April 2017 - CANOEING, KAYAKING & SUP
Paddling Forked Lake
Bears, Blackflies and Bass
By Rich Macha
Despite one Memorial Day weekend when I truly believed that Forked Lake just had to be blackfly HQ, I have fond memories of several outings on this moderately-sized body of water in the central Adirondacks. I have paddled Forked (pronounced fork-ed) as early as April 28, when nearby Blue Mountain Lake still had some ice on it, and as late as November 15. Ease of access, miles of undeveloped shoreline, and minimal motorized use make Forked Lake an attractive destination for both the day paddler as well as the canoe or kayak camper.
Shaped sort of like an upside down T, the main length of the 4.5-mile-long lake averages about a quarter mile in width. The northern arm extends another two miles. The Raquette River enters the lake from the south, and exits the lake’s east end, where a dam maintains the water level here and at Little Forked Lake. Forked Lake State Campground is located around this eastern end.
The campsites at the state campground can be reserved ahead of time and each has a fire pit, a picnic table, an outhouse, and a metal bear-proof container for storing food items. Most campsites have paddle-in or walk-in access. For many years the campground was well-known for its scavenging bears, but the reputation has since been diminished somewhat since the installation of these bear-proof containers.
For the 2017 season, Forked Lake Campground is open from May 19 through September 17, however the access road leading to the boat launching area is open before and after those dates – but not in winter. The boat launch is only conducive to the launching of small boats and hence you see very few motorboats out on the lake, usually just folks out fishing for brook trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bullhead, yellow perch or pan fish. For the purposes of this article, we will begin our journey here, circumnavigating the lake in a clockwise direction. Expect to pay a day use fee if you are not camping here.
Exiting the launch area, you have to keep an eye out for shallow rocks, and a mild current might be felt as water funnels toward the dam. Paddling along the south shore, several numbered campsites are passed, the last one being #63. After about 1.5 miles there is a lean-to, which is outside the confines of the state campground, and is available on a first-come first-served basis. Primitive camping rules apply – a stay of more than three nights and groups of over nine people, regardless of length of stay, must obtain a permit from the ranger.
Soon after the lean-to, the Raquette River enters from the south. The river is fairly wide but slowly narrows as you paddle upstream. In under one-mile, the paddler encounters a minefield of rocks, and the current becomes noticeable. Whether you continue around the next couple of bends depends on your skill, and your desire to reach a scenic spot at the foot of rocky rapids.
Returning to the lake, we continue west along the cedar-lined shore – perhaps, if you are lucky like I was, you will spot a large snapping turtle sunning itself on a rock. In summer, families of common mergansers are often seen near shore; in spring, the handsome males stand out in their breeding plumage. Hooded merganser males are also more noticeable in spring. About three miles from the boat launch you will see an old concrete dock and sandy beach, which is the only other access point on the lake. It also functions as the half-mile carry between Raquette and Forked lakes, part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail that stretches from Old Forge in New York to Fort Kent in Maine.
I find the west end of the lake the most interesting. A few primitive campsites are found on state land on the south and north shores. Brandreth Lake Outlet enters the lake amidst a wide boggy area and a paddle upstream is highly recommended. Look for northern harriers (marsh hawks) patrolling the wetlands by day and whitetail deer bounding through at dusk. After a few bends you will undoubtedly reach a beaver dam or two that might need to be lifted over. Last time through, I also encountered a small log jam that I had to portage 20 feet to get past. The stream narrows and shores are drier as you push upstream. Pilgrim Mountain stands out to the north and old-growth white pines tower above the valley.
When water levels cooperated, I have made it up Brandreth Lake Outlet for two miles as-the-crow-flies – perhaps over three river miles – turning around at an old logging bridge below the foot of a rocky area. This journey includes a 50-foot carry around a small rapid, plus more beaver dam lift-overs.
Back at the lake and now heading east, there are several primitive campsites along the north shore – stop here and hope to watch loons dive for their sustenance. If you camp, make sure you hang up your food in a bear-bag, 15 feet above the ground, or use a bear-proof canister. This is the only place I have ever encountered a bear in camp – one of my fellow campers had left a bag of chips in a cooler, and the bear eyed it for a few minutes before our pot-banging discouraged it, and it sauntered off. A few minutes later, the folks at the next campsite were heard banging their pots and pans!
State land ends just east of the primitive campsites. In fact, most of the north shore as well as all of the northern arm of the lake have private shores, so landing is not permissible. After rounding Squirrel Point, there is an interesting bay to explore – I once saw a bear walking the shoreline of this bay – are you noticing a certain theme here?
Before my first-ever visit to Forked Lake, I studied the maps and the thought of going up the channel, and into Little Forked Lake was enticing. Unfortunately, the reality is that all of Little Forked, and some of Forked are within the private Whitney Park – the channel between the lakes is blocked with a fence and “No Trespassing” signs are abundant. On a recent mid-November paddle, a family of otters “guarded” the channel entrance ahead of the fence. The loons we saw were in winter plumage. Loons nest in this area, so please keep your distance and observe from afar – binoculars are useful if you desire a closer look.
On the east side of the northern arm are some Adirondack-style camps, Whitney Park’s Camp Deerland and Camp Killoqush, the only development on the lake outside of the state campground.
Blue Mountain comes into view after we round a point, and paddle east on the main part of the lake. The shoreline is private for two more miles until you reach the east side of Plumley Bay, and campsite #62 of the state campground, although you might find it worth your while to poke into some coves or circumnavigate an island along the way. After passing several more campsites you can paddle into North Bay – the island campsites you pass are very desirable and are likely to be reserved well in advance – I had no trouble getting one in late April though. Actually, my friend and I pretty much had the whole lake to ourselves for two days during that time.
North Bay Stream enters the bay at its northern end and is worth exploration – I slid over a beaver dam and lifted over another before turning back. Look for the fire tower on Owl’s Head as you are heading upstream. From North Bay it is not far back to the boat launch. If you have traveled all of the above then you have gone over 20 miles!
Forked Lake Campground can be reached by leaving state routes 28N and 30 at Deerland and driving southwest on County Roads 3 (North Point Rd) and 20 (Forked Lake Campsite Lane) to the east shore of Forked Lake. For the alternate put-in on the south shore, drive 8.7 miles down North Point Road, then take a right on a gravel road and drive to its end.
Rich Macha (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an avid backcountry skier and paddler who enjoys exploring the wild places of New York State. Rich has spent many years in the outdoors business and has led many trips for the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Albany Chapter.