In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time. -Leonardo da Vinci
Four days, four people, three coolers, and two canoes. There are no better ways to spend a long weekend that don’t involve getting arrested.
The Oswegatchie River, in the northern Adirondacks, is a substantial water system that feeds from the Five Ponds Wilderness Area. It’s well known as a recreation area; the water is comparatively clean, the fishing is good, and the section we traveled, navigable by canoe or kayak, is dotted with riverside campsites. We put in on Friday at Inlet and paddled upstream, looking for a good campsite that would put us not too far from High Falls, our Saturday destination. Since the weather was good, everyone else had the same idea, and they took the decent campsites before us. The trip in is not so easy; not only are you heading upstream, but there are several rocky sections and lots of beaver activity partially blocks the river in places. Five hours of canoeing later, the sun was starting to go down and my little T-Rex arms were getting tired when we finally found a great vacant site and set up camp.
Saturday was a morning of bacon and pancakes. Nothing that starts with bacon and pancakes can ever go wrong. After that, we faced a decision because we slept in a little longer than we’d planned (hey, canoeing’s not easy): spend our entire day making the trip to High Falls and be exhausted for Sunday, or take a short hike in the Five Ponds Wilderness Area and be a little more relaxed. Relaxing always wins.
Five Ponds Wilderness Area is one of the largest wild pieces of land in New York State. There are some trails and sites marked for primitive camping, but the effects of human civilization are negligible. In addition, it holds the largest area of old growth white pine in the world, and is the southernmost edge of the important low elevation boreal forest in New York.
Some words about boreal forest; I’ll try to make this short and add some photos to keep your interest. If you have kids, this is a good time to think about research assignments. Boreal forest, also called taiga, is the largest biome in the northern hemisphere, and is a critically important carbon sink. The flora is distinctively dominated by pine and fir with birch, spruce, and aspen, a healthy mix of mosses and ferns, shrubs such as witches hobble (below) and many berry producers, various wildflowers, and abundant fungus and lichen. Boreal forests are often boggy or marshy, a feature that supports an even greater variety of plant life, and all of this botanical diversity ultimately supports a broad range of animal species.
Many of North America’s most notable large mammals, including moose which are making a comeback in New York, are dependent in part or whole on boreal forest. Other mammals, such as the lynx, black bear, river otter, hares, beaver, wolf, and coyote, call it home, as well as reptiles and amphibians in the wetland areas. The real story, though, is birds. Not only do threatened bird species, such as the spruce grouse, depend on areas of boreal forest for their survival, but so do half of all of the bird species you’ll ever see in the U.S. Hopefully it’s not a surprise that birds fly, so they make use of many different latitudes as the seasons change. The bird you see only part of the year is spending the warmer or cooler months somewhere else. They also need stopover locations, and the Adirondack mountains, being a sort of southern archipelago of high-elevation boreal forest, serve a vital function here.
Look, I know the global warming issue is politically charged and there aren’t many people on the fence about this one, and I agree that in some cases, losing a species here or there as biomes change isn’t going to throw the world into utter chaos. But there are hundreds of species of birds in the U.S.; a shrinking habitat won’t instantly kill that half of them, but can we lose 25%? 10%? What happens when migratory birds don’t have that stopover climate and can’t make it to their breeding grounds? This loss of biodiversity will have a cumulative domino effect, and it will just be the beginning. It’s not only possible but very likely that all of the boreal forest habitat in New York will cease to exist within a couple of decades. Regardless of your opinion as to why, this is actually happening, so enjoy it while we have it. And it’s not just a case of the biome shifting further north, like some other southerly biomes can. North of the boreal forest is the tundra, and it’s more than simply cold temperatures that make it currently unsuitable but the day-night pattern as you approach the north pole; once you’re at the north pole, there’s no further north. Plus, the boreal soil is extremely acidic due to the large amount of fallen pine and fir needles, and this soil property is vital to the other flora. It’s not something that can develop in the 10-50 year timepsan we’re talking about.
