A True Adirondack Lake Rescue Story
“Smoke on the Water, Fire in the Sky”
Those famous lyrics may have meant one thing when they helped propel the 1970’s band Deep Purple to worldwide Rock n’ roll stardom, but to someone paddling a canoe on a wilderness lake in the Adirondacks, they quickly took on an entirely different meaning, as a group of young canoeists was about to find out.
It was the summer of 2012, and the Monroe family, as has become tradition over the past 40 plus years, once again established camp at our favorite spot near the mouth of the river flowing from the middle of the chain of Saranac Lakes, the site officially designated on the DEC reservation web page as “site 63”, but affectionately known by the locals as “Bull Rush Bay.”
Having grown up in the Adirondacks, worked, hunted and hiked the high peaks, done a stint in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, graduated Army Ranger School- I take pride in my hardiness and skills in the woods; nights spent alone under the stars, packing only an Adirondack woodsman’s most essential tools, matching wits with Mother Nature, the elements, and high peaks terrain.
To be clear, Monroe camp at Bull Rush Bay is none of the above. This is luxury camping at its finest. If it says “Coleman” or “Eureka” on the label, and can be crammed onto or towed behind a pontoon boat- there is at least one of them in camp. A full flotilla of varied watercraft, tents, padded cots, queen sized air mattresses, multi-burner cook stoves, drip coffee makers, a multitude of battery-operated gadgetry, coolers full of ice just to fill the coolers full of food- to say we have everything but the kitchen sink is an understatement, because there is a portable one of those as well. This is not a camp designed to challenge one’s ability to overcome the elements. It’s a two-week vacation dedicated to enjoying family time together in an Adirondack lakeside wilderness setting.
My brother, our sons and I generally go in on a Friday to spend a day pitching camp. We then invite all manner of family and friends, arriving by every conceivable means of conveyance- from motor boat to handmade birch bark canoe, sail boat, kayak, pontoon boat, john boat, jet ski- to share a meal and a day on the lake.
Middle Saranac Lake is a gem; easily accessible, yet simultaneously remote. By noon on warm weekend summer Saturdays, it bustles with fishermen, water skiers, kayakers, day hikers, campers and canoes. By Sunday evening though, most have gone, and during the week, or later in the summer when the weather cools, wailing loons are frequently our lone companions.
On this particular day, we were preparing our annual Bull Rush Bay Blast. For the Monroe family, July brings both my son’s and brother’s birthdays, as well as the wedding anniversary of my brother and his wife. Rather than recognizing these events individually, another Monroe tradition has become a combined celebratory feast. Grilled steaks, lobster tails, steamed clams, hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, macaroni salad, fire roasted corn on the cob, baked beans, s’mores…a king’s table. All topped off by what has been officially dubbed “The Everything Cake.”
I think the original idea was mine, some years back. At least I’ll take the credit. I was presented the task of “cake acquisition”. “Hmmm….brother’s birthday, son’s birthday, brother and sister in law’s wedding anniversary…what to do???” It presented quite a dilemma.
My solution was simple. Script “Happy Everything” in icing across one giant cake. Well, okay, I didn’t- but the bakers at our local supermarket did. The initial cake was then transported overland from Watertown to Saranac Lake, ferried via pontoon boat from the State Bridge boat launch on Route 3 across Lower Saranac, upstream through the locks- where the DEC lock tender, Margaret, spotted the cake’s inscription and proclaimed “Oh- an EVERYTHING cake- how cool is that!”
Officially titled and successfully through the locks, the “Everything Cake” was then motored to its final destination at Bull Rush Bay. It’s been thus every summer since.
This particular day began breezy and warm. My brother Ray and I were already there with my son RJ and two of my nephews, Michael and Forrest. My wife Robin and two college age daughters, Chelsea and Abby, were walking in from the Ampersand trailhead that morning, as was Ray’s wife Patty. One of Ray’s old high school friends and his new bride walked in for the day as well. It’s a buggy but easy ten minute hike across low terrain from the parking area there, and makes a good ferry point back and forth to camp.
My oldest nephew TJ was boating up through the locks in the old Star Craft my father had given him several years back. He brought several Saranac Lake football teammates along too. Gridiron and water sport abilities aside, those boys had a primary skill set of two- firewood hauling and food consumption-not necessarily in that order.
Once everyone had assembled in camp, the kids all took turns tubing on the lake while my brother and I began prepping the afternoon’s feast. While cell phones now put weather updates at our fingertips, no technology was required to see the storm brewing to our west. The strengthening breeze, cooling temperatures, and band of thunderheads building across the lake told us that. Someone turned on the weather radio. Sure enough- severe thunder storms and high winds were headed our way.
