I can recall a time when there were still tent platforms on all the prime spots along the shores of Lower & Middle Saranac lakes. Despite being built on state land, they all had “POSTED” signs. Engraved family signs hung on the doors of what had originally been intended as public camping sites. Many had docks, propane tanks, generators, all the trappings of private camps. Some had been occupied by the same family for more than a generation. Many of them had become quite elaborate.
I remember the first several times my family boated up the river to Bull Rush Bay on Middle Saranac Lake. Any tent platform camp was long gone, replaced at some point by a lean-to, but the old dock was still there, along the right shoreline, about halfway into the bay, near site 63. For the few folks who know where to look, while the old dock is long gone, the base of the dock anchor post still lies hidden along the shore, buried in among some boulders under the base of an old shoreline cedar. The old camp remnants are there too. They lie buried among the rocks at the base of the side hill.
At some point the DEC decided all those private family camps built up on the tent platforms on public state lands simply needed to come out. My dad played a key role in that decision making process. Although I was still young, I can clearly remember the controversy involved. It was a time in Dad’s career where he made far more enemies than friends. But that was my Dad, no matter the consequence, when he knew he was right, always firm his resolve.
He and a select group of decision makers above him forged onward. (See above photo) The tent platforms came out. State lands were wrested from the grip of private hands and returned to the public so anyone who wished to do so could once again camp.
For a number of years after that, there was no formal “Saranac Lake Islands” reservation camping system. There were designated sites. They were all numbered. Several had lean-tos. I can remember there being several. Some have since come out.
It was the mid 1970’s. Camping was first come, first served. There was a two week limit on consecutive nights folks could stay camped at one site. Every summer, at least once or twice, we camped for two weeks on one of the lake’s many sites. First Island, Martha Reben, Weller Pond, even the Ampersand walk in still had a lean-to site at that point. Bull Rush Bay was site 63. That quickly became our family’s favorite special spot. We have camped almost exclusively there now for nearly 50 years, well into our 3rd generation.
Then, in the later part of the 1970’s, the Saranac Lake Islands camping system evolved further. Today’s permit camping system was instituted. My Dad was once again heavily involved.
Flash forward to this past Fourth of July weekend. My brother Ray had booked a two week reservation at Bull Rush Bay. The weather reports for the upcoming weekend were grim. What’s new?! It looked like anyone determined to camp on the lakes for the Fourth of July in 2021 had better plan to get wet.
Undeterred, we continued with our plans, packed and loaded our gear. My brother Ray called me on Tuesday.
“Hey – the weather looks pretty iffy. Our reservation starts Thursday. I’m going in to set up, packing light, with the boat. Do you want to meet me at the State Bridge? What are your plans?”
“Yeah, I’ve been watching the weather too. I was planning on canoeing in from South Creek on Friday. I want to get in and set up ahead of that rain though, so don’t be surprised if you see me slide in to set up late Thursday. RJ has to work. He’s kayaking in from the walk-in sometime Friday.”
“Okay. Keep me posted. See you in camp.”
So that was our plan, and that’s what we did.
I slid into camp in my Zen boat canoe late Thursday evening after another successful day spent “Adirondack Bottle Diving”. I will detail that elsewhere. Ray had already arrived and was setting up camp. The dark clouds coming in from the west hung low over the lake. Ampersand Mountain was shrouded. The clouds looked foreboding.
I rowed in from South Creek. The parking lot there was surprisingly empty for the Thursday night before 4th of July weekend. I had driven by the Ampersand walk in on my route out from town. It too was starkly devoid of cards. There were only three other cars in the South Creek parking lot when I arrived. The only other paddler I encountered there was on his way out. There were no boats on the lake. The wind was still, the water quite calm, a quiet row into camp. I encountered no one else on my trip.
Ray and I set about unloading gear, setting up tents, gathering firewood, kindling a fire, pitching camp. Ray’s young black lab “Pepper” all the while providing very enthusiastic supervision and energetic help.
Ray said that the lock tenders told him the boat traffic was nil. More folks were coming out than going in. It looked like it would be a quiet weekend. We would have the lake to ourselves.
Ray’s wife Patty walked in and joined us for dinner.
