I have heard from many who have gone into the Essex Chain Lakes area and encountered relatively few other people. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has stated that public use has been very high but provided no numbers. When I rode my bicycle from Newcomb to Blue Mountain Lake on a beautiful 75 degree Saturday of Labor Day weekend last year there were two cars at the Deer Pond parking lot to the Essex Chain Lakes area. This contrasted with the fairly heavy use of people hiking into OK Slip Falls, which is part of the Hudson Gorge Wilderness area.
Through a freedom of Information letter, I requested trailhead logbooks from the DEC to look at the use of other flatwater canoeing locations in the Adirondack Forest Preserve – Little Tupper Lake, Low’s Lake and Lake Lila. These are all wonderful motorless areas that provide incredible flatwater canoeing and overnight opportunities. I had certainly envisioned that the Essex Chain Lakes would become another such vaunted Wilderness destination where visitors were guaranteed a wild experience, away from motor vehicles.
Here’s what I found.
I reviewed trailhead registers from June through August in 2015 at the Deer Pond parking lot, the principal launching part to canoe on the Essex Chain Lakes, as well as at Lake Lila, Little Tupper Lake, and the lower dam at Low’s Lake. I wanted to compare public use at the Essex Chain Lakes with some of the premier flatwater Wilderness canoe locations in the Adirondacks outside of the St. Regis Canoe area and the Oswegatchie River (unfortunately the 2015 summer trail registers for the Oswegatchie were not available).
From June through August 2015, the Deer Pond trailhead register had 447 total users, of which 401 signed in as day users and 46 stayed overnight.
During the same time in 2015, Lake Lila saw 967 total uses, of which 312 signed in as day users and 655 stayed one night or more.
At Little Tupper Lake, 909 people signed in at the register, of which 224 signed in as day users and 685 stayed one night or more.
At Low’s Lake, 1,663 people signed in at the register, of which 747 signed in as day users and 1,016 stayed one night or more.
In addition to the breakdown of overall use, day and overnight use, I calculated the total number of nights that people stayed at these locations. For instance, if a party of 4 people signed in at the register for three nights, I counted this as 12 total camper days. When I calculated these numbers for the four locations, the Essex Chain Lakes saw 107 camper nights from June-August 2015. This compared with 1,988 at Lake Lila, 2,119 at Little Tupper Lake, and 3,894 at Low’s Lake.
The Essex Chain Lakes area, as is well known, is one of the state’s newest acquisitions. The public is very curious about this area and still getting to know it. Other paddling destinations – like Lake Lila, Little Tupper Lake (and Rock Lake) and Low’s Lake – have devoted users who come back year after year.
The disparity in use at the Essex Chain, especially among overnight campers, makes me wonder why public use is not commensurate with other similar areas. One thing that strikes me is that the experience at Lake Lila, Little Tupper Lake, and Low’s Lake is a known commodity, whereas the Essex Chain experience is still developing. The Gooley Club members are still driving motor vehicles in the tract, the public is riding bikes through the area, and DEC is patrolling in trucks. This is far different from the other areas which, save for a few minor inholdings, are Wilderness and motorless.
The Essex Chain numbers also differ from the number of people hiking into OK Slip Falls, now part of the Hudson Gorge Wilderness area. While I did not compare numbers for June through August 2015, I stopped recently to look at the trailhead register and there were over 800 people signed in from February through April 2016, not prime months. OK Slip Falls is beautiful and while a hiker will likely encounter other people there, not unlike a popular mountain summit, the experience is both known and protected because it’s a Wilderness area. Users know that when they get there they will be able to take in the view of this natural masterpiece in a wild and beautiful setting without intrusions from motor vehicles or bicycles. That’s very different from the Essex Chain Lakes and perhaps one factor driving the immense popularity of this new public hiking destination.
The Essex Chain Lakes is a beautiful area of interconnected lakes and ponds. The shoreline is varied and rich in tree species and aquatic plants. It’s scenically stunning. I have been on record arguing that the Essex Chain Lakes area was misclassified, that it should have been a cornerstone of a new Wilderness area. The use numbers put up at the Essex Chain Lakes area, at least for the canoeing public in 2015, could be showing us that the hodge podge of conflicting uses allowed there may be keeping people away. More, in this case, is not more; it’s less.
Photo of a paddler on Third Lake by Phil Brown.