Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Exploring Essex Chain Lakes On ‘Day One Of Forever’

Paddler on Essex Chain LakesAs Sue Bibeau and I drove down the long dirt road west of Goodnow Flow, we wondered if many people, if anybody, besides us would be paddling the Essex Chain Lakes. Although it was the first day the chain would be open to the public in more than a century, the state had done little advance publicity.

It turns out we were late for the party. When we arrived at the newly created parking area, we were hard-pressed to find a spot. There were nineteen vehicles already there—one from the Florida, the rest from New York State.

After signing in at the new kiosk, we headed down the carry trail toward Third Lake, the largest water body in the Essex Chain. In a quarter-mile, we came to Deer Pond. Deer is a sizable pond. You could spend an hour exploring it. However, we paddled a beeline across its narrow eastern bay to pick up the carry trail on the other side. We then carried a half-mile to the north shore of Third Lake.

To get to the Essex Chain, therefore, you must be prepared to carry your boat three quarters of a mile, with a two-minute paddle thrown in.  If you have lightweight canoes, as we did, this is not as difficult as it seems. Most of the carrying is on dirt roads, so it’s pretty easy. Sue and I did it in less than a half-hour. The portage trails are well marked.

Essex ChainThe location of the parking area could be changed, depending on how the Adirondack Park Agency and state Department of Environmental Conservation decide to classify and manage the Essex Chain Tract. Local officials would like people to be able to drive closer to the lakes. Some environmental activists have called for a larger non-motorized “buffer” around the chain.

Within moments of starting the carry, Sue and I encountered a bearded fellow schlepping his canoe in the opposite direction—Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. We asked if the interim parking area provided enough of a buffer for the Essex Chain. He thought so, but more important than the location of the parking area, he said, is that motorboats and floatplanes be kept off the lakes.

“Having motor-free lakes affords ecological protection and attracts people,” he said. “It’s better for the towns to have a little wilderness.”

Bidding adieu to Willie, we next encountered a bunch of fellow Saranac Lakers—Zoe Smith, Michale Glennon, Leslie Karasin, and Heidi Kretser of the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with Jason Smith of Adirondack Lakes and Trails and Steve Langdon, a naturalist who works for the Shingle Shanty Preserve.

When we got to Third Lake, we ran into Connie Prickett, spokeswoman for the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, who was there with a video crew. The Nature Conservancy bought the Essex Chain Tract from Finch, Pruyn & Company in 2007 and sold it to the state last year.

As soon as we put in, we met Mike Carr, the conservancy chapter’s executive director, who was canoeing with his dog, Aileron, and Chris Ballantyne, an aide to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. Mike was pleased with the turnout for the opening day of the Essex Chain.

“This is day one of forever,” he remarked. “It’s open to the public and forever wild. It’s spectacular to see people out here.”

We couldn’t have ordered a better day—sunshine, puffy clouds, leaves at their peak color. Third Lake offered views in all directions of peaks near and far, including Dun Brook Mountain, the Fishing Brook Range, Blue Mountain, and Vanderwhacker Mountain.

Sue and I first paddled southwest to Second Lake, which is much smaller than Third. The two are separated by a wide channel with a fish-barrier net. We landed near Second’s rocky outlet and walked a hundred yards through the woods to get a glimpse of First Lake. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore First, but if you paddle this lake, you might also consider portaging to Grassy Pond, which lies just to the north.

After returning to our canoes, we paddled back to Third and past the clubhouse and camps of the Gooley Club on the south shore. Paddlers are forbidden to land here. The club will be allowed to use the buildings until 2018, after which they must be removed.

We paused to chat with two other paddlers, Frank Baehre of Plattsburgh and his son, also named Frank. The elder Frank is a volunteer for the Adirondack Park Invasive Plants Program.  Each year, he surveys several lakes for invasive aquatic plants. We asked if he had seen any exotic species in his trip around the Essex Chain.

“From what I’ve seen so far, everything seems to be native,” he said. “Then again, we’re here to paddle, not survey.”

