2012 Annual Guide
Three Fine Days
Paddling and camping on Long Lake
by Tom Henry
As we wade our kayaks into the cool waters of Long Lake it’s a lively morning at the state boat launch: a man has just destroyed the bottom of his pack canoe dragging it across the parking lot, two anglers are whooping after getting an old Evinrude outboard motor to start and someone under a shade tree is selling pickles. An excited group with six red canoes is launching a camping trek too. We’re not the only ones hanging back to soak up this ever-mounting view at the grand center of the Adirondacks.
Traveling northeast from beautiful Buttermilk Falls through an intimate valley of Kempshall and Blueberry Mountains, to the east, and Owls Head and Buck, to the west, this dramatic lake—a natural widening of the Raquette River—courses 14 miles toward a spectacular kingdom of blue peaks known as the Seward Mountains. On the water we see everything from traditional guideboats and canoes to ﬂoatplanes. Along wooded shores rustic cottages are interspersed with modern homes. We’re feeling a healthy tension between old and new on this water highway of early hunters, loggers, settlers and adventurers. One event signaled the changing times: in 1885 Adirondack guides whose livelihoods were being undercut by the new-fangled passenger steamboat Buttercup sank it with a midnight ax blow.
Gliding three abreast from our launch in the hamlet, four miles from the south end of Long Lake, my daughter Lisa, her husband, Chris, and I are thrilled that guideboats continue to ply these waters. They evolved hereabouts 170 years ago. Another Adirondack icon, the lean-to, still provides free camping along seven miles of shore. Simply looping this classic Adirondack lake would be tantamount to peak-bagging Mount Marcy—we’re looking for a central campsite as a base for day trips.
We paddle northeast to scout Forest Preserve shores east of Round Island. The domelike landmark appears as we carve starboard around a small point into an escalating scene of distant isles, quiet unspoiled coves and broadening blue waters. Lush reaches sweep toward the ancient Sewards with such allure we feel our journey beginning to transcend time. A gust of wind steers us leeward of an enchanting headland where, pulling up on a tiny beach, we ﬁnd a faint path into a fragrant pine grove. We almost overlook it, but there on a small rise we see a vacant lean-to. A ﬁre pit has been readied to heat a meal over a pyramid of hardwood chunks courtesy of an earlier traveler. I romanticize an old Long Lake guide sitting on a log by this timeless ﬁreplace, smoking his pipe, the hour for a civilized supper long passed. He is stirring venison stew into the wee hours, minding as well his spiral of sourdough wrapped around a thick club propped close by the ﬁre. I imagine him bedding down on balsam boughs he’s laid on the lean-to ﬂoor.
But in our world it’s 10 a.m., the view is of a seaplane hangar, and we’re bound for the less-developed areas we see to the north for our supper. Still, ﬁnding the evocative lean-to after less than 30 minutes of paddling, and having read such campﬁre musings in the writings of 19th-century Adirondack travel writer George Washington “Nessmuk” Sears, we’re already experiencing this place at its primitive best. In 1882 Nessmuk wrote in Forest and Stream magazine, “Whoever makes a lone cruise in a light canoe through the Adirondacks will … do well to give [Long Lake] as much time and attention as he can.… There are more than ﬁfty snug nooks and camping spots on the shores.”
We want to make the north end of the lake by midday, then paddle back near Round Island to camp. Tomorrow photographer Bill Killon and his wife, Jill, will join us. Bill has been digging up lake lore for years from locals including Long Lake Historical Society members Tom Bissell and Ray Smith.
According to Bissell, in the late 1800s a fellow named “Harney” Fournier made his living by delivering milk to folks around the lake every day by rowboat. When Harney didn’t show up one day a woman rowed to his farmhouse and found him out back with one boot off, straining the day’s milk through his sock. As Bissell put it, “That was the end of the milk business.” Later, according to Smith, another fellow rented cows; he’d bring one to your cottage for the summer and how you strained your milk was your business. Grocery boats dropped off food, mail and liquor, and sometimes served as hearses, writes Hallie Bond in Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks.
Exploring shoals south of Round Island we spy a public island near the east shore with three vacant campsites. The location is close to central so we pitch our tents. The lake and mountain views are fantastic. The island has one outhouse and each site has a stone ﬁre pit. The place is half-covered with ripe blueberries but we’re careful to leave nothing else that would attract bears as we resume paddling north.
Our friend Jeff Russell, who camped near the foot of the lake as a Boy Scout leader, told us the old tale about campers who wear strings of bells around their necks and clutch bottles of pepper spray to ward off bears—he warned if we encounter minor scat containing wild berries it’s probably from a little black bear, while the scat of big bears contains wild berries, strings of bells and smells like pepper spray.
The view of the Seward Range is stunning as we gain the north end of Round Island. Drifting, we notice very light weekday motorboat trafﬁc. As for canoes and kayaks, we’ve seen two dozen or more since launching; some hell-bent north to score prime lean-to or tent sites, others lazing about craggy shallows. It’s fun to paddle into these bays in search of lesser coves, then into smaller inlets and down to a dwindling creek or some soggy nook in a mud bank—places where you can see minnows darting in sun-warmed pools, watch baby turtles basking on rocks, glimpse a doe with fawn, startle to a beaver slapping its tail, or relax to a symphony of peepers and songbirds as you picnic on a shelving rock.
