“Surfing” is popular in many forms in the Adirondack Park. There’s wakeboarding, windsurfing, kiteboarding, kayak surfing in rapids, and other options. One of the greatest thrills I’ve ever experienced on the water is what I’ve since referred to as “canoe surfing,” sometimes riding hundreds of feet on large waves. It’s not a recommended activity, and this is not a suggestion to try it. In fact, the first time I did it was serendipitous: I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch a wave.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch windsurfers and kiteboarders locally, check out this video taken in June on Plattsburgh’s Cumberland Bay, just outside the Park. As you’ll see, the mountain views from Lake Champlain are spectacular and the boarding action is exciting. (Simple searches will yield more videos.)
For my own taste, it’s hard to beat flat-water canoeing in the Adirondacks. When you find solitude (which is hard to come by these days), it can feel downright spiritual, but otherwise, the scenic views are fantastic, and wildlife encounters with eagles, deer, otters, loons, fish, and other critters have created for me a plethora of unique memories, always fresh in my mind.
During the past 20 years, my wife, Jill Jones, has been my canoeing partner, and as such has indulged me in some great adventures (what she might misidentify as crazy pursuits). If you ever meet her, perhaps at a book event, consider mentioning a spectacular canoe trip we took around Isle La Motte on Lake Champlain. If you’re lucky, she’ll “reminisce” about the wonderful world of whitecaps. Or ask about the longest “short” canoe trip ever from Port Kent to Schuyler Island. You’ll get an earful — all about me.
Which brings us to my personal discovery of canoe surfing many years ago. It took place on a week-long trip from Whitehall at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, to Plattsburgh near the northern end. (It ended there because I had already covered from Plattsburgh to the Quebec border at Rouses Point several times.) The journey included touring the shoreline of every bay on the New York side of the lake and most of them on the Vermont side, which meant frequent crossings back and forth between the two shores (the dividing line between the two states runs down the middle of the lake). From Whitehall to Plattsburgh by water is 85 miles, but covering the bays and sometimes traveling up the middle of the lake added drastically to the trip’s mileage, accounting for several 30-mile days of paddling.
Day 6 involved a visit to the Four Brothers islands, plus a complete shoreline tour of Willsboro Point and Willsboro Bay before heading north to a campground near Port Kent. The waves and whitecaps I’d dealt with in the past on some mountain lakes were impressive (wild trips on Tupper Lake, Chazy Lake, and Union Falls Pond come to mind), but the winds on Lake Champlain sometimes take it to another level. When it blows from south to north across the open water, the wind at certain locations creates peripheral waves that race at near-right angles towards shores, especially where there are deeply recessed bays.
If you look at a map of the lake, you’ll see such a bay between Willsboro Point and Trembleau Mountain to the north (opposite Schuyler Island). From the main lake, that indentation, Corlaer Bay, reaches about a mile west to the landing at Port Douglass. The bay is named after Arent van Corlaer, a historical figure who drowned in 1667 when his canoe capsized nearby during stormy weather.
As I departed Willsboro Bay, the winds picked up considerably, causing large whitecaps to form, and it was blowing at my back, making for just about the fastest ride possible—or so I thought. Approaching the mouth of Corlaer Bay, I could see big, surfing-like waves, complete with curls, surging towards the shore, which was a mile distant. Despite the power of the wind pushing me directly north on what promised to be a day of steering rather than hard paddling, I still wanted to tour every bay, so the decision was made to head west into Corlaer Bay towards Port Douglass.
Only when I arrived at the shore, which was crowded with families and manned by a lifeguard, did I discover that beachgoers had feared all along I was in deep trouble. They explained that the view from shore revealed a small craft—about a mile away but visible because it was bright red—bobbing atop whitecaps and then dropping from sight for what seemed like long periods.
Using my binoculars to zoom in on the bay’s wide entrance, we figured out what they had seen. Waves of three to four feet fairly tower over you when you’re sitting in a canoe, but when I first entered the bay, I paddled hard with a rising wave and was suddenly swept speedily forward, the canoe acting like a surfboard as long as I steered properly to maintain the line. It sort of felt like flying. After a couple of shorter rides, I picked up on the tricky steering, and the result was exhilarating. What a rush!
Their cause for alarm on shore was based on visuals: when I caught a wave and rode it, well below the top, other waves between the canoe and the beach blocked me from view. Knowing the bay’s history, I had to wonder … had I tempted fate, riding wild surf in a bay named for a man who had lost his life in rough weather? Unlike Corlear, though, I not only had paddles, but a pair of oars if I needed them (great for taking control in rough conditions), and was wearing a quality life jacket.
It was a great adventure, but again, I’m not suggesting anyone seek out the experience. There are obvious risks, just as there are in hiking, rock climbing, and other pursuits. Whether or not to engage is a personal choice, based in part on one’s abilities and a well-rounded familiarity with their boat. In this case, I was initially shocked at how much fun it was to surf a wave in an open canoe—which was, incidentally, a composite 13-footer by Old Town, plenty strong enough to weather heavy action.
Since that time, I’ve canoe-surfed on many occasions while on larger bodies of water, especially Lake Champlain, where I’ve launched hundreds of times from different locations. Surfing was not the objective of any trip, but when the opportunity arose, it was great fun using the powerful conditions on the lake to full advantage, and getting a huge adrenaline high at the same time.
Which reminds me of another memorable ride on the big lake—with Jill, who might offer a colorful description of that now-infamous return trip from Schuyler Island several years ago. It was a harrowing ride out, but a wild surfing trip back to Port Kent—by far the fastest two miles I’ve ever covered in a canoe. She’s the perfect paddling partner, working hard at all times—even while questioning my sanity.
It turns out that I didn’t invent a new pastime during that cruise years ago into Corlaer Bay, for canoe surfing is popular in places like Hawaii, where it’s done in outrigger models. This video and others like it provide the sensations of lift and speed that come from the push of a long, strong, wave. Kayak surfing is also common, and far safer than trying it in an open canoe.
Photos: Above, wind-driven waves on Lake Champlain; and below, Outrigger canoe surfing in Hawaii.