Continuing up Third, we eventually reached a winding channel that led to Fourth Lake, where we were greeted by a cacophony of blackbirds (species unknown) flitting back and forth between a wetland and the adjacent woods.

Sixth Lake outletTo get to Fifth Lake, we passed through a large culvert that lies beneath a dirt road. The Gooley Club has facilitated this task by running a knotted rope along the culvert’s ceiling. We used it to pull ourselves through and wondered if the Adirondack State Land Master Plan allows for culvert ropes in Wilderness Areas.

By the time we got to Fifth, the sun had sunk low, casting a soft glow on Sixth Lake Mountain dead ahead, illuminating the yellows and reds of the hardwoods. The long, meandering channel between Fifth and Sixth lakes was shallow. We had to dodge islands of mud and push through lily pads, but there was enough water to get through.

As we paddled up Sixth, we were partly in shadow, but upon rounding a blunt point, entering tiny Seventh Lake, we were showered with sunshine and treated to a splendid view of Cedar Mountain. There is an Eighth Lake, but it requires a longish carry. Given the hour, we turned around.

Altogether, Sue and I spent three and a half hours on the water, but we were a bit rushed at the end. I’d recommend setting aside more time to explore the chain, especially if you visit First Lake and Grassy Pond. When you add in the portages, you can easily put in a full day here. If you’re driving a long distance, you may want to camp out in nearby Newcomb. Eventually, DEC likely will establish campsites on the Essex Chain; at the moment, however, camping is prohibited.

A few additional notes: we saw and heard loons on Third Lake and Fifth Lake. We also saw ducks, great blue herons, and belted kingfishers. There also were signs of civilization, such as the Gooley Club camps and docks, the culvert, the fish-barrier net, and here and there paraphernalia in the woods—a few plastic chairs, a picnic table, a small grill. Overall, though, the Essex Chain embodies the wildness of remote, pristine lakes surrounded by rugged hills and mountains. And the chain will get wilder in the years ahead.

DIRECTIONS: From NY 28N in Newcomb, turn south on Pine Tree Road (a short loop road), then turn onto Goodnow Flow Road. Go 4.3 miles on Goodnow Flow Road to a junction with Woody’s Road. Turn right onto Woody’s Road and go 1.5 miles to Cornell Road. Bear left and go another 4.4 miles to the parking area. After the turn onto Woody’s Road, most of the driving will be on dirt roads. The roads are often rocky. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended. The parking area is shown on the DEC map above (it is the one southwest of Goodnow Flow).

Photos of Sue Bibeau on Third Lake (top) and Sixth Lake outlet (bottom) by Phil Brown.

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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.

36 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    What a great job all these guys have!

    Phil, how long does it take to drive from Saranac Lake to get in there?

    Did you notice what some of the water temps are? This warm weather is great but a little cooler would probably be better for fishing.

    Is there just a gate and the road continues to the first pond?

  2. Phil Brown says:

    Paul, the drive takes 1.5 to 2 hours to the parking area. On the dirt road, we were often going only 10-15 mph, because of rocks. You could go faster in a truck or jeep. We only stepped into the water. It wasn’t too cold. There is a gate at the parking area. Roads beyond the gate go in various directions. Not sure where they lead.

  3. Paul says:

    Probably a nice drive this time of year! Thanks. They should probably budget to build a big parking lot. There probably isn’t much shoulder to park on a road like those?

  4. Paul says:

    Be careful. The hunting club members that know those roads well probably do 30 or 40 on those roads!

  5. Bill Dee says:

    WOW, sounds like every one there was paid to be there. Recreation and a pay check, sounds like the 1% still rules

  6. Phil Brown says:

    The 1% may still rule, Bill, but they weren’t at the Essex Chain Lakes.

    • Paul says:

      Well one of the folks you mentioned does have a house at on the Ausable Club but he may be the only one who qualifies!

