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Rite of Passage: Canoe Camping with Kids on the NFCT

June 18, 2015
Canoe Camping with Kids
Mike LynchA misty morning in the Adirondacks brings flatwater, perfect for family canoe camping.

We awoke to a mist hanging over the water, creeping up the mountain on the opposite shore. It was a crisp fall morning, a little late in the season for most paddlers, and only a few hardy souls were out on Middle Saranac Lake, in New York State’s Adirondack Park. Even so, my 11-year-old nephew, Sebastian, eagerly surveyed the scene from the sandy shoreline.

“Can we paddle in the fog?” he called excitedly to me as I gathered my stuff in the tent. I yelled back that we could indeed. We just had to eat and pack first. Then we’d get back in the canoe and continue our two-day journey through the Saranac Chain of Lakes: one small section of the epic 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT).

Managed by a nonprofit of the same name, the NFCT follows American Indian routes from Old Forge, N.Y., to Fort Kent, Maine, passing through parts of Vermont, Quebec, and New Hampshire in between. This was Sebastian’s first backcountry camping trip, and I had chosen our 11-mile route for its variety—large lakes, twisting rivers, two separate carries—as well as for its beauty. The NFCT offers many family-friendly options for day trips and overnights, and our path would take us through some of the most scenic country in the Adirondacks.

These waters are also close to my heart. I live in the nearby village of Saranac Lake, with dozens of rivers, streams, and ponds less than a 30-minute drive away. When the weather is warm, I paddle here several times a week with my wife, Ariel, and our 2-year-old daughter. Maya got her own paddle before her first birthday but mainly sits and observes the wildlife on our trips. She loves spotting “ducks,” her all-purpose word for the mergansers, loons, and other waterfowl living on these waters.

Ariel and I enjoy paddling so much that, together in the summer of 2011, we completed the last 300 miles of the NFCT: the final section of my 45-day thru-paddle of the entire trail. That trip bolstered my passion for the outdoors, but my love of being on the water goes back a lot further.

My own introduction to wilderness settings came at about Sebastian’s age, when I would visit my Aunt Joan and Uncle Pete at their log cabin home on Upper Chateaugay Lake, at the extreme northern end of Adirondack Park. Even back then I liked paddling, but my favorite activity was brook trout fishing with my uncle from a small motorboat. The experience of being on the lake for hours at a time helped shape my love of the Adirondacks—an appreciation that I wanted to share with Sebastian. In my own way, I was looking to keep a family tradition alive.

Mile 0: 11 a.m. Friday
Our trip began on a drizzly Friday morning at the Indian Carry put-in, located at the southern end of Upper Saranac Lake. An 8-mile-long body of water near the village of Tupper Lake, the Upper Saranac is especially picturesque, its shoreline dotted with rustic seasonal residences—those historic private compounds known as Great Camps. We chatted and checked out the buildings as we established our rhythm: Sebastian practicing his long stroke in front, me steering in back.

From Indian Carry, we paddled about a mile to Chapel Island, a 1-acre rocky outcropping and the site of a tiny house of worship that hosts public interdenominational ervices in the summer months. Because the land is private, we stayed in the water, circling the island to catch glimpses of the small brown building between the white birch and pines. A chapel has stood on this site since the late 19th century, when a trio of lawyers from Plattsburgh bought the land. The original Victorian-style chapel lasted until a fire destroyed it in 1956. Two years later, the current structure was built in a rustic Adirondack style, resembling the nearby Great Camps. To me, the chapel is a symbol of Adirondack culture, in which people have found a way to carry on just about all aspects of everyday life in the woods.

Mile 1: 11:30 a.m. Friday
After passing Chapel Island, we headed toward Bartlett Carry, perhaps the most difficult part of the trip. This portage—a half-mile of carrying the boat through the woods—travels uphill along a dirt road before giving way to a footpath filled with lots of rocks and roots.

Knowing this carry lay ahead, I had brought along canoe wheels to transport our ultralight Kevlar vessel. At 18.5 feet long, the canoe weighs only about 40 pounds. The tradeoff with Kevlar is that it’s not as sturdy as plastic or aluminum, but boats made of those materials can weigh twice as much—a con in the Adirondacks, with its many disconnected bodies of water. A couple of adults can carry a Kevlar canoe easily enough on their shoulders using a yoke, but with a young paddler as my copilot, the wheels would make things easier. The combination of those and the lightweight boat made the walk fairly pleasant, with Sebastian and me taking turns pulling the canoe along.

A carry also supplies a built-in chance to stop and refuel. When we paused to gobble down some granola bars, chocolate, and water, I asked Sebastian how he was holding up. He had no complaints and was taking the carry in stride—a big relief to me. I’ve seen many paddling groups, including some from children’s camps, struggle through awkward carries with heavy packs and canoes.

But we had packed just the basics: a tent, sleeping bags, a lightweight stove and pot, some cups, bowls, and eating utensils, and extra clothes. Adirondack nights can be chilly any time of the year, so we had come prepared. We stored our stuff in dry bags to protect it from the rain and water that accumulates at the bottom of the canoe. We also had a map and a compass—items that get left behind all too often. We had just enough gear to be comfortable but not enough to weigh us down.

