August 2017 - CANOEING & KAYAKING
Paddling the Oswegatchie River
By Rich Macha
The East or Main Branch of the Oswegatchie River is regarded by many seasoned trippers as one of the Northeast’s premier wilderness paddling destinations. Before the Oswegatchie flows into Cranberry Lake at Wanakena, it winds its way seemingly aimlessly for 20 miles through the Five Ponds Wilderness Area. While paddlers can get a taste of the river on a day trip, it is best explored over three or more days, especially if you plan to add-in some hiking along the way.
From NY Route 3 west of Cranberry Lake hamlet, it is a 3.2-mile drive on dirt Sunny Lake and Inlet roads to Inlet, which nowadays is just a grassy clearing where once a hotel stood. This Inlet is not to be confused with the Town of Inlet which is further south near Old Forge. From this hotel, guides would take their customers upriver to fish for trout, which were more plentiful then than they are now. In the early 1900s, there was much logging in the area and a railroad ran for a few miles upriver – the route of the old railroad is now a hiking trail. For some background of those times, read Man of the Woods by Herbert F. Keith, a colorful memoir of a young lad’s trip up the river with guide Wilfred Morrison.
If you arrive at Inlet late in the day, you can camp at the edge of the clearing, and get an early start the next morning. If you have an hour or two to paddle you can get to some very nice campsites on the river. In the 12 miles from Inlet to High Falls there are over 30 campsites including four lean-tos; some of the campsites are more desirable than others.
Above Inlet, the river is fairly wide for a while, meandering through boreal marsh and alder swamp, but slowly narrows as you get further upstream where the coniferous forest closes in. You can expect to have to go over some beaver dams, push or wade up some short class I rapids, and perhaps get past a log jam or two. Your experience can vary at different water levels.
Bee Bee Rapid is the first of the “rapids.” To avoid the rocks I find it best to stay to the right. Soon after, the paddler encounters the first beaver dam which is often breached and can be paddled in either direction. Early on, the river’s turns are gentle, but after making a left at Sam’s Curve the bends are sharper and more frequent. Straight of the Woods is the only really straight section before Griffin Rapids.
High Rock and campsite #41 are reached at 3.6 miles. There is a nice view from atop the rock, 25 feet above the river. After another 1.5 miles you reach Griffin Rapids. There may be a shallow rock or two but no real rapids. A lean-to (campsite #38) sits high up on the right bank.
If I have time and the lean-to is unoccupied, I like to stop and read the log book, hoping for some interesting tales written by previous adventurers. The Cage Lake Springhole Lean-To (aka Buck Brook Lean-To) is reached at 6.7miles. It is a lovely piney site. It is worth seeing how far up the brook you can paddle.
Continuing upriver, alders close in for a while before the shores become high and dry again. Tall white pines push upwards above mixed woods. You might have to paddle a bit harder to get up Ross Rapids, while watching out for rocks. The old logging railroad (now a hiking trail), came close to the left shore – guides used to pick up their mail here.
Wolf Pond Outlet is another feeder stream that can be paddled up a ways. Round Hill Rapids are reached at about the 10-mile mark. Consider yourself lucky, or good, if you can paddle up the swift current. You have the option to line-up (make sure you always have a few feet of rope tied to the bow of your canoe or kayak), carry past campsite #23, or pole up. The Oswegatchie lends itself well to the art of poling. I always forget to bring a pole and find that pushing off on rocks with a paddle is not very good for the paddle. Make sure you bring along a spare paddle. I’ve seen unfortunate folks go by with makeshift ones!
The trail to Five Ponds crosses the river via a footbridge at the top of Round Hill Rapids. I like to camp in this area so that I can take a hike to the ponds and beyond. It is a two-mile hike to the lean-to at Big Shallow Pond. The first mile experienced a lot of blowdown during the windstorm of 1995 – I did hike it shortly after the storm before the trail was cleared. Clambering over and under downed trees, and trying to keep track of the trail, was quite challenging. An esker blocked the wind over the second mile of trail and there was very little blowdown. I once saw a bear when I explored an unmarked path that leads to Wolf Creek – it quickly ran across the creek and disappeared in the woods once it detected me.
Campsite #22 is unusually flat as it once was the site of Walter Moore’s (lumber) Camp. A spring can be found nearby. High Falls is two more miles upriver. Crooked Rapids may have to be lined up and there are likely some beaver dams to lift over en route. Moss Rock is seen on the right as it rises over 10 feet above a bend in the river.
High Falls drops just 15 feet, but does so in a fairly spectacular fashion over a large rocky area. You will want to linger here awhile. Folks who are continuing upriver will carry 350 yards on the left. The lean-to on this side of the river is very popular, as it can also be reached by hikers, as well as paddlers. The lean-to on the other side of the river is most easily reached by boat and thus sees less use. The river and falls cannot be seen from either lean-to.
Intrepid paddlers who continue past High Falls will encounter many beaver dams and some blockages. Camp Johnny (#11) is a desirable campsite, despite some artifacts that lie about the vicinity. Deer Camp gets some use, but other designated campsites are growing in due to lack of use. The Headwaters Carry is reached at about five miles above High Falls, at a spot named amusingly Beaverdam – this is the three-mile carry between the Oswegatchie and Lows Lake via Big Deer Pond. On a couple of occasions, I’ve gone about two miles above Beaverdam to where it is unclear where the river is, and into an area where beaver dams create ponds above them. You do get the feeling that you’re in the middle of nowhere!
In high water, I have done the trip downstream from High Falls to Inlet in less than four hours, but most times I take my time to make some stops and detours along the way. The Five Ponds Wilderness is about as remote an area as you will find in New York State. One negative is that on many days the peacefulness is disturbed by an hour or two of the sound of military training flights overhead. The positives, however, far outweigh the negatives and the Oswegatchie will continue to offer its delights to the wilderness paddler.
A lover of wild places, Rich Macha (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Schenectady has led many trips for the Adirondack Mountain Club and has spent 20 years in the paddlesport business.