(State #22/50) We overuse and misuse many words nowadays. I wont say I’m as guilty as they come, but I am guilty — I’ve called coincidences ironic, I’ve referred to cups of coffee as awesome and I once literally ate 1,000 hotdogs. I tend, however, to stay away from the misapplication of humility. So, it is with great hope and 70% confidence that I use it here… Nature humbles.
“A mild winter and a raw spring,” was the phrase I kept hearing. This crappy spring weather continued on into June and I sensed, with minor delight, that even the Northeasterners were growing weary with the rain. In a cozy house on Lake George, I sat with a steaming coffee and frowned at my computer —the forecast said four more days of garbage. That was far too long to wait out, so without enthusiasm, I packed up and drove off into the gray, cold drizzle of Upstate New York. Sometimes Mother Nature sees your canoe plans in the Adirondacks and takes a big rainy dump all over them.
Maybe the forecast is wrong, I thought as I launched Rider into the West Branch of the Sacandaga River. The rain had ceased as I canoed the narrow channel through evergreen marshes and around the bends of low forested mountains. Looking down into clear water, my boat floated over green aquatic grass, swaying in the current. Low clouds remained in position, but even the breeze subsided until the only sounds were the trickling of water and the occasional birdcall. With the paddle on my lap, I spent minutes floating, listening to nothing.
Overlooking the marsh by standing upright in the canoe, I heard a sudden huff. Twenty feet away, a white flash caught my eye and a doe charge off into the thicket, continuing to snort and cough as she vanished into green. A few minutes later a hunk of dark brown fur parted the high dewy grass and bounded into the stream ten feet from my bow. With the walls of wilderness so close, a surprised black bear, if so inclined, could sink my boat in a single, mauling pounce. So, I was thankful it was only a beaver. I completed the trifecta by frightening five Canada Geese, which took to the the air in honking panic. A quarter mile later the dramatic birds eyed my boat and made small noises, poised for another scene, as I slid on past.
An hour into my journey, light sprinkles fell in waves. More pronounced drops spurred me to don a raincoat over the life jacket. Soon thousands of droplets impacted the surface, splashing little beads up an inch before returning down into the ripple. There was less beauty in the drops that fell on my back, which pooled in my canoe seat and soaked through to my butt.
The rain continued in earnest as I paddled out of the creek and into Trout Pond, patrolling the banks to find a camp spot. I found an old hunting camp with thirty minutes of light to spare and put up my tent. There was a pit with charged logs and half-burnt beer cans, but I didn’t bother trying to light a fire. As night approached, a beaver cruised my way. For the next hour, like a guard pacing outside a prison cell, I watched him swim back and forth, 150 feet from my camp, periodically and slapping his tail against the pond. Thud! Splash.
To the animals of the Adirondacks, my presence seemed to be an annoyance at best. So, maybe the creatures of Upstate New York are just a bunch of jerks. Or, maybe their memory is old. Maybe the beaver heard tales of fur trappers and the goose knows stories of the shotgun and the doe understands her husband’s head is mounted on the wall of a dim garage in Albany. Perhaps they were right to be untrusting of me and my boat. After all, in the long equation combining man and nature, we have admittedly, been pretty heavy on the subtraction. With this cheery thought, I retired to my tent.
Canada geese woke me, honking overhead on their morning lake survey. I heard more splashing and exited the tent, expecting the beaver, but found a loon diving out in the pond instead. Condensation fell from the canopy, while patches of cloud hung low and drifted over the valley. Mist gave depth to the hills — the more distant, the more shrouded in gray. Across Trout Pond, dark green conifers sprouted from the light green deciduous forest on the mountainside. These cones against the sky reflected long and narrow on the gray lit pond, blurred by the smattering raindrops, looking like a Bob Ross painting.
