2013 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors
New York State has purchased 18,300 acres surrounding the Essex Chain of Lakes. On October 1 the tract will open to the public. Writer Christian Woodard previews this wild playground.
by Christian Woodard
“This is ‘the boots,’” Mike Carr said, stopping at the most prominent landmark in miles—a pair of old ﬁshing waders upended on a post at a fork in the dirt road. “Left will take us to the main camp. Right will take us to Fourth Lake.”
The left road was wide, ﬂat and had fresh tire tracks; the right one looked like it would end in an overgrown gravel pit around the corner. We turned right. A few minutes later we pulled onto a one-lane causeway between Fourth and Fifth Lakes. Navigating only by discarded footwear, Carr was doing all right.
Mike Carr, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack chapter, was taking me on a tour of the Essex Chain Lakes—the heart of New York State’s recent purchase of Finch, Pruyn land. The eight Chain Lakes and their surrounding ponds sit in a dimple of land between Newcomb and Indian Lake. The 18,300-acre purchase is almost entirely undeveloped, and the chain promises to be one of the region’s more accessible canoe wildernesses.
We unloaded the canoe and watched a pair of foot-long brook trout circle the slackwater upstream of a culvert. The marshy narrows was rimmed with cattails and soft maples, their leaf edges almost purple. Carr settled into the stern, and we pushed off.
Carr has had a large hand in bringing these lands to the public. At the time of my visit last fall, the property was owned by the Nature Conservancy, which in 2007 had bought all 161,000 acres for $110 million. “It was a fair market price at the time,” Carr said.
In December 2012 the state bought the Essex Chain parcel for $12.4 million, the ﬁrst stage in a ﬁve-year plan to acquire up to 69,000 acres for $49.8 million. The remainder of the former Finch, Pruyn land was sold to a Danish pension fund as working forest, with easements prohibiting development.
Carr piloted us through a stipple of red lily pads and cattails, into the body of the lake. A ﬁsherman trolled a ﬂy from his johnboat and cocked his chin questioningly as we passed. Members of the Gooley Club, who have leased the property for half a century, will retain exclusive use of their camps and the land through September 30. I raised an open hand in apology and greeting.
We linked to Third Lake through a short switchback edged with fallen maples and pale, pitted boulders. Carr identiﬁed the rock as Grenville marble, part of a broad band of limestone that sweeps through the Essex Chain and east into the Hudson Gorge to form Blue Ledges, the dramatic 300-foot-tall cliffs on the south side of the river.
Though much of the Adirondack Park lies on rugged granite, gabbro and anorthosite, the bedrock around the Essex Chain is compressed from the bodies of ancient sea creatures. The calcium carbonate in these rocks sweetens the soil and buffers acid rain, contributing to the high water quality of these lakes. Calcareous rock in the Adirondacks is also home to isolated plant communities like maidenhair fern, rare mosses and liverworts.
On Third Lake—the largest of the ponds—a jagged headwind rifﬂed the water into pockmarks and long lineaments. We hugged the right bank, looking across to the main Gooley camp. A pair of loons dove and resurfaced, and Carr pointed out an osprey nest. The Fishing Brook Range circles the lakes to the northwest, with 3,606-foot Dun Brook Mountain capping the ridge.
“It’s big country up there,” Carr said. He pointed with the blade of his paddle and described a small pond in the range. We talked about hunting deer, which, along with ﬁshing, has been one of the primary recreational uses of the tract since the Gooley Club started using the property in the mid-20th century.
We crossed Second Lake, and got out of the boat to walk a line of blazes through old hemlock and hobblebush to First Lake. The forest smelled wet and rank, even at the end of summer. A ﬂush of honey mushrooms sprouted next to a cast-iron stove door rusting in the moss.
An engine throttled up on the next pond to the south—Pine Lake—and then we saw a ﬂoatplane lift over the trees heading west. When we were there, small corners of First Lake and Pine Lake were the only publicly accessible water, and only by plane. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) plans to leave at least First and Pine Lakes open to ﬂoatplane access after they are added to the Forest Preserve.
Though the purchase will open the tract to the public, Gooley Club members worry that this will allow fewer people to experience the land. The club’s system of roads and snowmobile trails has brought generations of members into their private reserve. If a large portion of the tract gets a Wilderness designation, those roads will be closed to cars, snowmobiles and even bikes.
With hundreds of visitors every year, the club has consistently opened these remote experiences to a large constituency. “We have to be able to use this, not just close it off for some special interest groups,” said Nicole Delcore, an Indian Lake business owner. “[The purchase] will limit the land to a small group of people. How many people will get to see where the Cedar turns?”
She has a point; the Cedar’s sharp corners and intimate gorges are a special experience. Club members and guests used to be able to drive from Newcomb or Indian Lake to visit one of these prominent bends in the Cedar. Without motorized access, seeing the river will require either a hike of four to ﬁve miles or a full day of paddling.
Ironically, both sides feel that they would open the property up to more recreational use. Carr outlined his vision as we stroked back into Third Lake.
“You can see how great it’s going to be for paddlers,” he said. We drifted over a stringer of capped jugs holding a net to keep stocked ﬁsh from escaping downstream. “This is such a unique area, with all the lakes connected,” he added. The Essex Chain drains south into the Rock River, a tributary of the Cedar and Hudson. Without the milk jugs and net, a ﬁsh could swim more than 70 miles downstream before reaching a dam.
