Tommy sat in the car at Long Lake watching the float planes take off with their cargo of beer, lawn chairs, fishing gear and bearded men in flannel shirts and baseball caps. It was a drizzly Friday before the first weekend in May and the business of flying fishermen to Adirondack waters to which they couldn’t drive, and to which they wouldn’t walk or paddle, was brisk.
Through the car’s windshield, Tommy could see the bow of the dark green Old Town canoe secured upside down on the roof rack. He hoped to be paddling soon in the bow of that canoe in Adirondack waters other than the ones to which those yahoos by the lake were being flown. Imagine, he thought to himself, bringing beer on a camping trip.
North Country Men’s Club members Tommy and Neal were waiting at Long Lake for Jack and Billy, who were coming from Buffalo to join them for three days in the Bog River Flow in the northwest Adirondack Mountains. A “flow” in the Adirondacks is a cross between a lake and a river. It can be described as a narrow lake with a discernable current, or a wide river with a current gentle enough to allow easy upstream paddling. The Bog River version of a flow was created by two dams constructed shortly after 1900.
Jack’s car, with his red We-no-nah Sundowner on top, finally appeared in the early afternoon. Jack suggested that, because of the raw weather, they ought to spend the day in the unpretentious hotel looking out on the lake, and watch the Celtics on television that night. It was decided, however, that their pride in their gender required them to head for the Flow as planned. Indeed, it turned out that Jack had only presented the option in confidence that it would be rejected outright. Sort of a joke.
As Jack’s and Billy’s tardiness in arriving from Buffalo had put the group behind schedule (The two had stopped at a McDonald’s and at the famous Old Forge hardware store), the four of them proceeded straight out of Long Lake headed west on Route 30. The houses on the side of the road gave way to white pines as they sped along. They turned off at the sign for Horseshoe Lake and drove past the lake to the end of the pavement. They then turned left on a rutted, rocky dirt road and, after a short distance, arrived at the put-in, which was just above an old dam. Bugs swarmed around them as they got out of their cars, but the insects didn’t seem to be black flies and they didn’t seem to be biting.
The biting scourge of the Adirondacks
Tommy wondered whether any significant portion of the weekend would have to be devoted to covering skin, slapping at bugs on exposed skin, applying bug dope, and cursing bugs to damnation. At some point in May each year, the predominant feature of the Adirondacks becomes back flies, those small biting insects that hatch from rushing mountain streams. Much has been written about them, including salutes to their ability to keep the Adirondacks from becoming too crowded. Most of the writing, however, has a steady undercurrent of fear, loathing, and deep respect for the flies’ power to distract. Unlike mosquitoes, black flies hunt for human blood 24 hours a day and, rather than neatly extracting the plasma with the mosquito’s surgeon-like skill, tear at the surface of the skin like pirates digging with pointed shovels for buried treasure. They are, quite simply, a force to be reckoned with. As they unpacked the cars, Tommy fervently hoped that the black flies weren’t, as they say, “out.”
Fearful of the little beggars, Tommy had extracted a promise from Billy — who had prevented the trip from being a week earlier and, presumably, less buggy — that he would not complain about black flies. It would console Tommy little, however, if Billy remained stoically silent as bugs distracted him to the point of insane raving.
The bugs didn’t seem bad as they hurriedly carried canoes and gear from the cars to the water’s edge. They were hurrying due to the seasoned camper’s desire for efficiency, and they were hurrying for another reason. They all had that anticipatory animation and eagerness that comes from beginning a trip into the woods. Tommy had been to the Bog River Flow before, but for Jack, Billy and Neal, the imminent trip had the appeal of both the known and the unknown. They were going into the woods, and they were eager once again for what that meant. But they had also never been in these particular woods, with their yet-to-be-plumbed mix of water, forest, weather, challenges and rewards. Just what was it going to be like? How wild would it seem? Or how tamely traveled?