“You guys know it’s supposed to rain all day tomorrow and Saturday. Right?”
Ray took her back to the walk in shortly after they ate. She was not staying the night.
I walked down to the lake shore at dusk and studied the incoming clouds with concern.
“Ray, you didn’t happen to toss a canopy on the boat, did you?”
“No, I didn’t think of it. I’ve got a nice new one in the garage from Forrest’s graduation. They held SL’s graduation outside this year. Someone donated 77 of them. One for each graduating senior.”
“Well, then we’d better come up with something, or we’re gonna lose that fire. Rain’s headed our way, and the temperature is dropping. We’re gonna want to cover that fire pit.”
“Okay. I brought an extra tarp.”
So, I grabbed a length of rope from my bag, strung it between two trees, and Ray and I proceeded to hang a simple tarp over our camp fire.
It didn’t rain Friday night, but it got cold! We had both planned and packed appropriately though, despite it being July, with good sleeping bags, long sleeve shirts, camp blankets, and of course, our trusty rain jackets. We awoke early Saturday and sat by our rekindled fire, enjoying some just perked morning camp coffee.
Ray said; “I think I’m going to call Mike(his son) and have him meet me at the State Bridge. After breakfast I’m going to drive the boat down and get that canopy.”
“Okay. I’m calling RJ to check on his plans. Depending on when he gets here, he’s gonna have a wet trip in.”
We spent our morning taking advantage of the lull before the storm to gather a good load of firewood. Easier to gather dry wood before rain than during or after it. We stacked a bunch of it in and behind the lean-to so that it would stay dry. By the time we were done we had a good big supply, enough to at least get us through Saturday, if needed.
Sure enough, it began raining just before 11a.m., right about the time Ray left. It began as a steady rain, but within minutes of his departure, it was pouring. RJ had just left Albany. I had just gotten off the phone with him.
“Be prepared to get wet!”
“Yeah, I’ll throw on my rain gear and swim trunks. How’s the wind?”
“No wind to speak of, water’s calm. No other boats”
“Okay then, see you in a couple of hours. I’ll call when I get to the walk in. I’ll be fine.”
My son RJ was enroute.
I sat in camp and tended the fire. Ray returned in a little over an hour later with the canopy. He was soaking wet, shivering.
“I signed in and picked up our camping permit while I was down at the State Bridge. “The DEC guy there said there were a lot of vacant sites, folks packing out early. Apparently a lot of them cancelled their Fourth of July camping plans because of the weather.”
Ray shivered a smile from under his soaking wet hat and nodded emphatically.
“Nope. Not us.”
He changed his clothes, we sat in the lean-to watching the fire, the rain, and chatting about two brother’s life stuff while we awaited RJ’s arrival.
The rain came heavy at times, then for brief periods, let up. RJ called.
“I’m at Uncle Ray’s house picking up my kayak. I’ll meet you in camp in a couple of hours.”
It was Friday, July 2nd in the Adirondacks. There wasn’t another boat, canoe or kayak visible on the lake. We could see one small plume of smoke from one other camp fire far across the lake. That was it. The rain had chased almost everyone out. It looked like we had the lake to ourselves for the weekend. We weren’t complaining. That was just fine with us.
A short while later RJ’s kayak came into view. I could just make him out in the distance through the mist. He was paddling hard. A man on a mission. At that point it was pouring.
He pulled into camp, quickly unloaded, changed, and warmed up by the fire in the lean-to. There wasn’t much we could do in that weather except wait it out, so we did. We turned in early, hoping for better weather on Saturday.
Saturday came. It was still pretty chilly for July, even in the mountains, but at least the rain had stopped. RJ and Ray made omelets & fried up some bacon for breakfast. No bagels though. A mouse had found it’s way into Ray’s food bin during the night and nibbled its way right down the hole through the middle of them all. Ray tossed them into the fire. Camp casualties.
After breakfast we gathered more wood. While doing so I nearly stepped on a new spotted fawn hiding next to a beech log under some ferns in the woods.
We set up Ray’s canopy over the picnic table. We went fishing, caught some nice bass. I began the day long process of making a big pot of roast venison soup. Ray’s wife Patty and his oldest son TJ walked in. Ray and I picked them up in his boat. There was a momma merganser and her big brood of “merganslings” on shore at the walk in. They skedaddled into the water when I took their picture.
