How I Learned to Love Blowdown
In the early days of the North Country Men’s Club, the members would head to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario for a multi-day canoe trip that involved hauling gear and canoes over multiple portages as they headed from lake to lake and from campsite to campsite. Similarly, they would take trips to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks and backpack over the mountains.
The steady creep of time, however, has taken its inevitable toll on the members’ vigor and lowered their tolerance for long marches through the woods. Where once a member might have carried a heavy aluminum Grumman canoe through a swarm of black flies on a long carry, with a metal thwart digging mercilessly into a neck vertebrae for good measure, he or she now opts to paddle a lightweight Kevlar hull with a padded yoke directly from the car to a campsite and lounge for a few days in the same spot.
There is nothing wrong with this tripping evolution. For one thing, only someone with a lot of free time on the job and ready access to exercise equipment, like a prison inmate or a Buffalo firefighter, can be expected at age 50 to maintain the stamina and strength that he or she possessed a quarter-century earlier. Dwindling physical capacity aside, maturity brings an understanding that ample enjoyment of the wilder outdoors does not necessarily require a high level of exhaustion and suffering.
This is not to say that the NCMC has grown overly soft. The members’ participation in winter camping trips and the annual 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic proves they still have the mettle for rugged outdoor adventure. It’s just that the members are less likely today than they were years ago to head for a deep backcountry destination without carefully considering whether an equally satisfying location is within easier reach.
Careful consideration, however, can still lead to a decision, especially when Jack is doing the deliberating, to go on a trip that covers quite a few miles. Hence, the choice, in May 2003, to finally tackle the paddle-and-portage challenge presented by the Bog River Flow and the Oswegatchie River. It’s a trip that Jack and Tom first became aware of sometime in the early 1990s. It requires a paddle of about 14 miles up the length of the Bog River Flow, a three-and-a-half-mile portage to the Oswegatchie River, and an 18-mile paddle down the Oswegatchie to the take-out. It’s a three-day, two-night trip. The one obvious irritation is that a car has to be left at either end of the journey. The irritation that was not obvious was the great blowdown of 1995, but more about that later.
Up the flow
The group assembled on a sunny Saturday in the vicinity of Tupper Lake in the early afternoon at Inlet near Wanakena on the Oswegatchie, above where the river flows into Cranberry Lake. This was to be their take-out point at the end of the trip.
They left Tom’s car by the river and drove an hour to the put-in for the Bog River Flow, the site of a past NCMC trip. Because Saturday’s paddle only required one short portage in the Flow, they brought along some beer and a soft cooler with the night’s meal. Equipped with two Wenonah Sundowners, Jay and Bill took to one canoe and Jack and Tom to the other. They paddled several miles to a dam and carried around it. Back in the boats in the late afternoon, they headed up the Flow, seeing only a few other paddlers. Jack and Tom had both brought their GPS units, which allowed them to precisely mark their progress and to ensure that they were headed directly to the point at the head of the Flow where they hoped to camp. Tom and Jack tried to persuade Jay and Bill to engage in some wake riding to speed their mutual progress and practice for canoe racing, but Jay and Bill were having none of it and pushed ahead of their fellow NCMCers. Bill remarked that Tom and Jack did not seem to be going so fast on the water without the 18-foot Jensen that they had bought a few years earlier for use in the Adirondack Canoe Classic. The purchase and use of the Jensen was an ongoing sore sport for Bill, as he felt it gave Tom and Jack an unfair advantage (the Jensen is a bit faster than the slightly more beamy Sundowner). Tom remarked to Jack that he could not recall Jay and Bill beating them in the Adirondack Canoe Classic even when they had also used a Sundowner.
The Bog River is excellent habitat for loons and quite a few pair nest on the Flow each summer. They soon saw their first loon of the trip, which is as good an omen as any at the beginning of an outdoor journey. After several hours of paddling, they reached a spot near the end of the Flow where they had camped many years earlier. The spot had been hit by the blowdown, however, and was less than desirable, so they took to their boats again and headed across the Flow to Grass Pond, a small bay that has a good campsite. They found the site after a short while and began to settle into camp. The site is a natural amphitheater surrounded by tall trees. It also has a small grassy peninsula that serves as a perfect natural dock for unloading and loading the boats.
They set up Jay’s large tent, collected firewood, cooled the beer in a shallow portion of the lake and lit stoves and lanterns. Dinner, provided my Jack, was salmon filets grilled over a wood and charcoal fire, along with wild rice, washed down with beer. There was also a collection of sausage and cheese for appetizers. They heard loon calls throughout the evening, including the type that sounds like the laugh of the insane.
The group prefers a spacious open-fronted lean-to to a cramped tent, but they did all right in Jay’s six-man tent, which really only fits four. They slept well and awoke Sunday morning to sunshine, although the overnight low was below freezing, and they had ice in their water bottles. The day warmed quickly, however, and they had a pleasant morning in camp.
It was not clear to Tom exactly how much Jay and Bill knew about the specifics of their itinerary. There was some comment by Jay to the effect that it would certainly make more sense to remain in their wonderful campsite in Grass Pond instead of hauling all their gear to the Oswegatchie. For his part, Bill opined that, with an early start from Grass Pond, they could make it over to the Oswegatchie and down to Tom’s car in a day, rather than spend a night on the river. These observations had prompted Tom’s eyebrows to rise slightly. Staying put would mean that there was no point in leaving a car at Inlet on the river, which they had already done. As for Bill’s suggestion, getting all the way to the car in a day, even with an early start, seemed highly improbably considering the distance involved. The truth, however, was that Jay and Bill were simply offering a good-natured protest to Jack’s overall plan, and were willing to execute it without complaint. Tom asked Jack privately how fully he had briefed Jay and Bill on the details of the trip. Jack’s response was that he had answered all questions, but had not volunteered anything. Jack had also given some terse orders in an email to his fellow travelers regarding what to bring on the trip, and Bill, for one, had noted that the message was not in the egalitarian spirit of the NCMC.
After breakfast, they leisurely broke camp, loaded the boats and headed out of Grass Pond and into Low’s Lake, which is what the upper portion of the Flow is called. It was a spectacular day. The water surface was like glass, the sun was out, and they were the only people within miles. It was not long before they reached the three-and-one-half-mile carry to the Oswegatchie. Before the trip, Tom had suggested that they solve the problem of the portage by doing a “portage and a half.” This technique calls for each pair of paddlers to consolidate their gear into three loads: two packs and one canoe. This means that each person walks a total of seven miles in covering the three-and-a-half-mile portage. It is not so efficient as carrying everything down the portage in one trip, but it is better than each person taking a load to the end of the portage, and then returning all the way to the beginning to pick up a second load. Under that scenario, which would involve four loads of gear per boat, each paddler would walk 10 and a half miles, or three times the length of the carry. With three loads, one paddler takes a load halfway down the portage, dumps it, and goes back to the beginning for the third load. The other paddler walks the full portage with his initial load, and then returns to the midpoint of the carry to pick up the load that had been dumped there by his partner. If they time it right, the two paddlers meet again the middle of the portage after having separated, and then walk the second half of the portage together (Yes, we all know that the ideal is have to one paddler carry the boat and the other paddler carry both paddlers’ gear, but NO ONE packs that lightly and carefully, except maybe a couple of Canadians somewhere in the Northwest Territories who also use tump lines and eat jerky.)
As had been the case with the proposed wake riding the previous day, Jay and Bill were having none of this “portage and a half” silliness. With their firefighters’ muscles bulging, they shouldered their packs, picked up an end of their canoe, and headed off down the trail. “I’m not buying this real estate twice,” said Bill. Bill and Jay would have fit right in with the voyageurs who paddled the Great Lakes in canoes and who carried giant loads on the Grand Portage in Minnesota in the late 18th Century. The Grand Portage was eight-and-a-half miles long and was used to carry trade goods from Lake Superior to the Pigeon River, where they were exchanged for furs coming from the Northwest. Each voyageur had to carry two 90-pound packs along the Grand Portage.
Meanwhile, Tom took the boat and Jack took his pack and they headed off, leaving Tom’s pack behind (If you study the photo in the accompanying gallery of Jack on the portage trail, you will note the canoe, atop the photographer’s shoulders, at the top of the photo). After about a mile, they came to a pond with a sign indicating that they were to paddle across. They decided to pass the pond and stick to their original plan, rather than to return for the other pack and then paddle across the pond. (They learned later that Bill and Jay, having hauled all their gear and their boat together, had paddled across the pond.) After walking a short distance past the pond, Tom and Jack came to a sign stating that severe blowdown had forced the closure of the trail. They found a faint path to the left, however, and followed it until they rejoined the portage trail. When their GPS told them they had traveled halfway down the carry, Tom put the boat down and returned for his pack. Jack marched on with his pack toward the river. Tom returned to the beginning of the carry, put on his pack, and began slogging back down the trail. Glancing to his right, he saw snow glittering amid spring ferns in a depression. The Adirondacks had just seen a real winter with lots of snow, and you could still find a remnant of the snowpack at this relatively low elevation in May.
Back at the halfway point of the portage, Tom noted that the canoe was gone, and figured that Jack had already been back for it. (What had actually happened was that Jack had come upon Bill and Jay taking a lunch break, and one of them had generously returned to the boat and carried it to their lunch spot.) Tom had continued on, and came upon Jack returning to make sure he hadn’t broken a leg or gotten caught under a rock, like the guy in the Utah canyonlands who had cut his arm off below the elbow to free himself after being stuck for five days. Jack turned around again and they soon reached the boat, which Jack hoisted onto his shoulders.
Most of the portage still showed the evidence of the big 1995 blowdown. There was new growth coming up, but everything was dwarfed by the giant dead trees lying every which way in the woods, and large portions of the portage trail were bathed by sunlight, instead of covered with forest shade. Their portage trail was in the The Five Ponds Wilderness Area of the “forever wild” New York State forest preserve, which, according to one account, “was deeply affected on July 15, 1995, by several microburst incidents, concentrated blasting downdrafts of wind that were estimated in excess of 100mph. The state Department of Environmental Conservation estimated that approximately 37,000 acres of forest suffered severe damage with 60% of trees blown down, and that an additional 109,000 acres of forest suffered moderate damage with 30% of trees blown down. Not all of that was in Five Ponds Wilderness area, but it was by all accounts the worst hit; most of the few existing trails in the area were closed.”
Damn that blowdown, or blow down those dams
Jack and Tom came to the end of the portage and their put-in along the upper Oswegatchie at 4 p.m. Jay and Bill had gotten there earlier and had already headed down the river. Dying of thirst, Tom got out his water filter and made a quart of drinking water. He figured they would have to paddle for an hour to reach High Falls, where they planned to camp that night.
They loaded the boat and headed down the river. It was generally narrow, with shallows alternating with deep pools. It also wound back on itself continuously, prompting the paddlers to resort to all kinds of ruddering and draw strokes to maneuver their 18-foot canoe around the infinite bends. As Paul Jamieson recorded about the Oswegatchie in his paddling bible, “Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow,” “If you take the bends fast enough, the saying is, you can see the back of your neck.”
Around many of the bends of the Oswegatchie, Jack and Tom, like Bill and Jay before them, encountered beaver dams in various stages of integrity, and blowdown that slowed their progress. Sometimes they were able to duck their heads and pass under huge tree trunks that had fallen across the river and come to rest on each bank. Other times they had to carry or drag their boat around the obstruction. Sometimes they unloaded the boat for this chore, or simply dragged the loaded boat. They were always grateful when a breach in a beaver dam allowed them to paddle by without disembarking from the canoe, or when a giant fallen tree left a navigable opening on one side or another of the narrow stream. They were able to pass below one giant log straddling the stream because someone had spent a lot of time chopping out a notch in the log that was large enough to accommodate a paddler’s head. Jay himself had brought an excellent saw on the trip and had used it a couple of times to remove obstructions on his and Bill’s way to High Falls.
The result of all the blowdown and beaver activity was that it took them three-and-half hours to get from the end of the portage to High Falls, which they reached at 7:30 p.m. Bill and Jay had got there much earlier and Bill greeted them at the take-out above the falls. He was wearing a serious expression and he said sternly that someone had to answer to Jay about all this. Jack’s answer was to be most solicitous to Jay in camp, and to offer up his services for whatever task arose. Even Tom, who shirks camp work regularly, and covers it up by looking unsuccessfully through every pocket of his pack for spare batteries or a roll of film, took on a modest chore or two while Jay gathered firewood and prepared dinner, which was a superb pasta dish followed by top-shelf weiners grilled on a wood fire. Despite the warning from Bill, Jay’s demeanor was not that of someone who can’t figure out why the hell a particular trip itinerary had been selected that required a three-and-a-mile portage and a snaking river in the heart of a great blowdown. Jay had already expressed his thought that Grass Pond would have been a fine place to spend a couple of nights, and perhaps felt that that observation had been sufficient. Besides, Jay is going to do whatever backcountry work needs to be done, regardless of how it came to be needed to be done. After dinner, they sipped Franzia merlot from their steel mugs, which helped to soften the aches from the day’s long portage and paddle. Bill was already referring to the weekend as, “My Trip Down the Oswegatchie, or How I Learned to Love Blowdown.”
As it was too early in the season for bugs to be a problem, they slept in the tent with the tall, wide door tied open, creating a lean-to effect and allowing the muted roar of the waterfall to send them to dreamland.
It’s their fate to wait
Monday morning they had a lousy breakfast, as Tom had only brought oatmeal, and they packed up and headed down the river to Inlet. The Oswegatchie turned almost as often below the falls as it had above, but there were only a couple of obstructions on the 15-mile trip to the take-out. It was a languorous paddle for Jack and Tom, who were again left in Bill’s and Jay’s wake. If they had thought about it, they could have given the first boat the keys to Tom’s car, so that Jay and Bill could have gottten Jack’s truck at the Bog River put-in while Tom and Jack floated down the river.
After awhile on the river, Jack and Tom passed a couple of paddlers who were resting on the bank. These paddlers, like everyone else they had encountered on the river, had paddled up the Oswegatchie from Inlet to camp at one of the many good spots on the banks of the river. The paddlers told Jack and Tom that Bill and Jay had told them to say that they had passed by two hours earlier. This falsehood was designed to shame Tom and Jack into speeding up, so that Jay and Bill wouldn’t have to wait so long at the take-out. It did not have the desired effect. Big surprise. If the NCMC founders are still doing this sort of thing when they are 80 years old, Bill and Jay will still be waiting at the take-out in paddling season, or at the trailhead in winter, for Tom and Jack to show up. It is just their fate and it will always be their fate. “I heard you guys had a long walk,” one of the resting paddlers added as Jack and Tom drifted by.
Tom and Jack were proceeding even more slowly than usual (it wasn’t the 90-Miler, after all) because they were studying the map and charting their progress with the GPS. At one point, Tom’s GPS indicated that their take-out was a mere 2.4 miles away as the crow flies. They paddled on for a while, turning this way and that, and the GPS indicated that they were now 2.5 miles away from Inlet. In fact, covering the last 2.4 miles of the trip required them to cover 4.3 miles over ground, or, in this case, over water.
They did, however, make it all the way down the river to Inlet by the early afternoon, where they found Jay and Bill’s canoe hauled out on the shore. Before Jack and Tom drove to the Bog River Flow for Jack’s truck, Jay suggested that supplies be procured to occupy Bill and Jay during the two-hour wait. Tom and Jay therefore drove a dozen miles or so to the nearest gas station-convenience store to pick up beer, chips and candy bars. This store had a poster on the wall for a missing dog that was blind in one eye, had three legs and had accidentally been neutered. The public was informed that the dog answered to the name “Lucky.”
Jay noted wryly during the beer run that it would be quite late before he, Bill and Jack returned to Buffalo, despite the promises and wishes to the contrary that had been expressed since the trip was conceived. Back at Inlet, the beer and other supplies were dropped off and Tom and Jack drove the hour to the Bog River Flow, with Jack taking a nap along the way. Arriving at the put-in, Jack studied a map and decided that a nearby dirt road promised a much shorter route back to Inlet. Tom nodded approvingly, but doubted that it would work out. They parted company at this point, with Jack speeding up the dirt road and Tom returning to the highway. He learned later that Jack had to turn around 15 minutes later after he reached a locked gate across the road. At least Jay and Bill had provisions to tide them over.
Now that the NCMC has completed the long-contemplated Bog River-Oswegatchie trip, the next annual spring canoe trip can be free of long portages and in a section of the Adirondacks that shows no evidence of blowdown. A couple of nights on Grass Pond would fill the bill.
Gallery: Bog River-Oswegatchie