5 days on the Saranacs with the Northern Forest Explorers

I am writing this on a Saturday in July, chilling in my pjs with the best dog in the world, Dwight, pumped and feeling good from a week on the water. It is my third year leading the Northern Forest Canoe Explorers, and each year just brings more camaraderie and fun.

On our first trip (of two) this summer, we started at Upper Saranac Lake and finished five days later on Lake Flower. Knowing that all of the Saranacs can kick up a serious headwind, I was happy to see flat water in front of us. This good weather and good fortune followed us through almost the entire trip, which allowed us to concentrate on the good stuff — side trips, challenges, and camp tasks. 

Because several of our participants were repeat paddlers, Amy and I are always looking for new challenges to build on what they have done in the past. Camp cooking was one of the things we practiced a few new ways. Knowing there would only be one carry, we added a Dutch oven to our gear and tried a few “from scratch” meals, including calzones, peach cobbler, and the old camp standby, chocolate chip pancakes. Participation, participation!

In every group, the personalities combine to make each trip unique. Well-known routes become new, the Adirondack wilderness works its magic, new friendships are formed, and old friendships strengthened. Though I’ve seen this again and again, I can’t say enough about how well this group worked and played together. People came from as close as Long Lake and from as far as Oklahoma. Every night we had a good fire, started with a magnesium strip and usually supervised by Casey, who was really good at it and helped several others improve their skills.

We stayed one night at Saginaw Bay on Upper Saranac Lake, where the paddlers discovered a loon on a nest on a small island just outside of our campsite. Though we immediately vacated the island, I wonder how that one will fair; this is a spot where every passing canoeist will be wanting to stop and play. If nothing else, it presented a good lesson about respecting wildlife.

On day three we paddled across Middle Saranac and left the boats to climb Ampersand Mountain, one of the “Saranac 6.” Dwight, our 12(ish) years old yellow lab — a veteran of many paddle trips, many peaks, and many adventures — is showing his age, to the point that I wrestled with whether to take him on the Ampersand adventure. As we approached the steep final mile, I was proud and touched to see Palin and Landen stay back with him and help him find his footing, helping here and there when his older hips made the jump a little tough.

I have no doubt now that it was a good decision to bring him, he’s looking this week like he’s 5 years younger and clearly is ready to go on next week’s trip with us on the Raquette River. And he’s great with kids — loves them. As an added treat, we enjoyed a half hour on the mountain all to ourselves, something that happens much less frequently these days in our well-travelled mountains.

Though I am quite familiar with this route, I found new things every day with our troupe. We stayed for two days on Weller pond, which I have never camped on. Ruby, a veteran paddler of four previous years, told us all about Martha Reben, who cured at a camp on this pond a century past. Although I’m quite sure it is the marshmallows, campfires, and swim rocks that keep kids coming back year after year, I’m very aware of how much the history of this wonderful area seeps into you — I see it happening to this gang and I am glad to be keep being a part of it.

This group was especially good at making organized fun, From a two minute choreographed music video painstakingly rehearsed and performed at the top of Ampersand to a pancake breakfast in bed for Cale for his unflagging firewood duty. Even when feet, knees, and hands got blistered and scraped, everyone kept the sunny side up: attentive to chores, respectful to each other, living in the present. I thought of this while watching Cararra dig some shrapnel out of her feet with tweezers and a safety pin. Many thanks to everyone’s hard work to put this together: Anne and Robbie at Raquette River Outfitters, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail for sponsoring many kids on this trip, and last but not least, my wife, Amy, for being a great part of the fun!  We’re really proud of this group.

Other notable notes:

  • Twizzlers can be put into pancakes.
  • Amy should not be allowed unchaperoned into stores with whoopie cushions and fake poop.
  • Nobody in our group knows what “debonair” means, and without phones, they can’t google it.
  • Cameryn always wants to be the judge for the best chef contest (or really any contest), but don’t let her, she’s corrupt!
  • Cale can cut firewood forever. Fitting, as he will be playing sports for Tupper Lake as a Woodsman.
  • Galen is a good sport, a stellar paddling companion, and a worthy chess player. (Sidenote: I wonder how many Adirondack guides throughout history got to explain the “en passant” rule.)
  • Pancake batter baked in hollowed out oranges is disgusting — right Tallie?

Oh no, I lost the game …

Learn more about Matt Burnett at www.mattburnettguiding.com.