Adirondack Flatwater

Posted July 1st, 2000

The kamikaze black flies found us immediately. I had barely spread the peanut butter on my bagel when one lodged itself in my ear canal and another flew in my eye.

Grey skies and black flies… Still, a peaceful time on Upper Saranac Lake.

Savvy vacationers don’t visit the Adirondacks before July 4th, when they are rewarded with warm days, cool nights, refreshing swimming, and relatively bug-free lakes and rivers. The trade-off, though, is waterways buzzing and whining with motorboats and Jet Skis. Flatwater paddlers looking for peaceful outings will have to seek lakes where motorized traffic is prohibited, usually wilderness destinations that sometimes require long portages.

In contrast, spring in the Adirondacks is a peaceful time to explore those popular, easily accessed lakes and rivers. It’s a fickle time, though. Winter typically ends a month or two later than it does in the rest of the country, and the weather can be less predictable. Cool days may be coupled with frosty nights. And the legendary Adirondack black flies can be voracious if the temperatures chance to rise. Nevertheless, there is a serenity to spring flatwater travel.

Preferring the buzz of insects to the din and odor of internal combustion engines, we (two humans and a dog) set out for Upper Saranac Lake, Memorial Day weekend. We unloaded our canoe at Indian Carry, a boat launch down a small dirt road off Route 3 near the town of Saranac Lake. The Saranac Lakes (Upper, Middle and Lower) are part of a historic canoe route from the Fulton Chain Lakes through the Raquette River and over Indian Carry. The portage portions of this route are worn more than a foot deep in spots from centuries of foot traffic.

In many places Memorial Day marks the beginning of “the season.” At Indian Carry, however, there was only one other car in the parking lot. Only five visitors were recorded on the trail register since October, 1999. Most popular Adirondack trailheads and canoe put-ins fill three to four pages on a busy weekend.

We didn’t savor the thought of portages amidst clouds of black flies, so we chose a route that was all water travel. We were able to put in just feet from the car, and accomplish the delicate task of packing our gear in such a way that Ama (the dog) could occasionally lunge for water bugs and drag her tongue overboard for a drink, without capsizing us.

We set out with rain imminent, paddling from a small, unnamed bay between Corey Island and Indian Point. We beheld a timeless Adirondack scene: great slabs of gray granite sliding out from mossy, musky wooded shores shaded by tall, swaying pines. Traditional Adirondack camps, rambling brown structures with dark roofs, punctuated the shoreline, at the same time standing proud and disappearing into the landscape.

Many of the camps on Upper Saranac are relics from a time when the Adirondacks were the destination for the Boston, Washington, and New York City elite. They would take the train to the Adirondacks to improve their health with the fresh mountain air. Those who didn’t have private summer camps would visit the grand Adirondack lodges.

Next we paddled to Chapel Island, site of the local church. Parishioners come to services by boat, and a peek in the windows revealed back pews that had been converted to life jacket drying racks.

We paddled in open water and meandered through narrow passages between islands and shore. We stopped for lunch on the dock of a summer camp that was still boarded up. On the Saranac Lakes mail delivery is by boat, and each dock has a mailbox.
The kamikaze black flies found us immediately. I had barely spread the peanut butter on my bagel when one lodged itself in my ear canal and another flew in my eye.

The black fly’s reputation precedes it. In the late 1840s, preacher, writer and early environmentalist Joel T. Headley told of his own Adirondack black fly travesties. “By the time I had taken ten or fifteen [fish], I was compelled to fling down my rod and run and scream, for the blood was pouring in rivulets from my neck, face and hands.” Luckily, our experience was milder.

Lunch was understandably brief. We were still chewing when we paddled through the narrows, which almost felt like flatwater river paddling. We traversed the mouth of the questionably-named Pork Bay, and wound back into another deep bay, Saginaw Bay. We saw one other boat moored on an island, and a kayaker passed us in the narrows. Otherwise the lake was quiet, a breeze kept the black flies out of our hair, and the sun broke through the clouds as we arrived at the Saginaw Bay lean-to.

The lean-to was hidden in a pine grove, moved back from the lake to let the shoreline regenerate and reduce impact to the area. When we arrived, we were harshly reminded that minimum impact isn’t everyone’s priority, and that some boat campers lack even common decency. The campsite was literally trashed. The fire was still smoldering with partially burned plastic milk bottles, dog food, charred beer cans and oozing D-cell batteries. We filled an entire trash bag with the last campers’ mess. On a wood-collecting mission we discovered part of the previous night’s entertainment had been smashing a vodka bottle on a tree.

After housekeeping, we built a smoky fire to keep away the few black flies that braved dropping temperatures for a sip of our blood. Ama took the opportunity to swim around the bay chasing bugs and sticks, periodically getting out to shake on us.

The sun was shining when we woke up the next morning, though the air was cool. We felt at home amongst the trees by the lake. The sun was reflecting on the water and the world was silent except for the chirping of the birds. A heron flew by, silently and in harmony with us, as we glided through the water back towards Indian Point.

The skies clouded over again, but rain never fell. And the black fly bites didn’t itch as badly as everyone says.