Within three hours of leaving Burlington, I had cast my Old Town canoe off the shores of Lower St. Regis Lake and embarked upon one of the Adirondack’s most famous waterborne routes: the Seven Carries Trip.
My mission? To expand my horizons beyond the Winooski and Lamoille and find the perfect Adirondack voyage for the Vermont weekend warrior.
Behind me stood the faux-rustic architecture of Paul Smith’s College, whose dormitories and dining halls self-consciously aped the Great Camp style of the Gilded Age. Ahead of me, across the rippling water, appeared a perfectly varnished Adirondack guide boat piloted by a small, fit old man.
“Hello!” the man called when our paths finally crossed.
“Hello!” I replied.
Having said all there is to say to a stranger on the water, we both observed a brief silence as he continued rowing toward Paul Smith’s and I paddled on toward the opposite shore.
“There’s a bald eagle,” the man said as the distance between our boats grew.
“Do you know these waters?” he said with a look of disdain.
“No, not really,” I admitted.
“There’s a river that connects two lakes,” he said.
That much I knew. My route had me paddling from Lower St. Regis south to Spitfire Lake and on to Upper St. Regis Lake — each body of water nominally separated by narrow channels — before I would portage into the St. Regis Canoe Wilderness.
“He’s in there,” the man continued, nodding toward the first of these channels. “You’ll see him.”
Sure enough, as the open waters of the lake gave way to a shallow maze of reeds and lily pads, a white-headed bird appeared above the spruce-fir canopy lining the starboard shore. Its wings outstretched, the eagle charted a course opposite mine, soaring in the direction of Paul Smith’s — or perhaps toward the gentleman in the guide boat.
Already, my brief journey to the Adirondacks was worth the drive.
“I’ve tried to paddle in Vermont,” says Grace McDonnell. “But I’ve got to say, the Adirondacks are much better.”
For 25 years, McDonnell and her husband, Brian, have operated MAC’S Canoe Livery near the southern terminus of the Seven Carries Trip in Lake Clear, N.Y. From there they rent boats to out-of-towners like me and shuttle clients’ cars from one end of a trip to the other.
“When you come to the Adirondacks, you are in lake country. There are thousands of bodies of water accessible with portages, which is something you don’t get in New Hampshire and Vermont. And a lot of it is quiet water,” McDonnell says. “I hesitate to call it a ‘wilderness experience,’ because we’re not talking Alaska here. But these are quick immersion trips — and you’re not going to see a lot of people right on top of you.”
Indeed, after parting ways with the eagle whisperer, I wouldn’t hear another voice, save that of a loon, until the following day.
That’s not to say I was deep within the untrammeled wilderness. Far from it.
When I emerged from the marshy slough into Spitfire Lake, I found myself in the thick of old-money America. Nestled inconspicuously in the trees were great palaces of studied modesty, still championing the mores of the Adirondacks’ patrician past.
On the northern shore stood one particularly expansive “camp,” whose cabins were connected to one another, and to a boathouse, by a covered bridge evoking the Swiss Family Robinson. On a porch in front of one of the cabins, high above the water, an old woman dozed in a rocking chair.
I lingered for a moment below, halfheartedly hoping someone would notice me and invite me in to chomp on a cigar and survey the grounds.
At the turn of the 19th century, these lakes were populated by Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Morgans. They were drawn to the area by the legendary hospitality of Paul Smith, a Vermont-born woodsman-turned-entrepreneur who in 1859 built a hotel that would play host to presidents by the name of Harrison, Cleveland, Roosevelt and Coolidge.
One by one, Smith sold his guests parcels of the 30,000 acres he’d collected nearby — and then sold them the lumber to build their own camps.
“Paul Smith’s woodland resort is rather a high-toned institution — a sort of sylvan Long Branch; a forest Newport,” wrote George Washington Sears, one of the Adirondacks’ early literary lights, in a letter to Field & Stream in 1883.
At the time, the Seven Carries Trip linked Paul Smith’s Hotel to the Saranac Inn, 10 miles by water to the south. Wealthy “sports” would typically hire a guide to row them and their duffel from one hotel to the other. The help also carried guide boat and gear along the portage paths between lakes.