  7. scott says:

    Phil, I went yesterday and you missed the best part. The First Pond outlet! Paddled nearly halfway to the Cedar. I want to explore it in high water.

  8. Robin Hood says:

    Just curious: did you or any of the people you talked to buy lunch, gas, a map or a memento in Newcomb? Long Lake? Blue Mtn Lake? Indian Lake, North Creek? Minerva? North Hudson?

    • Sick Of Trolls says:

      I understand they tele-ported to Newcomb and are fasting.

      When was the last time you bought a “memento” in the county where you live?

      • Robin Hood says:

        I think the larger point still stands despite your focusing on my throw-away mention of mementos: if we are engaged in a broad conversation about how this land should be classified and there is an important debate about the economic angle to this, then I think it is a reasonable question to ask if anyone who visited happened to leave any money in the 5 towns. It would have been great to have Phil respond ‘yes, I bought a cup of coffee at the diner on my way in’, or “yup, I grabbed a cold one at the bar to celebrate a great day’.

    • John Warren says:

      A better question is how many private club members did Phil see?

      Surely, with early bowhunting season underway the area must have been packed with hunters from the clubs with full bellies, full tanks of gas, and their pockets stuffed with mementos.

      • Paul says:

        Not-so-private club members.

        It is an interesting question. I am curious to see what the increase or decrease in use of the area will be.

        Bow hunting does not have the popularity in the northern zone that it has in the south. Early bear season is probably more likely to draw in hunters in the northern zone (but not when it is that warm, you really should not hunt) My guess is if a club has say 40 members on a given weekend during the regular season you might have 20-30 members at camp. Less during the week depending on the age of the membership.

        That is why is is too bad the two things could not have co-existed (at least from an economic perspective). Those clubs draw pretty large numbers in for the later part of the fall. A time when hikers tend to be less interested. But in the summer and early fall the hikers and paddlers would far out number the club members in there. Like you probably saw there on Tuesday.

      • Robin Hood says:

        Well, the club members were out scouting this past weekend, but I doubt any were in on Oct 1st because it is fair to assume they would have been at work. This Saturday and Sunday might be a more representative time to test your question.

        • John Warren says:

          So I guess we can count on the paddling and hiking public all through the week, but only club members on weekends?

          Looks like the whole “club members contribute to the economy but you hikers and paddlers don’t” is getting more far-fetched and wacky all the time.

          I know it certainly is getting tiresome. People visiting town are people visiting town, there’s no separation in the amount of beer they buy, or their willingness to purchase schlock, to eat a local meal or tip one at the Newcomb House according to whether they happen to be hiking, fishing, paddling, or hunting that day.

          If the question is will all these new visitors spend money?, than we are calling into question the whole idea of tourism. Even if they don’t spend money at the Newcomb House, they have to eat somewhere, but gas, equipment, internet access to learn about it and map it, and on and on, all of which is economic activity that benefits our overall economy.

          • Paul says:

            It sounds like both club folks and the paddlers were in there getting along pretty well. It even sounds like a few motor boats didn’t wreck it for those paddling. This whole Wild Forest versus Wilderness debate is silly. Let em both stay, let em both spend money. This post as solved the whole issue!

            • scott says:

              There was only one motor boat the day I was there. From a purely human based experience this waterway should be classified as wilderness or Canoe. There were no sounds from roads, no Mcmansions up on distant hills, just abundant wildlife, a beautiful landscape and the sounds of our paddles breaking the water. The Gooley club and a few other piles of boats, tables, etc on shore seemed so out of place.

              The decision confronting the APA seems like a very easy one if you read the definitions of the classifications in the SLMP and you spend any time there. There are many areas where Wild Forest is the correct classification but this is not one of them. I was even surprised at the condition of the interior roads. They were less permanent than I expected. Within 50 years they would completely resemble a foot path instead of a logging road. All of our wilderness areas have old logging roads that have recovered.

          • robin hood says:

            All good points John, but the Governor’s commitment is not to “the overall” economy, but to the specific economies of the local communities.

