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Sterling Fire Tower Loop Hike | Sterling Forest State Park, NY

May 21, 2019

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Kayaking the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, NY

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) is a 740 mile, long-distance paddling trail which was historically travelled by Native Americans. The trail begins in Old Forge, NY in the Adirondacks and ends at Fort Kent in Maine and connects the major watersheds of New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire, and Maine. The trail is often described as the water version of the Appalachian Trail and there are many similarities: both are long-distance trails that most people will use for day trips or short overnight trips; but travelled by some in its entirety.  The 740 mile trail covers 56 lakes and ponds, 22 rivers and streams, and 62 "carries" (portages) totaling 55 miles. The trail is divided into 13 sections.

 

The map below shows each of the 13 sections.  Over Memorial Day weekend, I spent 5 days paddling section 2.  I chose this section because it is the most remote of the 3 NY sections and contained a lot of variety (lakes, rivers, ponds, creeks, portages, and lots of opportunities for hiking side trips). Besides the 3 portages totaling almost 3 miles on some really rough trails, this section also required me to paddle through 2 sets of century old hand operated locks.  This trip was a bit of a trial for me to find out if I would wanted to section paddle the entire NFCT. My paddlecraft for this trip was my Pungo 120 kayak.  The total mileage for my trip according to my Gaia GPS was 53.45 miles (43.15 paddling, 2.8 portaging, 7.5 hiking)
 

I paddled the section below labeled Map 2

 

DAY 1
Camped along Lake Eaton in Long Lake, NY
Mileage: 0 miles

It was a little cloudy my first night camping along Eaton Lake. I was tempted to paddle out on the lake for the sunset but it didn't look like there would be one worth photographing and I knew I'd get my fill of paddling over the next few days so I just decided to just relax by the fire the first night and do some reading by headlamp.

This was my campsite as it began to get dark. I was going to go without the rainfly at first but as I mentioned it got cloudy and the wind began to pick up a little.

 

DAY 2
Paddled Long Lake to the mouth of the Raquette River
Paddled the Raquette River to Raquette Falls
First portage around Raquette Falls (1.3 miles)
Paddled to a lean-to a few miles downstream of the falls
Mileage: ~ 16 miles paddling plus 1.3 miles portaging

 

The next morning, the clouds looked like they might break up. I walked along the shore to find a good spot to photograph the sunrise.


As I was packing up my tent and sleeping gear, I took a few more shots from the bank of my campsite. It looked like I could have great weather.

 

After arranging my car transport in the small village of Long Lake, I was off on my way.  First order of business was to paddle the 9 mile length of Long Lake. This took much longer than anticipated because a strong headwind developed and a good amount of chop.
 

Looking down Long Lake. The first island marks the first 3 miles of the 9 mile long lake.

 

I was happy to reach the Raquette River to escape the wind and chop on Long Lake. It was nice to have some current as well. The weather was volatile, rain then sun, rain then sun.

A picture of the Raquette River when the sun was out a little. I realized it was going to be a challenge to take pictures in a bobbing, drifting kayak.

 

About 6 miles down the Raquette River, as the weather was deteriorating, I came to the first portage around Raquette Falls. Raquette Falls is a series of 3 main waterfalls interspersed with class IV and V rapids. The carry around the falls is 1.3 miles.

 

This portage was by far the hardest part of my trip. The trail was rough.  The trail was a constant up and down  strewn with boulders. It was barely passable with my kayak cart and I was exhausted from already paddling 15 miles. It took me about 3 hours to portage the 1.3 miles. To make things worse it rained throughout the whole ordeal.

 

It felt like I was backpacking with a 35 lb kayak about 60 pounds of gear in tow... probably because I basically was.

 

Three exhausting hours later, I finally made it back to the river downstream of the falls. There was a hiking trail that leads you back to get a view of the lower falls but I was exhausted at this point and decided to keep moving. So I put back into the Raquette River in search of a lean-to that was about a mile and a half down river according to my map.

I found the lean-to and settled in for the night.

 

DAY 3
Continued up the Raquette River to Stony Creek
Paddled Stony Creek to Stony Creek Ponds
Second Portage from Stony Creek Ponds to Upper Saranac Lake (1.1 miles)
Paddled Upper Saranac Lake
Third portage to Middle Saranac Lake (0.4 miles)
Paddled across Middle Saranac Lake to campsite near the Ampersand Mountain trailhead
Mileage: ~ 14.5 miles paddling plus 1.5 miles portaging


Stony Creek wound back and forth in a never-ending "S" pattern and was banked with tall grass. The name is quite inaccurate as it wasn't stony at all. Most of Stony Creek was very narrow, only about 10-12 feet in many spots, so this isn't really a good illustration but it was the only picture I took in this section.