But Sears, who went by the pen name “Nessmuk,” was ahead of — or behind — the times. At the age of 61, the diminutive writer paddled 266 miles of lakes and rivers from the southwestern corner of what would become the Adirondack Park to Paul Smith’s and back — all under his own power in a 10.5-pound canoe called the Sairy Gamp.
Nessmuk’s letters contributed to the late-19th-century Adirondack boom, but their greater legacy was to popularize modern, guide-free, wilderness canoeing.
“The Adirondacks have such a deep history going back to the turn of the century, not only using paddling as a means of transportation, but just as a means of recreation and enjoyment,” says Walter Opuszynski, trail director of the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
For a couple more miles, I traced Nessmuk’s route south toward Upper St. Regis Lake. Ahead of the next slough, I passed tiny Rabbit Island, where Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau conducted tuberculosis research on a colony of floppy-eared Leporidae subjects. Fearing infection, I declined to disembark and inspect the bronze tablet erected in his — and their — honor.
At the southern shore of Upper St. Regis, I reached the end of my Gilded Age tour and the beginning of the carries from which the route draws its name.
Fearing long slogs from lake to lake, I’d packed light, but the woodland walk to Bog Pond hardly qualified as a portage. Just 150 feet separated one body of water from the next. I regretted not packing a cooler of beer.
Bog Pond was more puddle than pond. Before I’d paddled a dozen strokes through its marshy channel, I’d reached the other side. One by one, I crossed Bear Pond, Little Long Pond and Green Pond — each feeling slightly more remote than the last. The sounds of carpentry and motorboats that had occasionally pierced the stillness of the St. Regis chain now dissipated entirely.
To Mike Lynch, an outdoor writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, it’s this easily attainable variety of experiences that makes the region unique.
“You have areas where you can pond-hop and go brook trout fishing. There’s rivers you can paddle down to go to waterfalls. There’s big lakes where you can take big, long day trips and visit islands,” Lynch says. “I could do a different thing pretty much every day of the week in a boat. And there’s so much paddling here that, if you want to, you can find areas where there aren’t other people and have the place to yourself.”
The 5.9-million-acre Adirondack Park owes its variety as much to its patchwork land-management rules as it does to differences in topography, hydrology and dendrology. Just 43 percent of the land within the park’s boundaries is owned by the state, and a little less than half of that is designated as wilderness.
With the portage to Little Long Pond, I’d entered one of the most protected sections of the park, the 18,400-acre St. Regis Canoe Wilderness. Largely purchased by the state in 1898, these lands are no longer logged and are free of motorized vehicles.
Only a few hours had elapsed by the time I reached St. Regis Pond, the penultimate body of water on my route. The Seven Carries Trip is just 10 miles long and can easily be completed in a day, but I’d budgeted a day and a half, so I resolved to set up camp and take it easy.
Adirondacks Lakes and Trails Outfitters manager Jason Smith calls St. Regis Pond “the heart of the Seven Carries” — and for good reason. At 400 acres, it’s really more of a lake — one that’s renowned for trout fishing. Lined by spruce, balsam and white pine, it boasts four islands, one of which I called home for the night.
Not long after I beached my canoe, pitched my tent and cooked dinner, the low, gray clouds that had lingered overhead all day let loose a light drizzle. I responded by fixing myself a canoeist’s cocktail of hot chocolate and whiskey and sipped it on a rock at the foot of the island.
As a solitary loon cackled in the distance, I hummed an improvised tune to a couplet Nessmuk penned at the start of his first Adirondack letter of August 1880, soon after acquiring his first custom-built J.H. Rushton canoe.
“She’s all my fancy painted her, she’s lovely, she is light,” he wrote. “She waltzes on the waves by day and rests with me at night.”
After breaking camp the next morning, I took an extraneous paddle to the western end of St. Regis Pond and jogged the portage trail to Ochre Pond, leaving my canoe and belongings behind.