My brother and I looked at the sky and gave each other a nod. “Better plan on eating at 3 instead of 5.” We’d seen those clouds before.
The winds steadily increased through late morning, and the sky was getting darker to the west. By noon, the temperature had dropped a good ten degrees, and the only ones who thought it still warm enough for tubing were our kids on the boat.
Bull Rush Bay is a lean-to site, the walls of which are covered in inscriptions, both written and carved. “Mike n’ Jennie were here.” “Smith Family ’79”. “Walter camped here.” Things like that.
There also appear to be an inordinate number of inscriptions with the name “Forrest” in them. I’ve been meaning at some point to ask my youngest nephew about that.
The most pertinent, at this moment, however, were two inscription that always stand out- in large letters, with a warning, etched into the lean-to wall.
Their shared warning message:
“BEWARE THE WINDS!”
Middle Saranac is for the most part quite a shallow lake. If it weren’t for the dam at the lock site, it would likely be little more than a wide spot in the river. The lake is also in a wind tunnel, with the Ampersands, Stony Creek, and Panther Mountains to the south, and a series of smaller ridges and peaks embracing Weller Pond to the north. As a result, when the thunder heads form, and the winds shift and come out of the west from Tupper Lake across that shallow water, Middle Saranac Lake gets whitecap rough in a big hurry. No two ways about it. Traversing that water, in those conditions, especially in a canoe, is a devil’s dance. My brother and I have both made that trip. So, with our kids on the lake and a storm blowing in, we kept a close eye on the sky to the west.
By 1pm we were prepped for dinner and settled in for lunch. The kids wanted to grab a quick burger and head back out onto the water to tube but “Uncle Dick” (that’s me) quickly put the kibosh to that plan. “Stay off the water. There’s weather coming in.” I was immediately voted “Least popular uncle in camp.” That was okay with me. It was not as if that was the first time that I’d ever been awarded the title.
I sat in a camp chair taking my afternoon feeding (I’m a tube fed cancer survivor, but that’s another story.), watching as a gaggle of canoes meandered slowly across the lake. There were about fifteen canoes, each with two occupants. While the varied trajectories masked this canoe train intended direction, they clearly revealed it as the maiden voyage for most. With some were sideways, some backwards, some not moving at all, they somehow managed to stumble their way up the lake past us, and out of sight- last seen heading in the general direction of the Martha Reben lean-to and Weller Pond. I remember shaking my head and commenting to my wife Robin “Those kids are in so far over their heads they don’t even know it.” She whole heartedly agreed.
My son RJ saw the obviously inexperienced armada as well, asking “How come they get to be out there and we don’t?”
I told him “Because they don’t know any better. You do. Always respect the water, son, and the weather. Although it may not always seem that way here in camp, or when you are out there with your cousins tubing and having fun- we are in the Adirondack wilderness. It’s important to always remember where you are- respect the elements, and use your head. Those canoes shouldn’t be out on that water right now. They are just too inexperienced to know it. You are not.” RJ nodded in apparent satisfaction with my answer.
Not long thereafter, Ray and I, the fire stoked with some good hardwood splits, cranked up the Coleman stove, and got food on the grills. We hadn’t gotten very far when the winds really kicked up, the thunderheads rolled in, lightning flashed. Folks donned rain gear and busied themselves tightening everything down in camp. Just then something made us all look out across the lake.
Twin water spouts had formed out between Bull Rush Bay and the islands. They rose like skinny water tornadoes- spinning surface water in a funnel high into the air. I’d seen water spouts several times before – duck hunting on the Finger Lakes, at my parents’ home on Lake Ontario- but that was on big water, from a distance. This was within a couple hundred yards of our camp, closed in tight on a small mountain lake. These twin water twisters were beautifully impressive, dangerously potent – and real.
They never quite touched the surface as they danced across the lake, rising crookedly several hundred feet in the air. At their widest point they were maybe ten or twenty feet across at the top. There was no noise in particular associated with them, as I recall. They just hung there in front of us for several minutes before dissipating just as suddenly as they’d appeared. My thoughts went briefly to that gaggle of canoes. I sure hoped they’d either reached their destination, or taken shelter somewhere to ride out the storm.
Once the water show ended, we turned our attention back to the food and our fires. With all hands-on deck, we made a valiant effort, but the elements were simply were not on our side. In a last ditch move, we managed to get one Coleman stove into the lean-to, out of the worst of the wind, and fired it up there. A few minutes later our main tarp blew down. Torrential rain smothered our hardwood cooking fire. After one brief, wet effort, we abandoned any immediate attempt to reset the tarp and gathered everyone inside the lean-to to ride out the storm.