Back at the tent I took a long look at my gear — everything remained wet. I made coffee without the aid of fire. “It’s just like ice coffee,” I repeated to myself as I drank the cold mixture of partially dissolved caffeine crystals and a little mocha creamer. Leaving camp soggy bottom, I paddled out onto Trout Pond where I found my group of Canada Geese in the beginning stages of obnoxious alarm. I turned the boat around and headed back to the river.
I canoed several miles further down the Sacandaga, terrorizing that same group of five geese every half mile. I passed a few private homes near the road. One was lit with the aroma of wood fire wafting from the chimney. Peering through the glare of a window, I saw a hand go up and I waved back at it’s owner. The river widened from creek to stream to, well, what I’d call a river. It bended away from the road, winding through grass and willow covered marshes and between hillocks and low mountain ridges. There wasn’t a portion of ground, save the odd beaver run, that wasn’t coated in grass or shrub or tree. Even the earth under the stream swayed with fine long blades of grass. I may not have been in remote harmony with the land and it’s creatures, but damn if it wasn’t still pretty.
I turned around at one-twenty after eating a dry packet of oat meal. A few drops peppered the surface and transitioned to pouring rain as I strained my muscles, paddling back up stream. When I said nature humbles, I didn’t mean me. I meant other people. Well, the rain went on for over an hour, soaked me through until my butt sloshed around in my duct tape seat. I tried signing, mostly James Taylor and CCR, until even I lost interest in my own voice.
Then something caught my eye, upstream; a head protruded two feet from the water and went down again. The surrounding waters swirled with a confusing mass of bodies and tails. As I closed in, the head popped up again and hissed at me — it was mama protecting her river otter pups! The juveniles swam around, barking, or more accurately, chirping. Following their mother’s lead, they swam up to my boat and thrashed and rolled. The Mom got her point across clearly, but the pups, what ever they tried to do, remained adorable.
Afterwards, the stream current intensified and the wind picked up, blowing rain beneath the rim of my hat into my face. I lost the humor the otter encounter provided and began cursing the wind. Back by the house with the chimney, the old man waved and, feigning I wasn’t miserable, I gave a wave back. Enjoying your warm, dry house? You son of a bitch. I passed the pond where I camped and struggled up river, against driving rain.
When I stopped at a low bank to dump out the water, the rain had let up. Five minutes later, the sun washed over me. I stripped off my wet jacket and shirt and canoed with warmth on my shoulders, thinking it a brief reward for my hour and a half of struggle. I pulled out at the bridge in late afternoon, knowing I’d be sore, but feeling accomplished and salty for having braved the weather. Humility evaporated. You call that a storm?
River Stats and Fun Facts
- West Branch of the Sacandaga River, New York
- Miles Canoed: 8
- Date Canoed: 6-4/5-2017
- Weather: Ranging from rain to harder rain to an hour of sunshine before rain started again
- Elevations: around 1750 feet
- Launch/takeout Point: below bridge of highway 10 near Good Luck Mountain and Trailhead (43.255499, -074.535448)
- Campsite: hunting camp on Trout Pond (43.274692, -074.542027)
- Furtherest Point in Reached: (43.304545, -074.543502)
- Songs Sung on River: Who’ll Stop the Rain by CCR and Anywhere like Heaven by James Taylor
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: Canada Geese, osprey, mallard, loon, redwing blackbird
- Mammal: 4 River Otters! 4 white tail deer, 2 beaver
- Amphibians: Dozens of green and silver bellied salamanders in the pond
- Fish swimming throughout the creek and in trout pond
- Dominant Vegetation: White Pines, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Paper Birch, Yellow Birch, Beech
- Current Threats: Mercury pollution, road salt, development, invasive aquatic species, water diversion and Climate Change increasing rainfall to area, altering hydrology.
- Ecoregion: Northeastern Highlands, (58aa) Acid Sensitive Adirondacks
- Trash collected: beer cans, motor oil bottle and plastics from around my campsite
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2041 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link to donate below. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign