Paddling by a painterly panorama in New York’s Adirondack Park
The answer was no. And the truth is we didn’t think or talk about the covid-19 epidemic for four semi-glorious days in the Adirondacks last fall.
Lots of people now — for the second time — are trying to decide how much fun they can have outside their neighborhood with people they don’t see much. It’s not an easy calculation. As case counts rise, and governors talk to us in ways that bring to mind angry second-grade teachers, we’re faced with two questions. What’s the safe thing to do? What looks so bad you’d be embarrassed if others found out?
The answers to those questions (especially the second one) differ from person to person. We all know that. My friends and I answered them with little debate or guilt a few months ago.
For the last half-dozen years I’ve gone on annual camping trips with a group of men, two of whom I knew from college. Four of us were scheduled to go on a canoe trip in Everglades National Park last March 24. We canceled on a March 15 Zoom call. One of the men’s daughters, a public health nurse in Vermont, laid down the law. But even without that everyone agreed it wasn’t a good idea.
That left us with a new set of marine radios, $245 worth of freeze-dried food and a desire to get together when it was safe and not too socially objectionable.
The engine for these trips is a retired physician in Vermont named Dick. In late summer, when the pandemic had cooled, he proposed a trip on the Saranac Lakes in the Adirondacks. It seemed like a good choice — not too wild, campsite-ready and drivable from our homes (Burlington, Vt.; southern New Hampshire; and Baltimore).
After a postponement to avoid setting off in 40-degree rain, we all showed up at Saranac Lake Island Campground on a day in mid-September. We bumped elbows in a nod to health consciousness and immediately took off our face masks.
Wilderness and not
Adirondack Park, which the Saranac Lakes sit in the middle of, is a hybrid of public and private lands unique in the United States. It’s also gigantic — 6 million acres, far bigger than any national parks except for those in Alaska.
In the northeast part of New York near the Vermont border, Adirondack Park came into legal existence in 1884. With logging damage to watersheds threatening the Erie Canal and the Hudson River, a prohibition against timber harvesting on state lands in the park was put in the state constitution in 1894. The park became a playground for New York’s industrial barons — Morgan, Vanderbilt, Huntington, Whitney — who built hunting lodges, lakeside “cottages” with paddle-in boat houses, and resort hotels. Railroads, the source of some of their fortunes, by 1900 entered the park in nine places.
Today, the state’s 2.6 million acres include 1.1 million of designated wilderness. The 3.1 million acres of private land have only a half million of development, but that includes 101 towns and villages, 132,000 permanent residents (and twice as many seasonal ones), and everything that comes with them, from mines and museums to ski resorts and prisons. As a consequence, you can allocate precise amounts of civilization into your camping trip.
While Gilded Age excess once defined the Adirondacks, Winslow Homer’s paintings provide a more nuanced image of the region.
Homer went to the Adirondacks for the first time in 1870, just after the publication of a book, “Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp Life in the Adirondacks” by William H.H. Murray, which put it on the map as a summer destination. In five trips from 1889 through 1892 he painted about 80 watercolors and did studies for many oils.
Trout leaping for cast flies are among the more dramatic and technically astonishing of these works. But Homer saw the area as more than a place of recreation.
A series of oil paintings depict grizzled guides standing in landscapes where every tree has been cut down, and of younger men — market hunters — with dogs driving deer into lakes, where they were shot or drowned. The Adirondack paintings are “some of the most compassionate, poignantly moving, and even indignant paintings he ever made,” wrote art historian Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr.
They also capture a fact that’s evident even to a bunch of covid-era canoeists. The Adirondacks aren’t a wilderness Eden; they’re a mash-up of nature, man, and commerce. They’ve always been a “machine in the garden” kind of place.
A beaver lodge detour
After running a shuttle to our takeout on Upper Saranac Lake — Saranac Inn Boat Launch — and leaving two cars there, we returned to Lower Saranac Lake and shoved off from the beach next to a dock of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). A boat with a prow that lowered like a landing craft’s was tied up, waiting for its next assault on one of Saranac’s islands or peninsulas.
It was midafternoon, with clouds intermittently blocking the sun and night approaching. It was no time for sightseeing. We took a bearing on the far end of the lake and headed into the middle.
On the right shore we passed a three-bay boathouse built over the water, with a swimming dock attached. Such extravagances disappeared as we moved up the lake. When we paddled by a solitary loon in the middle it seemed we’d crossed an unmarked border into wilder territory.
At the far end of the lake we entered the Saranac River, where we were protected from the wind. As the stream meandered through stands of hemlocks and maples it passed a backwater carpeted with lily pads and a beaver lodge in the distance. I remarked that if we had more time it would be a nice place to explore and perhaps we would get a chance elsewhere in the trip.
“There’s never a second chance,” Dick said. Normally, this isn’t an attitude you want in a trip leader. But there wasn’t any hazard here, and given the uncertainty of the times it seemed right. We turned the canoes.
Some of the lily pads were turning pink and had curled up; they looked like the veined wings of a prehistoric insect. Homer had caught the same view in an 1889 watercolor, “Leaping Trout.” His paintings, however, show little evidence of beavers. The fur trade had driven the animals to near extinction. By 1895 New York’s only beaver population was at the Saranac Lakes; the inhabitants of the lodge we paddled around might have been their descendants.
