Safe Trips: Paddle the Adirondacks on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series that features things to do in upstate New York while we still experience the Covid-19 pandemic. Before venturing out, please take appropriate precautions and check availability and any changes to the opening hours of marinas and boat launch sites. Safe travel!

Some consider it to be the river equivalent of the Appalachian Trail.

It’s the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 740 mile canoe route that begins in the Adirondacks and ends in Fort Kent, Maine. The course takes paddlers – canoeists and kayakers – on rivers, streams and lakes, with a few portages.

The Upstate New York section stretches for over 150 miles and offers numerous entry and exit points. Paddling the waterways along the route makes for a scenic and enjoyable day, or a multi-day paddling adventure. And yes, there are campsites and lean-tos for camping, not to mention more comfortable accommodation in neighboring villages.

The New York section begins at First Lake public beach in Old Forge and continues along the Fulton Chain of Lakes. The route continues through Long Lake to the Raquette River, then through Saranac Lakes and the Saranac River to Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain. From there, the journey continues to the northern end of Lake Champlain to the waterways of Vermont, New Hampshire and Quebec, Canada, and ends in Maine.

This article will focus only on the New York section and will contain excerpts from interviews with Chris Morris, trail director of communications, and Karrie Thomas, its executive director.

A scene at Franklin Falls Pond, which is on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in the Adirondacks. Photo by Mike Lynch.

Is the course reserved for canoes? No, many sections of the trail for paddling by kayak – and more recently on paddle boards.

Where to stay, camp: The route passes through four villages (Old Forge, Inlet, Long Lake and Saranac Lake) and ends in Plattsburg. All of them offer motels, guesthouses and Airbnbs. Plus, there are lean-tos, DEC campgrounds, and places to pitch a tent along the Fulton Chain of Lakes and Long Lake. Campsite reservations are required for state-run campgrounds on 8th Lake, Forked Lake, Long Lake, and the Saranac Lake Islands. You can find free sites, some with lean-tos, along the Raquette River downstream from the falls, at Stony Creek Pond, and again on the Saranac River downstream from Saranac Lake.

All in all, a fairly flat water paddle? For the majority. There are whitewater rapids between Lake Saranac and Plattsburgh. It is easy to carry around them.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Canoeists descend rapids on the Saranac River on the North Forest Canoe Trail. Photo by Mike Lynch.

Portage: There are 10 portages between Old Forge and Saranac Lake, the longest being Forked Lake to the Raquette River (1.5 miles). Once at Saranac Lake, the road continues along the Saranac River to Plattsburgh to Lake Champlain. Most portages are less than half a mile in length. Some simply bypass dams and rapids. At lower water levels, paddlers may have to walk in the water and pull their boats to avoid scratching rocks.

Most popular stretch: From the Vieille Forge to the Lac de Saranac (ending with the Lac aux Fleurs in the village). This is the course of the Adirondack Canoe Classic competition, also known as 90 miles. This year’s competition, which is co-hosted by Northern Forest Canoe Trail, will run from September 10-11.

Entry and exit points: A seasoned and fit paddler can cover the 90 miles in a day, but for the most part, that’s unrealistic. Most lay things out for a few days or even a week. Many only do sections of the route. For maps of the sections, as well as entry and exit points, see the maps on the trail website.

Fun things to do: The villages of Old Forge, Inlet, Long Lake and Saranac Lake are teeming with music, festivals and more all summer long. Consult the websites of the chambers of commerce in each of these communities for the calendar of activities.

Landscapes, fauna: Each stretch offers revealing Adirondack scenery, Morris said. His favorite section of New York is from Long Lake to Stony Creek. “No matter what time of year you go, the Raquette River is beautiful,” he said. “At higher water levels, it almost feels like you’re in the south, paddling through the cypress trees in the bayou. In the summer it is incredibly lush and green, and of course in the fall, due to the high number of maples, the foliage is amazing.

In terms of wildlife, Morris continued, “You have a great variety of birds, from herons and eagles to hawks and all kinds of songbirds. It is quite common to see beavers, otters and muskrats, and maybe sometimes fishing cats. If you are very lucky you will see a moose, although this is much more common in Maine.

Can you rent a canoe, camping gear for paddling and camping on the course? Yes. There are five outfitters in partnership with the Northern Forest Canoe Trail between Old Forge and Saranac Lake, where you can rent a canoe or kayak for the trail, get camping gear and even a guide. The trail website also includes a map of grocery stores and other services along the way.

How are the bugs? Usually late May to early July can be tough with black flies and mosquitoes on rivers and small streams, but not as bad on large lakes on the road. Barn flies and deer flies are more of a problem later in the summer. Things calm down in the fall. It is a good idea to dress appropriately (long sleeves and pants) and be equipped with bug spray.

Deposit of food, equipment: Paddlers along the route do this in several ways. Some people send items to post offices in communities along the route or make arrangements with outfitters. Some contact the Northern Forest Canoe Trail office, which has staff and volunteers who live along the route. And others are using the Northern Forest Canoe Trail Adirondack Outpost, 84 Main Street in Saranac Lake to drop off food and gear. Contact Morris at [email protected] to learn more about this.

For more information on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, see the trail site.

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