Sunday, July 25, 2021

Weather Permitting: Reflections on a wet camping trip

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.

camping at middle saranac lake

All photos by Richard Monroe

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.

camping in the rain

RJ Monroe paddles in the rain during a wet camping trip. 

“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.”

“Not us!”

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.

wet campsite

An attempt at a fire in the rain. 

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.

soup

‘Stone soup’

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.

fishing

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.

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Richard Monroe

Lifelong NYS resident. Raised in Saranac Lake. Cornell graduate(ROTC). Army veteran, Airborne/Ranger qualified, 10th Mtn Div, stints in Honduras and with JTF VI. 3rd degree Black Belt; 3x cancer survivor; published writer with several featured stories in Adirondack Life Magazine. Residing in Watertown NY with wife Robin & our 3 adult children. Loving Life. Living in the Day I am in.




22 Responses

  1. Joel Rosenbaum says:

    Thanks for a marvelous article which brought back memories of camping in September, 1951 – 53 in that spot after canoeing in.
    Joel Rosenbaum

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you Joel! We love that spot. In fact, I’m headed in there tomorrow to spend a night. My brother is in there camping right now.

  2. Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

    Thank you Joel! We love that spot. In fact, I’m headed in there tomorrow to spend a night. My brother is in there camping right now.

  3. Kurt says:

    Dad warned us not to touch the inside canvas of our Coleman camper during a downpour because it would cause a leak. Wouldn’t you know, he was right.
    It dripped all night onto my sleeping bag, from the precise spot where I’d done the exploratory poke. Dad ended up switching places with me.

    Mom brought back a momento, a tiny pine tree seedling carefully placed into the fold-down seat area of our 1968 Country Squire wagon. Removing It was probably against park rules, but that sprout grew into a lush, 12′ Pine in our backyard. It was a reminder of this magnificent place, a world away from our suburban Buffalo home.

    Each year brought a different tale I could share with my school mates that Fall; the the bear sighting, the Pike that nearly snapped the pole, the chipmunk with a taste for AAA maps in our glovebox, and the new friends made.
    Mom and Dad are both gone, and somewhere among aging cardboard boxes are 35mm slides of some of the simplest, most wonderful times of my life.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Kurt, 1st thanks for taking the time to read & comment. I share your old canvas memories via my Granddad’s old canvas pole tent. Still have it stored somewhere down in my basement, along with some of his old army cots. We got the same canvas warning. I remember that canvas smell. Still got boxed up trays of my Mom & Dad’s old camping slides too! I’ve even got a working slide projector & screen (at least it still worked the last time I had it out- a few years back). One of my “life projects” was to someday get all those old slides somehow transferred onto modern digital media. For no particularly good reason just haven’t quite yet gotten around to it. Great memories! Be well.

      • Anita Dingman says:

        I had 8mm, 16mm, and video tapes that I had taken over the years-starting in 1962. I sent them to iMemories.com (800-845-8199) and had them put on DVDs. I love looking back at memories from a lifetime. They did a great job.

  4. Chuck M. says:

    What a trip!
    Down memory lane for me as well, but slightly different location. My family, as well as my grandparents and cousins’ family had tent platform/camps on Follensby, on an island. There were 35 -30 camps then so it stayed pretty serene. I spent the better part of my first 14 years there and feel truly blessed for it.
    And, I well remember losing them too and the bitterness and resentment. We knew that we were contributing to the wilderness with our presence, in support of those who paddled through, as stewards of that land, as well as economically to Saranac and Tupper Lakes. In hindsight we were damn fortunate to have had a smart patriarch who spotted the opportunity in the 1950’s and corralled us all to join him. And in hindsight how unfair the whole situation was to others. I shudder to think how it would be if the State had not reclaimed all those campsites and the lakes were overrun by jetskis and floteboats, and lawyers.
    Also in hindsight, I’m so lucky to have stayed up all night once with my best friend, sitting around the fire, and then as the sun came up, heading out in a wood canoe to silently stalk a Loon diving for breakfast on a glass-like lake.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you Chuck, for reading and sharing your own great viewpoint memories. As I said & remember…not necessarily a time where my Dad & other DEC decision makers involved in the process made a great many friends. Enjoy the rest of the summer. Hard to believe it’s already half gone!

  5. Great story. You can’t let the weather dictate in the Adirondacks (except— be wary of swollen streams when hiking in the high peaks).

