Saranac Lakes over Columbus Day Weekend

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iI've been going stir crazy with this February weather, and needed to something about it. So I wrote this trip report! I intended it to be rather brief, but for me the magic is in the details, so it kinda got away from me. Hopefully you don't mind.

This past fall, I was invited by a friend to go on what has been, for him and his friends, an annual Columbus Day Weekend canoe camping trip to the Saranac Lakes. Usually, they pick a base camp and just do day trips or hang around camp and drink all day. This time, he wanted to see if he could interest the group in actually packing up and paddling to an entirely different campsite! Eventually, he would like to get his friends to try longer trips with some actual portages, but is taking baby steps with them. I think I was invited to help share my experiences in actually canoe-camping for long distances. Also, I have an advanced degree in hanging around and drinking beer.

This would be a different kind of canoe camping for me. For one thing, we had to reserve and pay for our campsites. I usually camp for free. For another thing, there would be no portages. After my recent epic trip across Rhode Island, I wasn'’t going to complain. Finally, all meals would be group meals prepared with fresh food. Almost everyone volunteered one meal, and then had the rest of the weekend off. This would be a challenge for me, since I can barely cook for my wife and I a few times a year, never mind for nine hungry guys.

We all drove up separately since the group was pretty well spread out. I drove up from Rhode Island, Steve drove from Massachusetts and picked Scott up in Vermont and, inexplicably, the rest of crew came from various points in New Jersey. Dana, Devon, Bart, Chris, Caleb and Joe. Jersey Boyz. We all met at the South Creek access into Middle Saranac Lake. Mere minutes after the first of us arrived, it commenced to rain.

Beaver dam at the put in on South Creek
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Steve consulting the map as an excuse to get out of the rain:
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It rained generally lightly but steadily as we unloaded boats, bags, and beer. Steve and I had each brought two canoes: one solo for our personal use, and another tandem for a couple other guys to borrow. Steve’s boats included his Bell Magic and a Wenonah Minnesota II. I brought my Hemlock SRT and a Wenonah Sundowner 18. All the other guys brought kayaks and, while there was an impressive amount of packing innovations explored in order to pack all their stuff, some kayaker gear was inevitably distributed amongst the canoes.

Packing the boats:
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Most of our vehicles got shuttled back to Headquarters on First Pond below Lower Saranac Lake, where we registered and where, thinking that after a long day of driving it may be nice not to have to forage for too much firewood, I bought a big-ass bundle from the ranger and stashed it in Steve’s trunk for the ride back.

Back at the ramp, we all stashed the last of the gear and pushed off. It was still mostly cloudy, but not raining, and every once in a while the sun would shine out and put some portion of the landscape in the spotlight.

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Sunlight illuminating an island
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We made quick work of the short stretch of South Creek, emerging onto Middle Saranac Lake with a light westerly wind. Soon Mount Ampersand was over our right shoulder as we paddled past Ship Island. It didn’t take long for us to reach Bartlett Island, our home for the night.

Camp was set up, Steve started to work on supper, and while people started scavenging for firewood I remembered the bundle of firewood that was still sitting in Steve’s Jetta. Oops! Fortunately there were a few blowdowns from which to scavenge a fair amount of firewood and we had a pleasant fire going soon. It helped that Bart had brought along some scrap two-bys to split for kindling.

Steve’s meal was pulled pork and corn bread, and everyone ate their fill. We dove into multiple beers as this group all got reacquainted and as I became acquainted with them all. I brought out a massive flask filled with whiskey that I had received as an award from the Adventure Flasking Society (“The Impressive Flask Award”). I had decided that this would be a good trip to bring it on. I passed it around and they were certainly impressed. I could tell it was going to be a good crew.

Joe with The Flask:
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It was chilly that night, upper 30’s as I recall (which is pretty balmy compared to what it is now as I type this…the thermometer reads 4 degrees), so we didn’t skimp on the campfire. Once everything was burned, we turned in, with a few stars peeking through the clouds.

The next day dawned cold and cloudy. Joe and I were the first up, and we got some water and coffee going. I was responsible for breakfast, so I gathered my supplies and cooking gear and the Coleman stove. Sausage, Egg and Cheese breakfast sandwiches. My first attempt at them, and they seemed to come out pretty damn good, to my relief. No one complained, anyway. Especially when offered a sip from the Impressive Flask.