On days when the clouds get jammed up low on Middle Saranac behind Ampersand Mountain, they can hang there for hours, like “Smoke On The Water”. This was such a day. The wind, rain and lightning had drowned out our planned feast- but between gusts and the worst of the downpours, we salvaged what we could and assembled a credible meal inside the lean-to. Luckily, the “everything cake” had been under cover inside the lean-to all along, and was unscathed by the storm. So all was well.
By mid afternoon, weather radio on, watching the sky, we decided to get everyone who was going out before dark. With Ray’s high school friends already departed, TJ then ferried his football friends across to Ampersand on the Star Craft, while we sat and watched the weather from the shore of our camp. From the walk in, TJ reported via cell phone. A massive tree had just come crashing down between he and his friends and now laid across the bridge, blocking the trail. Impressed but unscathed, TJ’s friends safely negotiated the obstacle and made their way out. When TJ returned, he told us he’d spotted some paddles and debris on the lake. However, the returning storm forced us to hunker down once again, foregoing any immediate further investigation.
Ray, Patty, Robin and I agreed that with the next weather window, we would boat them and my daughters across to the walk out, as they all had to work the next day. The two of us, along with TJ, RJ, Michael and Forrest, were going to stay and weather the storm. One of our biggest concerns was the wind, and it’s potential to bring one of the big pines at our site crashing down through the lean-to or one of our tents in the night. My brother reminded me that our own trusty pontoon boat had once taken a substantial tree hit itself, nearly 20 years earlier. It’s dented rail still bore the scar. A middle of the night tree fall was an unsettling potentiality. Ray and I seriously considered going in for the night as well.
However, by about 6pm, the winds had calmed a bit. The rain lightened to a misty drizzle. Everyone agreed that this was likely our best chance for those going to make a quick escape before dark. Despite concerns for falling trees, my brother, the boys and I decided to stay the course through the night. Ray and I readied the pontoon boat for one more trip across the lake, while the boys stayed at camp and held the fort.
We crossed the lake without incident. Our wives off loaded themselves and the girls, armed with rain gear, flashlights and phones. We contemplated walking in with them, but were concerned about leaving the pontoon boat unattended in the wind, and the boys alone at the lean-to for an extended period in the storm. Besides, this was far from the first time Robin, Patty and the girls had made that trek under adverse conditions.
They confidently assured us they’d be fine on their own.
We walked together as far as the downed tree blocking the bridge, as we all wanted a look. It was a monster pine, at least two feet in diameter at the base of the trunk, torn right from the ground, roots and all. What had been bridge and trail was now an impenetrable mass of tree trunk and branches. We worked our way around the tangled mess, locating clearer trail on the far side. Patty, Robin, and the girls were prepared to handle things from there, so Ray and I returned to the boat.
“With a Few red lights, a few old beds, we made a place to sweat”- Deep Purple-
It was raining again. The wind had picked back up. We needed to get back across the water and get our own beds ready for the night ahead. There was a low, cloudy fog on the water. I stood up front scouting for debris on the water while my brother piloted the boat back across the lake. As we passed by the islands on the way back to camp, something caught my eye to our left. I looked through the fog and mist- there – low on the far shoreline, I saw it again- a blinking red light.
I turned to my brother and pointed “See that blinking light over there on the shoreline? Looks like an emergency beacon. We’d better head over there and check it out.” Ray nodded in agreement and brought the boat around to the left.
As we neared the far shoreline the fog cloaked the scene in front of us until we were right on top of it. Then, suddenly, the situation became clear. Two Tupper Lake rescue workers were visible on shore. The beacon we saw was mounted on their boat. They were on the rocks, working to backboard a victim and load him onto the boat. We also discovered what had become of the line of canoes I had watched pass our camp earlier, and the source of the debris that TJ had spotted. Canoes were scattered everywhere; some floating aimlessly, some upside down in the water, some blown up onto the rocks, scattered along the shoreline. Paddles, lifejackets, and gear littered the water and shoreline as well. It was a mess.
The rescue workers looked up as we pulled in close and idled the motor. “Can we help?” It was then that I could see all the kids huddled in under the trees.
They said “This one’s the worst, possible neck or back injury, and he’s semi-conscious. We need to get him to South Creek, a med evac will meet us there. Can you guys take charge of getting the rest of these kids out of here? That would be a big help. The rest of the injuries are minor, sprains, bumps and bruises mostly, maybe a concussion. Tupper Lake Fire/Rescue is cutting their way in from Ampersand with chain saws now. We’ve got them on radio. They’ll meet you there and escort the rest of these kids out.”
