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An introduction to urban paddling

July 13, 2011
By MIKE?LYNCH, News Outdoors Writer
Jacob and I pulled up our green royalex canoe as close to the shoreline as we could. One hundred feet to our right was Imperial Mills Dam, with no buoys marking its presence, and in front of us was a wire fence with a Northern Forest Canoe Trail portage sign on it.

The only problem with the sign is that there was no clear indication where the portage was located. The edge of the pond was like a swamp, with a thick patch of cattails preventing us from getting to the true shoreline. Beyond the cattails was a steep, 20-foot embankment with the fence on top of it.

We were perplexed. How do we get around this obstacle? I guess we’ll have to scale the fence with a loaded canoe, I thought to myself.

Luckily, within a few minutes of us sitting there in our boats, three men with fishing poles appeared out of nowhere.

“Do you know where the canoe carry is?” I yelled up to them.

One of the men yelled back that it was a little to our right. Within moments it became clear exactly where it was located as the men got in single file and slipped through a hole in the fence that I hadn’t previously noticed.

Immediately upon seeing the opening, we paddled to our right. We wanted to get up the hill and to the other side. It was 7:30 p.m., and we needed to get out to Cumberland Bay on Lake Champlain before dark to meet our friend Todd and his fiancee Emily, who were letting us stay at their home for the night. We had just a few miles of the lower Saranac River to paddle before arriving at Cumberland Bay. With the fast current, we thought we could get to the lake and cross the bay before dark.

Moving as quickly as we could, we hopped out of the boat, swigged some water and began the process of getting our gear around this dam. I brought my overnight bag and wheels up the hill.

Jacob’s bag was securely under the makeshift spray skirt on the front of the boat, and we couldn’t get the dry bag out without ripping the spray skirt off the boat. It was a low-budget version and consisted of some black plastic garbage bags duct-taped over the open portion of the bow. It worked fine on the water. It just wasn’t easy to remove temporarily.

So we decided to just leave the 50-pound dry bag sitting in the bow and haul the 65-pound boat up the embankment and through the hole in the fence.

After quite a struggle, it worked. But the fun wasn’t over. We had to wheel the canoe through thigh-high grass and then drop it down another steep section by the river. The final drop was about 6 feet straight down.

Apparently, not many people paddle this lower stretch of the Saranac River. The carries were a good indication of that and also a good indication of why they aren’t for the average paddler. 

For instance, at the Indian Rapids Dam, which came right before the Imperial Mills Dam, there were no buoys before the spillway and no sign at the take-out. The carry itself was a fairly worn path that was obstructed by downed trees and overgrown vegetation.

At the carry before that, the Treadwell Mills Dam, there was a closed bridge that had to be crossed. It was closed to the public by chest-high guardrails on both sides. Getting over them with our canoe and gear required a bit of heavy lifting.

By no means was the last stretch of the Saranac River as easy as it looks on the map. Plus, the city of Plattsburgh is apparently doing some construction on the river downtown, so you have to portage around the last mile.

We found out about this as we were flying down the river and saw a sign to our left. Mandatory portage, construction ahead, it said. The sign was a pretty large metal one held in place by a cement base. Not wanting to run into any obstacles downstream, we turned our canoe to the left and headed upstream of the sign, where there was a small landing.

Paddling as hard as we could, we gained speed and were moving at one of the fastest paces of the day. We were right on track to land upstream of the sign.

But then the current pulled the boat downstream 5 feet more than we intended. Instead of landing hard on the bank, we hit the sign straight on at full speed. After a loud, gong-like noise, the sign surrendered, falling slowly to its side. But the wound wasn’t fatal. The sign would survive, and after a minute we propped it up. Other than a big dent, it looked OK.

After the initial shock of hitting the sign, we came to the realization that we had another carry. We would be walking the final mile of the Saranac River to Lake Champlain.

After a few minutes of scouting and listening to some unheeded advice from a local resident that we should just run the rapids through the construction zone, we got the boat propped up on some wheels and started walking through downtown Plattsburgh past a few stores and a large tower, and through a four-way intersection.

After a few minutes, we finally saw Lake Champlain. We had paddled about 25 miles that day and were closing in on our final destination.

Without wasting any time, we put some lights on ourselves and hopped into the boat, pushing ahead. It was now closing in on 9 p.m. We needed to get to the other side of Cumberland Bay.

Luckily, the water was like glass, and there was hardly anyone else on the water, only a single motorboat in the distance.

After about 30 minutes, we reached the other side of the bay and called our host, Todd Fuchs. We soon found out we had paddled about half a mile too far out on the peninsula. But that mistake didn’t take long to correct, and soon we were on shore being greeting by Todd.

A great host, Todd had chicken, vegetable kabobs, rice and beer waiting for us inside. Plus, a hot shower to wash off 25 miles worth of mud from the Saranac River.

Over dinner, we talked about the exploits of the day and considered our options for the following day. Our next big challenge was crossing Lake Champlain, either near Cumberland Head or Point Au Roche.

The waves and wind would likely present us with some difficulties. But there was one thing I was definitely looking forward to: There were no carries on the way across the lake.

Article Photos

Mike Lynch/Lake Placid News
Jacob Resneck looks out at Imperial Mills Dam on the Saranac River in the city of Plattsburgh on July 5. The portage around the dam is one of the many challenges of paddling on the Saranac River in the Plattsburgh area.

Fact Box

Intent on Fort Kent
This is the third in a series of dispatches from Lake Placid News outdoors writer Mike Lynch as he paddles the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. The articles will appear on the Ad’k Expeditions page every week until the completion of the journey. 



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