Northern Forest Explorers 2022: Big Water

On the day we started, it all seemed like a good idea. We put our boats and gear together at the Saranac Inn boat launch on Upper Saranac Lake, said goodbye to parents and family, and got everything loaded. Ruby Lewin, a veteran of many previous trips since she was 10, was the second guide and we soon had everyone out on the water. Participant ages varied between 9 and 14, so there was quite a variety of sizes, skills and world experience — there were many new paddlers as well.

Day one saw us into Saginaw Bay with a beautiful lean-to setup. Memphis and Olivia both immediately established themselves as the most determined swimmers, going in at noon, dinnertime and dusk. Dinner was homemade calzones in the dutch oven that night. Callan regaled us with the ominous story of the “Man in the Tent Window.” We all got to know each other.

The next morning, we woke up to thunder showers; a lean-to is a really cozy place to be when they happen. But we were faced with a big decision: try to cover the rest of the lake (Upper Saranac is really big and wide in places) or lay up for a day? The snippets of blue sky convinced us to try.

The Tuesday of our trip ended up being the biggest test of our skills, strength and determination. It took us an hour just to cross the lake due to the head wind out of Saginaw Bay. Then, looking south, it was somehow still in our face. So we had to choose a strategy coming out of the narrows about where to cross, which was going to involve a head wind no matter what we did. We made it to Doctor’s Island to take a breather on the sheltered side —  then nature did its thing! The whitecaps came all the way on, and we were stuck almost in the center of the lake, surrounded by raging swells.

We had one hairy crossing, oblique to the big rollers coming off of Birch Island. With careful coordination and staying close, we all made that last crossing and found a safe landing at a campsite, though unfortunately it was already taken. At that point, we knew we couldn’t paddle against any more of the wind, so we holed up for a late lunch and to make a plan B.

In the end, plan B worked out — with a little help from our friend Jack Drury, a local wilderness leadership expert, we turned with the wind and came out to Bartlett Carry, where he met us and got us to our destination at Stoney Creek Pond. Jack ran the Wilderness Leadership Program for many years at North Country Community College where I completed my first degree, so it was particularly fitting as he was one of the most influential people for me in leadership and the outdoor classroom.

When I surveyed our gang throughout the day, I saw kids that were tired, but mostly unshaken. They were playing games and laughing once we made it to shore, and Corbin and Griffen went out fishing and caught a nice fat bullhead that night. I’m so proud of this lot for doing what we needed to and listening and paddling so well for their size and ability. Ruby also deserves a lot of the credit for keeping us safe and united during this trying day. Good teamwork, all.

On day three, we got on the river, and it was all downstream from there! We did a food drop on Corey’s Road, with popsicles courtesy of Amy Coddington-Burnett (who is usually guiding with me!).

The next few days presented a lot to think about, with our group having such diverse interests and abilities. Learning how to work with others is what it’s all about. You would think that our harrowing paddle would be the glue that binds us, and everything after is easier. True, but not; we still had contests to decide, firewood to gather, dishes to do, conflicts to resolve, and harder things, like reconciling the ethics of fishing with our different beliefs and how to behave to the other creatures in our path. “Leave No Trace” came up a lot, and I’m sure we all got better at it and certainly gave thought to it in lots of new ways.

As usual, our camp set up and breakdown became more autonomous, more organized and needed less direction. The older kids really stepped up for the younger ones. Siniaya, Mackenzie, Griffen and Cameryn all paddled well with the younger folks and helped them stay organized and safe. Carissa became the designated caregiver whenever someone had a cut or bee sting. Olivia taught everyone about gelatin and Ruby’s playing cards got a good workout.

Matt Jr. dutifully put himself to bed every night around 9 and always asked to be woken for dessert, though nobody ever did. Everybody covered everyone for having enough warm clothes and relatively dry tent spaces. The intermittent rain showers kept us on our toes with keeping dry clothes (barely) and dry shoes (never).

Some of the more popular games were Medicine Ball Knockout (with a sleeping bag), Huckle Buckle Beanstalk (courtesy of Ruby and her lipstick ) and ever and always, Ghost in the Graveyard.

Interestingly enough, we had our first canoe spill on the Raquette while eating lunch. Saniya and Corbin both learned not to reach too far out while we were all drifting together, even if the peanut butter apple slices were slipping over. They both took it like champs and came up smiling — they even saved the dutch oven somehow.

On our final full day we were cooking with gas — literally. We stopped at the Trail’s End to park our boats for an ice cream at the Skyline, making this the first trip in Northern Forest Explorers history to include a stop at a biker bar. The Beard, a legend in this part of the world, was very nice and hooked us up with some canoe parking. After well-deserved ice creams at the Skyline, we found a beautiful campsite that looked upon Tupper lake and Raquette Pond. Then, at long last, we made it to the bluffs, which was a prime spot to get wet and have a plunge.

I am so proud of everyone for coming together on this dynamic challenging week. Congratulations to Siniaya for a nice first fish — a 17-inch smallmouth, released — in the calm morning water on exit day, after many hours of trying over the week. Great work everybody, and I hope it holds a strong place in your memories, as it does in ours.

Fun Tidbits

Times telling kids to put on shoes:
Matt Jr., 32
Memphis, 27
Olivia, 22
Callan, 17


Memphis: “A sugar daddy is the opposite of a cougar.”
Corbin: “Let the apples fall.”
Siniaya: “I’m sorry, but I’m taking the trolli’s.”
Olivia: “If anyone pranks me I’ll splash cold water into their tent.”
Matt Jr.: “But I’m not wearing underwear.”
Calen “ I’m practicing cannibalism.”
Cameryn: “Hey Matt, can we….?”
Griffen: “Corbin, PADDLE.”
Mackenzie: “Can we put the rain fly up now?”
Carissa: “Feel the wrath of my BUTT!”