Tag Archives: Camping

Escape the Urban: Four Days on the Saranacs (Part II)

11 Sep

This is part two of a series on paddling the Saranac Lakes with two of my boys. Part one can be found here.

Unloading at the public put-in on Ampersand Bay at the start of our journey, staring at the recently-rented upside down canoe, I realized there was one key step I had not considered in my planning: how am I going to get this stupid thing off my van?

I had three campsites reserved and pre-registered. I had a map and carefully planned route. I had food and gear neatly stowed in waterproof bags. I had sunscreen, bug juice, marshmallows, a tiny camping stove, tent, sleeping bags, books to read, a camera, rain gear, paddles and vests. What I didn’t have was a way to get the canoe off the van.

The answer, of course, lay in trail magic. Or, perhaps in this case, water magic. A middle-aged kayaker on the trip out. A powerboat mechanic on the way back. Random strangers and a random act of kindness: helping me lift and flip the 75 pound, 19 foot beast on the journey’s extreme bookends.

The four days in between went as well as I could have hoped. Proving that the Adirondacks are closer than you think, we left Buffalo on a sunny Saturday morning, drove to Saranac Lake, rented a canoe at St. Regis, and were on the water before 4 pm. The day was bright and clear, the mountains in stark relief against a brilliant sky, sailboats playing on the water. Powerboats are allowed on both Middle and Lower Saranac Lake, but they are few and far between enough that we spent little time dodging and turning into wakes. We only had a short paddle to our first campsite, a deliberate choice to not push it on the first day in case we were running behind schedule. 

I had practiced paddling with my sons on Ellicott Creek a week before we left, so we skipped any need for an introduction or lessons. Highly adaptable and generally resistant to whining (except about cartoons and Pokemon cards), the boys tend to accept their lot with admirable resolve. Throughout the trip, they paddled when it was time to paddle, hiked when it was time to hike, ate meals in all conditions without complaint about quality or quantity, slept well, and were more amenable to miseries of all types (delays, weather, bugs, bowels) than many adults I know. I was quite proud to see an eight and five year old paddle with an empty belly through driving rain wearing a smile and giggling.

Our first camp was a bulge of cedar-shaded land on the north shore of Lower Saranac. Equipped with an outhouse, picnic table and fire ring, it was far more civilized than I anticipated (note: all campsites on the Saranacs require reservations with NYS’s easy-to-use online system, as well in person registration upon arrival at the ranger station on Rte 3). I hauled the canoe out of the water onto a low sandy beach, pitched the tent, made dinner, started a fire, cooked s’mores, brushed teeth, hung the food bag, hid the bear canister, and crashed in bed by 9:00pm – a ritual I repeated twice more.

I awoke before dawn to thunderstorms. I was surprised. The weather report on my phone said to expect them some time during the day, but I assumed the lightning would come in the heat of the afternoon, leaving us plenty of time to paddle in the morning. I brought up a doppler radar map of the weather front and saw an angry red and orange blob to our north. A well timed thunderous crack confirmed that the pretty magical picture on the small LCD screen was not a mere abstraction, a simple curiosity outside wall and double-planed glass, easily ignored in the safety of our homes. But the storm system, immediate and relevant as it was, seemed north of us and moving quickly to our east, the opposite direction we were heading. With a swipe of my finger I tried to load the weather map to the west, to see what was coming. The sporadic connection jittered and the map failed to load. Well, I thought, how bad can it be? I boiled water for coffee and oatmeal and didn’t worry.

Our destination for the day was a lean-to on the far north end of Weller Pond, itself the northernmost water-accessible point off Middle Saranac Lake. This was as deep into the bush as we would go, as far off the beaten-path as possible on this pond-and-stream system, a camp along a rarely used portage to Upper Saranac Lake. The boondocks of the boondocks.