An earlier adventure
Tommy had been there once before almost three years earlier, shortly after the Flow was opened to the canoeing public after scores of years in which it had been a private preserve, and hoped the others would find it as satisfying now as he had then. As he told the others during the trip, he had been a veritable pioneer of the Bog River Flow. He remembered the roughly drawn maps he had had to use, the ones with sea serpents plying the watery parts of the cartographer’s rough rendition. He had traveled solo by canoe, in a rented Kevlar We-no-nah that seemed small and tippy. He had to cross the dangerous portage, with its narrow walkway over the top of the dam, from which the water plunged many feet in a wild spray. One false step and …
He had also seen wolf tracks at the portage. Others told him that they were the prints of dogs brought along on canoe trips, but he had known better. He had also taken the dangerous north channel around the big island in the middle of the Flow. The channel had taken him past the big guns of the Boy Scout camp. As his canoe came in view of the camp, the Scouts had come running down to the shore, pointing at him and making menacing gestures. He had pulled his Swiss Army knife from his pocket, however, and had held it aloft with the big blade unfolded. No doubt the Scouts had seen the blade glinting in the sun, for they never took a step toward the many Grumman aluminum war canoes hauled out on the beach. He had then entered the heart of darkness of the upper Flow, with its rugged shoreline and forbidding coves, and camped for two nights in solitude, like Nessmuk, with only the loons, osprey and mergansers for company. He had made it back, and was now going in again. Talk about pushing one’s luck! Just how far did he think he could fold back the envelope?
As he brought the last of his gear from the car to the water, he saw Billy sitting in the bow of Jack’s canoe, ready to go. Thank God they weren’t hiking. The only way now Billy could rush ahead of the three of them now would be to swim.
To the boats
They got into their boats and began paddling against the slow current in the narrow corridor just above the dam. The Flow then opened up, with a shoreline ranging from reedy marshland to tall pines. They saw an osprey overhead and whitetails feeding near the water’s edge. A pair of mergansers took off from the water as they paddled near, and loons, with their heads, beaks and low-in-the-water bodies looking like little submarines with periscopes up, surfaced after dives. If you want to see wildlife, follow the water.
The weather was breezy and cool, and the four paddlers wore rain gear against the intermittent drizzle. They made it to the second dam upstream in about 90 minutes, and portaged to the higher water above the dam. “This is nice,” Billy said, approving of the trip so far.
They put in and headed west into the wind up the Flow, which was contained above the dam by high ridges on either side. It was now that the lesson in hull design began.
As they paddled, Jack and Billy in the We-no-nah began to put remarkable distance between themselves and Tommy and Neal in the Old Town. It was remarkable because their paddling seemed a mere afterthought compared to the backbreaking, precision stroking being employed in the Old Town. As the We-no-nah became a smaller and smaller red wedge upstream from where Tommy sat in the bow seat of the Old Town, Tommy noticed that Billy’s and Jack’s paddles rarely entered the water simultaneously, rarely seemed to be pulled through the water with significant force, rarely were held at the most efficient angle, which is perpendicular to the water (it looked from the distance as if they were rowing with oars), and, in what must have been an optical illusion, rarely seemed to enter the water at all! It was as if, like one of those watery amusement park rides, their boat was on rails laid just below the water’s surface and a cable running to the west end of the Flow was pulling their canoe upstream. Jack and Billy, meanwhile, seemed to be doing a poor job of disguising their mechanical advantage by occasionally dipping their paddle blades in the water and letting them drift sternward as the boat proceeded upstream.
In short, Jack’s stiff hull with its end-to-end straight keel and sharp entry point so outclassed the flexible, broader, Royalex Old Town hull in tracking and gliding that paddling skill and force were largely irrelevant. It required the straightest possible course in the Old Town, which meant the Old Town was traveling less distance than the meandering We-no-nah, just to keep Jack and Billy in sight, if not earshot.
Tommy had introduced Jack to the quality of We-no-nah, and now he was eating his wake bigtime, wondering how much farther behind the Old Town he would be if Jack had sprung for Kevlar.