            Also, I’m not sure I follow your line of logic that paddlers being there on weekdays and club members being there on weekends provides any insight on how and/or how much either group contributes to the local economy.

            My point was to highlight Phil likely might not have seen any club members because they were at work and more likely to be up on weekends. I do not think it is at all a stretch to say the vast majority of people visit and recreate in the Adks on weekends.

            And as one previous responder posted, most of the people Phil mentioned meeting were largely if not exclusively paddling on “Day One” because they are fortunate enough to have jobs that enabled them to be there.

            • Paul says:

              If tourism is to be more of the economic base for the Adirondacks it has to be more than a weekend affair.

      • scott says:

        There were 2 cars at the club. Two club members out fishing in their motor boat. There were 4 or 5 groups of regular folks out there.

    • scott says:

      Yes, we did! Yesterday. I love Newcomb.

  9. Phil Brown says:

    Scott, thanks for the tip. I plan to revisit the chain and will check out the outlet.

    Robin Hood, I don’t have an answer. Speaking for myself, I often eat at a local restaurant or buy gas when I travel to different parts of the park.

  10. Paul says:

    This area has gotten a lot of press so if any place is going to draw a crowd it will be here. Just have to wait and see what happens.

    Phil, for now is it okay to Mt. Bike in there?

    Also, are the roads maintained by the DEC or by the town?

    • Phil Brown says:

      Not sure who is responsible for maintaining the roads, but we saw a town truck and backhoe on way in. The town may be contracting with the state.

      • Paul says:

        Thanks. I am just curious what the legal status of the roads is? It could be an issue for the APA to consider on classification. I don’t think you want a bunch of town roads cris-crossing a Wilderness area? Not sure that would meet the characteristics for that designation.

  11. Phil, I stopped in there today but instead of turning right onto Woody’s Road, I stayed to the left. Went around the left side of Goodnow Flow, then after crossing the outlet took the first left onto Chain of Lakes Rd. There is a brown DEC sign post – but no sign yet. This was a dirt road, didn’t check the mileage but followed it all the way to the end, past several gated roads. At the end there is a trail register and then a .8 walk down the rest of the dirt road to the Hudson River. Lovely views up and down stream, except for the Finch Pruyn steel deck bridge across the river! Can’t wait to explore more and do some paintings of the area!

    • Phil Brown says:

      Sandra, you went to the Blackwater Stillwater, which I wrote about in the last issue of the Explorer. Did you go there intentionally or did you miss the turn? If bring your canoe,put in upstream of the bridge and paddle a short distance to the mouth of the Goodnow River.It’s pretty scenic back in there.

  12. Will Doolittle says:

    Isn’t it Essex Chain of Lakes? I’ve noticed some people drop the “of”. Is that a colloquialism? Because it sounds cooler that way? Or is a chain lake something I’m not aware of?

    • Doug says:

      The map has it as Essex Chain Lake, no “of”.

      Two friends and I are headed to the site to paddle on Thursday. Will stop for coffee on the way and certainly will stop at the Adirondack Hotel after the trip. lol

      • Will Doolittle says:

        What map? I’ve seen it both ways, including on two separate maps on this website. Also, it is written both ways numerous times in various DEC press releases.

  13. Will Doolittle says:

    I notice a map I have here in the office — a Visual Encyclopedia map — does the same thing with the Fulton Chain of Lakes, listing it as Fulton Chain Lakes. I wonder if it’s a mapmakers’ quirk, to save a word in all that crowding? Googling Fulton Chain of Lakes, the same thing happens as with Essex Chain of Lakes — lots of entries come up with “of” and lots come up without “of”. I’m guessing the chains of lakes start off with names as just that, chains of lakes. But in use, people start eliding the “of”.

  14. Will Doolittle says:

    There appear to be Chain Lakes and some Chain O’Lakes all across the country.

  15. Doug says:

    After visiting the tract this week it is obvious that the road network would provide wonderful mountain biking opportunities. Wilderness Classification would prohibit that use.