Even though it crosses dry land rather than water, this is actually one of my favorite parts of the trip. Bartlett Carry reminds me of the three-day, 90-mile canoe race that follows this route every September. I’ve paddled the course a couple of times, including once in the stern of an eight-person Voyageur canoe. The carry falls on the last day of the race, and a bagpiper dressed in traditional garb stations himself here every year, serenading nearly 600 competitors. When you hear those pipes, you can’t help but fill up with adrenaline, anticipating the finish line on Lake Flower. On Sebastian’s and my trip, the carry was just the opposite: quiet and peaceful, as is often the case on weekdays, the perfect escape from everyday life.

Mile 2.5: 1 p.m. Friday
On the far side of Bartlett Carry, we entered Middle Saranac Lake at a muddy put-in. With its wind and tendency toward large waves, the lake can be a challenge. On this trip, however, an easterly wind blew at our back, propelling us along. Unlike Upper Saranac, this 2-mile-long body of water is mostly surrounded by state land, with only a few modest, one-story camps on its shoreline.

I noticed Sebastian’s paddling stroke had already improved. For the first mile, he seemed to struggle a bit. But after a few hours on the water, he had gained confidence and coordination. At one point, I asked him how it was going. “Sometimes, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, it feels effortless,” he said. That sounded like a fair, not to mention encouraging, response.

Middle Saranac Lake is popular among locals and visitors for its sandy shore, including one long stretch on the eastern end. On warm days, families picnic and swim at a spot accessible by a half-mile walk from nearby Route 3. For those who prefer to stretch their legs on dry land, the southern side of Route 3 offers a 5.5-mile round-trip hike up Ampersand Mountain, which delivers great views of the chain of lakes and surrounding areas. Sections of the hike are difficult, especially the last stretch, so it’s best to set aside at least a half-day if you want time to appreciate the 3,352-foot-high, wide-open summit. Surveying your paddling route from above adds a whole new perspective to your adventure.

Instead of heading to the beach or up the trail, Sebastian and I paddled to a bay at the lake’s northern end, where we had reserved a campsite. Camping is first-come, first-served in many places in the Adirondacks, including Upper Saranac Lake, but the sites along the middle and lower lakes are part of the Saranac Lake Islands Campground, run by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. A campsite costs $22 per night, but the convenience of making a reservation is worth it, especially if you’re traveling with kids or in a large group. There are 22 campsites on Middle Saranac Lake and 62 on Lower Saranac Lake, including a number of island sites that frequently book up. Although they’re grouped together as a campground, these are primarily backcountry sites. This isn’t a car-camping destination.

Mile 4: 3 p.m. Friday
Our campsite was on the mainland, several hundred yards from any neighbors, in a forest of cedars. We had a fire pit, a picnic table, plenty of flat ground on which to pitch our tent, and blissful isolation.

After arriving, we got right to work collecting firewood. State land in the Adirondacks is part of a forest preserve, with strict rules about gleaning only dead and downed wood. We found plenty of logs and sticks that fit the bill within a short walk from the fire pit and took turns cutting them up with a foldable camp saw. Sebastian enjoyed sawing the wood and helping build the fire. Before long, we had a brisk blaze going and water heating in a pot atop the grate.

Our next order of business was to eat some turkey sandwiches and drink some hot chocolate. For our second course, I made soup using vegetables and lake water. But when I passed Sebastian a bowlful, he only ate a little. Later he told me he was nervous about the water. I had boiled it to eliminate any giardia, which meant it was clean and safe to consume. But had I thought about it, I could have used drinking water—a good reminder that this was a brand new experience for Sebastian. For dessert: marshmallows roasted over the campfire. By about 7 p.m., the lake had calmed, mirroring our moods. After paddling in the mist and rain, the two of us were pretty content to relax and take in the sunset.

Although Friday night was a quiet one, Sebastian asked a lot of questions over the course of our trip. He was curious about the wildlife and the canoe’s construction, and he was especially interested in studying the map to get a sense of our location in relation to the neighboring roads, villages, and mountains. The only question that really surprised me came at about 8 o’clock on Friday night, as we stood by the fire.

“Can I go to bed?” he asked. At first, I was shocked. Where was my nephew who liked to stay up late on weekends, watching movies? But then I remembered that, at his age, I was worn out by dinnertime at my aunt and uncle’s house on Upper Chateaugay Lake. There’s something about being active in the fresh air that knocks a kid out. Before long, I joined Sebastian in the tent.

Mile 6: 9 a.m. Saturday
Our paddle through the fog occurred the next morning, en route to the Saranac River, which connects the lakes. It was here that we had our bird-watching highlight: a bald eagle, perched high in the trees. After stopping to check out the locks that control the lakes’ water levels, we paddled toward the end of the river, making a short detour to view a beaver lodge that has stood intact for years.

