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Duck Hole down but not out

September 14, 2011
By JOE HACKETT, News Outdoors Columnist
The Cold River remains a wild and scenic river that flows for miles through the wilderness from its headwaters at Duck Hole before joining with the Raquette River near Lost Channel at the outlet of Long Lake.

Rich in history, legend and lore, the Cold River valley remains one of the most incredibly wild, remote and historic regions of the entire Adirondack Park.

Noah John Rondeau, the famous Adirondack hermit, lived for many years along the river. He was the self proclaimed Mayor of Cold River City, with a population of one. It truly is big country.

Duck Hole Pond was originally constructed by the Santa Clara Lumber Company in 1912. The original dam was a rock-filled log crib structure of about 10 feet in height. A larger dam eventually replaced it.

In the mid-1930s, the dam was maintained and reinforced by the Civilian Conservation Corps, operating out of a CCC work camp located nearby at Ward Brook.

Fed by four tributaries, including the outlet of the Preston ponds, Duck Hole eventually grew to encompass more than 80 acres. However despite its size, the pond remained relatively shallow, with a maximum depth of only 12 feet of water.

Duck Hole has always been popular with hunters and trappers, as well as hikers and anglers. According to former Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Don Perryman, during the Great Depression era many locals went to the woods to procure “Adirondack beef.” His father was among them. 

E. J. Dailey, one of the last great wilderness trappers, also maintained a nearby camp, as did Red Smith, the old woodsman of Lake Placid and his fellow trapper Ennis Fessette of Tupper Lake.

The area is still frequented by the likes of Saranac Lake’s Sawtooth Willy, and others of his ilk. Although they return for the Adirondack beef, most others now come seeking relief.

For many years, the Conservation Department maintained interior outpost cabins at both Duck Hole and Shattuck Clearing, which were considered the nearby suburbs of Cold River City. The cabins were eventually deemed “non-conforming structures” and burned to the ground.

Clarence Scanlon served as the last caretaker at Duck Hole and Edwin Reid, of Saranac Lake, also served as an interior ranger. Dave Ames was the last interior ranger at Shattuck Clearing, which was also removed the late 1960s.

In a November 1969 letter to fellow members of the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, former APA Commissioner Peter Paine wrote about visiting the Duck Hole HQ.

“We arrived at Duck Hole in gathering darkness, and while I must confess it was comforting to have the ranger cabin there since it had started to rain and was pretty raw, the shock of finding such a well-equipped house, with hot and cold water, stoves, refrigerators and two cars in the middle of a wilderness area, was considerable. There is little question that the availability of the road has led to a substantial increase in the elaborateness of the cabin and the use of it by the Conservation Department.”

Duck Hole’s elaborate ranger cabin was eventually burned, but not before Governor Nelson Rockefeller arrived via helicopter to spend a portion of his vacation there.

Duck Hole hadn’t gotten much attention since those days, until 2002 when the Open Space Institute brokered a major land deal for the property. The lands had been closed since 1826, before being opened to the public in October 2003.

The purchase provided paddlers access to a wild region that had been locked up in private hands for more than a century. The parcel included the magnificent Henderson Lake, as well as both the Upper and Lower Preston ponds. 

My first canoe trip into the area was in the fall of ‘03. The route required a stiff uphill carry through the mile-long Preston Pond Pass, as well as two shorter carries between the Preston ponds and into Duck Hole.

I had previously fished on Duck Hole, but after hiking in with an inflatable raft, I realized the view from a canoe was incredible. By the spring of 2004, the carries had been well established and cleared. I returned often to fish the ponds, as well as sections of the Cold River and Moose Creek. 

Although the Duck Hole dams had been damaged by floods during the late 1970s and mid-80s, it took until 1995 for a cursory inspection to reveal that the Duck Hole dams had significantly deteriorated. The Regional dam safety engineer inspected duck Hole Dam in 2000 and it was found to be in poor condition. 

Although backcountry enthusiasts retained high hopes that the Duck Hole Dam could be rebuilt, there were just too many factors in the way, including funding, labor and well-established restrictions on the use of motorized equipment in the wilderness.

Although the dam had managed to survive significant floods in the spring of 2011, the weakened structure couldn’t bare the impact of Tropical Storm Irene in August. After being battered by gale force winds, torrential rains and an incredible spring snowmelt, the old timbers finally shivered under the onslaught of the second 100-year flood to hit the Cold River valley in less than six months.

Following the recent storm, DEC’s Chris Alberga flew over the area and discovered that the spillway dam had been breached and the pond had been “dewatered.”

My heart sunk with the news. I wondered if the Adirondacks newest canoe route, which had provided paddling access into the core of the High Peaks wilderness area, had already been lost. The public had waited for more than a century and a half to gain access to the route, and in less than a decade could it already be gone?

As I hauled a lightweight Placid Boatworks canoe over the final few yards of the carry from Lower Preston into Duck Hole last weekend, the question weighed heavy on my mind. When I finally got a glimpse of the pond, it was evident that the route was intact.

It was still possible to paddle and portage from the Upper Works trailhead in Tahawus, all the way to the lean-tos at Duck Hole. The water level at Duck Hole has diminished by more than 6 feet, and it will no longer support a once thriving brook trout population. However, there remain ample angling opportunities on the Cold River, the Preston ponds and Henderson Lake, as well as Moose Creek and other nearby streams.

The shoreline has receded considerably. The lone island is now high and dry, as are huge fields of old stumps, but the Duck Hole remains. There are ducks, Canada geese, blue heron, and many other signs of life tracked in the mud.

The darling old girl is far more slender than I remember, but she still has that unique sparkle.

Eventually, the stunning mudflats will be reclaimed by vegetation, with grasses first and then by thickets of tag alders. It is a process that I will enjoy. Rather than bemoaning the death of an old friend, I will celebrate the birth of a new spirit. 

I’ll grow old watching the youngster lady mature, and I’ll be there as the surrounding landscape sprouts the fresh green of adolescence. Nature is a dynamic lady and I look forward to watching her grow old for many years to come.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
A lean-to nearest the outlet of Duck Hole remains intact, but nearly half of the dam is missing and the island is high and dry.



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