 

Stony Creek opened up into Stony Creek Ponds after a few miles. Stony Creek Ponds was a beautiful remote pine forest lake.

 

At the end of Stony Creek Ponds was my second portage; a 1.1 mile trail to Upper Saranac Lake. It wasn't fun, but it wasn't nearly as bad as the Raquette Falls carry. While it still had a lot of up and down, it wasn't as rocky you can see in the picture below. The trail eventually merged with a gravel road too, which made life easy.
 

There were also some planks in some spots along the trail which helped move things along.

 

In 1.1 miles I arrived at Upper Saranac Lake. I would need to search the eastern shore for my third and final portage. I saw a couple of boats on Upper Saranac which was the first sign of life since I launched at Long Lake.

 

I had read that the next portage was difficult to find, but I guess someone decided to fix that with a large sign.

 

Preparing for my third and final carry. This one was only 0.4 miles and was an easy dirt road leading to a short quarter mile trail.

 

The portage led me to Middle Saranac Lake.

 

I paddled across Middle Saranac Lake to camp near the base of Ampersand Mountain which I would be hiking the next day.

 

My campsite for the night.

 

 Despite all of the paddling I had been doing, I felt like taking an evening paddle to see the sunset. It was pretty hard to take pictures with the choppy water, but I managed to take a few anyway.


DAY 4

Hiked to the summit of Ampersand Mountain (elevation 3,353’)
Paddled the remainder of Middle Saranac Lake
Paddled the Saranac River, passing through the Upper Locks
Paddled Lower Saranac Lake to campsite #26
Mileage: ~ 7.5 miles hiking plus 4 miles of paddling

On this day I took a hike up Ampersand Mountain. I was able to catch the trail about 200 feet from my campsite. The hike was fairly easy; only 7.5 miles with only 1,800' elevation gain, so I was done before 11 am.

The first few miles of the hike felt like an idyllic walk in the woods.

 

After crossing a pretty stream several times, there was an unusually long section of boardwalk.

 

The view looking east from the summit.

 

Looking west towards Middle Saranac Lake

 

Looking north towards Lower Saranac Lake where I would be heading next.

 

After the hike, it was back on the water. I paddled the Saranac River to Lower Saranac Lake which was a really beautiful stretch of river. After about an hour I arrived at the upper locks.

 

I had heard that you usually need to operate the locks yourself, but as I was pondering the instructions, a Ranger came out and said she would operate it for me. So I just paddled in and then paddled out when the gates opened.

 

I continued along the beautiful Saranac River.

 

There were a few beaver dams along the way.

 

There are a few primitive sites that can be found on Lower Saranac Lake, but I made a reservation ahead of time for one of the island campsites which are run by the State.  My spot was campsite #26 which was on a small island called Pope Island on my map. 

 

DAY 5
Paddled the remainder of Lower Saranac Lake
Paddled through First Pond and Second Pond
Passed through the Lower Locks
Paddled through Oseetah Lake
Paddled through Flower Lake
Ended at Saranac Lake Village
Mileage: ~ 8.5 miles paddling


The weather forecast for my final day was for rain starting at around 9 am. Since I still had 8.5 miles to paddle before getting to where my car was, I decided to wake up at 3:30 a.m. and start paddling in the dark by headlamp. It turned out to be extremely peaceful as the water was as still as glass.

 

At the Upper Locks there was no ranger on duty so I had to figure out how to operate it myself this time.  It wasn't really that hard, but it took a little bit of muscle to spin those doors open and closed.

 

Even though it was cloudy it was peaceful and relaxing.

 

Then as I knew would happen as I approached the end of my journey, I started to come across signs of civilization at Oseetah Lake. First it was a few houses built on some of the islands.

 

Then as I rounded the bend to enter Flower Lake, Saranac Lake Village came into view.  My trip ended at a dock at the end of Flower Lake.

 

Final Thoughts:
While I enjoyed this trip I realized that I don't really want to purse doing the entire 740 mile trail. For one, I realized that I don't have the ideal setup. I came across 4 guys from Boston who were thru-paddling the entire trail. They told me that they started in kayaks but switched to ultralight Kevlar canoes to make portaging easier.  This makes portaging easier because rather than using a cart over rough terrain, the ultralight canoes can be flipped upside down and carried on your shoulders with a padded brace attachment.   In a canoe, all of your other gear can be easily stored in one large backpacking pack whereas in the kayak I had to pack everything in 8 or 9 smaller pieces to fit which made portaging a more complex process.  While I really enjoyed paddling, the day that I hiked was probably my favorite part of the trip and I came to realize that I enjoy the views from up above better than from down on the water. All in all it was still a fun experience.

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