"On a warm November night, would you offer your ear to the loon….? "
Saranac “Ice-In” Paddle Trip Nov. 13-15, 2009
an Adirondack Mountain Club outing
Way back in “Ought-seven”, I paddled onto the Adirondack’s Middle Saranac Lake in mid-November and camped for 2 nights. That year, it was very cold with some snow on the ground, but there was no ice when I launched. The trip was inspired by an article I read in “Boundary Waters Journal”, the magazine of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in which some men sought out the exact weekend in which the lakes would freeze, then took a long canoe trip in Minnesota lake country. Those paddlers found themselves deep into the wilderness when they HEARD the lake freezing and had to start out late at night to avoid getting trapped by ice too thick to paddle on, and too thin to walk on. I wasn’t going to do quite that, but 2 years ago, I did have to use my “bail-out” route and carry all my gear over a half-mile trail instead of paddling up the then-frozen creek I used for access to Middle Saranac Lake.
Fast-forward to 2009. In September, while considering outings I might lead for the Adirondack Mountain Club, I decided to reprise that trip, but wanted to share the fun. I announced a mid-November “Ice-In” paddle trip, and Joe R. jumped on board enthusiastically. A couple weeks later, Manon P. and Bill T. joined up, and we had a good-sized group going (all the better to break ice with, my dear…). The focus would be on paddling and eating, with the latter taking the lead if we had too much ice. I monitored weather forecasts for the Tupper Lake-Saranac Lake area, with AccuWeather and NOAA disagreeing on overnight low temps, because a warm air mass was slowly moving north into Adirondack lake country. Overnight lows in the teens would be enough to form some ice, but daytime highs in the 40s and even 50s, would likely melt that each day. Our weekend forecast was for rain and unseasonably warm temperatures - quite different than I had expected and hoped for. Just 3 days before our trip, Joe’s brother-in-law, Magilla (Buffalo firefighter, actor, and Great Lakes surfer), passed away, so Joe’s family duties required him to remain in western New York.
Early Friday morning, after a much-needed stop at one of our local Tim Horton’s, three of us hit the road under clear skies, arriving at the South Creek launch site on Route 3 in early afternoon. We were quite pleased (at least I was) to see ice across most of the creek, with pockets of open water interspersed along the way. We checked the thickness of the ice by tossing rocks onto it, and the rocks bounced off. Then we poked at it with our feet and were able to break though, so we decided that we would proceed with our plan to paddle down the creek to the lake. The weather forecast indicated warmer temps and rain for the weekend, so no more ice would be forming anywhere… we hoped! We unpacked the cars and dropped our boats into the water to begin loading. Manon had her Bell Yellowstone solo canoe, Bill had a beautiful “stripper” Adirondack guideboat that he built himself, and I had my red Wenonah Solitude solo canoe.
Moments before we arrived at the launch, a lady had pulled up in her vehicle and began setting up an easel to draw or paint that scene. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the artist took a group picture for us as we stood proudly by our boats with the all the optimism that a moment like that is capable of having. We finished loading and set out onto the hard surface of the creek. Bill took the lead and crunched his way forward, breaking a path through the ice for Manon and me with his sturdy wooden boat and long wooden double-bladed paddle. We still had to punch through the ice in order to put our paddles into the water, but it wasn’t hard to do - it was actually fun! When we reached the lake, there was no ice at all and paddling was easy. Once out of the narrow creek, Bill turned his boat around and began using his wooden oars to row across the lake. We heard a loon, seemingly welcoming us onto it’s lake. Based on several previous trips on Middle Saranac Lake, I had chosen a lean-to on the far eastern shore as our destination. Site #63 is a small, beautifully situated lean-to that I had camped in back in the late 90s when I did a 7-day solo trip through that part of the Adirondacks. We cruised off-shore and found our site by the bull rushes at the point where the Saranac River flows out of Middle Saranac Lake. It was just as I had remembered it - a nice lean-to, beautiful open woods, a high forest canopy, and a large rock on the shore where I had watched a sunset turn into a dark starry night many years ago. I think Manon and Bill liked the site as much as I did, and we began carrying gear into the shelter. The first order of business was to string up a cover to protect the picnic table, so I set up my big green tarp. Because the weather forecast predicted freezing rain at night, I also hung a small tarp in front of the lean-to to keep out wind-blown rain and wind, and to provide a space where we could huddle around the small propane heater that I brought (it turned out that the weather was milder than predicted, and we never used the heater). We each took control of a different aspect of our camp, and soon, we had a kitchen set up and enough wood for a small fire (branches gathered in the woods), ready for a match. Curiously, 2 large, seemingly healthy trees (1 to 1 ½-foot diameter) that had stood immediately behind the lean-to, had been cut down and sawn into 2-foot logs that were stacked on site. Bill walked to an adjacent site and saw a similar curious pile of logs. It seems like such a travesty to mow down those trees merely for firewood. Later, we would stop on an island campsite and see more cut and stacked trees. I found that to be disturbing, but welcome an explanation and justification of the practice.