“Okay, we were just over there. It’s a mess. We’ll handle getting these kids there. You do what you have to do. No problem. Glad to help.”
The two rescue workers gave us a thumbs up. They called ahead to the team working their way in from Ampersand. At about that point in time, a DEC Park Ranger arrived on the scene in a small boat. He coordinated briefly with the rescue workers, and then headed off to check the safety of others on the lake. Once he left, the Tupper Lake team finished loading their back boarded victim on their small rescue boat, and motored off towards South Creek.
We came ashore. Kids were everywhere. Gear was everywhere. It was chaos. I spoke up. “Who’s supposed to be in charge of this group?”
A young pair in their 20’s stepped forward, one male, one female. “We are.”
“Okay, fine. First things first. Do you have everyone?”
“Do you have everyone accounted for?”
“Umm, I think so. We don’t really know.”
The last thing Ray and I wanted was to find a body in the water, or to get across the lake only to find out we’d left someone behind in the woods.
“Do you have a roster of some kind?”
The young woman fished into her pocket. “Yes, right here.”
“Okay, good. Everyone stop whatever they are doing right now and consolidate under this tree. I want everyone accounted for, don’t forget the one they just took out of here on the boat.”
After a few moments the young woman came up and assured me that they had all of their people. I looked at the roster and made my own count- 30 names, 29 heads here- one on the boat. Okay, we appeared to have everyone.
It was cool, low 70’s, but not cold, and still drizzling. The kids were soaking wet, milling around, and dazed. One wet kid spoke up, “It’s really cold out here.” An early sign of shock. We needed to get those kids out of there. After a quick verbal survey, aside from a few minor sprains, bumps and bruises, it looked to me like we weren’t left with any serious physical injuries, so Ray and I focused on setting up an immediate evac plan.
“Okay everyone, listen up! Consolidate all the gear you already have assembled here under this tree. Forget the canoes and the rest of it, you can come back for that later. Cell phones, identification, and prescription medications go with you, everything else stays here. You don’t need it right now. We can get 10 on the boat per trip. We’ll make 3 trips.”
I pointed at the young man. “You and any remaining injuries go first.” Then I pointed at the young woman.
“You stay here with me and go out with the last group.” Ray would pilot the boat. I would remain to direct traffic on shore. Everyone nodded agreement. We started loading the first group of passengers onto the boat.
Each trip took about half an hour, on loading, off loading, back and forth. By the time I stepped onto the boat with the final group, it was getting dark. We had called the boys back in camp to update them. Luckily for us, it appeared that the worst of the storm had passed. The buzz of chainsaws echoed in the distance as we ferried the final group across the lake.
As the chainsaws got louder, we could hear radios squawking. A few moments later, a figure appeared from the tree line, gave us a wave and approached our group huddled and shivering on the shore. He held a two-way radio in his hand. Tupper Lake was emblazoned on his helmet. Some kids cheered.
The fire/rescue worker advised us that additional assistance was en-route to get these kids out of the woods and back to safety. Our job appeared done. We boarded the pontoon boat and headed for camp. Once safely back at Bull Rush Bay, exhausted by the evening’s events, my brother, the boys and I simply lit a lantern, stoked up the fire, made some hot chocolate, and got ready for bed. Everyone was safe and accounted for, the worst of the storm behind us, time to relax.
As the boys sat sipping hot chocolate, Ray and I took a moment to assess the situation and reinforce our point from earlier in the day.
“Those kids are lucky someone didn’t get killed out there today. This whole thing could have very easily ended up in more than a few capsized canoes. They didn’t respect their environment. We do. That’s why we’re sitting here sipping hot chocolate while most of their gear is at the bottom of the lake.”
With the day behind us, hot chocolate drank, lessons learned, we turned down the lantern and in for the night. The next day, my son RJ and I packed and left for home. Ray and his boys remained in camp. They went out the next day, retrieving canoe paddles, soggy sleeping bags, and debris from the water. Several days later, the group returned to retrieve their belongings, the canoes, and say “Thanks.” I never heard how the kid on the back board made out. As to the group leaders, or the rest of the group, I don’t know what has become of them since.
One thing I do know for certain is this; after some poor decision making and an ill- advised canoe trip in a lightning lit, wind driven thunderstorm on Middle Saranac Lake….
No matter what they got out of this
One thing, one thing they’ll never forget…
“Smoke on the Water, Fire in the Sky”.
“Smoke On The Water”
Author’s Note: This story 1st appeared in Adirondack Life Magazine’s August 2016 edition. It appeared as their “BARKEATER” piece, under the title “Mayhem on Middle Saranac” in an edited format. All rights have since been returned to the author. All photographs are the property of the author & were not included in this story’s prior publication.