By Zach Lawrence
I had been eyeing this section of river for a few years now. Its twists and turns carved through the High Peaks anorthosite in an irresistible ribbon of smooth mountain drainage. I used to drive along its banks every day last winter on my way to work at Cascade when it was covered in snow and ice. The way the snow blanketed it was just too tranquil not to dream of paddling the water when it was liquid again. All I needed then was spring and a boat, and I spent the winter scheming up a plan to acquire the latter.
This past summer I had the good fortune of working in the Vermont paddle-tourism industry. Dollars from Massachusetts and Connecticut accumulated in my pockets hoping to be turned into a watercraft. Come November, I took a nice chunk of those dollars over to Tupper Lake and spent them on a Minnesota-made canoe. Late this April, I plunked that canoe into the river here in Lake Placid just a tri-lake over from where I first held a single-blade paddle. How’s that for full circle?
Paddling solo for the day, my only option was to paddle upstream to start. The water was moving swiftly at the put-in – not quite as tranquil as it looked during my commutes. I set my boat in anyway, and, with PFD equipped, I prepared myself for a little extra work than I had anticipated. At least I thought I had prepared myself. Ten minutes in, my lungs were burning up, and I was only a hundred yards upstream from where I started. With my heart pumping hard, it was looking like I might experience a death from a thousand paddle strokes. Time to find an eddy.
Crossing the first eddyline of the day had me thinking back on how it used to feel crossing the finish in high school track – sweaty and exasperated with the amount of effort. I took a moment to catch my breath and shed a layer in the relief of the biggest eddy I’d find on this excursion. I was chilly at the car, but now I was considering a quick, icy plunge. Looking past the stern, I could see the launch still insultingly close. Maybe I should’ve just thrown in the towel then. Instead, it was the gauntlet I threw, and onward I pressed.
Around the next bend, there was no eddy in sight, just a long stretch of moving water albeit a little slower than before. Putting my head down to work against the current, I thought I could hear a pair of mallards splashing in the river ahead. Looking up, I saw the pair, cool as a couple of feathered cucumbers sitting in the current hardly moving. In fact, they were floating upstream. What kind of mockery was this? Well, they must know something I don’t I thought. I slowed my strokes until they had gotten their fill of taunting me and flown off. After another herculean effort and a few more minutes, I sat floating where they had just been. Lo and behold, the narrowest eddy I had ever seen, barely wide enough for my canoe, heading up the river-right embankment. It gave me a heavenly moment of respite and a new eye for how to navigate up this river without giving myself a hernia.
Thinking like a duck, I attained from micro-eddy to micro-eddy up the river. The paddling was easy enough now to appreciate where I was and take in my surroundings. Snow was on the banks from the recent storm, but prior to that, it had been gone or diminishing for weeks in the low elevations. And this stretch of river had been ice-free for even longer. I thought back on the short, at-times-meager winter we were met with this trip around the Sun. Grateful to have been paddling for a few weeks already this year, I still couldn’t help but envision with dread the warming future that awaits us. Not too long ago, these weeks were once enjoyed by Nordic skiers down here in the valleys instead of paddling like me. Not anymore. Who knows, some projections say I could be spending my late retirement paddling through the winter with my skis tucked away gathering dust and the neighborhood youngsters asking, “what the heck are those for, gramps?”
I was snapped out of contemplation by a sandy island momentarily splitting the river in two. Well, two streams diverged in a leafless wood, and I chose to paddle right. Oh, how disappointed Robert Frost would be if he saw the path I chose to travel by. The current was fighting my strokes hard as I neared the upstream tip of the island. For tens of strokes, I was at a complete standstill with the river until a momentary lapse in my tempo lost me ground. I conceded to the current and decided to try the other side. Coming around the left of the island this time and what do you know, another eddy I hadn’t seen. Well, well, well, Mr. Frost, look who got to travel both. I cruised on up this side of the island and past it with relative ease. Okay, river, next time I’ll take the hint.
Meandering through the valley for a few more bends and I was at another impasse, but this time there was no alternative route. Keeping my word to the river, I decided I had gone far enough and let the current start me back downriver.
Initially, I was stunned at how much quieter it was then before with the absence of my grunts and clumsy, thrashing strokes. Spring birds were chatting, perhaps gossiping about this fool of a paddler, and the river was babbling peacefully – those serene sounds I was here for in the first place. A bend or two on and I was graced with the magnificent view of Whiteface’s bald, snowy head. Twenty minutes down the current and I was back where I had started over two hours ago exhausted from pushing against nature. Now back at the car, I couldn’t help but think that sometimes the Earth is trying to tell us something, and it might just be worth it to listen.
Photos by Zach Lawrence
Zach Lawrence is a student at St Lawrence University, majoring in environmental studies and minoring in outdoor studies and creative writing. He sees the Adirondacks as his permanent home, and loves exploring with his dog, Reese.