About two miles north of Round Island we pass Kelly Point, one of several camping areas where the 133-mile Northville-Placid Trail, which parallels the east shore, meets the lake. In the 1800s, according to Bissell, Harney and others burned these hills so blueberries would grow. The Santanoni Range rises east beyond Kempshall and Blueberry Mountains as we paddle past the pretty Camp Islands, a private trio of two large and one small. The water seems big; the shoreline, logged long ago but now reforested, seems nearly pristine.
Seeing a beautiful 1946 wooden guideboat built by Willard Hanmer, of Saranac Lake, reminds us of watercraft traditions here. Generations of Long Lake guideboat builders produced some of the region’s best. Long Laker Warren Cole displayed one of his boats at the Sportsmen’s Show at Madison Square Garden in 1899. Preacher John Todd, who made his ﬁrst visit to Long Lake from Massachusetts in 1841 and wrote Long Lake in 1845, was ﬁrst to write about the lightweight boats that “a man can carry on his head through the woods, from river to river, and from lake to lake.”
North of Island House, site of a former island hotel, we skirt a strange whale-size rock that breaches the northern basin. Beyond that a long remote beach marks the end of the lake—a welcome sight as we leap from our boats for a swim. Sentinel pines shade picnic nooks, though we eat on the beach. Too soon the sun waning through wispy clouds sends us packing for our two-hour sunset cruise back to camp.
As we return along the west shore we explore the Anthony Ponds Outlet where we’ve been told to listen for “thunder pumpers,” better known as American bitterns. At last we hear a creepy deep-throated whoop and spy one of the long-legged birds wading in the shallows. Far southwest we see Owls Head—we climbed its ﬁre tower last fall when the mountains were in full regalia, “as if a thousand rainbows had fallen to pieces and dropped their glories upon them,” as Reverend Todd described Long Lake’s foliage. Paddling this enchanting stretch in the orange pale of a Long Lake sunset will endure as a treasured gift.
We wake at dawn to a calling loon. Chris gets the fire going as Lisa mixes batter in honor of old Mother Johnson, who stuffed 19th-century travelers with pancakes at her “halfway house” downriver from the north end of the lake. William H. H. “Adirondack” Murray wrote in his 1869 Adventures in the Wilderness, “Never pass it without dropping in … you ﬁnd such pancakes as are rarely met with.… Bless her soul, how her fat, good-natured face glowed with delight as she saw us empty those dishes!”
Suddenly we see two kayaks approaching and head for the beach to greet Jill and Bill. After they pitch camp we paddle to the hamlet for a short road trip to Buttermilk Falls to watch the Raquette River’s plunge toward the lake’s southern headwaters.
A 10-minute drive and two-minute walk place us in a picnic area overlooking the Raquette River, where in 1883 Nessmuk “spent an hour watching the dashing, foaming falls and footing the utter impossibility of any man or boat ever tumbling over those ragged boulders and coming out anything but corpse and kindling wood.” We follow a short canoe carry to quiet pools below the falls, then return atop the cascade for a picnic. On our way back to the boat access we buy a bundle of oak chunks, then launch for an afternoon paddle on the southern four miles of the lake.
The Adirondack Hotel stands as it has for more than a century on the east shore as we paddle south. Passing a beautiful municipal beach we slip under the Route 30 bridge into the south lake where Buttercup, the steamer sunk by guides 127 years ago, was discovered by scuba divers and raised in 1959. It’s now on display behind the Long Lake town ofﬁces. You can still see the hole chopped through the hull.
We enjoy Craftsman architecture in boathouses and camps as we trace the west shore. The lake is growing quieter and woodsier as it narrows south. Soon a sunset sends us gliding back to camp. By nightfall a ruby glow is emanating from our oaken blaze, as presaged by John Todd in 1845: “Your camp-ﬁre sends its light far up among the magniﬁcent trees around you, and makes them look like so many mighty pillars, sustaining a canopy of silver, while beyond the reach of your light, the forest seems a thousand times darker than common darkness.” Heavy-eyed and entranced by chilling campﬁre tales we drift to sleep wondering, could this be the island locals tell of, occupied by the ghost of an Indian maiden murdered by her jealous suitor?
Bowls of steaming oatmeal warm our hands as drifting morning lake fog haunts the early glow. Bill, last to bed taking pictures, is up ﬁrst taking pictures. Our plan to launch early evaporates with the fog. But we’re on the water “by the crack of noon,” we joke, bound north to explore the Raquette River for our ﬁnal day trip. Development north of Round Island is quite unobtrusive. A large 1896 west-shore lake house, originally Johnsburg Red, now blends with the forested landscape in dual greens. A 1927 mahogany Chris-Craft in the boathouse completes the picture.