Despite the overcast uniform grey, we packed our canoe and launched, paddling past assorted rocky islands and into the Saranac River, the connection between the Lower and Middle lakes. The drizzle began as we entered the mouth of the narrow, slow moving waterway. The thunder returned after the first couple turns, the river winding through marshy scrubland that provided little cover. Obviously there were more stormcells off the map that I had failed to see. I don’t mind paddling in rain, but being exposed on the water during a lightning storm was more risk than I was willing to accept with children. Fortunately, I had a place in mind to ride out the worst of the weather.

No photos in the storm - taken the next day when the weather was better

Middle Saranac Lake is three feet higher in elevation than its Lower cousin, a small difference that nonetheless requires an accounting; geography is an unforgiving taskmaster. Nature’s rounding error is overcome at a curious hand-operated lock, staffed by a lucky DEC park ranger who spends the summer opening and closing heavy doors and enjoying solitude in a rustic cabin. I knew the lock was coming, and instead of passing through it during the worst of the lightning, we stopped and bunkered down. A wary, short haired woman, the park ranger took pity on the kids and, seemingly against her normal inclination, let us take shelter on the screened off porch of a storage shed – from there we watched buckets of rain lash the river and electricity dance across the sky.

But we didn’t wait long as I decided to roll the dice. Each storm cell I saw on my phone that morning was small but intense. So as soon as the thunder sounded from the east instead of the west, I poured the kids back into the canoe in the driving rain and got paddling. The gamble worked: the rain let off within the hour, and after a soggy lunch of peanut butter on bagels, we were turning the corner into Weller Pond, a pristine vision that feels more remote than it probably is. Yes, I had no cell phone signal, and a loon allowed us to pull our canoe right along side as he dived for fish. But a quick hike up the 1.5 mile portage from our Weller Pond camp yielded popular Upper Saranac Lake, home of one of the largest resorts in the Adirondacks.

We had the lean-to on the right night. Soon after we returned from our portage hike the rain resumed, not stopping until the next morning. First, a steady drizzle that simply annoyed and harassed my attempts at making dinner. Then a soaking rain that prevented any forays away from the shelter except irregular but necessary pee breaks. Stuck together, we played cards and talked. I told the boys family stories, tales of their grandfathers and great grandfathers, those special legends you save for the right night and the right fire and an inquisitive look in your eight year old’s eye.

Our tent was too large to fit under the lean-to, so I put the kids to bed while dodging drops. They snored happily and I sat under the heavy log covering reading with my head lamp. Finally the fire I had made mid-drizzle succumbed to the relentless dousing, and darkness crept in. Spell broken, I took the hint and went to bed early.


The rain only increased all night, lightning and thunder and canopy thrashing wind in the wee ghosting hours of the deep dark. The tent held together and kept the water off, and the kids slept through the worst, so I enjoyed the show alone, looking out over the flash-lit Weller Pond during each too-close strike. The next morning the floor of our campsite was remade: the pine needles and cedar droppings that had littered the ground uniformly before had now run together in rivulets, washed into drifts by the flooding rain.

The next day and a half was a trip back to civilization, a leapfrog back along our previous path. The third day dawned clear but breezy, and the wind only increased as we left Weller Pond behind and paddled onto open but shallow Middle Saranac Lake. The cross-wind gusts provided only annoying harassment as we crossed the northern secluded bay, but upon entering the main body of the lake the gusts became gales and raised three foot swells with whitecaps. Heavy with me in the back end of the canoe, our lifted nose now acted as a sail and the boat turned east in the wind, fortunately generally the right direction. The kids cheered and laughed as the canoe rode up and down, from crest to trough on the living sea.

I, as captain and protector, put every bit of my rafting and kayaking experience to use. I was glad I had taken on bigger swells on the Pacific in Hawaii on an 18 mile trek around the Na Pali cliffs, a quarter of the island of Kaui’i. There I was in a tandem open-top rig, and learned to anticipate and ride the waves emerging behind me. I was glad I learned as a river to guide to control a raft alone. Guests often flip out mid-rapid and stop paddling, just as you need them to dig in to pull you away from strainers and rocks. My boys were enthusiastic but helpless in the face of the surge water. I took advantage of the tailwind and directed our craft across the heart of the lake, seeking a sandy beach on the far south-east corner to eat lunch and swim a bit. I only missed my mark by a hundred yards, not bad from two miles out in the difficult conditions.