Eventually the stream narrowed and we returned to civilization — a manual lock big enough for two canoes and a motor boat we slipped in behind. The lock tender operated the gates by pushing a 15-foot lever with his body. Built for recreational boaters in the 1920s, the lock is manned in high-use season, but it has instructions on a board telling boaters how to operate it themselves in a pinch.
The lock raised us five feet into the wildest of the three Saranac Lakes — Middle. It has a half dozen islands and a peninsula, which is where we planned to camp. In all, Lower and Middle Saranac Lake have 87 campsites, available by reservation only.
We found ours — its number modestly denoted on a sign — and scouted the boulder-strewn shore for a landing site. (The bow ramps of the DEC’s boats now made sense.) There wasn’t a good one, so we banged onto the island and unloaded in deeply slanting light.
Each campsite has an outhouse and a fire ring, both essential utilities. What was lacking was campfire-size wood on the ground. Happily, we’d brought two folding saws, which made quick work of branches of several downed trees.
Soon we had tents up, a fire going, and two butane stoves boiling water for our personally chosen, eat-from-the-bag freeze-dried dinners. The 12 minutes until they were ready couldn’t come fast enough.
A mountain too far
When we got up the next morning, mist hid the lake’s far shore. But the air was clear by the time we broke camp and headed diagonally across the lake — a direction away from the night’s destination but toward our next activity.
Dick had added a mountain climb to the itinerary so we’d leave no itch unscratched in our covid camping trip. Our quarry was Ampersand Mountain, a 3,352-foot peak in a region of the park known as the High Peaks Wilderness. The area has 42 mountains higher than 4,000 feet, and it is the Adirondacks’ largest wilderness area.
A pair of canoeists directed us to the stretch of shore where the trail began. “Can idiots find it?” one of us asked. “Yes,” was the answer.
The hike started easily enough, the trail winding through a hardwood forest to the foot of the mountain, where things changed. Like many century-old hiking trails in the Northeast, this one was built before the invention of the switchback. And “built” is an overstatement. Much of it is a jumble of rocks. The pitch rises until it becomes hands-on-thighs steep.
We passed numerous descending hikers, some of whom pulled up masks as we passed. Eventually we asked one how much farther we had to go. “Not much. It’s worth it,” she answered. “Okay,” one of us said. “You’ll pass the bodies of two old men a little below us. You can just go around them.”
This, of course, was a joke.
After passing a few ship-size glacial erratics below the summit, we climbed onto the top of Ampersand Mountain — bald domes of rock and pools of algae-stained rainwater. Our fellow climbers, mostly in pairs, each stood on their own dome — a covid-era convention of wedding cake figurines.
We looked down on the river curving between the lakes that we’d paddled the day before. In the distance was Upper Saranac Lake, our destination. In every direction were forested mountains. Most of Homer’s mountaintop views featured a clear-cut slope somewhere, but that era was gone.
After snacks and chilly sunbathing on a flat rock we descended to the lake. Near the bottom, one member of the group, Mark, announced: “I officially declare myself tired.” We’d climbed 1,800 feet up and walked 7.4 miles. Our scheduled destination for the night was four hours of paddling away. None of us wanted to set off for it when we got back to the canoes.
We tried to reach the park office that assigns campsites, but we couldn’t rouse anyone. We paddled across to our peninsula from the night before. No one was there, so we moved back in.
Theology at the campsite
The last two days were a slow return to civilization, although in truth we’d never been far from it.
We paddled to the end of Middle Saranac Lake with wind-driven swells coming at us from the 10 o’clock direction — an attention-grabbing test of canoemanship. Another winding stream took us to a half-mile portage, mostly on a gravel road, onto Upper Saranac Lake.
We had another peninsula campsite for our last night. Dick had assigned us the chapters on God and Secularism from Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” to discuss on the trip. With single-malt Scotch to enliven us, we finally got around to it. As one of us was a retired Episcopal bishop and the rest sat various distances away on the belief spectrum, this made for interesting conversation. It was also, somehow, a nod to the seriousness of the times.
As we paddled toward the takeout the next morning after a brief rain, Homer’s palette was all around us — an almost-black forest hemmed at the shore, gray and white sky, lake the color of oil, maples turning red on the mountainsides like new plumage on a wintering bird. Soon we were passing boathouses and cottages.
After we pulled the canoes ashore on the launch ramp, two women backed a motorboat down it. They were from the Adirondack Watershed Institute at nearby Paul Smith’s College. We put on our masks and engaged them in conversation.
What were they doing? Taking water samples from the surface and 60 feet down, at various places. What were they testing for? Chemistry, turbidity, chlorophyll. Is the water cleaner than it was 25 years ago? “Definitely,” said the senior of the two. It seemed like a good piece of news to end on.
We loaded the boats on the two cars, drove back to the put-in to pick up the third car, said our goodbyes, and headed home.
Most travel stories have a narrative arc, but, alas, this one doesn’t. It does, however, have a lesson. It’s possible to have a perfectly good camping trip in covid times — four days in which you don’t wear a mask and don’t think about the pandemic.
That’s good to know. Covid times aren’t near over, and it’s going to be a long time before we can’t remember what these days were like.
Brown is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. His website is aweewalk.com.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice web page.