Saranac Lake, NY
In June of 2019, I spent a weekend canoe camping on Lower Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondack Park. I went with friends from Hudson Valley Hikers. HVH hikes have a reputation for being long, difficult, and fast. Our canoe camping events tend to be quite the opposite. Most of these trips are slow and relaxing. Canoe camping is also a nice departure from my normal minimalist backpacking style because it is easier to carry cooking equipment and real food.
Saranac Lake Islands Camping
There are hundreds of lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks with boat-accessible campsites. The less frequently areas are free to use on a first-come-first-serve basis. Campsites are on the busier lakes must be reserved ahead of time. Most of the sites on the Saranac Lakes (Lower, Middle, and Upper) must be reserved. You can reserve them online at Reserve America. Most of the sites are on the mainland, but some are on islands in the lake. As far as I know, all of these sites are only accessible by boat. You can use a power boat, but God gave you arms.
We-No-Nah Prism Canoe
I own two old, heavy canoes that I have been camping with for years. They’re tough to get on and off my car without help, so I usually transport them with a trailer. Early in the summer, on my way to register the trailer, I decided to stop in at Campmor and look at the ultralight canoes they had available.
I walked out of the store with a We-No-Nah Prism. We-No-Nah is a Minnesota based canoe manufacturer that makes some of the lightest boats in the world. The Prism is a single seat boat from their “I want to do it all” category. This is a fast boat with enough cargo capacity for a week of minimalist camping or a weekend of more moderate “luxury” camping. Don’t be fooled, this boat is NOT built for carrying everything but the kitchen sink to your campsite. If you’re a heavy camper, this isn’t your boat.
I’ll write a separate review of the prism and link it back here later.
Paddling on Saranac Lake
Lower Saranac is a big lake. Big lakes can have powerful wind and big waves. When you’re on land, especially in the woods, you may here the strong wind blowing through the trees. But on land you’re mostly protected from the wind by trees, hills, buildings etc. When you’re on a lake, its just like being out in an open plain or above tree-line on a mountain where there is nothing to stop the wind. You just get its full force. When there is a lot of open water up-wind of you, the wind can generate large waves with white caps and a lot of spray. It can be difficult to paddle up wind and even harder to keep the boat going in the direction you want if your weight is balanced just right.
Watch out for Power Boats!
There are a lot of power boats on the Saranac Lakes. I won’t go into my opinion of power-boaters except to say they like to go fast and they’re not always aware of the effect they have on smaller boats. Or maybe they’re aware and don’t care. Whatever. They make big wakes that can easily swamp you. The best thing you can do is turn into these waves and cross them head-on. Power boaters should slow down near you, but they don’t always. It is their obligation to avoid you, but they don’t always. Be on the lookout and paddle defensively.
Ampersand Mountain is a 3,353 foot mountain that lies just to the south of Lower and Middle Saranac Lake. It is part of the Saranac Six, a local hiking challenge that requires you to hike six different mountains in the area. The 2.7 mile trail to the top is steep and rocky, but the views are amazing. The top of this mountain is a giant rocky dome with panoramic views in every direction.
The trail to Ampersand Mountain starts off pretty tame. The well maintained trail wanders though a lush mixed forest. As you gradually gain elevation, the mixed hardwoods give way to towering pines. The trail gets steep and rock about a mile in. Over the next mile and a half, you gain almost 1700 feet of elevation. Yes, that’s a lot. Much of the climb is made easier by rock steps built into the mountain, but there are a few sections of bare face rock slabs that must be climbed. Near the top, there is a sudden rise where you have to scramble up some roots about 10 feet.
A Giant Bald Rock Dome
The very top of the mountain is a giant, bald rock dome. The top of the mountain was cleared of trees in 1873 by a survey crew working to fix the heights of the nearby high peaks. Without plants, soil quickly erodes away. It can take centuries for alpine vegetation to produce new soil that will support trees again. Because of high foot traffic, the top of Ampersand is likely dead forever.
Looking south from Ampersand, you get a great view of the Adirondack High Peaks Nearly every 4000′ peak is visible from here, but the most prominent are the Seward Range peaks of Seymour, Seward, Donaldson, and Emmons.
Looking north from Ampersand gives you an outstanding view of lake country. You can see all three Saranac Lakes clearly in the foreground. Farther out, you can see the St Regis Canoe Area to the north and Lake Placid to the east.
I’m fascinated with these alpine pools and like to take photos of them. Glaciers in the last ice age left depressions in the rock. The depressions fill with rain water, but there’s no drain. The water only dries up through evaporation. The water slowly dissolves the rock, but then leaves behind a powdery sediment when it dries. The sediment can then be blown away in the wind and the depression gets a little deeper. Eventually bog plants may start to grow in this little pools and start a new cycle, but that’s a different store.
When I go canoe camping, I usually bring a small collapsible rod and reel or my little Tenkara reel-less fly rod. I don’t know a lot about fishing and I usually just catch sunfish, which apparently bite anything. My friend Chris gave me a few pointers on this trip and I was able to catch some rock bass. I would eventually like to learn more about fishing, but it seems endlessly complicated.
I purchased a backpacking hammock a few years ago, but I haven’t really gotten into using it for backpacking. To me, a tent seems simpler and more reliable. I do usually bring the hammock with me for canoe camping or car camping trips. My hammock is a Warbonnet Blackbird. It is very comfortable for sleeping or lounging. If I’m going to spend the day lying around reading, I’d rather do it in the hammock than in a tent. The downside is you don’t really have a great place to store gear or change your clothes.
Saranac Lake Region
The Saranac Lake Region is a robust mountain community with a little for everyone. The Village of Saranac Lake is one of the largest cities in the Adirondacks. While its main streets are lined with gift shops and restaurants, this is also a livable city with laundromats, super markets, churches, schools, and practical conveniences like phone shops. Numerous outfitters serve the wilderness going community.
To the North and West lie a wonderland of lakes and waterways. The city is actually built on the shore of Lake Flower, which serves as a jumping off point into the rest of the watery wilderness. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail runs right through the city on the Saranac River.
To the West is Lake Placid, home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. If Saranac Lake is a city of convenience, Lake Placid is a city of tourism. This small metropolis is bursting with gift shops, restaurants, breweries, hotels, book stores, Olympic history, and shops that sell things that say “Lake Placid.” Just outside this city is the Olympic training center and ski jump facility and further to the north is Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort.
The High Peaks
To the south of both these cities lies the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness, a sprawling wilderness preserve which is home to most of the Adirondack Peaks over 4000 feet. Yes, you get a patch for climbing all of them, if that’s what you’re into. While there are excellent backpacking opportunities in the high peaks, this area is also crowded with adrenaline seeking mountain climbs. If you like quiet backpacking, consider some of the Adirondacks other 6 million acres of wilderness.