When the alarm rang at 5:30 it was still dark and the rain was falling steadily on the tarp. I was greeted with a groan, then a growly moan as I rolled further onto Liesl who had buried herself deep in the sleeping bag. I left her there as I put on my damp clothes and took a peak outside. The rain wasn’t going to stop anytime soon, so I began to prepare breakfast. The day would be relatively short at around 25 miles, but I wanted to get it done as early as possible so I could enjoy a leisurely afternoon in Plattsburg. (Note the lack of pictures is directly proportional to how happy I was, or what kind of time I was making. There will be more in later posts.)
Preparing breakfast consisted, as it did every morning, of boiling water for oatmeal and coffee. Dinner and breakfast required the same amount of effort: boil water, mix with whatever dried food or drink was on the menu and eat. Lunches were bars and dried meat. Those who have subsisted on dehydrated meals know just how unpleasant they can be for one’s digestive system, and by extension any traveling companions with a sense of smell. But more on that in a later post. I ate and, still feeling bad for Liesl, gave her some warm water with her food.
We packed up, vainly trying to keep things dry, and hit the water. It was a heavy morning. The clouds were low and the rain was an oily drizzle. ‘Today, at least, would be shorter’ was my mantra. There would be challenges though. There were two long portages, the longer at two-miles and the short one just over one mile, but the day started with a nice six-miles of steady flowing river with no rapids.
Near the end of those six miles we officially paddled out of the Adirondack park. (Though the park felt like it had disappeared after Saranac Lake because the private land that dominated the shores of the Saranac river complicating finding a suitable campsite and forcing us to paddle longer days.) The boundary of the park, known as the “blue line,” did serve as a milestone—the first part of our journey complete and Lake Champlain and Vermont lay ahead.
In my journal portages are conspicuous in their absence. Generally too boring to write about, a few were supreme pains in the ass that I wanted to forget or haven’t arrived at yet. But two-miles is long, and outside of the park the portages tended to be around dams as opposed to rapids. And this—the dams, roads and parks we walked through—I found amazing.
The development of little towns along waterways resulted in rivers being squeezed by construction. Every town on the river had either a mill or hydro plant blocking the river. This is fascinating, at first. It was a rare treat to paddle through the history of the northeast and by extension, of North America. All these little towns, slowly emptying as people move to cities in search of opportunity, serve as memorials commemorating a small town way of life that is slowly dying.
At the time, however, all I was thinking is that dams are scary.
As I approached the long portage I was nervous to get it right and not miss the markings to exit the river. The NFCT official maps and guidebook offer excellent directions, taking much of the guesswork out of the trip. Each section of map has numbered waypoints that correspond to a short description of either a highlighted point of interest or a important turn, portage, rapid…or anything you’d need to know. (It was one of these Marc failed to spot in the first trip report….no comment.) Some of the points have capital letters screaming warnings at you, followed by a long description in Italics. Here is the quote from the map before describing the first long portage: “IMPORTANT: FOR SAFETY REASONS, FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS EXACTLY WHILE CARRYING AROUND THE THREE DAMS AND TWO CANYONS, AND DO NOT PUT IN EXCEPT WHERE DESIGNATED.” You can see why I was nervous. This was followed by a very detailed description of how to get through town to the put-in.
To portage I used wheels when I could to forgo too much actual lifting of the canoe. I could also leave most of my gear in the boat, though I would take my heavy pack out—I didn’t want to bust the wheels so early in the trip. I would also clip Leisl’s leash to the front of the canoe so she could help pull it along. When I thought she was getting tired I would just plop her in the boat where she would sit on one of the seats and bark at passing cars.
The portage was long but I didn’t get lost. Though I learned you can get surprisingly close to the top of a dam and not feel any significant current pulling you towards the lip, the real movement being far below the water. Next up we had six miles of class I-II rapids that went by pretty easily compared to the day before. Then there was another big carry and we were almost in Plattsburg. The last miles of the trip were constantly interrupted by short but challenging portages around old dams.
The industry of the 19th C. was, and remains, an imposing physical reality that, though fascinating, constantly got in my way. My big regret is that I didn’t take any pictures of this area. The dams were mostly overgrown rubble but you could still see how they would’ve looked when in use: Beautiful heavy structures with concrete arches adorned with little unnecessary artistic flairs, which to me illustrated the care and quality of craftsmanship. Sadly, or maybe not, I’m really not sure, the dams in their current state are only the fossils of the once industrialized northeast, melancholy reminders of people that came before.
But, regardless of how they looked or felt, they were a bitch to get around.
It wouldn’t have been much of an issue had I been with someone else. One quick trip up and over the muddy side trail, and through the brush to the other side. But alone it meant a couple of trips and, with Liesl not exactly being trustworthy to leave on her own, and the perfect size for raptor, fox, or coyote bait, she had to make the trips with me. One with the canoe on my head, her leash around my waist so every time she darted toward a squirrel, or shadow, I would be tugged off balance. The second trip with the heavy bag and whatever I could fill my hands with, and the third with whatever remained.
The first of these short up-and-over portages began with about a ten-meter walk through deep, suck-your-shoe-off mud. My little white haired companion, whose legs are only five inches long, and whose chest to ground clearance is only about one inch, came out black as she hopped through the muck, attempting to roll in it every time I paused to get a shoe out of a particularly icky bit of mud. I plopped her in the cold river on the other side of the dam to wash her off, and, in thanks, she refused to look at me for the next hour.
There were a few more dams and then finally some brief rapids. I was really warming up to them for the extra speed they gave me. I got to my knees again and was beginning to feel very comfortable making the subtle corrections necessary to keep the boat moving downstream with minimal jostling from rocks. It was shallow though, but even that was manageable. Another interesting point was to see how the geology had changed during the 150 or so miles. The rocks had changed from the big grey boulders of the Adirondack’s, rocks I was used to and comfortable with, to what looked like black slate, sharper, and harder to see through the water.
By now I was paddling through the middle of Plattsburgh, a city of around 20,000 people. A bizarre fact when paddling through towns is that often the shore of the river is undeveloped or, if there are homes, they tend to be of the trailer-atop-four-cinderblock variety.
As I was paddling through a tricky stretch of rapids a soccer field opened up on river left. On the edge of the river were a bunch of kids between the ages of 8-12 throwing rocks into the river, and what must have been a teacher, who was being interviewed and pretending no rocks were being thrown. There was a reporter and TV camera, and as I paddled by the reporter pointed to me and the camera panned my way. Maybe I made it on to Plattsburg’s local news channel. I’ll never know. But what I do know is that the kids all started calling out to me. “Hello, sir!” They called. Or, “How are you?” …etc, which on the face of it is polite, but when said with bad cockney accents is just odd. I still have no clue why they thought that particular accent was appropriate or even funny, but I thought it was hilarious and far better than the rocks they had been throwing.
Soon I spilled out to Cumberland Bay and turned north toward a campground nestled at the top of the bay. I had done it. The Saranac was behind me, and by tomorrow, I would be in Vermont and only a few days after that into Quebec for my resupply then back south of the boarder. The rain had stopped and the sun was out, though the air felt like wet velvet and thunderheads sat heavily to the west. I rushed to set up camp and dry my things during the few hours of sunlight I had left. Liesl luxuriated in the big grassy field of the campground and we both enjoyed the view over the bay.