Up the Flow
Tommy’s and Neal’s inability to keep up with the lead boat meant that a choice of course was up to Jack and Billy. The first choice to be made was which channel to take around the long island that sat about halfway up the Flow. Jack chose the south channel, avoiding the Boy Scout camp. At one point, Tommy, being unfamiliar with the south channel, wondered if they were possibly paddling down a dead end. It was hard to look up the channel and distinguish any clear passage ahead. Where the channel narrowed, and where points jutted out from both sides and overlapped, it appeared that a solid shoreline faced them. As Jack studied his map, however, the canoes came within earshot of each other. Jack expressed confidence that they were indeed in the channel, and noted that the fact that he had a pilot’s license should qualm any fears that the rest of them might have regarding his navigational skills.
Tommy told Neal that he trusted Jack’s judgment on such matters, and then told himself that it wouldn’t surprise him if it soon became clear that they would have to backtrack. Jack was, however, correct and they moved through the channel and past the end of the island.
They continued paddling their loaded boats as evening came on. It was cloudy, but very clear below the clouds, and here and there vague shafts of light from the low sun penetrated the clouds and hit the rippling water. The Flow had opened up to lake dimensions and taken on a somewhat wilder, more boreal aspect. Tall, weathered pines stood on the south shore. They had planned to camp in Grass Pond, a large cove on the north edge of the flow, but Jack and Billy, with darkness coming on, decided to paddle to the south shore in search of a place to camp. They hit shore at a rocky point where Tommy had camped on his earlier trip to the Flow. As Billy and Jack disembarked, Tommy noticed a flame through the brush. Someone was camped there.
The campers said there were sites farther up the Flow, and the four of them paddled on, finally reaching a point surrounded on three sides by water and looking over a bog.
They beached their boats and began to scout and make camp. Gear was pulled from dry bags and backpacks — tents, sleeping bags, Thermarests, stoves, lanterns, pots, food, and warm clothes appeared. Billy went to find wood and Tommy cracked a beer from the cooler. The point on which they were camping faced west, and the sky turned purple-red above the hills in the distance. They cooked and ate Neal’s chili and rice in the dark and stood around the fire and talked. Jack treed the food and Tommy and Billy did the dishes.
It was blowing hard when they went to bed, but there was no rain. Along with the whistling of the wind in the branches they could hear loons wailing from several directions. Snoring from both tents competed with the loons for audio dominance of the Adirondack night.
Saturday morning was gray, cool and breezy. They had coffee and breakfast and puttered around camp. The morning’s conversation picked up at the same high level of scientific discourse that had characterized the communication of the previous evening. Discussion topics included the advantage of bent shaft paddles and the relation between altitude and barometric pressure. At one point during the learned discourse on the previous evening, Billy had spit out his drink in amazement at Neal’s answer to Jack’s obscure meteorological query about the Earth’s prevailing wind patterns. They also rigged the hammock and Jack read from John McPhee’s “Table of Contents.” It was the story about the bush pilot forest ranger in the north woods of Maine.
The sun came out and was especially warm on the lee side of the point. Billy spotted garter snakes winding themselves in the long grasses by the water’s edge, and they watched tree swallows making a home in a silvery tree trunk rising from the bog. An osprey floated overhead, distinguishable by the shape of the leading edge of its wing. On a day paddle in the Adirondacks the year before, Tommy had seen an osprey slam into the water, talons first, and become completely submerged for an instant before powering out of the water with a writhing fish in its grasp.
Messin’ around in boats
At about 11 a.m., they took to the boats to explore the far western edge of the Flow. Yesterday’s slate-colored water was now bluebird blue as they paddled west through Low’s Lake, the wide part of the upper Flow. They went as far west as they could, finally reaching shallow water with tree trunks rising from the bottom muck. The trunks were the remains of trees that had been killed a century earlier when the construction of dams created the Flow. The paddlers turned back and explored a cove to the North. They paddled deep into the cove and found a stream running into the Flow. Tommy later talked to someone involved with Forest Preserve management at the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The man told him that a portage trail had been marked from the western fringe of the Flow to the Oswegatchie River farther west. Unfortunately, the portage is three and a half miles long. If you made the portage from the Flow to the river, you could paddle down to Inlet, where most canoeists begin their round trips on the Oswegatchie. After talking with the DEC official, Tommy wasn’t sure exactly where on the Flow the portage trail began. It could be in either of the two western coves of the Flow that the group explored on that day.