From there, we paddled to the bottom of a cliff known as Devil’s Pulpit and bushwhacked to the top. (It’s helpful to have a map and a compass here, just in case.) After 15 minutes of scrambling, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the route from which we had come, as well as the lake we would soon traverse. Sebastian liked the view, but as a veteran hiker, he wasn’t as impressed as I thought he might be. As for me, I could have stood there all day.

Mile 8: 11 a.m. Saturday
We encountered a lot more boat traffic while paddling Lower Saranac than we had on the previous day, when we had the water all to ourselves. Friday’s solitude was partly due to it being a workday but also because Upper Saranac Lake is the largest in the chain, giving paddlers more room to spread out. (Visitors seem to flock to Middle and Lower Saranac for the convenience of the reservable campsites.) On Lower Saranac, we passed more than a dozen kayakers, canoeists, and motorboats.

We also saw a few loons. Paddling is a great way to experience Adirondack wildlife, and you’re almost guaranteed to check off multiple types of waterfowl, such as mallards and mergansers. Eagles are common, and especially lucky paddlers might even spy a moose, although with a population of only 600 to 1,000 in the park, these are rare. For those who like to fish, there are lots of bass and pike in the chain of lakes, and many nearby ponds and streams hold brook trout.

If we had brought poles along, Saturday’s weather would have made for good fishing. The sky was cloudy, and it looked like rain. Although our original plan had been to paddle the length of Middle Saranac to Ampersand Bay, a distance of about 5 miles, we decided not to push our luck. The weather didn’t seem dangerous, but I’ve learned not to overdo it with children. We had already had a great trip, so there was no need to risk a downpour that might dampen our spirits.

Instead, we rerouted to the Saranac Lake Island Campground offices, located on the Saranac River (dec.ny.gov/outdoor, 518-891-2841). As we pulled onto the river’s Second Pond, a lively group passed us on their way to launch. Paddlers who’ve driven hours to reach the Adirondacks can’t always be picky about the weather once they arrive. We wished them well and returned to dry land, satisfied.

Although we had been gone only two days, Sebastian had made tremendous strides. Early on, I was doing most of the work in propelling the canoe forward. Perhaps a little overwhelmed by the experience, Sebastian barely dipped his paddle into the water. As we continued, he put forth more and more effort, taking larger and more powerful strokes. When we rejoined family on Saturday, he chatted excitedly, proudly relaying our adventures. For our next trip, we decided we’ll visit one of the northern Adirondack ponds carved out by a glacier thousands of years ago. We’ll bring some fishing poles, catch some brook trout, and take in some stars. Maybe we’ll even stay up past 8 o’clock.


LEARN MORE: CANOE CAMPING ON THE NORTHERN FOREST CANOE TRAIL (NFCT)
For more on each of the trips below, visit northernforestcanoetrail.org. For canoe rental near the Saranac Chain of Lakes, try Adirondack Lakes and Trails, in Saranac Lake.

1. Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, Vermont
Located on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, this 6,729-acre expanse of quiet waterways and wetlands attracts large flocks of migratory birds. For a day trip, put in at Louie’s Landing on the Missisquoi River and paddle downstream about 4 miles to a heron rookery on Shad Island. There’s no camping within the refuge, but sites are available at nearby campgrounds. Canoe rental: Umiak Outdoor Outfitters, in South Burlington.

2. Connecticut River, Vermont and New Hampshire
This is one of the most enjoyable stretches on the NFCT, as the Class 1 downstream current does much of the work. The shoreline on both the Vermont and New Hampshire sides of the river is dotted with sandy beaches, perfect for picnicking and swimming. A 22.5-mile segment starts at Debanville Landing in Bloomfield and ends at Guildhall, both in Vermont. Break up the two-day trip at the first-come, first-served Maine Central Railroad Trestle campsite. Additional sites are available along the route. Canoe rental: Gord’s Corner Store/North Brook Outfitters in West Milan, N.H.

3. Upper Ammonoosuc River, New Hampshire
The Upper Ammonoosuc twists through canopies of silver maples, with views of nearby mountains. Put in near Gord’s Corner Store in West Milan and take out 12 miles downstream in Stark, a picturesque village with a covered bridge and a library the size of a toolshed. Although this stretch is often considered the best day trip on the NFCT, it can be done in two days, using the first-come, first-served Cordwell campsite a mile from the put-in. Canoe rental: Gord’s Corner Store/North Brook Outfitters in West Milan, N.H.

4. Flagstaff Lake, Maine
The 20-mile-long Flagstaff Lake was created around 1950, when a power company impounded the Dead River, submerging a village. You can still spot remnants of the town today. This is the only stretch of the NFCT where you’re likely to encounter Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, as they traverse the Bigelow Mountain Range. Put in off Route 27, a mile north of the Dead River Historical Society in Stratton. First-come, first-served campsites dot the shoreline; other options include the private Cathedral Pines Campground or the Maine Huts and Trails lodge at Stratton Brook. Canoe rental: Ecopelagicon in Rangeley.


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Mike Lynch

Mike Lynch is a writer, photographer, and licensed canoe guide who lives in the heart of Adirondack Park.