WEEKEND EXPEDITIONS: Faces of the Adirondacks

STORY: DAVE SHIVELY – PHOTOS: MIKE LYNCH // AARON BLACK-SCHMIDT

As night darkens, the forest amplifies layered sounds of life.
Bugs chirping and toads groaning create a baseline buzz. The sudden wail of a nearby loon punctuates the din, offset by the distant howl of an occasional coyote.
Then the morning on Third Lake is silent.

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Fog lifts off Third Lake Mike Lynch

Only the popping sound of hot bacon can break the quiet. The sizzle and the smell rouses our group, fast asleep under towering stands of old-growth spruce.
Coffee steams while fog lifts off the lake’s sheet of dark glass.
There is no one.
No sight, no sound, no sign of any other human life in any direction.

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Mike Lynch

How does that work? You don’t exactly associate New York with No People.
I’d already posed the question to Dave Olbert, up early manning the griddle and flipping the bacon. The local outfitter had a simple explanation.

“The people that come here,” he said of the Adirondacks, “they’re all driven to go to the High Peaks or they’re driven to go to the real popular tourist destinations like Lake George or Lake Placid … they don’t really engage with the more remote areas in the park.”

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Dave Olbert of Cloud-Splitter Outfitters in Newcomb, N.Y., making breakfast for a summer canoe crew on the Essex Chain Lakes. Mike Lynch

It still doesn’t add up. With 10 million annual visitors, you wouldn’t think of having a lake system to yourself in the summer. Again, Olbert provides some context. Having spent his life living in and exploring the Adirondacks, he explains how there’s some history to account for. New York pioneered an effort in the late 19th century to create, by law, a preserve for the state’s entire mountain plateau region, “forever kept as wild forest lands.” The result of that effort, described as ‘the great experiment in conservation,’ is the lower 48’s largest publicly protected natural area.

A label that broad, however, is not that simple. A little less than half the land within the Adirondack Park’s sprawling 6.1 million acres is wild public forest. So there are agencies to consider and layers of bureaucracy to understand when it comes to the swath of usage designations for the patchwork of private inholdings, wilderness lands, and hundreds of communities within the park’s boundaries.

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Olbert, explaining the paddling potential of the area from his outfitting base on the banks of the upper Hudson. Mike Lynch

For someone like Olbert — who lives in the nearest town of Newcomb, N.Y., and guides raft and canoe trips out of he and his wife Ruth’s Cloud-Splitter Outfitters base on the banks of the upper Hudson River — that means lots of maps to study, new amendments to track, and regulatory agencies to consider.

For the sake of the empty Essex Chain Lakes opening before us, all we need to know is that they now belong to the state — and thus, the public. A 2012 purchase opened up the system of eight lakes and four ponds after access was limited for over 60 years to a hunting club that leased the land from a timber company. The beneficiary of that recent private-to-public land transfer is any non-motorized user willing to venture farther into new corners added to the park’s 2.6 million acres of public land.

About that willingness: There’s another, obvious factor that limits traffic to the Essex Chain. Any paddling journey starts with a portage. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, and not without basic boat-schlepping challenges of some ups and downs. But from the end of the only access road, the fairly benign one-mile walk down and in from the parking lot (half on graded road, half on a well-marked and -maintained trail) seemed a small price to pay for the sudden solitude on the water.

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Heading down through the woods toward the Essex Chain. Aaron Black-Schmidt
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The mile-portage is well marked and maintained— ideal for canoe carts. Aaron Black-Schmidt

That desire to venture farther into new corners also drove our experience on the water. Upon setting camp in a wide and wooded primitive site on Third Lake, we headed north along the far shore and east up the six interconnected lakes. Past the site of the former private Gooley Club, an osprey took flight above us. The clouds cleared, revealing the broader view of the rounded peaks that ring the lake perimeter. As we paddled the culvert that connects Fourth and Fifth Lake, a deer traipsed toward our four canoes, unafraid.