Carr pointed across Second Lake toward an elevated stand of hardwoods set back from the shore, which he thought was a good location for a campsite. “We want [DEC] to establish them before they get established in the wrong spot.”
Though most of the land surrounding the lakes is too boggy for good camping, there are several promising sites on each lake. Carr imagines frequent overnight and day-use of the Essex Chain Lakes. The DEC proposal includes a handicapped-accessible parking and launch area between Fourth and Fifth Lakes, and a set of trails circling the lakes, totaling some 10 miles of level hiking.
The Adirondack Park Agency plans to hold a series of formal public hearings in the late spring or summer before deciding how to classify the land. Under the DEC proposal, some of the purchase will get Wilderness designation, though the chain itself would be designated Wild Forest Canoe Recreation Area. This allows for road access to Deer Pond, a half-mile portage away from the connected lakes. The southern tract, closer to Indian Lake, may also carry a Wild Forest designation, to provide a parking area at the Indian/Hudson conﬂuence. This access would allow paddlers to leave the river before the white water of the Hudson Gorge. For the ﬁrst time, the calm upper stretches of the Hudson would be open to those boaters who lack the skills to navigate the rapids downstream.
Though Carr believes that surrounding communities will see more visitors and money as a result of the state’s purchase, the DEC’s management strategy may favor one town over another. Unless the town of Indian Lake can demonstrate that Chain Lakes Road was once publicly maintained, the road could be closed past the Indian conﬂuence, about four miles from Route 28. Visitors to the Essex Chain would all enter from the Newcomb side, bypassing Indian Lake entirely.
Even if the state land draws as many visitors as Carr anticipates, residents of Indian Lake worry that they won’t spend as much as club lessors. While Gooley members have invested in the community for generations, occasional backcountry users may have less incentive to support local services or buy property.
Carr and I rode a tailwind back to the culvert between Fourth and Fifth Lakes, loaded up the boat and drove back past The Boots. Blocky patches of regrown Finch, Pruyn clear-cut lined the road, reclaimed by young stands of alder, birch and clumps of poplar. A thick understory of raspberry canes and goosefoot maple reddened with the end of summer.
We walked out on the steel-decked bridge crossing the Hudson to the former Polaris Club. The river here is about 20 miles from its source—dark as Darjeeling and narrow enough to heft a brick across. The reach of the river between here and the Cedar conﬂuence—the Blackwell Stillwater—is exactly what Carr thinks will attract ﬁshermen, paddlers and hikers.
The bank was overhung with deer-cropped cedar, forming a dense hallway. Just upstream, the Goodnow River meets the Hudson at a boggy peninsula. When the state concludes its purchases of Finch lands, the public will own signiﬁcant sections of the Hudson’s upper tributaries—the Opalescent, Cedar and Boreas Rivers.
This section of the Hudson may be designated as Wild and Scenic River, which establishes a half-mile protected corridor of land around the river, interrupted only by a parking lot near the Indian. When linked with the Hudson Gorge downstream, the 27-mile section would be one of the longest Wild and Scenic River stretches in the state.
“All this access is great. People are going to love it,” Carr said. “But the real winners are the plants and animals. The whole thing is about biodiversity.”
Beneath us, the foam-ﬂecked Hudson slipped through the abutments and into a broad eddy below. A string of small-caliber shots rattled to the west, then silence. We watched the water drift downstream for a few minutes, then walked back to the truck.
The public will have access to the purchase starting October 1 of this year. Until then, the Gooley Club will maintain exclusive use of the property. Lessors of hunting camps will retain use of their cabins and a 1-acre envelope surrounding the buildings through 2018.
If the DEC’s proposal (www.dec.ny.gov /docs/lands_forests_pdf/finchrecfull.pdf) is accepted, car access to the Essex Chain Lakes will be via Goodnow Flow Road off Route 28N in Newcomb. Turn right when you reach the flow, then stay straight to a parking area near Deer Pond, a half-mile portage away from Third Lake. Handicapped access will be available at the causeway between Fourth and Fifth Lakes.
A full tour of all the connected lakes is about 7 miles out and back. Several other ponds are within easy carrying distance, though the DEC has yet to establish official portage trails.
For the Upper Hudson between Newcomb and Indian Lake, park at the public boat launch on Harris Lake in Newcomb. A short paddle east on Harris Lake takes you to the river, flowing from its southeast corner. Though Long Rapids and Ords Falls, both Class II, can be scrapey at levels below 300 cfs on the Newcomb gage (waterdata .usgs.gov/usa/nwis/uv?01312000), most of the stretch is beautiful flatwater and can be run much of the year. This trip is about 12 miles downstream if you leave a shuttle car at the Indian/Hudson confluence in Indian Lake, following Chain Lakes Road to the DEC parking lot.
Paddlers looking for a shorter outing on the Upper Hudson will probably be able to put in at a parking area near the Polaris Club bridge, southeast of Goodnow Flow. The Blackwell Stillwater extends several miles both up and downstream, with an interesting side trip on the Goodnow River to a set of small rapids.
A hiking trail is planned along this stretch of the Hudson, though the DEC has yet to indicate its location. Hikers and anglers can access the Cedar River along 2.5 miles of easy trail north from the gated access on Chain Lakes Road. This trail will also connect to almost 10 miles of flat hiking around the Essex Chain.
For information on the Adirondack Park Agency’s public hearings on classification of the Essex Chain tract, check www.apa.ny.gov.