Photograph by Lisa Densmore Ballard
Day-tripping on the North Branch
On the map the North Branch of the Moose River deceives the paddler. It’s impossible to show every twist and turn of this classic 11-mile water trail between Rondaxe and Old Forge. “Looks like ribbon candy,” observed my 18-year-old son, Parker, examining the route in our living room. “But there’s only one short portage. I think we should do it.”
It was a few days after his high-school graduation and we planned a canoeing adventure to celebrate. I’m a fortunate parent. My teenager still enjoys doing things with me, especially outdoors. Since Parker’s birth, we’ve hiked, camped and paddled together throughout the Adirondacks. Those were precious times when we could talk, exercise, explore nature and unwind. However, our outings had become fewer over the last four years as schoolwork, organized sports, social life and summer jobs took priority. When the idea to paddle the Moose River arose, it excited us, both for the time together and because we were curious about this popular waterway.
The Moose River has three branches. The North Branch flows out of Big Moose Lake. The Middle Branch originates at the Fulton Chain of Lakes in Old Forge, and the South Branch starts in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. All three flow westward into Lewis County, where they become one with the Black River in Lyons Falls. The Middle and South Branches are whitewater destinations with rapids rated up to Class V. The North Branch is more pedestrian, winding between the remote 26,600-acre Ha-De-Ron-Dah Wilderness and the busy Fulton Chain of Lakes.
Though flatwater, on a late-June morning the North Branch did not look lazy at the put-in by a small bridge on Rondaxe Road. Engorged by the last of the run-off after a winter of exceptionally heavy snowfall and topped off by a three-day downpour, the current—which normally meanders at one mile per hour—sprinted closer to four miles per hour. As Parker and I readied our canoe, our rambunctious English setter, Percy, launched into the river after a water bug and was instantly 100 yards downstream.
“Might be a quick trip,” I said, watching Percy shake himself off, then trot back up the road to us.
“I get the back,” announced Parker, holding our canoe steady as he waited for Percy and me to climb aboard.
“The person in the back has to steer,” I replied, skeptically. “Have you sat in the back before?”
I considered the worst consequence of a piloting error—a cold swim—and silently reminded myself to trust and encourage my nearly grown kid. Then, swallowing the urge to instruct, I made my way to the bow, Percy panting enthusiastically behind me.
Though confident in his canoeing skills, Parker’s ability to captain our watercraft was shaky at first. The current immediately pulled us toward a fallen tree, its branches dangling a couple of feet above the water. Distracted by Percy’s nervous ramblings from one side of the canoe to the other, I never saw the hazard. As our canoe passed under the tree, a twig snagged the sunglasses perched atop my head. They catapulted into the air, then disappeared into the dark water. Percy tried to jump after them, nearly capsizing us, but I managed to grab his collar and hold him in one spot until the boat stopped rocking.
After Percy settled down, my attention turned to our surroundings. Birch trees peeked at the water from among the dark conifers along the riverbank. A gray jay squawked at us from the branch of a pine tree, then a great blue heron lifted off a strainer, annoyed by our intrusion. The heron boded well for fishing, and we had a fly rod along, though it never left its case. The combination of the swift current, Percy’s pacing in our tippy boat, the zigzagging route and the many fallen trees in the water required constant vigilance.
After 45 minutes of paddling around some exceptionally tight oxbows, Parker’s steering skills increased. Unfortunately, so did our dog’s restlessness, causing the canoe to wobble precariously.
Parker adroitly guided us into an eddy. “Make him walk the plank!” ordered my son, losing patience with our pet. Too late. Percy was over the side as soon as the canoe stopped moving. I grabbed his collar, hoisting him back in the canoe, and commanded him to lie down. He sheepishly obeyed after drenching Parker and me with a powerful shake.
We resumed our downriver journey. The riverbanks were a homogeneous hedge of towering spruce and fir. Low hills rose behind the trees here and there, also green and tree-covered. Everything looked and smelled fresh and pure after the recent rain.
Much of the land along the North Branch of the Moose River is private, but undeveloped. We felt far from civilization though busy Route 28 and the Fulton Chain of Lakes were only one ridge away to the southeast. With each pull of our paddles we watched the endless forest go by with little notion of how far we had come.
