Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bog River Flow in the Adirondacks Sept 2012

The Adirondacks: a vacation destination from my youth and an iconic location not just for New Yorkers but for all Americans. The rustic architecture and furniture styles, cabins by a lake, and canoeing. It was with great excitement that I joined onto a trip my friends Steven and Jim were putting together to kayak camp in the Bog River Flow area of the Adirondacks. 

Day 1 (Sat)
I arrived at Steven's house at 6:30 AM to meet my friend Yvonne, with whom I'm carpooling on the way up to the Adirondacks. Steven's house in Owings Mills, MD is being used as the meeting point because not everyone is coming and going at the same time and it's a central point for our Baltimore, DC and Virginia-based group to leave cars for pickup on the way home. I checked my phone and found a text from Suzanne saying that she, Steven and Jim headed out about 5:30. Yvonne pulled in immediately thereafter. I have heard that Yvonne is a light packer and sure enough, she hauled her stuff over to my car in what appeared to be a small gym bag (in comparison, I had filled the whole trunk of the car with my stuff). We had preloaded her kayak onto my car when we had paddled together a few days earlier and so by 6:40 we were rolling northward.

Our trip to New York was occupied with a diverse range of conversation topics. Yvonne is a career diplomat currently working on refugee issues and so I learned some things I never even knew I didn't know about repatriation agreements for "wet feet" refugees from Cuba. We talked kids and home repairs (Yvonne's fridge is on the fritz). I explained the difference between eBay and Craigslist. I kept ignoring the insistent beeps of my GPS as it kept recommending "shortcuts" which would have taken us onto odd little local roads. Fortunately I had looked up the route beforehand the old-fashioned way - using Google Maps - and as a result I knew to ignore the GPS's complaining.

As we got into the Adirondacks it started to rain, first lightly, then harder and harder. The views of the woods and the lakes in the mist were quite pretty, though I did begin to have some second thoughts about camping that night. My hope was that Jim, Steven and Suzanne would have arrived ahead of us and gotten a tarp set up which would have provided enough shelter for us to set up. This didn't turn out to be the case: about 10 miles short of our destination I spotted Jim's truck by the side of the road in the town of Blue Mountain Lake. Steve and Suzanne were also having second thoughts about camping (Jim and Yvonne were fearless stalwarts and were still all for camping) and had pulled over to contemplate getting a hotel for the night rather than trying to camp in the forecast torrential storm and high winds. We drove over to the Adirondack Museum to sort things out. We asked a woman behind the counter at the museum her opinion. She said, "I'm a camper and I wouldn't camp on a night like this." On the other hand, with an arts festival and a major canoe race going on in the vicinity, hotel rooms were going to be impossible to find. Finally we decided to risk camping. 

At Lake Eaton Campground

We drove on and found the campground nearly deserted - whether because of the severe forecast or just because things quiet down Labor Day we don't know. Only one other site was occupied. There wasn't even anyone at the front entrance, just a sign saying "Be back at 8 AM tomorrow. Severe weather forecast."  

While we had reserved three sites (the site's rules specify a maximum of two tents per site and we had five people, each with his or her own tent) with the rough weather we decided to cluster together in one site (the sites are quite large) and got our tents and a big tarp set up during a lull in the rain. Suzanne, Steven and Yvonne all clustered together, each with their tents partially under the tarp. This seemed like a great way to have 256 square feet of rain-catching surface area channeled down onto your tent all night and so I set up away from the tarp under the tree canopy. Jim also set up further away because, well, Jim just likes personal space. 

With a friend at the Adirondack Hotel

The good news is that the forecast storm never materialized. In fact, the storm moved out sooner than expected. The rain ended and after a quick toast by the cars we drove into the town of Long Lake where we had a lovely dinner in an 1850's hotel facing the lake - and which had the requisite big front porch and stuffed moose head and bear. I had a lovely bowl of Hungarian goulash, the beginning of an unusually carnivorous week for me. After that it was back to camp for an early bed-time. It had been a long day.

Night 1
At about 2 AM I awakened to the sound of a creature scratching (fortunately it did not sound like a large animal) then someone shouting and clapping. This pattern repeated several times.  A conversation among tents ensued. Finally I hear a couple of really nasty animal growls, which cause me to involuntarily yell, "What Was That?!"