Today the crew would split off, with most of the crew headed south to hike up Mount Ampersand, and three of us, Steve, Bart and me, doing a paddle up into Weller and Little Weller Pond. The Ampersand crew paddled off to the southeast, while Bart, Steve and I headed south, having decided to go retrieve the firewood we had left behind. That being accomplished, we headed back north, past Halfway Island and into Hungry Bay. Rain was threatening, but the wind was no issue. I had never paddled into this portion of the lake before, so I enjoyed every minute of it.

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We proceeded up Hungry Bay, past a tarp city someone had set up in their camp, and up the inlet towards Weller Pond. Just before we got there, we turned up a small stream and paddled into Little Weller Pond. It was beautiful and quiet, despite the gray skies. Some beaver had set up a household tucked into one corner of the pond. We hung out and chilled for a little while.

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Back out to the main inlet, we proceeded north into Weller Pond, intending to head into the northwest corner, but first heading right to shore when we spotted a mess of dead branches along the shore. The Sven saws were assembled and we went to town cutting any good dry wood we could access. Footing was dicey thanks to a large assortment of boulders and slippery stumps someone had carelessly scattered along the shore during the last ice age, but we managed a decent haul.

We then headed into the northwestern corner, while Steve regaled me with stories of past camping adventures in this pond, including an impressive bachelor’s party the year he got married. Bart, who I think was there for all of them, embellished the stories as the opportunity arose.

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Spitting rain graduated into a decent shower by the time we got to our goal, and we changed into rain gear. Bart won the prize for brightest rain jacket. After a snack and some beer, we headed back out in a generally clockwise direction, stopping here and there to augment our wood supply, since we had plenty of room in the canoes. We dodged more showers all the way back to camp, and had to take some time to change into dryer, warmer clothes when we got back.

The other group didn’t get back until close to two hours later, also with firewood-filled canoes, and they regaled us with tales of snow on the peak of Ampersand. Evidently they experienced a three-minute blizzard while they were up there that instantly covered the rocks with a dusting of snow. They didn’t stay there long.

Supper was an awesome seafood chowder. And, of course, a lot of meat. And beer.

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The campfire that night was almost as impressive as the Impressive Flask that made a few circuits of the campfire ring. It was going good enough that we were able to throw on huge, knotty stumps.

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Temps fell into the twenties. That night, we spent some time on the north end of the island watching the clearing skies and listening to three barred owls arguing with each other.

Joe and I were the first ones up again. The lake was glassy and a nice classic Adirondack fog had set in. After a fortifying breakfast of bacon, coffee, and bacon, we packed up camp. By the time the boats were underway, the sun had burned though and we were about to enjoy the best day of the trip.

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We paddled easterly towards Bullrush Bay headed for the Saranac River and the Upper Locks. Along the way we saw a few Great Blue Herons and a mink. We all filed into the locks, which were unmanned. No one took the Class II sneak to the right. A couple Lock Apprentices got out and figured out how to operate the lock system so we could continue. We hung around for a while, snacking, drinking, and watching as the Lock Apprentices continued operating the locks for a few other boats.

Entering the River:
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View of Ampersand Mountain:
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Upper Locks:
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We didn’t go far before we diverted into Kelly Slough, just to take full advantage of a sunny day and a lot of time. Most of the group only went in a little way, but Steve and I went about as far as we could, with Steve even exploring up a ways past a beaver dam we came across. It was a nice side trip.

Back on the river, I introduced the group to the concept of The Muckle, where all of the boats are rafted together so we can just float along, drinking beers, snacking, and passing the Impressive Flask. It was during this muckle, I believe, that we killed The Flask, an impressive accomplishment itself. Over about a half an hour we floated about, maybe, ten feet. While it was tempting to just keep floating at that torrid pace, we decided it would be nice to get to camp.

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Onward we went, turning the corner past Pulpit Rock, and into Lower Saranac Lake. It was a much calmer day than the last time I had visited this fine lake, and we had a pleasant paddle, across the pond, past Bluff Island, and then thence north to our two campsites on Halfway Island. One site was located on a gorgeous lake with an awesome fire pit, but lousy tent sites. Steve perched his tent up on one of the ledges while the rest of us set up on the other, quite spacious site. The two sites were connected by a faint trail, and we anticipated it would be a tricky navigational challenge after a few beers. But we were up for the challenge.

