It’s been exactly two years since I paddled the Lows Lake-Oswegatchie River traverse with my friend Dan Higgins. So by now the bug bites have healed.
That is, of course, the danger of doing the Adirondack’s greatest canoe trip in the middle of black fly season. But with a bit of perseverance, some luck as to the weather (lower temperatures and wind keep the flies down), bug dope and a head net, and the trip this time of year can be not only tolerable but even grand.
Lows, a wilderness lake a half-day paddle from the nearest public road, is a madhouse on busy summer weekends. But during our trip on Memorial Day weekend we saw only a handful of paddlers. This is the controversial wilderness lake where the float-planes land, although we didn’t see any of those either. [Ed.: The floatplane ban begins in 2012].
To do this route, you need a car parked at Lake Lila and another at a boat launch near the state ranger’s school at Wanakena, west of Cranberry Lake. You also need a $2,000 lightweight kevlar canoe (unless you truly enjoy pain) for the three-mile portage. Pack light, and eat your vitamins before you go.
On the first day, paddle across Lila, do a short carry, and join the beautiful and serene Bog River Flow. This takes you to Lows, a massive (though man-made) lake filled with mysterious bays, twists, ghost trees standing in the water, some hiking trails and the famous floating bog, an island of grass in the middle of the lake. You can reach it in about half a day’s paddling, or a full day at a relaxed pace.
There’s a variety of campgrounds to choose from. We picked one near the portage, wanting to get an early start the next day.
On day two we found the portage route and began the long carry. There are several ways to haul a “lightweight” canoe, none of which are entirely pleasant. We favored us both carrying the beast while wearing backpacks, using the seats and flotation devices to rest the weight on our heads. Later, we founded this stretched the wicker seats, so it’s probably not a good idea.
Our canoe also came with a shoulder yoke for a single person to carry, so probably a better idea would have been to take turns carrying the boat and a light pack while the second person carried most of the gear in a second backpack.
We were told that wheeled canoe or kayak wagons were not a good idea due to the tight turns of the portage. But looking back, one might have worked OK. Also, some solo paddlers will carry their boat and then go back for their packs — hiking the route three times total. Any way you slice it, it’s tough.
After a mile portage, you come to another small lake, which you paddle across. Then there’s another two mile walk. There is one tough hill to climb, but most of the route is level.
The trail takes you past an area struck by a massive windstorm more than a decade ago, which felled seeming every tree in the area. Huge old-growth trunks three or four feet thick lie defeated on the ground , but the damage will be hard to look at, seeing as how you will be carrying a canoe atop your head.
Eventually, you reach the Upper Oswegatchie. The river at this point is a small stream, just deep enough to float a boat. Between here and High Falls, a popular camping spot, is about 10 miles of twisting, turning, thick, fly-infested woods. There are also several dozen beaver dams to pull the boat over (our livery owner suggested getting out of the boat at each dam so as not to risk puncturing the craft, which we did). There are numerous other spots where massive, fallen tree trunks block the way — including one case where a ranger carved out a tunnel big enough for a canoe to float through. It’s more an obstacle course than a float trip.
Along the way, there are campsites for the weary. By the time we reached our chosen spot, we were exhausted. Dan collapsed into our tent, joined by dozens of flies. I donned a long-sleeve white shirt (black flies and mosquitoes apparently favor darker colors) and a head net, and read a book as ten thousand insects fluttered around me.
But the bugs left precisely at 7 p.m. as temperatures dropped, and gave us peace for the evening. The next day, we reached High Falls, did a final portage and spent the afternoon in a leisurely paddle back to the car (managing to spill the canoe in the one rapid we ran, a class two that’s easily avoided).
The biggest secret to doing this traverse during black fly season? Like mosquitoes, black flies seem to favor some people over others. In our case, it was Dan — he reported well over a hundred bits on his arms, neck, back, while I counted only six on me. Or maybe it was the white shirt. In any event, to really enjoy this trip, bring someone to lure the bug bites away from you!
Interested in the Lows Lake-Oswegatchie River Traverse? You can rent a Kevlar canoe for around $50 per day at St. Regis Canoe Outfitters in Saranac Lake (which also has a two-page route description for the traverse) or Raquette River Outfitters in Tupper Lake. They also operate car shuttles if you only have one vehicle.
Be sure to pick up a waterproof Adirondack Paddler’s Map of the route for $17 to $20, which shows camping spots, portage routes and local hiking trails. If you find one floating somewhere, it’s probably ours — it got lost after we capsized on the Lower Oswegatchie.
To read more about this trip, check out an article I wrote two years ago in the Times Union.
I tried the wheels on a solo trip from Lows to Oswegotchie in early May 2010, I had my 60/lb oldtown Cayuga 16′ plastic kayak. I would walk ahead with my pack for 5 minutes, turn around and grab the boat. It would take 15 MINUTES to catch up to my pack!!!! The wheels became TEN MORE POUNDS I HAD TO CARRY. (they were the “Ultimate Canoe Cart” wheels which are narrow and tall) LEAVE THEM HOME. I wound up using my car carrier foam blocks on the cockpit rim and the kayak on my shoulders. Fortunately, once I finally reached the river, I had very high water levels. I only had to get out for one beaver dam on the top section of the river, which was positioned atop of a small rapid. Down river from the falls was a breeze which only took about 3 hours with the fast and high waters of the spring. needless to say, I’ll NEVER take such a heavy boat on that trip again!