“Human footprints,” Brian remarked.
“So I guess we’re not Lewis and Clark,” I replied.
If we weren’t intrepid explorers, at least we could pretend. For even though we weren’t the very first, we must have been among the first to paddle this stretch of the upper Hudson River after the state purchased the 6,200-acre MacIntyre East tract from the Nature Conservancy in late April, a few weeks before our trip.
The state bought MacIntyre East as part of a multi-year deal to add sixty-one thousand acres of former Finch, Pruyn lands to the Forest Preserve. The tract includes a 5.2-mile stretch of the Hudson, starting a short distance from its source at Henderson Lake, and a seven-mile stretch of the lower Opalescent River, one of the wildest rivers in the state.
For hikers, one benefit of the acquisition is that they might have easier access to Allen Mountain, one of the forty-six High Peaks. As it stands, climbing Allen entails an eighteen-mile round trip from Tahawus. The MacIntyre East tract, however, has a logging road that comes within a few miles of Allen’s summit. The road is closed to motor vehicles now, but the state is expected to open part of it in the future.
But paddlers probably stand to gain most from the purchase of MacIntyre East. You could paddle these rivers before, but legal access was limited. When I wrote my guidebook Adirondack Paddling, I put in at a sloping rock along the Hudson and almost fell in the river. With this acquisition, there are several convenient options for entering and exiting the river. In addition, it is now permissible to land on the shore to relax, swim, fish, or picnic.
Brian and I did an end-to-end trip in solo canoes, putting in along County 76, where it crosses the Hudson, and taking out more than four miles downriver along County 25, the road that leads to the Upper Works trailhead. Including an excursion up the Opalescent, we canoed nearly nine miles. I left my bicycle at the takeout; after we finished paddling, I rode it three miles back to our car.
The takeout can be a bit tricky. We planned to exit at a spot where the Hudson comes close to County 25.
As it turned out, this part of the river is a backwater. You can still leave the water here, but you’ll have to pull over a beaver dam to reach the takeout. The other option is to paddle downriver a short distance beyond the backwater. You’ll have a short but somewhat steep climb up the bank to the road. Let’s hope the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) creates and marks a convenient takeout soon.
Our launch site was near the former mine in Tahawus owned by NL Industries. As we started downriver, we saw lots of waste rock from the mine on the left bank. In less than a half-mile, we left the industrial blight behind. The river was now lined on both sides by cedars and other trees.
The Hudson widened considerably as it morphed into Sanford Lake, offering a broad vista that included Santanoni Peak and the huge cliffs of Wallface Mountain. Brian paddled toward the marshy west shore to check out some huge boulders rising out of the water. Evidently, they were dropped by a glacier thousands of years ago. (Incidentally, the shoreline here is close to a paved pull-off along County 25 that could serve as a parking area for a put-in.)
The river soon narrowed again as we resumed our journey southward. At 2.2 miles, we reached the Opalescent on the left. The Opalescent, which rises on the north slope of Mount Marcy, is classified as a Wild River in the state’s Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System, a designation reserved for the state’s most pristine rivers.
“What a treasure of a spot,” Brian remarked. He pulled out his digital recorder to capture the birdsong in the air—mellifluous sounds that would enliven his “audio postcards” for National Public Radio and North Country Public Radio (they aired within a week of our trip).
Meanwhile, I started paddling upstream. The Opalescent is delightfully twisty, with a sandbar or gravel bar at almost every bend. These miniature beaches are splendid places to stop for a swim or picnic—which would have been illegal in the past.
Eventually, Brian caught up, and we continued paddling against a moderate current. He got ahead of me, and as I rounded a bend, I saw him stopped midstream, motioning for me to be quiet. Pointing to a large bird in a tree overhanging the water, he took out his recorder. After a moment, the bird launched from its perch and disappeared upstream—silently, alas.
“Must have been a hawk,” I said.