    So it rains. You get wet. Well, sodden. A forecast for showers will not stop us.

    However—. One of my rules— I don’t start an Adirondack hike/paddle/hunt in the rain. I won’t turn back if it starts raining 30 seconds into it, but I don’t start in the rain.

    Great picture of some great men. Thank you.

  6. Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

    Thank you Keith. I guess my best reply is simply-“Yup!” Our family weather assessment generally goes like this: “What’s the weather report look like?” “Looks like it might rain some.” “Yup. Plannin’ on it. Packin’ our rain gear.” Best wishes for a great rest of the camping season. Be well.

  7. Mark says:

    Richard,

    Your pics are killing me this morning. I was planning on spending at least a week fishing(and beer drinking) on Lower, Middle, and Weller this summer. Health issues put the kibosh on my plans. Jumping out of planes years ago has caught up with these hips. Just hoping I haven’t made my last trip to my favorite place on earth.

    Your pics of the bull rush wants me to cast a floating frog into those reeds. Better yet, beach my boat on the sand and the end of the river, right before you hit the reeds and the lake.

    Spent countless days and night at the lean to. Still remember waking one morning to see a huge bear dump 2 feet behind out tent….

    Maybe I should ask Fran Yardley if I could stay at her place.

    Airborne!
    Mark

    PS Ask Ampersand Bay Resort to restore their webcam. It’s my home page.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Mark, thanks for reading & commenting. Sorry to hear health issues have gotten in the way of your plans. Clearly a man who knows that spot well! As to your “reservation request”…let’s just say- I’m still chuckling. Some interesting interactions along that line of my own.

      Rangers Lead The Way!
      Thank you for your service

      • Mark says:

        Got chastised for fishing the floating dock, and around the boathouse.

        • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

          Yeah Mark, I’ve often wondered how that floating dock on Middle Saranac Lake is even legal. More than once I’ve towed one of those black dock floats out of the middle of the lake with my canoe so no one would hit it. They are almost invisible and a real safety hazard! None of the other private camps on that lake have floating docks like that. Guess it falls into the category of “must be nice to be rich.” Okay! I’m off to spend another afternoon “Adirondack Bottle Diving” & another night in my favorite camping spot with my brother.

  8. Lois Asher says:

    I have really enjoyed this article and the memories it invokes. We have camped several times in Lower Saranac (it’s been a while). One Fourth of July weekend some drunks burned down an outhouse at one of the sites across the lake from us. A few years later a friend who had been camping with us overheard some guys bragging about it. He turned them in!

    One other time we ventured into Middle in a raging rainstorm. The four youngsters with us were huddled under a tarp in the front of the boat. Every once in a while, a head would pop out and ask if we were getting closer. That was a very wet weekend. Our destination, of course, was the far side of the lake. Fun times and great memories!

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Lois, thank you so much for reading, your kind comments, & sharing your own Saranac Lake wet weather memories.

  9. David Gibson says:

    I enjoyed the family camp dialogue very much, Richard. And all the adult supervision you and yours managed over that Middle Saranac weekend, I also smiled at the photograph of DEC men in the field, 1977. Your Dad Tom Monroe was still serving as DEC regional director when I became involved in matters Adirondack ten years later. As an Adirondack novice I figured I had better learn something from Tom Monroe (I was the new ED of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks) so I went up to Ray Brook that spring of ’87 and sat for a Q&A (my questions, his answers). I learned to pay attention to what Tom Monroe said – and did. Later, his was one of the few DEC retirement dinners that I’ve ever attended – my level of respect for the man. The roasting and testimonials went on for some time that night. You may have been there. Hats off in his memory.

  10. Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

    Thank you David. I really appreciate the kind comments about my dad. Our whole family is truly proud of being a part of what he & the great family of DEC folks around him stood for & were able to accomplish throughout his career. I wish I had paid more attention to all he tried to teach ME! He was such a wealth of knowledge. I never fully understood or appreciated the depth of that until well into adulthood. (As is the case with most father/son relationships, I suspect.) And yes- I was there. Tom Monroe-My Dad, mentor & best friend. I still seek his sage advice regularly. Thank you. Be well.

  11. Nancy henk says:

    You are so right. “Adirondack appropriate” always .Never let the forecast dictate. YOU make the day what you choose.

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