Why do they call it Boreas Ponds? After all, if you look at an aerial photograph, such as the one at left, taken by Carl Heilman II, it’s just one water body. This fact is also evident from the 1999 USGS map below.
The reason is not mysterious. Like many Adirondack lakes, the water level of Boreas Ponds has been raised by a dam. As an 1895 map indicates (it’s shown farther below), Boreas Ponds used to be three ponds connected by narrow channels.
When the state acquires Boreas Ponds from the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, it must decide whether the concrete dam should be retained.
Although no decisions have been made, the state Department of Environmental Conservation suggested in a December 2012 memo that the state should continue to maintain the dam “to provide for water based recreation and fishing.”
The Adirondack Council, the Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Wild, and several other environmental groups agree with that position. It’s part of their proposal to expand the High Peaks Wilderness once the state buys the 20,500-acre Boreas Ponds Tract. In a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the groups say the dam is needed to preserve “a special brook trout fishery, and a remarkable paddling destination.”
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, notes that Wilderness Areas are supposed to be largely free of man-made structures. He also questions whether the Boreas Ponds dam is needed to protect fish or provide opportunities for paddling.
“We think there should be a real conversation about whether there should be dams in a Wilderness Area,” he told the Adirondack Explorer in an article that appears in the January-February issue of the newsmagazine.
Bauer says we should have a similar conversation regarding a smaller dam at LaBiere Flow, about a mile from the ponds. In DEC’s memo, the department suggests that the public should be allowed to drive on an existing dirt road (known as Gulf Brook Road) as far as the flow. From there, paddlers could paddle up the flow and then portage or paddle the rest of the way to the ponds. Hikers would reach the ponds by continuing up the dirt road on foot (this stretch would be closed to motor vehicles).
In an interview with the Explorer, Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, contends that brook trout in Boreas Ponds will be better protected if the dam is left in place. “With climate change warming Adirondack lakes and streams, we know deeper waters are more likely to provide refuge for brook trout,” he said. “The information we have seen to date has led us to believe that it is ecologically important to preserve the Boreas Ponds. We will continue to evaluate the science.”
If the dam were gone, Boreas Ponds presumably would shrink and once again become three distinct water bodies. Would it be possible to paddle from pond to pond? I don’t know, but the 1895 map leads me to think so. The channels between the streams bordered wetlands, and usually wetland streams are flat and smooth and don’t require a heck of a lot of water to paddle. Of course, paddlers could line their boats between ponds, if necessary.
“When the dam eventually deteriorates to the point of no return, its breach will cause the ponds to revert to a lower level, new wetlands will be created, and a new equilibrium will be reached as has occurred at Flowed Lands, Duck Hole, and Marcy Dam,” said David Gibson of Adirondack Wild.
Under the proposal of the Adirondack Council et al., DEC would be allowed to drive on Gulf Brook Road all the way to Boreas Ponds to maintain the dam. Because the road would pass through a Wilderness Area, where motor vehicles are prohibited, the road would be designated a Primitive Corridor.
Bauer thinks creating a Primitive Corridor would set a bad precedent for the Forest Preserve. A better idea, he says, is terminating the Wilderness Area at the road. The road and the land south of it would be Wild Forest, a state-land classification that allows some motorized use.
“We think it’s an important principle in Forest Preserve management to keep public motor-vehicle use in Wild Forest Areas,” he said in an e-mail to the Explorer. “It’s far more logical to maintain the dams by using the Gulf Brook Road as the Wild Forest-Wilderness boundary.”
“If the dams are far inside the High Peaks Wilderness, then they should be allowed to fall apart, just like the Marcy Dam, Duck Pond Dam, and the Flowed Lands dam,” he added.
DEC says it plans to analyze historical fishery data before making any decisions on what to do with the dams.
The state is expected to buy Boreas Ponds this fiscal year, which ends March 31.
Boreas Ponds Dam photo by Carl Heilman/Wild Visions, Inc. courtesy of the Adirondack Council.