To break the monotony, I peered into the tannin-stained water now and again. Aprons of sand lay a foot or two below the surface at the crux of most of the oxbows. During midsummer, when the Moose has less volume, those sandbars are natural beaches on which canoeists can picnic, swim and fish, but not on this late-spring day.
After picking our way around a particularly knotty log jam, we caught up to three anglers in a dented Grumman.
“Catch anything?” I asked.
“Blown out,” the man in the middle answered as we passed. Their Daredevils were hooked to the eyelets of their rods. They weren’t fishing either.
We continued, navigating around endless turns, some 180 degrees or more. The route was unmarked, and much of the backwaters and tributary streams were flooded to the point that they melded seamlessly with the main channel, but the current always pointed the way.
By noon, about five miles into our trip, a low bridge loomed ahead. Known locally as the Red, White and Blue Bridge due to its patriotic guard rails, the bridge is about two miles east of Old Forge on North Street. Some people, wishing a shorter trip, put in here. The bridge is also one of the few landmarks along the route and normally high enough for paddlers to pass under. But on this day the gap was a mere six inches.
Though the current was steady and the water was high, we had no trouble pulling to the right side of the bridge. Percy gleefully sprang ashore, bolted across the road and then bounded into the water on the other side. Parker and I carried our canoe across the road, then, finding a park bench, ate our lunch as we watched Percy swim to and fro, hoping he would tire enough to ride calmly down the rest of the river.
Below the Red, White and Blue Bridge, the river narrowed and became deeper for a moment, then opened onto a broad flooded wetland. After being hemmed in by tall trees on the upper river, we enjoyed the brief scenery change. The blue sky felt bigger and the many byways that flowed into the main channel enticed us to veer into the acres of waterlogged shrubs, but we held our course.
At 8.4 miles, we pulled over once again, this time for the short carry around Indian Rapids. “I’ll take the front,” I offered.
“I got it, Mom,” said Parker. “Take the paddles.”
I watched Parker hoist the canoe uncertainly. He winced as the wood yoke dug into his shoulders, but strode ahead. The quarter-mile portage passed over the rapids via a rickety wooden bridge, heaved into slight waves by too many winters. It was a short carry, but the uneven footing made it more challenging. I felt a tinge of pride watching him wrestle the awkward boat over the bridge and down the path.
After the portage, the last couple of miles went by quickly. A few cabins, a golf course and other elements of civilization appeared along the riverbank, alerting us to the end of our journey. Parker and I relaxed and reminisced about our other Adirondack paddle trips while Percy, finally worn out, lay quietly in the bottom of the boat. That is, until the duck appeared.
About a half-mile from the takeout at Mountainman Outdoor Supply Company on Route 28, a curious mallard decided to follow us, causing Percy to resume his nervous pacing. Once again, the canoe rocked from side to side as he tried to get a better angle
on the duck.
“Sit!” I yelled, using my paddle to brace the boat.
Percy suddenly sat and looked at Parker and me, as if to say, “But what about the duck?” The boat stopped rocking, and we started laughing as
the racks of colorful canoes and kayaks at the takeout came into view.
If you go »
The North Branch of the Moose River is flatwater but flows more quickly and is higher from ice-out through mid-June. For a more leisurely paddle trip with many options for swimming and fishing, go from late June through mid-
September. Mid-summer is busiest. After Labor Day, the number of people on the river drops off but the water remains warm for several more weeks.
Consider using a shorter, more maneuverable canoe or kayak to help make the many oxbows more manageable. To reach the put-in from the visitors’ information center by the covered bridge in Old Forge, go 4.5 miles north on Route 28 (4.6 miles south of Eagle Bay). Turn left on Rondaxe Road (the sign says Carter Station Road, County Road 93). Go 2 miles to a bridge over the Moose River.
To reach the takeout from the Old Forge visitors’ information center, go 1.1 miles south on Route 28 to Mountainman Outdoor Supply on the right.
Mountainman Outdoor Supply Company offers boat rentals and shuttles to the put-in—and demos for first-time paddlers. Learn more at www.mountainmanoutdoors.com or by calling (315) 369-6670. Tickner’s Moose River Paddling Trails (www.ticknerscanoe.com, 315-369-6286) also rents boats and provides shuttle service to the put-in.