From the cove, they paddled east to Grass Pond. The wind in their faces made the water choppy as they entered the pond, and they took out at the second campsite Tommy had stayed at on his solo trip. They drank water and ate summer sausage and cheese on rye bread. The only thing missing was Jack’s mustard. The sun beat down on the protected campsite and a few bugs buzzed around their heads. It was four in the afternoon and they decided to head back to camp.
Upon returning, Jack, Billy and Neal went swimming, or at least sat down briefly in thigh-deep, icy water to get out some of the grime. They dressed on the long grass on the lee side of the peninsula in the bright, late-afternoon sun, carried the cooler down to shore and popped open Buds.
Neal and Tommy went fishing in the Sundowner, and learned first-hand its handling and speed characteristics. They caught nothing, but they didn’t try too hard and they did see an osprey close overhead.
They got back from fishing to discover the Bud was all gone. Tommy said he had erred in not bringing more beer, but Billy assured him that, if there had been more, that would have been gone, too. They still had one bottle and one wineskin of wine, however, and pulled on those as Jack made angel hair pasta with meatballs. Tommy provided some assistance, pulling the sauce off the stove before it all burned away. As it was, the dinner had a barbecued aspect, but they stuffed themselves.
They finished the wine and gathered around the fire as the stars began to show. Venus in the low western sky was dazzling and left a glowing wedge of light on the water that seemed as distinct as one a full moon would make. Ursa Major and Minor were easily spotted, despite the greater number of stars visible from the dark woods. The loons were in full prehistoric voice. The campers hit the tents after the fire shrank to embers. To hell with Patrick, Tommy thought, as he walked away from the glowing coals.
No motors, please
Sunday morning was still, and the sun would have its hands full burning off the mist that shrouded everything. The bog just off shore was barely evident. Tommy jumped into a canoe and tried to fish on the glassy water. He was casting a spinner, and assumed that, in the complete stillness of air and water, the crash of the lure would send any fish darting for the cover of the bog. A beaver, which the day before had slapped warnings with its tail, cruised toward the bog and disappeared. As the sun began to dissipate the mist, the hundreds of dew-drenched spider webs in the bog shone in the light.
For the first time on the trip, there was no breeze in camp. They had coffee and breakfast and blinked in the sunlight. The water remained glassy, and would have been perfect for waterskiing. A motorboat, of course, would have seemed to them to be a terrible intrusion on this Flow where loons nested (The DEC later told Tommy that there had been 23 pairs of loons nesting on the Flow the previous year). Two men with a motorboat had camped near them, causing the NCMCers to wonder about the use of motors on the Flow. Tommy’s subsequent investigation through the DEC revealed the following: a DEC regulation prohibits the use of motors on the part of the Flow between the dam where the NCMC had put in and the dam they had portaged past. Above the portage, there is no regulatory prohibition of motors. There is a practical prohibition of motors, however, because there is no vehicle access by public land to the Flow above the dams. Someone wanting to motor on the upper Flow would either have to carry a motorized craft through the publicly owned woods or row a power boat from the put-in to the portage and then carry over the portage. The few private landholders on the Flow, of course, can motor all they want. The motorized campers that the four intrepid canoeists had seen were probably friends of a landowner who had allowed them to launch their boat from private property. DEC informed Tommy that float planes may land on the Flow, but so far the fly-in services have not been doing so. (Sitting in the car on Friday at Long Lake watching the planes take off, Tommy had no idea that the Flow was open to them.)
With Sunday morning’s mist all but gone, the four began to break camp. All the gear that had somehow fit in the canoes was now somehow packed and stuffed into them again for the return trip (Jack not only had a lot of expensive gear, his was also the most colorful).
With the current
They paddled away from their campsite on the point and headed down the slow stream. The water was still glassy, and the sun was bright and warm. The weather could be improved in no way whatsoever. They paddled leisurely on the empty Flow, this time taking the north channel that flowed by the deserted Boy Scout camp. They saw a few beaches at oxbows that would be great stops for a summer swim.
