Monday, May 13, 2013

Ethan Rouen: Paddling Lows Lake

Lows-Lake-Canoe-Trip-152Sitting in a canoe surrounded by nine miles of water always feels dramatic, but sharing those nine miles with no one but your paddling partner and the occasional loon is transcendent.

It was 7:30 on a weeknight, and my wife, Kim, and I had been paddling from the Bog River through Lows Lake for almost eight hours. Moments before, I was a bit panicked. We (okay, I) had lost our map several miles back, and the campsite where we had planned to pitch our tent for two nights wasn’t where we thought it was.

We paddled out of an inlet and back onto the lake, and suddenly the panic subsided, replaced by a tranquility that only the deep solitude of the woods can provide. Several pairs of loons didn’t seem to mind sharing the sunset with us as we headed along the shore until we found campsite 28, a cozy, flat spot with a lake view, a fire pit, and a privy.

Lows Lake is a masterpiece of Adirondack lakes, a long, wide body of water dotted with islands ranging in size from speck to large enough to camp on. Small peaks form the horizon, and there are hardwood trees as far as the eye can see (which

Kim noted would be even more beautiful in the fall). The only signs of human influence are the thirty-eight inconspicuous and well-kept campsites at various spots along the way and a Boy Scout camp hidden behind an island on the north shore.

Although our intentions were good, Kim and I got a late start on a summer Tuesday. Fortunately, the great people at Raquette River Outfitters were waiting for us. Within minutes, they had the canoe strapped to our Honda Civic and were pointing out on their superb new map the best places to canoe and camp on Lows. By 1 p.m., we had reached the put-in at Lows Lower Dam, a twenty-minute drive away. After loading the canoe, we headed west on the Bog River.

The Bog is a meandering waterway that occasionally spreads out into tall-grass marshes. Kim was a bit anxious because we were surrounded by other canoers and kayakers, giving the start of our trip the feel of a race instead of a lonely jaunt into the woods.

lows.map_In less than two miles, we were greeted by a great blue heron, floated under a low railroad bridge, and passed through Hitchins Pond, which is bordered by wetlands and provides many places to pull to the side for a snack or to duck under a tree during a light rain. At the end of the pond, we took out at a sandy beach and hiked a hundred yards to a put-in near Lows Upper Dam. Along the carry trail, we passed blueberry bushes and the stone foundation and fireplace of a once-grand mansion.

First built in 1907, the upper dam has transformed the Bog River into Lows Lake (sometimes called Bog River Flow). At its foot, the lake is quite narrow, like a river. We continued our journey west and soon reached a floating bog that forced us to navigate a brief but tight maze of grasses. The lake started to widen, but we didn’t get a true sense of its vastness until rounding Gooseneck Island, more than three miles farther on.

By now we had left the crowds behind. We remarked not only on how few people there were on the water on a beautiful summer day, but also on how rare it is to see so much water without hearing the invasive hum of motors—powerboats are not allowed on the lake.

We passed a group of lovely campsites on the south side of a tiny island, but it was still early in the day, so we decided to head to Grass Pond near the west end of the lake, where nearby Grass Pond Mountain offers long-distance views.

Not long after, I patted my shorts frantically and then built up the courage to confess to Kim that the map had somehow fallen out of my pocket. There were still hours of daylight left, and we were on a lake, so it wasn’t like we could get too lost.

Putting the problem behind us, we stopped on a small strip of an island where Kim waded off a sandy lip for a swim while I had a snack. I tried to recall the details of the map, including the fantastic descriptions of each campsite. After resuming our journey, we wandered into several dead-end inlets, which we were happy to explore.

Turning north into a wide inlet, we finally reached Grass Pond, which is much bigger than any pond I’ve ever seen. Without the map, however, we couldn’t find the campsites. As night fell, we headed back to main part of Lows Lake and found a shoreline campsite where we made dinner in the dark and were sung to sleep by the tragic howls of the loons.

Early the next morning we returned to Grass Pond. Once there, we paddled north to the start of a trail that leads to Cranberry Lake. Putting on running shoes, we planned to jog to the lake and back, a six-mile round trip. It started out promising, but within the first mile, we encountered serious blowdown. Then the trail became extremely overgrown along a beaver pond. The only way we knew we were on the trail was the blue markers nailed to trees every fifty feet or so.

