NFCT Trip Report #2

The next leg of the trip was from Saranac Lake to Lake Champlain. To get to Lake Champlain I would have to paddle across numerous small lakes, two distinct stretches of river, rapids, and a winding messy stretch of river through the downtown of Plattsburgh. What I thought would be a relatively straightforward stretch of paddling turned into a couple of marathon days of non-stop paddling, portaging, and lining.

Having finished the beer with Marc a little too fast, Liesl and I began slowly. Our goal for the night wasn’t far, only about 7 miles downstream to a lean-to built on private property by the NFCT and the owner of the property. Leaving Saranac Lake we passed downstream, through the town, and out into flat land and a winding river with sweeping bends and tall grasses.

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Adjusting to not having Marc in the boat meant that weight distribution and thus steering would be more challenging. The lack of hills or trees bordering the river meant that the wind had no trouble finding me and pushing the bow of the canoe around. For those sprint paddlers reading this, it meant that a left’s wind becomes a right’s wind and vice-versa. Either way, it was annoying. To compensate for the loss of Marc (physically only of course. Auditorily his departure left a void that a mere shifting of weight couldn’t fill. I welcomed the absence of our endless banter at first, but soon found myself talking to Liesl and frustrated that she couldn’t reply) I moved all the bags to the bow of the boat. I thought that doing this would give Liesl a nice big space to lie in, and even stomp around in. I was wrong. Her first move once the new configuration was complete was to hop to the top of the bags and perch there, precariously, and eye the grasses around us searching for any rodent that dare cross our paths in search of a drink. Of course, sitting so high she was eagle and hawk bait, so I ended up craning my neck to the skies searching for trouble, and ready with my paddle to swat any potential swooping raptors out of the sky.

We passed some people out in kayaks, and eventually rounded a bend to come across what appeared to be three very large men standing in a bathtub and fishing. I’m not kidding.  It turned out it was some odd little boat, but regardless, the best way to summon the image is to think of three big men dressed in camo fishing from a bathtub and giving you a look that says, “go on, I dare you to say something.” Behind them sat a brand new looking lean-to full of their gear. These don’t look like paddlers on the NFCT, I thought. But they also didn’t look like people I wanted to argue with. Anyway only a little over an hour had passed since I left Saranac Lake, so I didn’t think we were at our camp yet.

If you’ve read my other post about this trip, you’ll know that Marc had some map reading trouble. In his defence, it wasn’t obvious at first that when a river snakes through flat land in a series of switchbacks, mapmakers seem to take that as a form of artistic license. A license they exercise by squiggling a pen across the appropriate section of map in what can only be described as an abstract rendering of the river. The issue of locating oneself on the map in these sections is compounded by the absence of landmarks. Frequently a bridge or your proximity to a nearby thoroughfare is all you have to go on. Furthermore, time, which works well as a measure of distance on a lake with little wind, is of little use while riding a current of undetermined speed. Now you may think this aside was a way to justify my getting lost, but I wasn’t lost. In general terms I knew I was pretty close to Saranac Lake and that the highway was to my left. I just simply had no idea where I was on the river, or how far I had gone. Anyway, my motto became: When in doubt, paddle because you’ll get somewhere eventually.

So I did. It soon became obvious to me that those three men in a tub had indeed claimed the lean-to I had been hoping for, and that I had a much longer afternoon ahead of me than planned. In place of the six-seven miles I had planned on, I would do fifteen ending the day with a two-mile portage on the side of the highway. The good news was that the current was lightening fast. I approached a set of rapids that would’ve been a lot of fun to run without gear, but decided to portage along the highway around them.

This was the first of many busy road portages. I loaded the boat, strapped on the wheels, and clipped Liesl to the front of the boat. She pulled with all her 12lbs and I swear she made a difference. It was a long portage and I was happy to see the end of it around six PM.

Camp that first night was lonely. But at the foot of some the rapids it was also beautiful. Liesl and I enjoyed dinner on the side of the rapids and sat in the evening sun reading and grooming ourselves.

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The next morning we were up early and gone by 7:30. I had planned for a fairly long day, and was looking forward to six miles of class 1-2 rapids, with brief portages around some class 3 ledges I didn’t want to risk with the dog and all my gear. The morning was spectacular and there was virtually no wind. The only inkling I had that things were about to get difficult was on a short portage. A man dressed in plaid and driving a pickup pulled up as I was leaving the lake. He was getting ready to go fishing and after some pleasantries he asked how far I was going. I explained about the NFCT and my goal to paddle it all. His response was only, “I dunno how you’re gonna get down to Plattsburgh. There’s not water in the river.” Hmmm. I thanked him for the info, hoisted the canoe up to my shoulders (wheels were only for long portages), clipped Liesl to my belt, and portaged to the next lake. We made the first fifteen miles in no time, and after a quick lunch (quick lunch meant eating bars while paddling the canoe), we arrived on the river proper.

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Soon the water began moving faster and the first of the rapids appeared. I’m not an expert at white water by any means. But I have, thanks to my time at PCCC, done some down river races and even a slalom race or two. I’ve also taken a fair number of open canoes down rapids just for fun. However, I’ve always either been in a slalom boat, or a canoe made of Royalex, and thus essentially indestructible though very heavy. My canoe—dubbed Woody by me—from H20 was a sixteen-foot six-inch asymmetrical canoe design called the Paramount. It is made of carbon and Kevlar with a thick gel-coat. I knew it would be tough, but I didn’t know how tough and I didn’t really want to test it in the first week of the trip. Luckily, I know how to maneuver a canoe around rocks in a river.  Unluckily, to maneuver a canoe around rocks in a river you need water, otherwise as you miss big rocks you simply paddle into a bunch of small ones. I paddled into a bunch of small ones, constantly.

The water was shallow but fast; making it hard to control the boat as I could only submerge half a blade to steer. Furthermore, Liesl perched atop the bags, swaying dangerous every time we bumped into something, was basically giving me a heart attack, and would not come down. I yelled at her, pleaded with her, and finally resorted to trying to reason with her all the while ricocheting of rocks like a pinball. She didn’t listen. Her vapid brown eyes looked at the riverbanks with a stubborn refusal to even acknowledge my pleas, instead focused on spotting beavers, muskrats, or stray leaves tumbling enticingly in the wind. Eventually, when I had finally run aground in some extra-shallow shallows, I grabbed her, clicked on her leash and kept her by my knees.

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The rapids didn’t get better; they only got worse. The class 1’s were all basically rock gardens, infuriating and frustrating. I had to hop out of the boat constantly to drag it over gravel beds. The class 2 rapids, held deeper water but were basically unmanageable unless I wanted to rip a hole in the hull of my beautiful boat, so I lined the canoe. Lining is grabbing the painters (rope) attached to the back and front of the canoe and controlling the boat from shore, or from rocks in the river, or while gasping in chest-deep hole you didn’t know was there. It’s a useful technique if you feel you can’t paddle the rapids, but there’s no viable portage option.

I got pretty good at it, but the real issue was, once again, my four-legged friend. I was unwilling to tie her to a seat or thwart in the canoe because I thought that if I were to lose the boat and it were to flip, she would definitely drown. Whereas if she was lose and wearing her life jacket, she would at least have a chance to bob her way to a rock or shore. Needless to say neither of these options were appealing to me, and the fear of losing that damn dog was the biggest stressor of the trip.

But the worst was yet to come. The ledges ahead didn’t have portages, and one in particular we came upon so suddenly that it almost ended our trip early and on very unpleasant terms.