After an abbreviated meal (wearing their knit hats with swim trunks to keep warm, the boys had little interest in spending much time in the water) we ventured back out into the wind-swept lake. We were forced to crab into the wind, and I struggled to keep our broadside pointed in the right direction. Forsaking the momentum we had gained, I back-paddled a massive crosswise stroke, a maneuver that in a whitewater raft would send us on a 720 degree spin at least. Nothing happened. The gusts took the nose and suddenly powerless, we drifted into the reeds on the lake’s eastern shore. There was nothing for me to do but get out into the marsh and tow our boat through shallow sandy swamp back to the Saranac River. Finally sheltered by hill and pine, the wind died as if some ancient wind god had flipped a switch.

Under suddenly (though short lived) clearing skies, we passed back through the locks, up the lake, past cliff-studded islands to our final camp site. The rain returned and pushed us back into our tent, where we played yet more Uno and ate dinner. I’m cautious about cooking inside a tent, though, and so I boiled our water outside in the wet while the boys stayed snug in their bags. Fortified with candy bars at every meals, the kids shook off every setback, and a little more rain mattered little to them. The sun broke in time for a sunset, and I made our third helping of s’mores by starting my third fire of the trip, this time using only white birch bark, long pine needles, cedar scraps and wood soaked by two days of rain. Take that, Bear Grylls.

Fog clung to the hill sides on our last morning, mist rising off the warm lake as we paddled the last small stretch to our awaiting van at the Ampersand Bay parking area. Our topic of conversation? My eight year old wants to know if we can do a week long trip next year, instead of only four days. Mission accomplished.

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.

Escape the Urban Book Review: Adirondack Paddler’s Guide

28 Aug

Author’s Note: As you know from my last column, I just spent four days canoeing in the Adirondacks. I did not have the time in this shortened week to do that story justice, so here is another tease that’ll help your own planning.

In the outdoor writing biz, the easiest, hardest, and most frequently asked question are all the same: “where should I go _______?” That blank is filled by all modes of natural immersements: hiking, canoeing, backpacking, camping, whitewater rafting, etc. One could argue that the entire industry of travel and outdoor writing is based on answering that question. I’m honored when someone asks me – not only are they trusting me with their scant time and resources, but they are implying (at least) that I have an authoritative answer. I take the recommendation business seriously.

So if you asked me where you should go on a long distance canoe or kayak trip, I’m likely to refer you to the Adirondacks. Its a safe and popular answer. The ‘Dacks do contain some of the best flatwater in the world, and they are closer to Buffalo than you think. But the truth is that I haven’t provided much practical information you couldn’t get off the simplest Google search. The Adirondacks are a big place. So are the other likely answers to that question: the Minnesota Boundary Waters, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Algonquin Provincial Park, the North Forest Canoe Trail. When you ask where to go, you are looking for some specifics. A guide to the choicest spots. A clue to keep you from fumbling around in the (metaphorical and literal) dark.

I seek my own recommendations from own circle of experts: my fellow river guides at Adventure Calls, Tim Reed with local tour provider Adventures in Fitness. But at the end of the day, when its time to make solid plans, I pull out a map and guide book and “talk” to the expert of Adirondack water: Dave Cilley.