On the path I once more encountered humanity, if you can call it that: a gaggle of teenage boys, who seemed too busy complaining about the carry and the bugs to notice me. Exhibiting a dearth of portaging prowess, the gangliest among them found his forward momentum halted when the paddle he’d tied horizontally to his backpack became lodged between two trees.
Back on St. Regis Pond, I paddled south to the longest carry of the trip: a measly 0.6-mile stroll to Little Clear Pond, which features a state fish hatchery, a ban on camping and fishing, and a correspondingly healthy population of loons. By the time I reached the parking lot and the conclusion of my paddle, some half dozen of the submerged, flightless birds had crossed my bow.
The wise canoeist stages a second car at the end of his paddle, or hires an outfit such as MAC’s Canoe Livery to shuttle him back to his car, but I always like a good hitch. So I stashed my gear under my canoe at the side of the pond and stuck out a thumb on Route 3, the scenic east-west Adirondack corridor known as the “Olympic Byway.”
Twenty minutes later, a real estate agent pulled over and drove me to the next intersection, halfway to my destination — but my second hitch was long in coming. Finally, a gray Honda Civic came to a screeching halt just before a bridge. Its driver was a robust woman with short gray hair. She was wearing a T-shirt, basketball shorts and a white bandana.
“My name’s Sister Carol,” she said, explaining that she’d picked me up because I, too, was wearing a bandana.
Sister Carol careened down the road with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a glass of iced coffee. Country-western music played on the radio and a figurine of St. Francis was glued to the dashboard.
A former Catholic schoolteacher, the Adirondack nun was now assigned to the Catholic Churches of the Mountains and Lakes. She spent her days, she said, taking her congregants on errands and looking after the parish’s four churches.
And canoeing — ever since one churchgoer, Mr. Carillon, passed away and bequeathed to her his canoe.
When we reached Paul Smith’s College, where I’d left my car the previous day, Sister Carol veered across the road and pulled off on the opposite shoulder. I thanked her for the ride and got out of the car.
“Wait!” she said. “You forgot your tip!”
Sister Carol picked up a bowl from the console and extended it toward the passenger-side window.
“Have a strawberry!” she said.
All photos by Paul Heintz.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Paddle Power"
What is it? A one- or two-day flat-water trip along a chain of small lakes and ponds in the St. Regis Canoe Wilderness.
Portages: Despite the route’s name, only six. Three of them are just 100 to 150 feet. Longest carry is 0.6 miles from St. Regis to Little Clear Pond.
Route: Put in at Paul Smith’s College and paddle south through the St. Regis lakes to a series of smaller ponds. Spend the night on Little Long Pond or St. Regis Pond. After portaging to Little Clear Pond, take a shuttle back to Paul Smith’s (or leave a second car).
Why you should paddle it: Seven Carries provides the best of both worlds: Gilded Age splendor and protected wilderness. And, according to MAC’s Canoe Livery co-owner Grace McDonnell, “It doesn’t get too busy in the summer. I think the carries kind of scare people off.” But not her. “I have spent 10 days back in the Seven Carries area, but my ambition was not to travel. My ambition was to fish.”
What is it? A three-day trip through some of the Adirondacks’ best-known big lakes. Ends in Saranac Lake Village.
Mileage: 25 to 30
Portages: One half-mile carry from Upper Saranac to Middle Saranac Lake. Plus two lock systems between lakes that will make you feel like you’re on a canal.
Route: Put in at the Saranac Inn and spend the day paddling south on Upper Saranac Lake, past sprawling Great Camps. After portaging a half mile to Middle Saranac Lake, enjoy the protected shoreline and the views south to the High Peaks. (Consider extending your trip with a seven-mile round-trip hike up Ampersand Mountain.) A two-mile meander down the Saranac River will lead you to Lower Saranac Lake, which is filled with island campsites (which must be reserved in advance). A short jaunt on Oseetah Lake will lead you to Lake Flower and downtown Saranac Lake Village.
Why you should paddle it: The sixth-largest lake in the Adirondacks, Upper Saranac offers endless diversions to the exploring paddler, while Middle Saranac is blissfully devoid of distraction. “Some people like it because it’s a route of minimum carries,” says Adirondacks Lakes and Trails Outfitters manager Jason Smith. But watch out: When the wind is blowing, swells can easily capsize even the sturdiest paddler.
