Illustration by Brucie Rosch
Kayaking 10 lakes in 10 days
Kayaking is a sport I picked up at midlife. And while I wouldn’t exactly say learning to kayak was part of a midlife crisis, it did represent a departure for me, as I had never self-identified as an athlete. After my mother bought me a kayak as a housewarming present, I found myself paddling every day I was at my camp, irrespective of the weather. Some days more than once. Sometimes on my own, other times with my husband or kids. Or even my mom. Kayaking is a perfect sport for people of all ages. I like that the technique is elegant and easy to master, and I appreciate the absence of a competitive element. Other paddlers have never sped by me wearing fancy designer outfits, sporting smug looks on their faces. I enjoy paddling by other people’s waterfronts to ogle their camps as much as I welcome venturing out to remote destinations and feeling at one with nature.
I had the good fortune of working remotely last summer from my rustic camp on Otter Lake, which is just south of Old Forge. As mid-August rolled around, my husband announced he would be returning home, to Washington DC, 10 days before me. I expected our eldest daughter would go back with him, as she had long since tired of not having TV or Internet. I had thought, however, that one or both of the others would stay on, as I had proposed a number of outdoor adventures for the three of us as well as a family heritage tour of the High Peaks. What teenager wouldn’t want to spend the last days of summer scrutinizing gravestones and homesteads of long dead relatives? They both looked up from their phones long enough to announce that they too were headed back to DC with their dad, leaving me on my own.
The previous year we had purchased a car-top carrier for our kayaks that we hadn’t used very much, and for which my husband had always taken responsibility. On our last day together my husband arranged a tutorial for me on how to get the kayak on top of the minivan. It went badly. It wasn’t the weight, which I could easily manage, it was the height. My 5’1″ frame just couldn’t make it work. Finally, somehow, after the umpteenth time, the kayak fell into the rack—instead of on my head—but then I became frustrated by all the ropes and cords that were required to secure the boat in place. So, as I was cursing at my husband for buying a car-top carrier I couldn’t easily use, at the minivan for being too tall, and the world for conspiring against me, he quietly went into the house and emerged with a tape measure. Turned out that the 2006 minivan was actually so long that if we put all the seats down, the 11-foot kayak could comfortably slide inside. So in it went, and there it stayed for the next 10 days. But I am getting ahead of myself.
After my family drove off on that sunny Thursday afternoon, I gathered up all the maps I could find lying around the camp. My goal was to identify a couple of lakes less than an hour from Old Forge that looked like they could be circumnavigated in two hours or less. I had already used up most of my vacation days, so these kayaking trips needed to be sandwiched in between working half or full days; I therefore didn’t want to devote long stretches of time to being on the road. I liked the idea of a two-hour paddle because it wouldn’t require any planning, which is already such a large part of my work and family life. And since I was going to be kayaking alone, I liked the idea of going in a big circle, as I am notoriously bad at directions and I have the ability to get lost virtually anywhere. Just try me. I figured I would paddle maybe two or three lakes over the subsequent 10 days before rejoining my family in DC.
So the next day, Friday, I worked half a day and then drove over to Moss Lake. While Moss Lake is relatively small—it can be paddled in under an hour—it has prolific bird life and a number of alluring inlets to explore, as well as a small island with an osprey nest, which made for a pleasant place to stop and picnic. I drove home and didn’t get around to taking the kayak out of the car.
I got up on Saturday to encounter a stunning sunrise. I was still getting used to the idea that my family was gone, and that I had the entire day to myself. I decided to head a bit farther afield, to Lake Utowana. It has an otherworldly feel, with a few off-the-grid, rustic camps dotting its shoreline. I counted eight small streams cascading into the lake. I had the lake completely to myself, save for a pair of loons and a few noisy ducks.
Sunday rolled around, and with it, my intention to paint the kitchen ceiling. I then recalled that the kayak was still in the car. I had always wanted to get out to Limekiln Lake. I figured that I would have time to paddle the lake and paint later. I thought it would take about 2.5 hours to circumnavigate the lake without stopping. But it turned out that there were just so many good reasons to stop, including the opportunity to watch— from a respectful distance—two loon parents feeding their chick. The kitchen ceiling never did get painted.