That night, we had hearty soup (actually an accidental combo of soup and chili), followed by brownies and biscuits that Manon and Bill baked in a reflector oven. Bill hung a bear bag, Manon had her big canoe barrel, and I had my Ursack and Bear Vault food canister stashed in the trees up the hill behind the lean-to. The temperature was warm enough, so we all sat close to the fire that night, eating, drinking, telling tales, and looking up at the billions and billions of stars that twinkled above in the clear night sky.
When we woke up Saturday morning, it was a beautiful day - warm (for November), cloudy, but no rain. We boiled water and had our breakfast - Manon made “Cowboy coffee”. A power boat sped past and went between the colored navigation buoys and into the river. Just as we were gathering our gear to begin paddling, a light rain began. The rain stayed with us all day, except for one short interval. We paddled down the Saranac River and soon were approaching the upper lock. In summer, the lock is staffed by college students who operate it for all the passing boaters and paddlers. In November, it’s a fun do-it-yourself lock; large signs tell you exactly what to do. We could have carried or dragged our boats 100 feet to the lower river surface, but we wanted the fun of operating a lock. Manon and Bill worked the levers and pushed the gates closed, then opened the lower gates after the water level evened out. It took only a minute or two for the lock to adjust for the 2-foot difference. We walked our boats out of the lock and stepped back in. Continuing down the river, we soon entered a wide section, then passed through a narrows by a vacant lean-to, and were finally on Lower Saranac Lake. Bill saw a deer on the shore. Our objective Saturday was just to paddle and do some sightseeing, so we headed north along the shore into Boot Bay. There were small power boats (fishing boats) at 3 or 4 campsites, and as we paddled/rowed past one of the sites, we heard someone let out a loud “whoop!” immediately followed by a gun shot. Not wanting to discover whether that gunplay was recreational or a warning to us, we kept on going, got away from the hunters, and regained our tranquility while floating past the many islands that dot the lake. We worked our way around and between the islands as a light rain continued to fall. Small air bubbles dotted the surface of the lake, but the rain didn’t bother us. About half-way down the lake, we made a grand turn toward the south shore and headed back to the river. I made sure we passed by Bluff Island with its 30-foot high cliffs that are great for jumping or diving, if you are so inclined. None of us wanted to go for a swim, so we kept moving. When we approached the narrows again, we took a break in the vacant lean-to. After resting, we paddled and rowed back up the river. A large bird flew overhead, and we realized that it was a Bald Eagle. Immediately after the fly-over, the rain stopped! …. for about 5 minutes, then resumed, creating little bubbles all across the surface of the water. We walked our boats into the lock, locked through again, and arrived at camp with a couple hours of daylight remaining. Dinner that night would feature little potatoes that Jane bought for me to share. Anything resembling cooking is a big deal for me, but I safely boiled the little spuds, drained the water, added butter, salt, and pepper, and it was good! Of course, we combined that with other food we each had, and made a great meal of it. The light rain stopped, Bill built another small campfire, and we enjoyed that while I finished off the remaining beer that I had brought along. I slept well.
By morning, the rain was gone. Mild temperatures remained, along with a heavy overcast that filled the sky with brooding clouds. When we got up Sunday, we were so full from our good supper that none of us was particularly interested in breakfast. After slowly and reluctantly breaking camp and packing all our gear, we loaded the boats and launched off the sandy beach that was covered by thick piles of wind-blown pine needles. Bill led the way as Manon and I paddled in single file. Just before we entered the ice-less South Creek, one of the loons gave us a final tremolo serenade, providing the perfect end to the perfect Adirondack weekend.
(Note: The opening line is a paraphrase from Meatloaf’s classic song, “ You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth”.)