So that’s the boreal forest, in more words than I wanted to use, sorry. It’s absolutely beautiful, and a treasure that you should enjoy in New York while you can. So, right, we hiked Five Ponds, with the highlight for me being slipping from a log and dunking $1200 of camera in a river. Obviously it was okay or this would be a very different post. This is also where we discovered that every campsite has a resident chipmunk. We met the first on our lunchbreak during the paddle in, and named him “baloney chipmunk” because of a large sore on his back which was reminiscent of the baloney we were eating. At a lean-to where we stopped for lunch on the hike, we met another chipmunk who was considerably cuter and ate anything we gave him with the exception of sour neon gummy worms. So, chipmunks aren’t actually dumb.
The plan worked perfectly; after the hike, we relaxed and made an awesome fajita dinner (there’s not much better than a steak grilled over fresh wood coals — maybe bacon and pancakes). We heard coyotes after dark, and howled back at them, which had nothing to do with the large quantities of tequila being consumed. Sunday was a fairly slow morning, we broke camp and paddled downriver a bit to cut some of the time from the final trip. I learned that canoeing downstream is much easier. Because most other campers had already packed up and hauled out to return to the real world on Monday, the good lean-to site on the river was clear and we eagerly claimed it. This turned out to be a very, very smart decision, because it would rain that night and Monday, and the (graffiti’d) lean-to was just the right amount of shelter. I built another amazing fire, the only thing I paid attention during in boy scouts, and Laura set up her sweet camp hammock.
This site was next to a wide marshy area, and Sunday night instead of coyotes we heard a family of foxes, and some beavers working in the river. My Audubon friends ID’d a lot of the wildlife we saw and heard, and taking stock at the end of the trip I was a little surprised at just the list of birds that I saw: phantom midge, American black duck, common merganser, merlin, sharp-shinned hawk, osprey, cedar waxwing, blue jay, black capped chickadee, swamp sparrow, hermit thrush, northern flicker, black throated blue warbler, and an amazingly close encounter with a blue heron on the final trip out. Eric is a very wise traveler able to name most of the plants we saw, and pointed out the cardinal flowers here and there on the riverbank.
If you ever see cardinal flower, you will never see anything else that is truly red again. It’s so brilliantly, vibrantly red that it destroys your previous conception of what red is and redefines your entire understanding of color. Okay, maybe it’s not that red, but the digital camera can’t quite capture it in all its glory; it’s really, really red.
Sunday was the slow pack and preparation to head out and rejoin civilization. Clouds rolled in and by noon we heard thunder to go along with the intermittent heavy rain. We’d discussed the possibility of staying an extra day, but we already had the canoes loaded and decided to make a break for it the next time the rain slowed. This was smart, as you’ll soon see. It did, and we did, but the rain picked up again almost as soon as we were on the river; the first hour or so was heavy rain, and anything that wasn’t covered was soaked.
When the rain stopped, it was an abrupt shift; the grey cover lifted, replaced by blue skies and huge, puffy white clouds. The river was mostly calm here, and every bend revealed a more gorgeous scene than the last, trees and clouds reflected in the river. This is where we saw the heron, hunting at a bend in the stream, and it let us coast surprisingly close before taking off. We stopped to visit baloney chipmunk again and have some lunch; the DSLR was safely slowed in a dry bag and I was using a point & shoot, which doesn’t quite do the weather justice.
After an hour of paddling in the sunshine the thunder started up again, threatening us for the last hour or so back to Inlet. Our timing couldn’t be better; a light rain started to fall as soon as we landed. Not only that, but about fifteen minutes after we packed the cars and headed out, on the dirt access road, something like a rock hit the windshield. But there were no cars in front of us, and rocks don’t just suddenly fly up at cars. That’s no rock, it’s hail! Violent hail, up to dime-size, pelted the cars. I can’t imagine how we’d be feeling if we’d left later and gotten caught on the river in that. Well, actually I can: not very good.
We waited it out, got back on the road, and took a lesiurely drive home. Heading west on Route 3, we stopped a few times to make some more photos, rewarded here and there with some nice post-hailstorm views. That’s how four days of canoe camping starts and ends, I guess: a chipmunk with strange sores and near-Biblical hail. As always there’s a slideshow with a few more photos.
Not a double rainbow all the way, but we’ll take it.