By the time we reached Cranberry Lake, we were exhausted. Our legs, constantly attacked by raspberry bushes for about half a mile, looked like they had gone twelve rounds against the Joe Frazier of cats. We were a bit disappointed to find a powerboat sitting on the lake, and after lunch and a brief nap, we headed back, skipping the side trip to Darning Needle Pond, a secluded pond about halfway between Lows and Cranberry lakes.

The water on Grass Pond was completely still when we got back into our canoe, and we floated for an hour, marveling at the reflections of the shorelines and doing our best loon impressions.

Another group passed by after hiking up Grass Pond Mountain. They said they faced “hard-core” bushwhacking the whole way up, but the view was spectacular. (If done from the south, the climb is not that difficult.) We contemplated hiking up the mountain the next morning but woke up to a heavy downpour. After breakfast, we started home. The rain let up, and the lake took on a mysterious quality. We explored a floating bog on the opposite side of the lake and then turned east, the gentle mist making the bleached trees rising from the water look even more ghostly than usual.

At the Upper Dam portage, we decided to thumb our noses at the rain and follow the one-mile trail to the Hitchins Pond overlook. The gradually rising trail took about twenty minutes in the rain… and I was wearing Crocs. The payoff was spectacular, a bedrock ridge with 180-degree views that would have been unobstructed if not for the clouds. Just as we were turning around, the clouds parted briefly, and we were able to snap a few quick photos of the impressive scenes of Lows and Hitchins.

We were wet, but our spirits were high as we paddled the last two miles. We felt not like we had been roughing it in the woods but like we had spent three days living a life where the minor discomforts of weather (and careless map placement) were negligible compared with the joys of nature in a remote wilderness. The final gift, as we left Hitchins Pond for the Bog River, was a bald eagle, perched on a branch, watching over us.

More stories about the Adirondacks can be found in each issue of Adirondack Explorer, the non-profit news magazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park.  Get a full print or digital subscription here.

Photo: Ethan Rouen en route to Grass Pond (by Kim Martineau); Map by Nancy Bernstein.

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Ethan Rouen is a Ph.D. student at Columbia Business School. A former crime reporter for the New York Daily News, he writes regularly for, American Way and Adirondack Explorer.

Ethan lives in New York City, but his heart is firmly planted at Avalanche Pass.

5 Responses

  1. Marco says:

    Yeah, lows can be a lot of fun. We ALWAYS get rain there, I think it is the curse of the canoe. From the timber landing, you can take the trail down to Deer Pond, and on to the Oswagatchie River. This is a real nice trip. Plan on about 4 days of paddling, maybe a week for the entire trip to the Oswagatchie.

  2. Tom McG says:

    “…but also on how rare it is to see so much water without hearing the invasive hum of motors—powerboats are not allowed on the lake.”
    I don’t believe that is true, I think the inholders, (Boy Scout Camp and a Private camp near the mouth of Grass Pond) may still use motor boats on Lows, although Float Planes have been banned.

  3. Phil Brown says:

    Tom, yes the inholders are an exception.

  4. Big Burly says:

    Ethan, thanks for a trip down memory lane.
    My family did a 3 nighter about 12 years ago — we used our 2 Penn Yan Guide models from the 1930s. Our leader, my FIL, had paddled all over the ADKs, but this was the first on this body of water. Campsight in a cove. We had great adventures each day. The most memorable about this expedition was following wind going out and back. We jury rigged a tarp and tied up the canoes, letting the wind push us along. We got going fast enough to ship water at times — a rare treat for sure.

  5. CJ says:

    We try to do Lows every fall. Weather is usually good that time of year and no bugs. Been to Grassy many times but now prefer the lower sites as we have a large group and the sites are larger. We’ve also found that the fishing is better and you don’t run into high waves in the wind in the narrow section. One year, we did the loop, up the bog, through Low’s and camped at big deer the first night. Then carried the rest of the way over to the Oswegatchie and out at Inlet… great but difficult trip with heavy canoes. Went back up the Oswegatchie a few weeks ago and will be back in Low’s this fall. Looking forward to it. Agree about the Hitchins overlook… easy hike for a great view. Never really bothered by motors on Lows. Even when they were flying in, it was only a few minutes a day. The loons are great and the eagles amazing.