The workweek started on Monday. It was a day packed full of conference calls and emails that required responses. I finished up at 5 p.m. and considered my options. There were still nearly four more hours of daylight. Without overthinking it, I got into the minivan and found my way to Sixth Lake. Despite being on the Fulton Chain and connecting to much larger Seventh Lake, it retains a slow-paced, old-fashioned feel.
On Tuesday I got up early, as I often do, to enjoy the sunrise in the quiet, before the kids get up. But there were no kids. Some habits are hard to break. I examined my schedule for the day and found it full of meetings going late into the day. I made a cup of coffee as the sun was coming up. Before I realized what was happening, I was grabbing a fleece, pouring coffee into a flask, and running—yes, running—toward the minivan. I was soon putting in on Little Long Lake. I pulled back into my driveway at 8:25 a.m., just in time for my first call of the day.
On Wednesday I needed to work from the Old Forge Library, as I had a number of video calls, and the Internet at my camp is unreliable at best. I spent eight straight hours in the upstairs conference room, periodically descending to take advantage of the jelly bean stash at the front desk. At around 6 p.m. I packed up my computer and pulled out of the parking lot. When I got to Main Street, instead of turning south to Otter Lake, the minivan mysteriously found itself heading north. I paddled the Pond, First, Second and Third Lakes. A remote, tranquil destination this was not: everyone seemed to be sharing in the beauty of a late-summer evening, whether from one of the many boats, a waterfront Adirondack chair, or even a park bench. As I was driving home it occurred to me that I had kayaked six new destinations, and that if I paddled four more I would get to a nice round number: 10! Given that I had four more days inside the Blue Line that was an entirely possible goal.
Day seven arrived on Thursday and I tried to decide on my next lake. I’d read about Anne LaBastille and seen her Twitchell Lake cabin at the Adirondack Experience, in Blue Mountain Lake, so my choice was obvious. If I started my work day at 6 a.m. I could finish up early. I signed off at 4 p.m.
While the shoreline of Twitchell Lake is virtually all residential, the camps have a unique architectural style, and the only way to see and appreciate them is by boat. I found myself wondering about the abandoned Lone Pine Resort, which charmingly still has a telephone call box at the public boat launch, now repurposed as a Little Free Library.
While I haven’t fully explored all of the Fulton Chain, I’m reasonably certain that even after I do, Eighth Lake will be my favorite among them. It is the very last of the chain, and it is worth driving that extra bit to get there, which is what I did on Friday. I also like the idea that Eighth Lake is the eighth in my series. The water was so clear I could see 15 feet down to the bottom. There was a sandy beach on the far side that was so inviting I decided to go for swim, even though it was a cool day.
So it was Saturday, and I was at nine. A lake that was only about 15 minutes away that met my criteria was Nick’s. I had avoided this particular body of water owing to its name: it isn’t a charming name like Big Moose, or descriptive one like Placid or iconic one like Saranac. Who is Nick anyway? I was perhaps too judgmental, as this turned out to be among my very favorite paddles. There is an abundance of isolated coves, a general sense of tranquility, and a stunning view of McCauley Mountain.
Finally it was Sunday, and my last day inside the Blue Line. As the sun was rising and the mist was coming up off Otter Lake, I could hear a loon calling out to its mate. I slid the kayak out of the minivan and dragged it down onto my own dock, to the lake I know best. Some might think that kayaking the same lake over and over again would get tiresome. But it doesn’t. It took me about an hour and a half to circumnavigate this lake, as I stopped to appreciate all the changes that had taken place over the course of the summer. Taking the boat out of the water, I found myself with that end-of-the-summer sadness that seasonal residents know all too well. I’m glad this was my 10th lake.
Old Forge prides itself on being “The Paddling Capital of the Adirondacks.” A deserving title, I think. After my 10-day kayaking bonanza there remained a couple of lakes that met my criteria—White Lake and Lake Durant—and many more, if I only considered distance from Old Forge and not the ability to circumnavigate in two hours—such as Big Moose Lake, Fourth Lake, Seventh Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Raquette Lake and the Stillwater Reservoir. And let’s not forget the Middle Branch of the Moose River, a paddling trip my family looks forward to every summer. Now, as winter recedes and summer approaches, I find myself daydreaming about my next kayaking adventures.