TJ had brought his girlfriend Alyssa with him. It was her 1st experience in an Adirondack camp.
With everyone in camp, venison soup nicely simmering, I went for a short hike alone along the lake shore. I reminisced, found the old dock anchor post I remembered from childhood, took some more photos.
Upon return to camp, I could sense something was amiss. I had put a big stone from the fire pit on top of my soup pot lid to hold it down before heading out. The stone was now missing.
“What happened to my stone?!”
“Ummm…somehow it fell in the soup.” (I suspect my nephew TJ did it, though no one confessed.)
“We took it out though.”
I shook my head and smiled. “I guess that’s what I get for leaving you folks without adult supervision. Guess now we’ve got STONE SOUP.”
I checked and stirred my stone soup. It looked and smelled done, so we dished up and ate.
Alyssa commented “Stone soup ROCKS!” She immediately scored points.
That evening the rest of the crew went out on the boat fishing. I brewed some camp coffee, hooked up to my feeding tube, and spent a quiet evening in camp. It had sprinkled on and off during the day, but for the most part just been overcast. Sunday’s 4th of July weather forecast was improving by the hour.
Ray & RJ returned just before dark, after returning Patty, TJ and Alyssa to the walk in. They had caught some more perch and bass. The lake was still quiet. All of the folks who had bailed out early had missed it all, camp bacon & breakfast omelets, spotted fern fawns, bass & perch on the line, scurrying merganser chicks, a big pot of stone soup, family camp time by the fire. Weather permitting, what turned out in the end to be a really nice day.
Sunday came, and with it-morning sun! Someone somehow started the day by melting a big hole in our campfire tarp. (Okay- it was me. What can I say, I’m a good morning campfire builder.) But that was okay. The day warmed up quickly. Plus, we had the canopy now, and always carry extra tarps.
The lake remained mirror calm. We fished again. RJ caught a large mouth monster. Sometime just after lunch, Ray opted to boat down to Lake Flower to watch the Saranac Lake fireworks show with friends and family on the lake. RJ and I chose to stay for a father/son 4th of July in camp.
A few boats came up through the channel, but not many. We were on Middle Saranac for 4th of July last year too. It was an absolute zoo! Pontoon boats full of people, bass boats, water skiers, partiers, jet skis- a water borne musical mele-with fireworks. Not so this year.
We took my Zen boat canoe and went fishing. I caught a largemouth bass even bigger than RJ’s was earlier. We watched bald eagles fly. We even stopped to smell the fragrant Adirondack wild roses in full bloom on Rock Island. It was quiet.
RJ and I both planned to pack out on Monday. So, we opted to take down our tent Sunday evening, and, seeing as we no longer had a tarp over our fire, build a big bonfire, and sleep in the lean-to.
Monday came. The morning lake was mist covered calm. I perked my camp coffee while RJ ate breakfast. RJ broke camp first in his kayak. I lingered for an hour or two, sitting by the fire, wandering along the lake shore, having a private chat with Dad’s memory, reminiscing, remembering.
Finally, I could put it off no longer. Reluctantly, I loaded my Zen boat canoe and broke camp myself. Ray and his family would be back, but at least for this trip, I knew I and mine would not.
As I pulled away from camp in my canoe, I reflected on the weekend, and everything folks who had altered their camping plans due to the weather had missed.
They didn’t catch bass. They didn’t smell wild Adirondack roses. They didn’t taste stone soup. They didn’t see spotted fawns, downy chick mergansers, hear the call of the loon, burn a big hole in their tarp, or see soaring eagles.
To experience these Adirondack things means being willing to canoe, hike and camp with the rain, to weather some weather. We all know the old saying;
“If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. It’ll change.”
So, pack “Adirondack Appropriately”; good warm sleeping bag, spare blanket, several good lengths of rope, a warm shirt, rain jacket, waterproof lighter or matches, 1st aid kit, flashlight, a favorite camp mug for hot soup, camp cocoa or coffee, a tarp.
It’s Adirondack camping season. The weather is always permitting. Maybe I’ll see you there.