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Aaron Black-Schmidt
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Aaron Black-Schmidt

“Keep your eyes open,” was Olbert’s advice, as he quietly summed up the simple draw of the outdoors: “All these things can happen that you don’t expect.”

After a rainy morning that began with the portage, I hadn’t expected a canoe experience with such a wilderness feel. Though sunshine and lively conversation, a slight tailwind shuttled us back to camp, the view of Blue Mountain looming in the west, we arrived to our shaded camp with an early evening to unwind.

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Mike Lynch
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Aaron Black-Schmidt

***

Waking this morning, bellies full of bacon and camp packed up, the unknown draws us down the chain of lakes in the other direction. Between Second and First lakes, we portage a beaver dam and snake through the lilies as far as we can paddle down the lake’s ever-narrowing outlet (which empties, eventually, into the upper Hudson).

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Aaron Black-Schmidt

For Josh Trombley, the work — into and out of the boat again — is the point and the beauty of Adirondack paddling.

“There’s places all over that you can go where there’s great paddling: You could go to the Boundary Waters, the Everglades or rivers through Georgia and Florida,” Trombley says. “Part of what makes the Adirondacks different is we’re on the oldest mountain range in the world right here … They’ve been worn down, but the way that the rivers and lakes and ponds through here go, it’s like a continuous channel from the way that the glacier receded.”

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Aaron Black-Schmidt

That natural furcation of northern New York’s dome-shaped massif creates built-in seclusion between 3,000 lakes and ponds: “It’s kind of broken up because it’s separated by these mountains and hills,” Trombley adds, “and you’re just going through little channels here and there to get to the next body of water; you don’t know what’s up around the next corner.”

The legacy of exploring that water-pocked landscape is the lightweight, solo Adirondack pack canoe. As the CEO of Hornbeck Boats, a beloved manufacturer of high-quality composite canoes based in nearby Olmstedville, N.Y., this two-day backcountry escape is the perfect expression of the craft’s best use: Just throw your gear on your back, boat on your shoulder, go and get away.

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Aaron Black-Schmidt

Though anyone willing to lug or roll his or her paddle-craft can enjoy this less-traveled, smaller-scale version of the park’s more famed (motor-free) Saint Regis Canoe Area, going lightweight with the gear is a worthy consideration. Trombley is also quick to point out that after the upfront cost to ease the canoe-carrying barrier of entry, there’s little else to pay. No entry fee to the park, no parking permit, no usage fee.

With a business to run on top of commitments with family and kids, the payoff for Trombley — a single night out listening to the loons — is payoff a-plenty for the extra effort. It can be hard to equate the value of simply watching water slide by through silent, stress-free strokes.

“The biggest thing that appeals to me for being on the water is … it’s quiet,” Trombley concludes, while noting the added benefits with each extra mile added. “When I push myself, I just like knowing I can do it – you know, that I’ve accomplished something at the end of it and just trying to do it better the next time.”

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Trombley, before the final paddle (and portage) via Mud Pond, which cuts off much of the otherwise 1-mile carry from Third Lake out to parking lot at the end of Deer Pond Road, the primary access to the Essex Chain Lakes. Aaron Black-Schmidt

RESOURCES IF YOU GO:
THE HOOT OWL LODGE (Newcomb, N.Y) — Lodging info, including dining and glamping options at the Lake Harris Lodge (opening fall 2019)
CLOUD-SPLITTER OUTFITTERS (Newcomb, N.Y) — Paddling info, including guided and provisioned trips, plus canoe, kayak, and bike rentals
ADIRONDACKS, USA — Regional info and trip-planning guide to the Adirondacks


RELATED:
Go Light, Go Long: Testing the Latest Crop of Pack Canoes
Best Camping Spots for Paddling the Adirondacks
A Wild Experience: Skiing New York’s Adirondack Park
— A Guide to 5 Climbs in the Adirondacks You Have to Try

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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