What is it? A two-day trip mixing the wide-open Long Lake and the meandering, protected Raquette River.
Portages: One tough, 1.3-mile carry around Raquette Falls.
Route: Put in at the boat launch in Long Lake Village. Paddle 10 miles northeast on Long Lake and camp where it flows into the Raquette River. Enjoy a leisurely paddle downstream to the takeout at Axton Landing — broken up only by a portage around the raging Raquette Falls. Note: You can add another 20 miles to your trip by paddling all the way to the town of Tupper Lake.
Why you should paddle it: The meandering Raquette River is chock-full of wildlife and includes a rare silver-maple swamp. The ragged portage around Raquette Falls is a hassle, but the falls itself is worth a look. “When you’re in there, you don’t see anything,” says Walter Opuszynski, trail director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. “It’s just you and the woods.”
What is it? A mellow, one- to two-day trip into the St. Regis Canoe Wilderness with a rewarding hike included.
Portages: Three or four, ranging from 75 feet to a third of a mile.
Route: Put in at Hoel Pond Landing and paddle through Turtle and Slang ponds to Long Pond. Hop out at the northwest corner of the pond and hike 3.2 miles round-trip up Long Pond Mountain. Take out at Long Pond Landing or turn around and head back to Hoel.
Why you should paddle it: From the summit of Long Pond Mountain, says Adirondack Daily Enterprise reporter Mike Lynch, “You can see all the ponds and lakes in the area.” Adds McDonnell of MAC’s Canoe Livery, “It’s good for multiple generations, multiple abilities.”
What is it? A one- to two-day trip down the swift-flowing river that drains the northeastern Adirondacks into Lake Champlain.
Mileage: 12 to 21
Portages: Zero to two, depending on how far you go and whether you brave Permanent Rapids.
Route: Put in at Saranac Lake Village and head downstream. In 10 miles, you’ll reach the mostly Class II Permanent Rapids, which extend for 1.2 miles. Either push through or portage around the rapids to the left of the river. Take out at Franklin Falls (12 miles total) or portage 1.3 miles around the dam and paddle on to Union Falls Dam (21 miles total).
Why you should paddle it: It’s closer to Burlington than most Adirondack trips and features plenty of easy river paddling. Permanent Rapids “is a good beginner stretch if you’re challenging yourself,” Opuszynski says — but be sure to bring dry bags and wear a personal flotation device.
Adirondack Paddler’s Guide
Dave Cilley, Paddlesports Press. This 215-page book is the holy grail of Adirondack canoeing guides. With dozens of detailed routes and maps, it’s the only book you need to plan your next trip to the park.
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail Official Guidebook
Mountaineer Books. This 302-page guide to the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail provides route information for the 140 miles of the trail that pass through New York — not to mention sections in Vermont, Québec, New Hampshire and Maine.
Adirondack Paddler’s Map
Paddlesports Press. This full-color topographical map covers the Saranac Lakes, St. Regis Wilderness, Santa Clara Tract, Five Ponds Wilderness, Whitney Wilderness, Raquette River and Cranberry Lake Wild Forest.
Northern Forest Canoe Trail Maps 1-3
Mountaineer Books. These detailed maps provide notes on campsites, portage routes, rapids and landmarks along the NFCT.
Adirondack Lakes & Trails Outfitters, 541 Lake Flower Ave., Saranac Lake, N.Y., 800-491-0414. adirondackoutfitters.com
MAC’s Canoe Livery, 5859 Rt. 30, Lake Clear, N.Y., 518-891-1176. macscanoe.com
Raquette River Outfitters, 1754 Rt. 30, Tupper Lake, N.Y., 518-359-3228. raquetteriveroutfitters.com
St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, 73 Dorsey St., Saranac Lake, N.Y., 888-775-2925. canoeoutfitters.com
Tickner’s Moose River Canoe Trips, 117 Riverside Lane, Old Forge, N.Y., 315-369-6286. ticknerscanoe.com