April 2018 - KAYAKING & CANOEING
Adirondack Springtime Paddling - The Pros and Cons
By Rich Macha
In early May 2013, I was hoping to go to Cedar River Flow for an overnighter but I found out that the unpaved Cedar River Road was closed for at least a few more days so I decided to head to Little Tupper Lake instead. We had gorgeous sunny weather with temperatures in the mid-70s and we had our pick of campsites. There were a few blackflies about but there really was no need for protection from them – they don’t usually become a problem until the second half of May. A couple of us went swimming from the campsite – a shallow lake such as Little Tupper warms up faster than a deep lake and so the surface water was surprisingly warmer than normal for this time of year.
One week later, three of us headed for Lake Lila. The gate at the beginning of the 5.7-mile access road had just been opened a few days earlier. Chilly winds gusted up to 30mph on both days and the waves rose up to two feet. We managed to reach a very desirable island campsite by making short dashes across open water and by ducking behind islands and points of land where we would take a breather and survey the situation before making our next dash. Freshly-fallen snow coated the ground as we exited our tents on Monday morning and ice pellet showers fell by day as we explored Shingle Shanty Brook – we did occasionally see the sun though. We saw no bugs and no other people for the two days – it was a memorable trip and what a difference from the week before!
Such are the vagaries of spring weather in the Adirondacks so it is wise to keep your winter clothes handy. Frankly, I still enjoy touring the Adirondacks on skis during the month of April but my thoughts do dwell on that first canoe or kayak camping trip of the season which usually ends up taking place in late April. Here are some things that need to be considered before heading out.
For hikers, spring means mud; for paddlers, spring brings open water. Ice-out on lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks usually occurs around mid to late April – I have seen ice on Blue Mountain Lake in early May. The ice tends to leave the streams and rivers sooner than on the lakes and ponds, so a river trip such as on the Raquette River becomes a good early option – there are lots of nice campsites and lean-tos in the stretch between Raquette Falls and Tupper Lake and there are good put-ins at “The Crusher” and Axton Landing. In the southern Adirondacks, Fall Stream is an excellent early season option.
Destinations that require driving on gated unimproved roads may not be reachable until sometime in May. Examples include the Essex Chain Lakes, Lake Lila, Bog River Flow and Boreas Ponds. My best guesses as to when these will be opened up are: late May for the Essex Chain, early May for Boreas Ponds and Lows Lower Dam on the Bog River, and before Mother’s Day for Lake Lila. You can check NYSDEC’s website (dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7865.html) to see if specific gates have been opened. This site is updated by late Thursday on a weekly basis. Higher spring water levels make an alternate access to the Bog River, the outlet of Horseshoe Lake, a worthy and fun option.
Backcountry campsites in the Adirondacks are available year-round. Most DEC campgrounds open on May 18 and this year before that date you can camp for free at places like Indian Lake and the Saranac Lakes. A trip through Middle Saranac Lake to Weller and Little Weller Ponds is an old favorite. Motorized lakes are much more peaceful in the spring so I may consider paddling some lakes that I might normally avoid in summer.
Are you prepared for a possible capsize in 40-degree water? Incapacitation and death can come rapidly if you fall in so, at a minimum, wear a PFD (personal flotation device, aka life vest) and avoid wearing cotton clothing. New York State law requires that paddlers wear a PFD from November 1 through May 1 as water temperatures in May are still very low. I believe that period should be extended through at least June 1. Wearing a drysuit or wetsuit can add an extra level of safety and always make sure you have a warm change of clothes in a dry bag with you, just in case.
It is best to avoid larger lakes on windy days and to stay close to shore even if it means going the long way around a body of water. There is always more to see near shore anyways. The ponds of the St. Regis Canoe Area, as well as Fish Creek and the ponds south of Floodwood Road, make for good springtime paddling destinations.
FAUNA AND FLORA
One of the good reasons to be out in the woods in springtime is to observe the emergence of spring ephemerals, wildflowers such as trilliums, trout lilies and spring beauties. The bell-like flowers of leatherleaf can often be seen along the shores of streams. Shrubs and trees like hobblebush and shadblow produce lovely white flowers and flowering maples add a subtle red hue to the woods. Emergent light green leaves of deciduous trees contrast with the darker green of the conifers on the mountainsides.
Loons wail while white-throated sparrows whistle their “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” along the shoreline. The symphony continues with the sounds of grouse drumming, woodpeckers tapping and spring peepers chirping as if in a minimalist composition. Male mergansers, both common and hooded, look handsome in their breeding plumage. It is easier to spot a deer, a bear or even a moose in the leafless spring woods. Last year, on Garnet Lake, I got to watch a mink repeatedly go in and out of the water at the edge of my campsite. I just sat there just 20 feet away and enjoyed the show.
When it comes to spring paddling, cold water and potentially cool air temperatures are the cons but these are greatly outweighed by the pros: fewer people, no bad bugs and the vibrancy of nature coming alive – so enjoy it while you can and let’s be thankful that New York State has many quiet waters for us to explore.
A lover of wild places, Rich Macha has led many trips for the Adirondack Mountain Club and has spent 20 years in the paddlesport business.