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Tents were set up and boats were hauled up off got eh numerous rocks, and we got busy getting lazy.

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Steve’s campsite became the kitchen and living room, and we dove into munchies and beer, relaxing in our chairs on the sunny ledge. Heaven. We found a few dead and down (mostly) trees that would supply all the firewood we would need for the night. Dinner was a hearty serving of meat, beans, bread and potatoes. The stories and antics around the campfire kept us laughing for hours. A few brain cells were sacrificed for the cause. I saw things in the smoke.

Anyone else see Darth Vader in the smoke?
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All good things must come to an end, but fortunately the end took its time. When I got up, I saw that the lake was once again ensconced in a classic Adirondack fog, and decided to pack all of my stuff and make a circumnavigation of the island around to the kitchen-living room. It was great to spend time in the mist, on the glassy water, gliding past the rocky shorelines. All mornings should be so spent.

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I secured my boat to shore and went up to breakfast. Bacon, bacon, eggs and bacon. And coffee.

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After breakfast, and once the boats were packed, we decided to paddle around the south side of Burnt Island, and then down the west side of Bluff Island.

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By now there was a brisk breeze coming in from the west, but that didn’t stop us from declaring a brief Muckle. After entering First Pond, we just couldn’t yet bear to come into view of the Route 3 bridge, so we tucked into a cove for one last Muckle and one last beer.

Dana, Caleb, and me:
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One last beer, I made it a good one:
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It was a fine way to end an Epic trip.

I need one of those now. Bad.
 
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My primary reason for visiting this forum is for the adventure reporting our members provide. Your report, though somewhat late, has come at a time when it is greatly needed. Thank you for stimulating my tripacanis gland. I feel the paddling hormones beginning to regulate my behavior. I'll probably spend the rest of the day perusing maps in preparation for ice-out.
 
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Thanks for a great report and accompanying photos. It's been years since I was last in the Saranacs so it's nice to see they still look the same. One minor point just in case folks are trying to follow your route on a map; your group paddled onto Middle Saranac Lake at the beginning of your trip and not Upper Saranac. I know it may seem nit picky but they are definitely different bodies of water and separated by a half mile carry. I'm pretty sure most would have figured that out by reading the other locations in your report but just wanted to put that out there.

That's all for now. Take care and until next time...be well.

snapper
 
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You surely had an excellent trip on Middle and Lower Saranac Lakes, where I have paddled through many dozens of times. You do know that you can primitive camp for free in the vast majority of the Adirondacks, MSL and LSL in season being notable exceptions. The day after Columbus Day it becomes free there as well. You were lucky ending up with good weather for that time of year. Hope the paddles didn't mix with the alcohol too terribly much out there.

Just a typo nit I noticed in your description.... South Creek emerges into Middle Saranac Lake, not Upper as you typed. Getting into Upper Saranac Lake requires an easy half mile portage over Bartlett's Carry to the west (and campsites on USL are always free).
 
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Thanks for a great report and accompanying photos. It's been years since I was last in the Saranacs so it's nice to see they still look the same. One minor point just in case folks are trying to follow your route on a map; your group paddled onto Middle Saranac Lake at the beginning of your trip and not Upper Saranac. I know it may seem nit picky but they are definitely different bodies of water and separated by a half mile carry. I'm pretty sure most would have figured that out by reading the other locations in your report but just wanted to put that out there.

That's all for now. Take care and until next time...be well.

snapper

Thank you, Snapper! I see yknpdlr noticed the same thing. I knew that, but I must have been on Autopilot or something. I'll edit that.

And yes to yknpdlr, I was aware of the free camping, and that is usually what I do when up in the Adirondacks. In fact, the last time I was in the Saranac area, we paddled straight from Upper Saranac right through both Middle and Lower, as well as Second and First Pond to get to the next free site.

And speaking for myself, while perhaps not setting the best of examples by drinking and paddling at the same time, I am always aware of the dangers and always do so in moderation. Because aside from being unsafe, paddling drunk really sucks.

-rs
 
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