Monday, September 27, 2010

Adirondack River Access: Who’s Elitist?

This weekend I paddled the West Branch of the St. Regis for the first time. Until a few years ago, nearly all of the West Branch inside the Adirondack Park was closed to the public.

As a result of a conservation-easement deal with Lyme Timber, fishermen and paddlers now have access to about eight miles of the West Branch northeast of Carry Falls Reservoir.

However, the public is allowed in only from May 1 through September 30, so Thursday is the last day you’ll be able to enjoy the river this year. But don’t fret too much: the river will still be there next spring.

Given the looming deadline, I was motivated to paddle the river this past Saturday. Much of the eight miles contains rapids, but there is a 3.5-mile stretch that will delight flat-water paddlers. Here is a description of the trip.

The opening of the West Branch is just one example of the public benefits of conservation easements. Under easement deals, the landowners agree not to develop their land. In return, the state picks up a portion of the property taxes. Most deals allow public recreation, though the degree of access differs.

In the case of the West Branch, the public has the right to fish and canoe. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has opened four parking areas along the timber company’s Main Haul Road, with carry trails leading to the river. Camping is permitted only at designated campsites.

We all should be grateful that at least part of this beautiful river is now open to the public.

But I do have a complaint.

From the put-in, you paddle upstream through marshland for 1.6 miles. Rounding a bend, you can see the buildings of the Weller Mountain Fish and Game Preserve, a hunting club whose main lodge sits at the confluence of the river and Long Pond Outlet. At this point, you must exit the river and portage 0.3 miles through a spruce forest and put back in upstream of the lodge. You can canoe another mile and a half upriver before reaching rapids.

The river near the hunting club is perfectly navigable flat water. It’s just that the members don’t want the public paddling past their piece of paradise, which is leased from the landowner (Woodwise Land Company bought the property from Lyme Timber this summer).

OK, I understand the club desires privacy, but my portage around flat water struck me as unnecessary. Would the members (if any were there) have had their day ruined by a lone canoeist quietly paddling past their camp? They would have had to endure the sight of me for at most a few minutes.

I sometimes hear people complain that paddlers are “elitists”—because paddlers advocate banning motorboats from some waterways. But paddlers are not elitists. And certainly not in this case. If anybody is elitist, it’s the members of the hunting club who object to the public paddling by their lodge.

Some readers might wonder how the landower can keep the public off this short stretch of the West Branch. If the river is navigable, isn’t it open to the public under the common law? Unlike other rivers I’ve written about, such as the Beaver and Shingle Shanty Brook, the public must cross private land to reach the water. Thus, the landowner has the right to set conditions for access to and use of the river.

But the law doesn’t always square with common sense, not to mention common courtesy. It just seems mean to force the public to portage past the hunting club. And the portage may discourage, if not prevent, the elderly, disabled, and less-than-fit from continuing their trip and enjoying the river upstream from the lodge.

DEC should negotiate a better deal for the public. After all, we do pay taxes on this land. Ideally, this condition would be scotched. At the very least, it ought to be modified to allow the public to paddle past the club during those times of year or days of the week when the club is little used. Requiring people to portage past the club when no one is there is the height of absurdity.

I do respect the club’s wish for privacy, but that needs to be balanced with the public’s recreational claim on this stretch of river. Let canoeists paddle past the lodge, but forbid them to fish, picnic, or otherwise linger in the vicinity. And instruct paddlers to keep quiet while traveling by. This strikes me as the basis of a reasonable compromise.

George Fowler, Weller Mountain’s secretary/treasurer, told me that he will raise the public-access issue at a meeting of the club. I hope some good comes out of it.

In the end, though, if the only way we can enjoy the West Branch is by putting up with the portage, so be it. Those who can do it will be amply rewarded.

Photo by Phil Brown: West Branch of the St. Regis River.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




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