Zigging east we stop at a state lean-to near the Camp Islands for a picnic, then paddle 3.5 miles north to a maze of reeds where Long Lake narrows back into the Raquette River. Every minute or so we’re hearing something that sounds like “Cannonball!” Emerging into the open river we realize it’s a little boy racing off a dock at a remote camp across the channel. He’s yelling “Cannonball!” with every leap, but rather than tucking, his legs keep running in midair as he churns in feet ﬁrst.
A mile downriver a large glacial erratic dots a fork in the river, where we bear left. An osprey on a treetop remains stalwart. Soon we spot a lean-to on the left bank, and on the right we’re excited to ﬁnd the mouth of the Cold River. We paddle a short way up the Cold wishing we had more time—just nine miles upriver is the site of Noah John Rondeau’s hermitage, though less than two miles is ﬂatwater.
Returning toward the broad lake we encounter Wilton, New York, Boy Scout Troop 24, “And other family members,” as one girl exclaims. They’re canoe-camping three days and two nights, 34 miles, from Long Lake to Tupper Lake and are getting psyched for the 1.5-mile carry they’ll have tomorrow morning, six miles below the lake outlet, at Raquette Falls. The night the guides sank the Buttercup, they also dynamited a dam at Raquette Falls that had improved water levels for the steamboat. Mother Johnson’s pancake house was a few rods below those falls, according to photographer and travel writer Seneca Ray Stoddard who, dining there in the 1870s, asked what kind of ﬁsh she was serving him: “Well,” said she, “they don’t have no name after the 15th of September. They are a good deal like trout, but it’s against the law to catch trout after the ﬁfteenth, you know.”
Six whitetail deer bound along the west bank as we near the lake. Wending back through the reeds to open water we pull out to sit on the quiet north-end beach, loving this lake, the river, the mountains, the lore. Gliding into our last spectacular sunset, our long wakes silently ripple away across this living watercolor, as John Todd reﬂected, leaving Long Lake to “mirror back the bright heavens … as if [we] had never been.”
IF YOU GO:
Fourteen-mile Long Lake provides a classic central Adirondack paddle trip west of the “ice-cream intersection” of Routes 28N and 30 in the hamlet of Long Lake. Follow Route 30 into the village to a sharp bend, turn east onto Dock Road then roughly follow the shore .4 mile for free launching at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) boat access. Facilities include a ramp, canoe launch, docks, pit toilets and parking for 60 vehicles. Clean your boat thoroughly before you arrive to avoid introducing invasive species such as Eurasian watermilfoil. A site monitor can help you verify compliance.
Park vehicles at the access while overnighting on Forest Preserve lands that border large stretches of the east and northwest shores. Two lean-tos on the river a mile north of Buttermilk Falls are reachable from the lake and have steep-trail access to a small parking area off North Point Road.
There are numerous tent sites and 20 lean-tos along the lake and nearby Raquette River sections, all first come first served (lake spots fill quickly on weekends and holidays). Sites often have a fire pit and an outhouse but are not marked with signs, so watch for pullouts where boulders have been rolled aside. Camping more than three days in one place or in groups of 10 or more requires a permit from a forest ranger (see www.dec.ny.gov). Primitive camping in the Forest Preserve is allowed with restrictions. See the DEC’s website for regulations.
The DEC’s 135-site campground at nearby Lake Eaton has automobile access and hot showers (see www.reserveamerica.com).
A 1.5-mile canoe carry at Raquette Falls and two shorter ones at Buttermilk Falls connect Long Lake to extensive water routes north and south. Charts such as the Adirondack Canoe Map, available at local shops, show paddling and hiking trails, including public lean-tos.
Hikers will enjoy climbing to the fire tower on 2,780-foot Owls Head Mountain. Allow at least four hours round-trip and expect a tough scramble near the top. Follow Route 30 north from the Long Lake bridge for .6 mile, turn left on Endion Road and watch for trailhead parking at 1.5 miles on the right.
Buttermilk Falls, the Raquette River’s plunge toward the south end of Long Lake, is a .3-mile round-trip walk, a not-to-be-missed sight. From the hamlet follow Route 28N/30 southwest three miles to a sharp bend, turn right on North Point Road and proceed 2.1 miles to trailhead parking on the right. The 133-mile Northville-Placid Trail (NPT) weaves along eight miles of Long Lake’s east shore, providing stunning vistas, picnic areas and lean-tos. Access the NPT just east of town by following Tarbell Hill Road north from Route 28N to the trail. Paddlers can access the NPT at Catlin Bay, Kelly Point, Rodney Point and Plumleys Landing.
Wind and waves are common, especially in the northern basin. Wear rather than stow your PFD. Bring insect repellant, bug shirts and head nets during blackfly season (mid-May through June). Follow bear precautions, such as making noise when hiking and using bear-proof canisters to store food. Buy firewood locally to control insect infestation. Public phones can be found in the hamlet (cell service is nearly nil).
Hoss’s Country Corner, at the intersection of Routes 28N and 30, has entertaining camp reads as well as provisions. Northern Borne, between the public beach and the boat launch, has hardware, a deli and fresh produce.