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The pond less paddled

Small waters satisfy quest to find quiet

By Jeff Nadler, Explorer Correspondent

Bordered by marshes, surrounded by wooded hills, the Cedar River Flow in the central Adirondacks had long been one of our favorite paddling spots, but it often seemed to be everyone else’s favorite, too. Tired of the crowds, we decided one weekend to go to nearby Sprague Pond instead.

We drove down the same dirt road that leads to the Flow, but this time we stopped at an unmarked pulloff. There were no other cars. We carried our canoe and gear along a half-mile path and soon beheld a wild expanse of water, with two small islands and a rocky spit, nestled in the wooded hills of the Blue Ridge Wilderness. Within minutes, we heard the tremolos and wails of loons.

With binoculars, we spotted a pair cruising at the far reaches of the pond. We started paddling along the water’s edge and spied a raven flying over the hills, croaking and squawking. The friendly musical notes of white-throated sparrows were everywhere. As we paddled into the pond’s only bay, an osprey dove and hauled out a brook trout in its claws. When we finally got near the loons, they seemed alarmed, and the reason soon became apparent: A chick bobbed to the surface between them. We quickly paddled away to a small beach to stretch our legs. From the shore, we watched as a great blue heron glided gracefully to a landing in an adjacent marsh.

We saw or heard other wildlife that day, including barred owls, kingfishers and cedar waxwings. After lunch on one of the islands, we reluctantly paddled back to the path and returned to our car. Our visit to Sprague Pond had been brief, but memorable.

Until that day, our usual destinations had been such well-known lakes as Little Tupper, Lake Lila, the Saranacs and the ponds of the St. Regis Canoe Area and Fish Creek. But we became disenchanted as the number of visitors on these waters continued to grow. During our stays on Lower Saranac Lake and Follensby Clear Pond, motorboats and jet skis destroyed the sense of wildness. The motorless waters we visited were quieter, of course, but they still suffered from heavy use. At night, we heard voices carrying over the calm waters rather than the sounds of the forest.

Our visit to Sprague Pond initiated a quest to find quiet, intimate places that retained a wild character. Poring over maps and Barbara McMartin’s guidebooks, we learned of many such waters in the Adirondacks, but most required a long hike. Since one of our main goals was to photograph wildlife—requiring us to lug in heavy gear—we narrowed our search to waters that could be reached by a relatively short carry. We began exploring small ponds, creeks and wildlife-rich wetlands that few others visit.

We soon discovered other advantages besides solitude. On Little Tupper and Lake Lila, we have nervously battled whitecaps on occasion, and on Forked Lake and Lower Saranac, we have spent full days marooned watching large waves pound the shore. The wind is much less of a problem on smaller waters. And we enjoyed more intimate views. The larger lakes offer sweeping vistas of mountains and miles of shoreline, while on small waters, you tend to focus on close-ups of nature: frogs, turtles, ducks, shoreline vegetation. At dawn or dusk, the prime time for watching wildlife, you may see a beaver or otter swimming by.

Sprague Pond was just our introduction to the joys of intimate waters. Other places we visited include:

Sand Lake. On a busy Labor Day weekend, we spent time alone here in the Piseco Lake region. A short, muddy path led to a pristine shoreline where I was greeted by a pileated woodpecker. Loons began to call and appear through the morning mist. While paddling, I heard the babylike whimpers of beavers within a sizable lodge that was surrounded by insect-eating pitcher plants.

Goose Pond. This beautiful pond in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness is popular with hikers, but still worth a visit. When we went there, we heard ravens croaking near the summit of Pharaoh Mountain and saw a pair of loons on the water. Mergansers also can be seen.

Rock Pond. Lake Durant is usually busy with canoes and fishing boats, thanks to the state campground on its eastern end. Few paddlers, however, carry over a footbridge that separates the lake at its western end from the smaller, wilder Rock Pond. This is another pond with lots of aquatic vegetation that waterfowl love.

Muller Pond. I visited this pond off a back road in the Schroon Lake region in the spring. While fending off the blackflies, I watched as a loon flew in to fish, joining a great blue heron at the edge of the pond and kingfishers that were swooping above the water.

Perhaps my most memorable wildlife encounter took place in a swampy wetland that, as far as I know, doesn’t even have a name. Few would think about putting in a canoe here. Paddling toward a stand of dead trees, I saw that one contained several occupied nests of great blue herons high up, while the tree-top next-door had an osprey nest. Adult birds were flying to and from their respective nests. Suddenly, a midair battle commenced, with an osprey repeatedly diving at one of the herons.

If you paddle waters like these, be prepared to portage. A lightweight Kevlar canoe with portage yoke and pads is a good choice. For solo journeys, backpack canoes are much lighter than kayaks. (Two Adirondack companies, Hornbeck Boats and Placid Boatworks, make lightweight craft that utilize an efficient, double-bladed paddling technique.)

Keep in mind that most wildlife are busiest early and late in the day. When on remote waters, however, you may be surprised to see animals such as otter and beaver in midday. If you enjoy nature photography, you’ll be surprised how close you can paddle to birds and other wild creatures. My best shots of moose, loon and heron were all taken from a slowly moving canoe.

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