Dave did yeoman’s work and a great service to the outdoor community when he recently penned the definitive guide to pond and river hopping in the ‘Dacks. I love pouring over maps and guides anyway, especially in the offseason. But this set is special. Dave’s paddler’s map is the epitome of definitive, and his accompanying guidebook not only provides the play by play of each lake, stream, historical oddity and ecological wonder, but it also recommends trips of various lengths for each section of the park, gives ground truth practical logistical information, and lays out tips and tricks for all levels of paddling experience. The book and map combined provide sufficient resolution to plan nearly every inch of your trip: camping sites, portages, terrain features, currents and wildlife. I am a stickler for detail, and the map granulates every bay, inlet, side creek, lock, dam (man-made and beaver), elevation change and contour line. Dave is a river Yoda, and decades of dipping his oar in every inch of the Adirondacks led to this book.

If it sounds like I’m a bit familiar with Dave, its because he helped me muscle a 19 foot Old Town Penobscot 186 on and off my van this week, bookending my excursion at hopeful start and smelly finish. His company, St. Regis Canoe Outfitters in Saranac Lake, rented me my canoe for my recent four day trip. They’ll also sell you all manner of paddling gear, provide lessons, lead tours, pick you up or drop your off at either end of a one-way journey, and fully equip your multi-day adventure (including tent, sleeping bags, food and everything else) if you have none of your own kit. I only needed the canoe and a couple paddles for the boys, but our story of s’mores and thunderstorms will have to wait for another day.

Escape the Urban: What To Do Memorial Day Weekend

22 May

The rain and chill in the air may indicate otherwise, but summer is right around the corner. Next weekend is already Memorial Day, leaving you precious time to make plans for a long holiday outdoor adventure. Don’t have a clue what to do with your time off? Never fear – Escape the Urban will hook you up:

Go for a bike ride: For a close trip, do the classic trek from Delaware Park to the Erie Basin Marina via Scajaquada Creek, or ride along the Niagara River to get a new appreciation of Niagara Falls. If you want to venture further out, try the Chautauqua Rail Trail, from the shores of Lake Erie up the bluff to Mayville and beyond. Or, for more ideas, pick up a newsstand copy of Buffalo Spree (*cough* shameless plug *cough*) where I offer a couple more biking options, including one along the Niagara Wine Trail.

Take a hike: Drop down into the Niagara Gorge at Devil’s Hole, a great little hike for kids too. You can also drive out to Letchworth, and skip the well trodden western side of the park to enjoy the solitude and fresh perspective from the wilder eastern rim. Or, if you are in the mood to escape further, make a weekend of it by camping in Allegheny State Park, or brave the black flies at secluded Good Luck Lake in the Adirondacks.

Break out the kayak: The northern ‘Dacks are a bit flooded right now, so you may want to skip a flatwater weekend out there. In that case, go rent an open topped rig from BFLO Harbor Kayak and explore the Buffalo River and downtown’s canals and harbors. Memorial Day weekend marks the start of Jason Schwinger’s third season at the Commercial Slip.

Go whitewater rafting: The season on Cattaraugus Creek is almost done, but great rafting will remain for some time on the Genesee. Call up Adventure Calls Outfitters (*cough* second shameless plug *cough*) quick to make reservations while you still can.

Read a Book: If we get rained out, or you’re too tired to do much other than relax on the couch, try one of these outdoor reads. Aldo Leopold’s classic Sand County Almanac provides witty insights for each season, including drizzly springs. It may look like light reading, but each phrase packs a wallop of thought. If you’d rather dream of adventures further afield, cross Europe via mountain range in Clear Waters Rising, or join Shackleton and Scott on their expeditions to the South Pole in one of these offerings. Beach reading need not always be the latest mass market paperback.

I will be doing several of these myself next weekend, and since I expect most readers of this column will be out and about, and not huddling next to their computers, I’m taking the time off from writing. Enjoy the start of summer, and see you on the other side.

Biking along the Niagara River on Squaw Island

Escape the Urban: To Be a Boy in the Woods

24 Apr

I have four sons, aged 13,8, 5 and 2. I could follow strict impartial and impersonal journalistic guidelines and pretend they didn’t exist, that I travel from one outdoor adventure to the next free and clear of responsibilities or constraints. But in truth, they impact every trip and event I undertake. Day care and school schedules, not the weather, dictate outings, so I find myself playing dad on sunny days and biking in the rain and cold. Similarly, when planning a recon to Allegany State Park to scout a July-issue piece for a print publication, not only must I time-travel to imagine the height of warm summer green while enduring April sleet on unbudded brown, I lug four boys along, stir-crazy on their Easter break, while Mom stayed home in a warm quiet house and toiled under her own end-of-the-semester deadlines.

