came upon orange booms strung across the river, with signs declaring a mandatory portage to the left. The fourth portage of the day. The Portage Gods had definitely found us unworthy!

There was nothing for it but to once again hump our gear and boats up a slope (this time with the assistance of stairs) which brought us up to a residential street. Jeff was off long before the rest of us got our act together, presumably following the directions to get to the Broad Street Bridge where we could put in again. We all eventually followed him, keeping to Pine Street past a middle school and a couple repair shops. As Tommy and I approached Broad Street, Jeff appeared from the left walking along Broad Street. He had missed the turn up Pine Street and had bought himself an extra half mile of walking! But he had the green light at the intersection, so he got ahead of us again anyways.

The bridge was just down the road, and we put in again at the base of a steep slope, watched by a couple homeless denizens of the city from under the bridge as we got under way again. We had another short stretch of good waves and rapids, and the Champlain Monument came into view as we paddled under Bridge Street. Around the corner, as we approached a train bridge, a freight train rumbled past, its engineer saluting our entrance into Lake Champlain with a mighty blast from his air horn. Tommy and Jim bee-lined for the take-out on the left, but I followed Mike, Billy and Jeff for a short jaunt into the waves of Cumberland Bay on Lake Champlain before ourselves exiting the river and getting our cars loaded.

It is pretty clear why most people stay within the blue line on this river, but if you can endure the portages, this river offers a lot of good water and scenery to enjoy.

Total mileage for the day: 8.4 miles

A slideshow of pics can be found here:



Re: A Saranac River (NY) NFCT Trip Report

Fantastically detailed report with great pictures. Union Falls brings back some memories from when I was about 10. The family camped there several times. The outhouse was nasty 47 years ago.


Re: A Saranac River (NY) NFCT Trip Report

"But he had the green light at the intersection, so he got ahead of us again anyways."

that's funny, stoplights on a portage!

nice report - I'm gonna print it out and save it in case I ever get to do that section.