After a couple of hours, they reached the narrowest part of the Flow. A bog had chosen this narrow corridor for its home, and stretched from one bank to the other. This forced the paddlers to pull their canoes over a short stretch of muck. This maneuver took only a minute or so, but on this day it was complicated by a swarm of black flies that dodged past their eyes and whistled around their heads. The flies still did not appear to be in biting form, however, and the short portage proved bloodless. There had been no bugs at this min-portage on their upstream journey two days earlier.
The appearance now of the black flies raised questions as to how much the weather of the past two days had kept the beggars at bay. They had been canoeing on the cusp of the black fly season, temperatures had kept the bugs from swarming, and possibly even slowed the coming of their bloodthirsty stage. It had been a mild winter with little snow, so the bugs would be expected to be out early. Did that mean that this weekend in almost any year would be relatively bug-free? Or had the breezes and cool weather of the last two days been the dominant factor?
Tommy and Neal paddled on to the dam, where Jack and Billy had already landed and portaged some of their load. Black flies quickly welcomed them ashore and they rushed to get their gear and boat to the other end of the portage. Once back on the water, the canoes came together to finish the now infamous summer sausage. An osprey flew overhead, then plunged into the water. It powered aloft and flew off with a purpose, indicating that it had caught a fish, although it was too far off for them to tell if the raptor had anything in its talons.
It’s gotta end sometime
A short time later the trip was over. They reached the dam, which now marked the take-out rather than the put-in. Several other canoeists, hardy looking older men whose skin was too far gone when sunscreens with SPFs first hit the market, were also tying hulls to roof racks.
Billy, Jack, Neal and Tommy loaded the cars as swiftly as they had been unloaded and roared down the dirt road, leaving the bugs to wait for other paddlers. They reached the highway and turned toward Long Lake. Upon reaching the hotel they stopped for a pitcher of Budweiser in the bar of the hotel. Billy and Jack called home, and they finished the beer (To speed the process, Billy made sure everyone had a full glass at all times. Tommy wouldn’t have been surprised if Billy had pulled out their camping funnels, stuck one in each of their mouths, ordered them to tilt back their heads, and poured the suds down their throats while admonishing them to keep swallowing). They then jumped in their cars and headed for Blue Mountain Lake, where Jack and Billy headed west on Route 28 toward Old Forge, while Neal and Tommy headed east to Warrensburg and the Adirondack Northway.
Loons, summer sausage, osprey, mergansers, whitetails munching grass near the water. Venus’ light spread like a white carpet on the upper Flow. A cold beer after a day’s paddle. Beaver cruising in the glassy water, leaving a spreading wake as the sun dissolves the mist. The steady roar of the stoves and white light of the lantern. Wind rustling through the trees. “Fee-bee” song of the chickadees. Piping hot camp coffee, as that woman from Black Bear Lake would say. Absolutely scintillating conversation. Tremendous weather and no biting bugs. That mix of nature that is instantly recognized as the Adirondacks. Despite the lack of women and that single bathroom accident — minor matters both, to be sure — another good trip. Where to next?
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Editor’s note: Upon returning to work Monday, Tommy found a press release on his desk from the Adirondack Council, a preservationist group, urging the purchase by the State of New York of any private land in the Adirondack Park that goes on the market. Accompanying the release was a flyer with photos of pristine Adirondack lands. As Tommy glanced at the photos, he noticed that one of them was not only of the Bog River Flow, but of the point on Low’s Lake on which they had just camped. He marveled at the coincidence and then realized that the same photo, in color, was on the cover of the report of the Governor’s Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century.
There are three types of wetland communities in the Adirondacks; swamps, marshes and bogs. Bogs usually form in shallow basins with little or no drainage. Branches and other plant debris fall into the basin and form the platform on which the typical bog flora, which cuts off sunlight and oxygen to the water below, grows. Unlike a marsh or a swamp, in which the water is on top, the plants are on top in a bog, and the debris below turns to peat because of the very slow, incomplete decay. The bog plant community is often surrounded by open water. The bottom line is that you cannot walk across a bog, while you can slog through a swamp or marsh.
(Jack Semler brought a camera on this trip, but we will have to get the pictures from him)