In deference to that same mother, I rented us a cabin in the southern Quaker Area of Allegany, choosing an isolated spot that, according to the meager map, was near a creek and out of the way. I normally like to hike in away from roads and noise and tent camp, bringing only what I can fit in my ample backpack. This approach works well with adults, and I have taken one son at a time (once they are hold enough to at least carry water and a change of clothes) on such trips, but it would fall apart quickly with four boys, one still in diapers. So my initial plan was to set up a tent next to our Swagger Wagon, enduring the back ache of a blowup mattress while still having sippy cups and plenty of food and wipes handy. This idea fell apart when Mom checked the weather forecast, however, and declared that her children would require significantly more shelter if I insisted on subjecting them to polar conditions. The cabin was a compromise that ended with me promising that no lips would ever turn blue, nor any shiver be endured at night.

As it was, I should not have worried for the crowds. I was expecting lighter traffic during a shoulder season. What I got was post-apocalyptic desolation. It is a bit unnerving, The Road style, to be the only vehicle and only family not in the wilderness, but in an expansive multi-road camping area with public restrooms and infrastructure for hundreds in the summer. The grey sky pressed down from overhead, sparse bits of freezing rain fell, and an ill wind blew as we played alone at the jungle-gym at the nearby public park, and then walked down the center of the wide asphalt street back to our cabin. Fortunately, two more vans arrived the next night, and we exited the Stephen King novel before the zombies attacked.

My eight year old son described our rented cabin as a wooden tent. This ungenerous description was not wholly accurate. While only one room, it had a wide porch over looking a swollen rushing stream, and contained four cots, a table and two benches, and two stoves: a wood-fired one for heat and a capable propane fueled kitchen stove for cooking. The box stove, a Vogelzang Model BX26E (Vogelzang of Holland, MI- Since 1927, approximately when the our stove was manufactured), seemed to make no dent in the chill until I went back outside into the dank night. The sleeping cots were metal frames with thin prison mattresses, of a type I was well acquainted with from years deployed in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Despite no electricity or insulation of any kind, overall the cabin felt surprisingly livable and spacious with four boisterous souls eating Spaghetti O’s and Dinty Moore, playing endless rounds of Uno, and giggling in sleeping bags long into the night while I snuck out to the van to catch the updated score of the Sabres game.

Over the course of our trip, my boys survived all of the plagues of the childhood camping experience, in sufficient quantity and amplitude so that they will inflict the same on their own children. Those trials, in no particular order, are universal and well known: eating dinner out of a can, enduring the farts and snoring of an older brother in the cot next to yours, sleeping with a knit hat on, throwing up in a plastic bag in the back of the van while driving on twisting mountain roads, constipation from refusal to poop in a smelly public park bathroom, falling out of bed disorientated onto a cold strange floor in total darkness in the middle of the night. I am proud to report my four sons met each hardship, and persevered.

In truth, however, our three days at Allegany consisted of more than avoiding a grisly horror-flick fate and cabin fever, or enduring childhood rites of passage. We hiked hills and wooded dells. We explored bear caves and snake holes, and mistook one for the other. We laughed at the funny faces on the stuffed beavers and bears in the small natural history museum at the main administration lodge in the Red House area. We climbed rocks at least as tall as ourselves. We skipped stones on a flat lake. We fell asleep to the sound of nothing but a running brook and wind in the nearby branches. And for the greatest treat of all, we pee-ed on a tree, or (gasp), directly into the creek outside our cabin door, making bubbles we could watch flowing downstream, over a small waterfall, and out of sight around a bend.