Escape the Urban: Four days on the Saranacs (Part I)

4 Sep

Before we left I never told my sons that this was not just their first overnight canoeing trip, but mine as well.

Dads, or at least Dads of eight and five year old boys, my traveling companions, are expected to be super human creatures: fearless guide, expert sailor, undefatigable woodsman, primal bear wrestler. We paddle boats, set up tents, cook food, make fires, chase away bogeymen and generally make and break camp. We ensure the water is safe to drink, bodies and dishes are scrubbed each morning, food is hung critter-free from a tree, kids and clothes are warm and dry and the s’mores are gooey and tasty. We have the map and compass and know how far it is to the next camp site. We leave the tent first in the middle of night to investigate the scary noises.

If there is a question we answer it. If there is a scrape we bind it. If there is a fuss we cuddle it.

And under no circumstances are we ourselves ever allowed to be tired, unsure, lost, timid, wet, frustrated or miserable. We’re walking confidence, a smiling bearded mountain god who plays endless games of Uno while riding out a thunderstorm in a 49 square foot tent.

Such a facade, carefully crafted and innocently expected, would be cracked by the knowledge that I was new to most of this too. Well, at least the combination of all of it. I have done 4 day trips many times before, always backpacking and hiking. I have canoed my fair share, and rafted and kayaked even more. I have spent much time in the Adirondacks, especially in the last three years. I had just never done the sum of those activities in one four day adventure.

But I have now. And it was awesome.

Since the day of their birth, I have been waiting for my sons to get old enough (i.e. strong and resilient and de-whinified) to take on outdoor adventures. Last summer the seven year old and I hiked 18 miles in Letchworth, skirting the nearly untrafficked eastern rim of the gorge. Nine miles a day left the boy with sore shoulders, bloody feet and a dislike of overnight backpacking. Epic failure.

Note to self: choice of adventure should inspire love of activity, not dread.

I tried again later that summer, rafting the Indian and Hudson Rivers in the Adirondacks with ARO. The seven year old loved every minute, riding in the prow and clutching the chicken line for dear life, perma-grin from ear to ear. Now every time I leave to river guide here on the Catt or Genny I have a wannabe tag along, asking when his next whitewater trip is. Homerun.

So for this summer’s Big Adventure, I learned my lesson. We wanted to go for a couple days, but hiking the whole distance was out of the question. Even though the seven year old is now a sturdier eight, his five year old brother was getting big enough to come along. He certainly wasn’t doing five to eight miles a day of backpacking. I have spent much of 2011 already on the water, learning to river guide and kayaking my own rig – it didn’t take much deep thinking to realize that a canoe trip provided the best solution: multi-day outing, plenty of time for camping, minimum work required by the boys if they got tired and less enthusiastic. If your child mentally gives up (he is eight, after all) 10 miles into a 20 mile through-hike, you can’t walk the rest of the trail for him. If he doesn’t feel like paddling anymore at the end of a long day, well, you’ve been doing most of the work so far anyway, and can control the canoe yourself from the back. Boats allow children to more easily swap between roles as participants and passengers.


To make this outing both child friendly and possible for me, I considered several route and gear related planning factors. First, and most importantly, I picked a route with no portages. I had minimal help paddling, and I would have less moving a 75 pound canoe and 150 pounds of gear and food. It limited our route options to only consider water-connected paths, but the Adirondacks have sufficient space that we could construct such an itinerary. On a related note, we shortened the amount of paddling required each day from what I would consider a typical effort. We only tried to make five or six miles a day, a reasonable three to five hours of sitting in a boat for a five year old. Second, I packed much differently than I would for a group of adults. We rented a nineteen foot Penobscot 186 from St. Regis Outfitters in Saranac Lake. The main draw? Not the room but the number of seats: three real mesh-weave benches that didn’t require extra padding, or force the odd child out to sit on the deck. As a side benefit, you can fit a lot of gear in a 19 foot boat, and I brought it: extra snacks, marshmallows, Gorp and candy bars. Extra clothes to keep kids warm. Extra games and fun activities. We played a lot of Uno while stuck in a tent; I can’t imagine the trip without that deck of cards.

My final adjustment was the most practical. The purists may howl, but I used a double bladed, carbon shaft Aqua Bound kayak paddle instead of a standard single bladed canoe one. I decided that constantly switching sides to compensate for over-powering my sons would drive me crazy, and J-stroking for four days would mean doubling the total effort required to complete the trip. This last allowance was the most successful – I may never paddle a child-laden canoe with a single blade ever again.