“He wasn’t very expressive,” Brian replied, disappointed.
At 1.7 miles from the Hudson, we passed under a railroad trestle (see Viewpoint, page 43). This was as far as I got when I was researching my guidebook. At that time, in late fall, the water was shallower. On this day, Brian and I paddled a third of a mile beyond the trestle before stopping for lunch on a gravel bar. We could have traveled farther, but how far is hard to say.
As we consumed our comestibles—figs for Brian, a peanut-butter sandwich for me—we enjoyed views of Allen and other nearby peaks. A kingfisher, perhaps disturbed by our presence, emitted a loud rattle as it swooped past.
After we finished eating, Brian took out his recorder again and asked what I liked about our paddle. “I just love exploring places like this,” I answered. “I mean, it’s a beautiful day, it’s a beautiful river, and it’s just a nice way to spend some time.”
With that profundity preserved for posterity, we got back in our boats. Going down the Opalescent was great fun. Occasionally, we had to steer around rocks or shallow riffles, but most of the time we relaxed and drifted with the current, lazily dipping our paddles. At one turn in the river, we were treated to an especially majestic view of Allen.
In no time, it seemed, we were back at the confluence.
“We’re at the Hudson again,” I announced.
“I have mixed emotions about that,” Brian said.
The Hudson upriver of the confluence is not part of the Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System, owing to the industrial landscape. For several miles below the confluence, as far as the hamlet of Newcomb, it is classified as Recreational. If not for the proximity of the road, it no doubt would qualify as Wild or Scenic. (Stretches of the Hudson below Newcomb are in fact classified as Wild or Scenic.)
Just 0.2 miles below the Opalescent, the Hudson passes under a bridge for a logging-road (this is the road that approaches Allen). If you don’t want to do an end-to-end trip, you could put in here, paddle up the Hudson and Opalescent, and return to the put-in. Past the bridge, the Hudson pulls away from the road. This is the wildest stretch of the Hudson we saw. About two-thirds of a mile downriver from the bridge, we came to an alder marsh with a spectacular view of Mount Colden and Algonquin Peak. The marsh was filled with the sound of spring peepers.
In another few miles, we came to a backwater on the right. Upon entering the still water, we enjoyed more stellar views of the High Peaks. We weren’t sure if this was our takeout. Brian and I split up to explore. I went right and followed a channel that paralleled the road. An annoyed beaver slapped its tail on the water, so close that I got splashed. Shortly after this, I came to a beaver dam. I could see my bike and the takeout just on the other side of the dam. It was either pull over the dam or fight our way through an alder thicket. Brian had another idea: paddle downriver a bit and take out on solid ground. That’s what we did, ending up a quarter-mile down the road from my bike.
After sitting in a canoe for hours, I was more than happy to stretch my legs on the ride back to the car. I also got to enjoy again some of the spectacular scenery we had seen from the water. What a way to end the day!
DIRECTIONS: From Northway Exit 29, drive 17.6 miles west on County 2 (Boreas Road) to County 25, which leads to Tahawus and the Upper Works trailhead. Turn right and go 3.4 miles to a yellow traffic sign showing a curvy road and “45 M.P.H.” If you plan an end-to-end trip, you can leave a second car or bicycle near here. Find a good place to take out and mark the spot. For the put-in, continue another 3.0 miles to the junction with County 76. Bear right, cross the Hudson, and park on the left side of the road. Put in at the bridge. If you plan a round trip from the Opalescent Road bridge, the directions are simpler. From the junction of County 2 and County 25, drive north on County 25 for 4.4 miles. The bridge should be visible on the right.
Photos by Phil Brown: Above, Brian Mann paddles up the Opalescent River, with Allen Mountain looming in the background; middle, Brian enjoys a repast of figs on a gravel bar two miles up the Opalescent; and below, toward the end of the trip, Brian explores a scenic backwater off the Hudson. Map by Nancy Bernstein.
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.