As 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.
The 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.
To 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.