In the morning we groggily all figured what had happened. A raccoon had come nosing around, first to Suzanne's tent, then Yvonne's. Yvonne had committed a camping no-no by keeping some food in her tent and the raccoon actually chewed a hole through her tent and made off with a package of pita bread. The growl had been when Suzanne had gotten out of her tent and shone a flashlight directly at the raccoon.

Day 2 (Sunday)
We had decided in advance not to bother with cooking at the campground so we had breakfast out at a local diner where we entertained the locals at the next table with our trip planning conversation. We then drove about 30 minutes up to the put-in at Low's Lower Dam on Hitchins Pond, where we launched into the familiar if tedious process of unloading all our stuff and pack our kayaks. It's always a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle to make everything fit into the boats, particularly at the beginning of a trip when you're loaded with food.

We also got to see a variety of other folks setting out into the Bog, many of whom looked very Adirondacky, that is to say they looked more L. L. Bean than Sea Kayaker. Hiking pants, big floppy hats, but not the neoprene fetish gear that sea kayakers favor. In fact, one Adirondacky looking fellow actually teased me about my neoprene pants - something about whether what I was wearing was the next big fashion trend. Ha Ha. These Adirondacky folks are so witty. Some other interesting People of the ADKs sightings: a solo canoeist with a mammoth revolver on his hip, another canoeist with so much gear that he was towing a recreational kayak behind him as a gear barge, and someone with a canoe piled so high it looked more like a container ship.


We shoved off and our first three miles were an easy trip across Hitchins Pond. From there it's about a 500 foot portage into the Bog River Flow. We dragged our boats out of the water, loaded them onto kayak carts we had brought with us, then schlepped the boats, with one person at each end, up a dirt path from one body of water to the other. Once relaunched we headed west across the Bog River Flow along the esker (a long winding ridge of stratified sand and gravel created by glacial activity). As we headed along we'd occasionally pass people going in the other direction. When we did we'd ask them which camp site they we're coming out of. Campsites are first come, first served and we wanted to get a feel for which ones were open.  Along the way we also saw our first loons, the famous bird of the Adirondack Lakes. Interestingly, other than the loons, we saw very little bird life. A few ducks here and there, a few herons, one flock of geese, but far fewer birds than you'd see on an equivalent body of water in the mid-Atlantic.
The loon!

It was a fairly long slog upwind as we headed westward across the Bog and into Low's Lake, named after Augustus Low, a native of Brooklyn (as is everyone important) and local 19th century industrialist who owned logging, maple syrup and other businesses in the area. A. A. Low's brother Seth served as mayor of Brooklyn in the late 19th century, which isn't germane to this narrative but is still interesting because it involves Brooklyn.

Near the west end of the lake we turned north into Grassy Pond. On the car ride up Yvonne had been looking at the map without her reading glasses and had misread the name of this area as "Greasy Pond". In reality, it wasn't greasy it all; rather, it was pristine, beautiful and deserted.  We had our choice of campsites and settled on #X1, which had a nice beach for our kayaks, plenty of room for five tents, and a nice view of the cliffs overlooking the pond. I had read on a web site that #(X1-1) and X1 were primo camp sites and so we were fortunate to have our choice of them. The rest of the afternoon was spent making camp and preparing dinner. Yvonne, Suzanne, Steven and I had planned in advance to take turns making dinner (Jim was managing his food separately). That first night, Yvonne made penne with meatballs. 

Pardon the non sequitor, but I should also mention the rest room facilities at the camp site (this has nothing to do with our pasta dinner, which did not induce any rush for the facilities!). Each site has a vault toilet – basically an outhouse without the house. Let me tell you that there’s all the difference in the world between a vault toilet setup and Leave No Trace camping. Camp sites with any sort of toilet facilities are, well, commodious. 

The facilities
It gets dark early in September and so after a brief camp fire we all headed to bed. I simply can't go to sleep at 9 PM and so I dragged out the iPad I had hidden among my gear and started writing this trip report. I did not let on to my traveling companions that I had the iPad along, fearing they might find it too, too geeky. Of course, given how much time we spent during our Bog Lake outing comparing the merits of the different Star Treks (including a surprisingly positive vote for Enterprise), maybe my geekiness level wouldn’t have been in issue.

(14.4 mi kayaking)

Night #3
Sometimes staying in a tent freaks me out a little. Having grown up in an environment of solid walls, locked doors (2 locks minimum, three is better) and a baseball bat or better by the bedside, being in a tent in the wild leaves me feeling very vulnerable. The place we were in was more remote than my usual trips and so I guess it got to me a little more than usual. For me, insomnia and feelings of panic go hand in hand and so I spent a good part of the night lying in my sleeping bed irrationally freaked out about the possibility of animal attack. You would think that I would be used to the feeling of ravenous, hairy beasts roaming around me in the middle of the night – I am, after all, the parent of two teenage boys – but somehow this was different.

I tried reading for a bit but the book I had with me (on the iPad, of course) was about psychopaths and the mental health industry, which it turned out was not a very calming book to read in the middle of the night while feeling freaked out with arktophobia. I also kept hearing Suzanne, one tent over, tossing and turning. She just couldn't get comfortable and was cold. Neither of us slept very well and in the morning we compared notes ("I heard you messing with your tent zippers at 3 AM - what was that about?").

Day 3 (Monday)
Monday broke quite cooler and cloudier than forecast so after a leisurely breakfast we decided to go for a hike rather than hit the water. We headed out a trail up to some cliffs which were visible from out campsite. We spent the morning hiking (including crossing a beaver dam) and bouldering up the cliffs, coming back to the camp site for lunch. Along the way we spotted a canoe carry to Cranberry Lake - this area is chock-a-block with lakes and trails to carry canoes between them.
Crossing a beaver dam

As we walked I discovered that Steven is a professional horticulturist, which I deduced from the fact that he knows an awful lot about plants and gets excited when spotting interesting ones. Along our first day of paddling he had pointed out pitcher plants (little carnivorous plants) on the Bog and along our hike he pointed out a lot of different species of plants - viburnum, various varieties of birch, and even one plant which needs two flowers to produce one fruit. Plant identification is a place where my Brooklyn upbringing fails me. To me, plants are plants. It's fascinating to take a walk in the woods with someone who really knows the different species.
Steven and Suzanne at the cliffs

Monday afternoon it was still chilly and so we rounded out lunch with a cup of tea and some Digestive biscuits - the UK kayakers from my 2011 Scotland trip would have approved. We then did a fairly short paddling outing, just four miles or so around Grassy Pond. It really was pretty chilly. For the most part I was dressed warmly enough but found myself wishing for my heavier paddling gloves. Along the way we eyeballed all the other campsites on the pond and decided we really had chosen the best one. We also spotted a beaver dam and a number of loons.

It was Steven's turn to make dinner, which was salmon, pasta and vegetables - quite tasty and we all ate quite a bit, even after having had appetizers of chile dusted mangos, hummock, and cheese - and drinks.

Yvonne, Steven and Suzanne at the cliffs
After dinner we took a brief dusk hike over to camp site #(X1+1) which we had realized while paddling was within easy walking distance of our site (for the most part the sites are quite spread out). It was another cool evening and returning to a camp fire at camp felt good. We sat, talked, watched the stars and the lights of the campers who had moved into a site visible from ours - some other people in our neighborhood. Throughout the rest of our stay we turned a jaundiced eye on the other campers - it seemed almost an affront that they were out there. What nerve they had making camp fires and using their flashlights within clear sight of us, and at a distance of only maybe 2/3 of a mile!

I should mention a a major pain in the neck while camping: bear-bagging. As we had already experienced, food attracts animals and so we kept all of our food and toiletries in bags which we hung from trees. This is particularly important since the area has a significant bear population. That meant that every meal started and ended with dealing with the bear bags. Since toothpaste and toiletries smell food-like, brushing your teeth also had to be factored into when you were going to raise your bear bag each night. The first day I got some rope burns raising the heavy bags but with each day the food bags grew lighter and we go better at managing them (for example, I figured out I should wear my gloves while pulling up the rope - duh) and so it was soon not too big a deal.

Bed time was once again early; people retired to their tents around nine. I can't go to sleep that early but evidently other people can. As I wrote the first draft of this entry at 9:50 I heard the usual rhythmic snoring from other tents.

Day #4 (Tues)
Our goal for the day was paddling down into Bog Lake. This involved kayaking out of Grassy Pond, across Low's Lake into Moose Bay, then following a narrow, twisty channel into the lake. I was feeling pretty good, having slept better than the prior nights. I still woke up during the night as I always do while camping, and this time I got to hear the ethereal calls of the Loons and barred owls echo over the lake in the amazing quiet of the night (unlike the swampy mid-Atlantic, there's almost no bug noise at night in September in the Adirondacks).

We started the day with a somewhat chaotic pancake breakfast. Yvonne had brought pancake mix to which we added Trader Joe's dried bananas which reconstituted nicely. We then did our best to cook the pancakes in the little pans we had available over camp stoves. This was not entirely successful as camp stoves tent to have very uneven heat, so overall the pancakes were a little burned in the middle but underdone at the edges - and too big for the pans in which we were cooking them. Still, they were tasty and made a good breakfast. I had mine with peanut butter.

The early morning was foggy to the point where the lake and cliffs had disappeared but by the time we finished breakfast and got ready to launch the fog had lifted to reveal a warm, sunny day and as a result the kayak trip was beautiful. Any random photo from the route would have been ready for a tourism brochure or web site. This great sunny, dry weather held for the rest of the trip. Along the way in the twisty channel there was a beaver dam which we portaged on the way up and ran in our kayaks on the way back. We also stopped at what had been an old road where we saw what we think were moose tracks. 
On the way to Bog Lake

After lunch we headed back. Suzanne and Steven broke off when we reached the mouth of Greasy Pond to head back and get dinner started. Jim, Yvonne and I continued on and did a little additional exploration of the west end of Low's Lake before heading back. Upon our return Yvonne declared the lily pad-filled area near where we landed our boats "off limits" and plunged into the pond for a bath. Ever cheery, she returned to camp and reported that it was the second best bath she'd ever had. I asked, and asked again when she repeated this statement around the campfire, but never got information about best bath #1. For reasons which will soon become apparent, this was the last bath taken on the trip. 

Here I am (Suzanne's photo)

 The night's dinner was chicken curry with lentils and mango over rice. It was Suzanne's recipe, prepared with some input from Steven. Once again, a tasty meal. Jim, on his own as usual (we did offer him food and he did accept – sometimes) ate this scary self-heating "heater meal" - a civilian version of the military's MREs (meals, ready to eat). Astronaut ice cream was proffered for dessert, but I abstained. After dinner we went though the ritual of doing dishes, then we filtered a number of gallons of water. At one point we had three people pumping at once with a fourth running to refill the intake bucket. Then, once again it was time for a camp fire and bed time. We suffered another minor critter attack - while we were at the fire I heard a sound to our right. I pointed my flashlight over and saw mice digging into our garbage bag, which had not yet been hung up got the night. The mice were brazen and kept at it even as we went over and shined flashlights at them. Fortunately, we caught them before much damage was done.

(17.3 mil kayaking)

Day #5 (Weds)
After (for once) an uneventful night we broke camp with the goal of moving our encampment to Site #X2. The camp sites on the lake have a limit of three nights and so we needed to move on. Also, we wanted to move to a site closer to the take-out for Thursday when Suzanne and I needed to head out. It was a warm day and by 10 AM I had to pull over and take off the neoprene shirt which had been the perfect weight the previous two days. 
Jim and Yvonne at Site #12

Amazingly, site #X2 was open - it's another gorgeous site - and we set to work unpacking the boats and making camp again: setting up tents, hanging bear bags, and such. I ducked into my tent to pull off my neoprene pants (it was even warmer). When I pulled off my paddling shoe I discovered a fresh water leech attached to my ankle. This was pretty amazingly gross. I wish I had the presence of mind to have taken a picture, but a big voice inside my head was too busy screaming "Get The !%*(%@ Thing OFF!!!!!" We have seen a much smaller leech earlier on a beer bottle we had been cooling in the lake and leeches had become a running comment. So, I did saunter over to the group, already gathered for lunch, to show off my new annelid fashion accessory. They thought (confusing slugs with leeches?) that salt might get it off and so we dumped salt on it. When that had no effect (other than no doubt making the leech more tasty) I pulled the damn thing off with my hand (in a plastic bag). Prior to departing I had thought that the primary Katherine Hepburn movie reference for this trip would be On Golden Pond ("The loons! The loons!") but I wound up re-enacting a scene from The African Queen. To quote Bogart's character, "If there's anything in the world I hate it's leeches. Filthy little devils."  I understand that Bogie wouldn't work with real leeches; they had to use rubber ones. Nice going, tough guy.
Group photo
After lunch we paddled 30 minutes or so back to the Low's Lower Dam portage, which is also the trailhead for a great hike up to a beautiful view of the area. It's also the only point in the whole trip where we had cell coverage and I took the opportunity to call home. After our hike it was back to the camp site for dinner. My turn: pasta primavera with salmon, enhanced with Steven's leftover fresh vegetables (carrots, a pepper, shitake mushrooms) and with crunchy Trader Joe's green beans on top. I even got to have an after dinner cup of coffee - ahhh!
View from the hike

Day turned into evening and into night as we sat around the fire. Just before bed time we heard the thump of a bear bag hitting the ground. This was momentarily a freak-out (we were picturing a bear nearby) but it turned out that a knot had just come loose and the bag had come down on its own. Whew.

As usual it was lights out around nine and went back to my tent to type away until 10.

(13 mi. kayaking)

Day 6 (Thurs)
It was time for Suzanne and me to head towards home. The group broke camp and we retraced our steps back to the put-in: back across the rest of the bog, portage and then the 3 miles or so through Hitchins Pond. At the portage we chatted with a group of guys from Bethpage, Long Island. They had spent the night in site #10 and said they were sure a bear had been in the site trying to get at their bear bags. But they're from Long Island - what do they know.

Back at the portage

Then we divvied up our stuff - Suzanne's stuff and mine in my car, Steven, Jim's and Yvonne's into Jim's truck. The latter three were moving on to a different site in the Adirondacks for a few more days of exploring. 

Suzanne and I had discussed many variants to our trip home, mostly focused on whether to do the trip home in one day or two, and how to get showers as soon as possible after we got off the Bog. The latter turned out to be easy. We went back to Lake Eaton Campground where Suzanne sweet-talked them into letting us use the showers for free, being recent customers and everything. That's better than I probably could have negotiated; however if Valerie had been there she probably would have gotten us both free use of the showers and a coupon for a free night's stay on our next visit. After very satisfying (and completely separate, I must add for the record) showers we got on the road.

Again, an uneventful trip. We reached Steven's at midnight and transferred Suzanne's stuff (well, most of it, anyway – a few lost and found items currently sit in my basement) and kayak to her car. For me it was then another hour’s drive home. 

I expected to arrive home and plop right into bed, but I had downed a Starbucks Doubleshot at about 8 PM to help keep me perky for driving and at 1 AM I was still wide awake. I slid into bed, luxuriating in the comfort of the mattress and the coolness of the sheets, but tossed and turned for quite a while. At 2 AM I considered going down and unloading the rest of my stuff from the car but fell asleep not long thereafter, lost to dreams of birch bark decor, the call of the loons and paddles gliding through the water.  

The rest of my photos are at: 

Suzanne's pictures are at the following two links:
[Link removed at the request of the owner]

Note: The original version of this blog entry listed the actual site numbers but some of my fellow travelers have bought into some kind of Adirondack secret society voodoo mentality where people don't talk about particular sites for fear of giving away the identities of the best camping locations. Apparently, similar to Fight Club, the first rule of camping in the Adirondacks is that you don't talk about camping in the Adirondacks. However, since (as you may have guessed from my tone) I don't completely buy into this selfish approach, I have provided the actual site numbers anyway - just in a manner which requires a little figuring. They are written as a third order polynomial, with the coefficients expressed in hexadecimal. Solving this will give you the actual numbers of the sites (the third root is obviously not a valid campsite number):

x^3 + (3BC)X^2 - (AA60)X + 5DC00