On Sunday, I took a delightful canoe trip on the East Branch of the St. Regis in the northwestern Adirondacks. It was so enjoyable that I didn’t stop until I reached the end of public land, making for a round trip of twenty miles from Everton Falls.
Four years ago, I had paddled the East Branch in early spring before the greening of the alders and the grasses. On that day the riverside scenery was a bit drab.
How different things are in July. Hues of green were everywhere—in the grasses dancing in the breeze, in the trees beyond the floodplain, and in the river grass bowed by the current. Wildflowers provided dashes of color: the purple whorls of joe-pye weed, the yellow globes of the pond lilies, the drooping scarlet petals of the cardinal flower, the violet spikes of pickerelweed, and the glistening white arrowhead. Add in a blue sky with puffy clouds, and you have the perfect day.
Soon after putting in along Red Tavern Road, I heard one or two passing cars, but as I journeyed farther upstream, I penetrated deeper into the wild where the only sounds were natural: a beaver plopping into the river, the one-note whistle of a red-winged blackbird, a merganser skittering over the water to flee a human intruder.
In ten miles I encountered no development. It’s no wonder that researchers for the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) recommended back in the 1970s that most of this stretch (some eight miles) be designated a Wild River in the state’s Wild, Scenic, and Recreational River System (WSR).
All rivers in the WSR system receive a degree of protection, but Wild is the most protective designation. State regulations prohibit the construction of dams, vehicular bridges, or other structures within a Wild River corridor—not even lean-tos are permitted. The only exceptions are footbridges. Just as important, no motorboats are allowed on Wild Rivers.
If you check the APA land-use map, though, you’ll see that roughly the first fifteen miles of the East Branch, including the stretch I paddled, are designated Scenic and that the rest of the river is designated Recreational. Both are less-restrictive classifications, allowing some development, such as vehicular bridges, and motorboat usage.
Usually, the APA followed the recommendations of its field researchers in classifying rivers. Why not in this case?
In his classic guidebook Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, Paul Jamieson writes that the classification was downgraded “probably at the insistence of a paper company and its lessees” (that is, hunting clubs).
Jamieson’s book came out many years ago. Since then, New York State has purchased this part of the river from Champion International and added it to the forever-wild Forest Preserve. In other words, the original objection to designating part of the East Branch a Wild River no longer obtains. APA spokesman Keith McKeever conceded as much in an article I wrote after my earlier trip up the East Branch. “The big impediment to that classification was that it was private land, and that’s no longer the case,” McKeever said.
Well, then, let’s change the classification to Wild. This would ensure that the river corridor stays pristine and that motorboats will not upset the natural serenity with their noise and pollution.
It also would bestow upon the East Branch a cachet that might attract a few more paddling tourists to a neglected corner of the Adirondack Park.
Of the 1,200 miles of Adirondack rivers in the WSR system, only 155 are designated Wild (about 13 percent). Indeed, there are only thirteen river segments in the entire Park that are classified Wild. They tend to be remote and/or rocky. Only one of them—a long stretch of the Main Branch of the Oswegatchie—is easily accessible and navigable by the average paddler. The East Branch would be in rarefied company.
In truth, I don’t know of any plans to build lean-tos, bridges, or other facilities on the river. And I doubt that motorboats often ply the East Branch. Thus, the reclassification might be seen as more symbolic than practical. But symbolism has its place. Designating the East Branch a Wild River would acknowledge its unspoiled beauty. It’s the least we can do.
Photo by Phil Brown: the East Branch of the St. Regis River.