I bought relatively little new gear for this trip. A new nylon ground cloth for beneath the tent, easily rolled and stuffed in the tent bag, kept us dry even in the worst of the overnight thunderstorms. Dehydrated meals have come a long way in a decade. My Natural High Chicken Stir Fry tasted every day of eleven years old, but you can’t go wrong with the latest Italian red sauce Mountain House dinners. . . . except, as everyone who has ever eaten one knows, they serve one hungry camper, not the two advertized on the packaging. I got two new SeaLine dry bags for rafting, and I used both on this trek – one as a food bag to hang, the other for clothes. They work like a champ. I have an old desert-camo stuffable mini-pillow that I swear by to ease ground-induced neck cramps, but I splurged on EMS’s new Dreamy Pillow for my boys. It is light, stuffs to reasonable size, fluffs to a respectable bulk, and (its coolest feature) has two sides: hot (furry) and cold (nylon). My boys loved it. I tried it one night, but the Stuart Scott side, necessary in the summer, made the back of my neck itch. Kept me up half the night until I gave in and flipped to the furry side. Inexplicable, but annoying enough to make me not use it again.

It would be easy for the trip itself to not live up to expectations after so much careful planning, preparation and forethought. Fortunately, we picked a classic route on Lower and Middle Saranac Lakes that provided cliffs, loons, swimming beaches, a hand-operated lock, and several harrowing thunderstorms. The story of our trip in Part II.

7 Responses to “Escape the Urban: Four days on the Saranacs (Part I)”

  1. Chris Sasiadek September 4, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    I used to camp a lot as a kid and adolescent, and I always just assumed that my Dad knew everything there was to know about camping, canoeing, orienteering, and every other outdoor art. After the better part of a decade without going camping or canoeing, this summer I rediscovered my love of camping, canoeing, etc and I realized just how much my Dad was gracefully flying by the seat of his pants. So, this article really hit home for me. Instead of taking seven and ten-year-olds, I took my wife on her first camping trip ever. Now we’re both hooked.

    I’m glad to hear that your fatherly infallibility was never seriously challenged by the elements on this trip.

  2. Joe Genco September 4, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    Stay after it, keep enjoying it and understand, they will by grown before you know it. Remember as well: They see what you do and don’t hear what you say.

  3. RaChaCha September 4, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

    Good for you — and your younguns!

    I took my dad on HIS first overnight canoe trip — when I was in the scouts, and he was in his ’60s. A NINE DAY trip, mind you — I was impressed he did it, and was such a good sport about it. One night it was his turn to take the kettle of spaghetti to the beach to drain it, when an accidental burn caused the kettle to drop on the beach, and the spaghetti to drop on the sand. We all helped pick it up and rinse it off, and got almost all the sand off — but the few remaining bits gave new meaning to “al dente.”

    And how was your trip on the Genny yesterday–? Was it good rafting, or more like rock hopping–?

  4. Derek J. Punaro September 5, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    I’m loving this story already. When I met my wife she had never camped a day in her life. The first trip I took her on was a weekender drive up to an unimproved remote site in the Allegheny National Forest down near Kane, PA. I didn’t see any point in breaking her in slowly. But she loved it anyways, and we made several more trips over the years back there, as well as to various state and national parks in the East until we started having kids. With a 2 year old and a 6 month old I haven’t been brave enough yet to get back into it, but I am looking forward to it.

    I’ve only ever done one backpacking trip and one canoe camping trip (on Middle Saranac, if I remember correctly) and both were great. Would love to get back into that more again some day.

    Looking forward to part 2!

  5. Brian Castner September 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Thanks all – starting them young and enjoying it while I can (and dad is still cool) is a goal. We’ll see how well I meet it.

    @ Chris – the infallibility was challenged, but we lived through it none the worse for where. Not to tease, but more in Part II.

    @ RaChaCha – We’re playing limbo on the Genny right now – how low can you go.

    @ Derek – We started tent camping out of the back of the car with the kids when the youngest was 6 months. My wife’s concern was always to keep them warm, but as long as that was accomplished, they were amazingly packable. Lowering expectations and taking lots of time for naps (i.e. lounging around the camp site reading) is key.

  6. kevin September 6, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    This is really fast becoming my favorite blog on WNYMedia — can’t wait to read part 2. It’s really fantastic you’re getting your boys excited about outdoor adventures like this at such a young age.

  7. Shannon September 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    We took labor day weekend and went canoeing for the firs time in Old Forge. It was a blast, the Adirondacks is such an amazing place to explore. We are such outdoors family and enjoyyour writting. My goal as a mom is to share the love of the outdoors with my children and beat the vidoe game mentality, as a member and sometimes coordinator of the women in the outdoors i think family time spent camping, hiking, fishing, 4 wheeling and such creates memories you can’t get infront of a tv. Good job Brian keep up the good work!! Shannon

Contribute To The Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: