Thursday, October 22, 2020

The St. Regis Canoe Area: An Ideal Paddle

With few paddling days left this season, it makes sense that your final outing is one that will provide a lasting memory.

One trip worth considering is the Paul Smiths/St Regis Lakes route, which combines awesome natural beauty, fantastic architecture, history and some really cool stories.

Teddy Roosevelt

In August 1871, 14 year-old Teddy Roosevelt spent two weeks hiking, canoeing and camping in and around what is known today as the St. Regis Canoe Area in the northern Adirondacks.

teddy rooseveltExcerpts from Roosevelt’s diary vividly describe his daily activities of fishing, swimming, tracking wildlife, and gathering specimens for his bird collection. The Roosevelt party used Paul Smith’s Hotel, on the shores of Lower St. Regis Lake as their base camp. Built in 1859, Paul Smith’s Hotel provided comfortable accommodations for sportsmen from throughout the northeast and was one of the Adirondacks best-known destinations until it was destroyed by fire in 1930. Early guests at Paul Smiths included Presidents Cleveland, Harrison and Coolidge, celebrity P.T. Barnum, and Adirondack writer, W.H.H. Murray.

Now home to Paul Smith’s College, the DEC boat launch located on campus provides easy access to over 58 lakes and ponds, many connected by relatively short, scenic carries.

The paddle

This popular six-mile paddle includes a short .06 mile carry and meanders through a variety of natural and historic landmarks on Upper and Lower St. Regis and Spitfire Lakes. The paddle can be done in a half day, but a leisurely full day is recommended in order to fully appreciate the sights along the way. 

From the boat launch at Paul Smiths, a southerly one-mile paddle passes by Peter’s Rock, named after the father of famous Adirondack guide, Mitchell Sabattis. This expansive piece of rock slopes gently into the water, creating an ideal swimming/sunbathing spot. A campsite here is surrounded by giant white pines and has a lean-to and picnic table.

Peter’s Rock affords an excellent view of Paul Smiths College with Debar Mountain looming in the distance. It is one of the few public access points on this route. Continuing from Peter’s Rock the paddle takes you through a slough where tall marsh grass is home to a variety of waterfowl. In this narrow strait leading to Spitfire Lake, 19 year-old Teddy Roosevelt documented several species of birds; ducks, loons, great blue herons, and kingfishers are a few of the species discussed in his 1877 natural history book, The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks in Franklin County, N.Y.

 Most of the property on these lakes was acquired in large tracks by Paul Smith in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and sold in smaller parcels to wealthy sportsmen for second homes and great camps. Paul Smith was master at buying low and selling high!

Upper St. Regis

As you enter the channel between Spitfire and Upper St. Regis Lake, you pass by Rabbit Island. It was here that pioneer tuberculosis researcher Edward Livingston Trudeau maintained a colony of rabbits where he studied the effects of environment on disease. Based on his experiments on Rabbit Island, Trudeau speculated that the fresh air of the Adirondack Mountains had a positive effect on the health of rabbits, and he based his TB ‘cure cottages’ in Saranac Lake partly on this hypothesis.

Upper St. Regis is the largest of the three lakes and is home to dozens of luxurious homes, estates, and Adirondack Great Camps. A paddle around this lake provides a unique glimpse at interesting and unique architectural styles. Because most camps are set back and camouflaged by foliage and natural landscaping, few of the main buildings are visible from the water. However, several boathouses at water’s edge are so large and luxurious they seem to dwarf many of the typical dwellings found in hamlets and villages throughout the Adirondacks. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that the boathouse is the heart of the camp. In fact, what typically meets the eye is often only one or two of more than a dozen structures. A case in point is the brilliant Japanese pagoda, which occupies Pine Tree Point, site of the former Vanderbilt Great Camp.

Topridge Great Camp

At the entrance to the lake’s North Bay sits the tasteful former home of Post Cereal magnate, Marjorie Merriweather Post. At one time the Adirondack Great Camp, Topridge, consisted of more than sixty individual structures and the staff included more than eighty employees. It sits atop an esker, fifty feet above the lake. While you can barely see the main house from the water, a glimpse of the boat house (at eye level) is worth your two-hour paddle alone!

Plan on spending a few moments here and be sure your camera battery is fully charged. Intricate branch and twig work adorn the spacious porches above the boathouse, creating an appealing aesthetic commonly found in the Adirondack Great Camp style.

A little further down the esker is a forty-foot suspension bridge that spans a picturesque creek connecting Spectacle Ponds to St. Regis Lake, a scene reminiscent of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. The four corner posts of the bridge have large wooden carvings that resemble Tolkien’s characters, including a Gandolf-type figure holding a plaque that reads:

A wizard’s bridge of dreams

Spans the river of time

There is magic here for those who believe

That needs no reason or rhyme

Be brave and cross to the other side

A treasure waits for you

The leprechaun will give a coin

To make your dreams come true

In 2008, current Topridge owner, Harlan Crow, hosted a weekend retreat that included guests George W. Bush and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Entertainment for one of the evening’s festivities featured a group of northeastern bagpipers who, in typical style, were offered dinner in the employee wing just off the main kitchen, well away from the distinguished guests. While the musicians were waiting to perform, Justice Thomas wandered into the kitchen and struck up a conversation with the men and, upon learning that the men had not yet eaten, he proceeded to cook dinner for the entire band. Such is the (rare) luck of the hired help!

Keese Mill Dam

The route’s only carry is just a few hundred feet away at the north end of the bay. It is an easy portage over the heavily wooded esker. The trail drops down to Keese Mill Dam and the road back to Paul Smiths, where the trailhead and parking lot for St. Regis Mountain is located.  Roosevelt, in his diary, described the hike to the 2,874 ft. summit and noted several species of birds and mammals he encountered en route. The summit of St. Regis Mountain offers a majestic panorama of the entire St. Regis Canoe Area and is home to one of the 25 remaining Fire Towers (out of the original 57 Adirondack Towers).

The flow back toward Paul Smith’s College is a leisurely two-mile paddle past several campsites and a well-used sandy beach with a rope swing attached to a large white pine branch thirty feet above the water. On most midsummer days this popular local hangout is full of daredevils swinging ever higher into the sky before dropping into the cool Adirondack waters below. Here, it is easy to imagine a young Teddy Roosevelt in full arc over the water, letting go of the rope at the last possible second, and descending with a loud shriek and a huge splash!

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Gary Peacock grew up just north of the Blue Line in Chateaugay, NY where he became an avid camper, hiker and biker at a very young age. After he closed his Record Store in Plattsburgh, he took several long - distance bicycle trips in France and the Adirondacks before attending college at Plattsburgh, where he earned a degree in Adirondack History. This article is part of a series of papers he wrote while earning his degree.

11 Responses

  1. Randy says:

    Thanks for the read and the good memories of the ADK Paddle Outing headquartered at Paul Smiths College that we’ve gone to for several years, alas, cancelled this year due to the pandemic. Another favorite is just across the road from Paul Smiths College. Church Pond, through the cut short canal to Osgood Pond and several places to continue on to Osgood River as well as a stop at White Pine Camp. Hoping to get back next year.

  2. Brian Sullivan says:

    My thanks to Gary Peacock for a great description of one of the most scenic paddling routes in the Adirondacks. The Paul Smiths/St. Regis Lakes loop has become a highlight of the numerous paddling trips that my wife & I understand every Summer. My only complaint is that Gary’s article may attract too many other paddlers to this remote end of the Adirondack Park, detracting from the relative quietude that makes this route so special.

  3. Nehasane says:

    This is a nice route but it is not in the St Regis Canoe Area as the title implies

  4. Roger says:

    Thanks for the great article on a scenic paddle. Can people rent canoes up there, or is this strictly a bring -your-equipment outing ?



  5. Randy says:

    Saranac Lake Outfitters in Saranac Lake rents canoes and has a large retail store with all sorts of goodies. They also provide guided trips as well as transport to and from some sites. Only a few minutes drive from Paul Smiths.

  6. Donna Wagner says:

    Omg…I met my husband at Paul Smiths College back in in the fall of 1964…
    I also spent my summers in the Adirondacks as a child…loved every minute. Do not live in NY any more and miss it lots.
    Outdoor recreation there was the best.

  7. Timothy Becker says:

    Spent many a day on those waters as an alumni of PSC

  8. Howard Smith says:

    Howard Smith very much intersting I grew up in Bleeker N.Y.My grandfather was Howard Charles Smith ,and had13children who also back in 30s and40s Hunted and fished this whole area Most of them went to world war 2 and Korea .r

  9. Howard Smith says:

    Thanks kindly

  10. Frank Gibney says:

    Great Article and History lesson. We love this paddle and would like ideas on similar ones. Thanks

  11. Bolt says:

    Hi! I recall getting to that rope swing by water, but there were also people who arrived there by land. Do you recall how far from the St. Regis Mountain trailhead the rope swing is, or how someone gets there from the road? I’d love to find it again!

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