It was about 1:30 p.m. on a warm August day when I arrived at the Middle Branch of the St. Regis River, having carried my 16-foot kevlar canoe on my shoulders and a waterproof bag on my back. There was no one at the river this day, and I didn’t expect to see anyone. The parking lot was empty, and I assume not many people, except for some locals, visit this section of river.
To get here, you had to know where the carry was located, which isn’t that easy. The sign in the parking lot had been removed, and the only indication that the river was down this path was a small canoe marker stuck to a tree near the beginning of the trail, which you couldn’t see driving by in a car. Of course, this is exactly why I chose to canoe this river. I guessed that I would have it to myself.
This was my second visit to the river. The first trip was earlier in the season when I had done some brook trout fishing downstream in the faster-moving water. On this day, though, I was on an exploratory trip, hoping to learn more about modern use of this area that is called the 16-Mile Level, part of a region that 19th-century guidebook authors said was loaded with brook trout. It wasn’t long before I did learn more.
A short distance from the put-in on the right-hand side, I noticed a set of steps heading up the bank. Thinking it probably led to a campsite, I landed my boat. When I reached the top of the steps, I didn’t find an open area for a tent. Instead, there was a trail register. This was a surprise. It wasn’t exactly in a location that was obvious to people. Perhaps at one time it was, but not anymore. As I looked around, I noticed there was a trail with canoe carry markers on a tree and the faint outline of an old trail that hadn’t been used in a few years. Blowdown crisscrossed the path, making it impassable.
When I looked in the trail register book, I noticed it went back to 2001. Since that time, only about 150 parties had signed in to use the river, including eight for this year. I suspect many people who use the river don’t know the book is there because it is at the end of an abandoned trail. The last time anyone from state Department of Environmental Conservation had signed in for a backcountry patrol was July 27, 2006, and that was an assistant forest ranger. That same summer, in early August, a DEC trail crew signed in and did some blowdown removal. Everything that had fallen since then was apparently still on the ground across the trails.
As I traveled downstream, I found that the setting at the register was similar at campsites and carries. Like the trail register, they seemed to have been forgotten by the state and the public. I visited a handful of campsites. The sites were overgrown with ferns, and some actually had downed trees laying across the open areas intended for tents. One site was covered with coyote scat and animal bones.
As for the carries, you don’t have to use them for the first 5.75 miles because the river is slow and meandering, winding through meadows, with spruces and tamaracks occasionally popping up. But six miles into the trip, just after a short stretch of fast-moving water that you can walk your canoe through, there is a necessary carry if you have a kevlar boat.
This carry is tough, even though it’s only a quarter-mile long. The trail completely disappears in the forest, and you find yourself bushwacking with a boat on your shoulders, having to walk over and under downed trees and getting slapped in the face with tree branches. Finally, it ends beneath a large eastern white cedar along the shoreline. This is the worst of the carries, and some toward the end are actually pretty open.
The overgrown carry six miles into the trip probably isn’t used because people don’t use this route as a thru trip, as it was originally intended by the DEC. That’s because there was a misunderstanding over land it purchased where the take-out was supposed to be. Just over 7.5 miles into the trip is a 10th-of-a-mile-long carry that leads from the river to Blue Mountain Road, where there are some boulders barricading what was a small parking lot a quarter mile south of an old bridge. DEC officials originally thought this was Forest Preserve and had maintained the trail and parking lot. The state later learned from a surveyor that this was private property, so it had to abandon the land.
Paddlers now have to bushwack a few hundred yards south of the carry if they want to take out on private land.
Until this is issue is resolved, and the DEC says this could happen in the near future, the trip is a difficult but not impossible thru paddle. Either way, it’s still one worth taking, especially if you want to avoid the crowds. Put it on your calendar for next summer.
Mike Lynch/Lake Placid News
There are a couple carries on the trip down the Middle Branch of the St. Regis River, in order to avoid rapids such as these.