Fortunately, no hippo attacks occurred, and we reached the short portage to Utowana Lake just after noon. While the mosquitos were rather savage, their incessant buzzing in our ears only encouraged us to hustle through the portage and get back on the water. From there, it was smooth paddling through Utowana Lake, Eagle Lake, and into Blue Mountain Lake.
I have dabbled in the art of canoeing only periodically. My first introduction was at age eight when my grandmother, who also had no experience canoeing, signed us up for a 24 mile "race" down the Black River between the Adirondack foothills and the Tug Hill Plateau. It was an excellent trip for the first 20 minutes. After that, my attention span gave in to questions such as: How much longer do we have? Why don't we have more snacks? Where's my mom?
For the next eight hours, I was a terror, and my grandmother was convinced she had inoculated me against any further forays into the world of boats and paddles. She was, of course, shocked when I began whitewater kayaking. Not only did I love going out on the river, I pursued it with such a fervor that in many ways it took over my life. Surprisingly, this led to a double-edged disdain for canoeing. I simply believed kayaks to be a superior craft in all aspects, and the idea of paddling through flatwater – for fun – seemed masochistic at best.
Ever so slowly my opinions matured and rounded, allowing at least a trial period for canoe camping. Being able to easily access your gear, not to mention take a literal boatload with you, while making your way through the mist to an island or lakeside lean-to is hard to beat. Especially when you have someone stuck in the same boat with you. It's too easy for a kayaking partner to peel off and check out the scenery when the questions start going deeper; in a canoe you have to at least acknowledge the question.
Despite all this, I was still resenting the promise I had made to my friend Michaela to go canoeing with her in late July. The forecast was gloomy, with highs in the 60s and at least a 40% percent chance of rain every day. As I drove along Route 28, perhaps a bit faster than recommended, the rain came down in sheets. My windshield wipers thrummed furiously in front of me and the only thing keeping me from calling the whole thing off was the fact that I knew she would make it to our meeting point at Raquette Lake before a call or text made it through. Miraculously, the rain stopped as I pulled in to Mountainman Outdoor Supply Co. to pick up a canoe rental. The skies remained brooding and dark, but the rain had stopped, at least for the moment.
I found Michaela in the parking lot of the post office with the drivers seat reclined as far back as it would go. Clearly she had been waiting a while. Despite this, she jumped out of the car to give me a hug and instantly began listing, in detail, all the snacks she had brought for the trip. Michaela loves snacks. We made our way to the boat launch, loaded our gear, and set off into the white-capped waves of Raquette Lake. The sky was still dark, and we wore our brightly colored rain jackets in case the downpour began again.
Our original plan was to paddle from Raquette Lake to Blue Mountain Lake via the Marion River on our first day. The next day we would explore the islands of Blue Mountain Lake and, if we had time, climb the rocky trail to Castle Rock. The following day we would return to our cars at Raquette Lake. Because I woke up late, the ferocious head wind, and our lack of experience canoeing together, Michaela and I agreed it might be best if we just worked on the basics for the first day. We made our way along shorelines and island hopped our way to a beautiful lean-to on Big Island. There, we unloaded gear, and returned to the canoe for a fun jaunt around the lake towards Golden Beach State Park. We waded along a secluded beach examining the various blooming lily pads and enjoying the sand between our toes. We drifted back towards Big Island, catching up, sharing jokes, and trying to guess what the next day held. After a delicious dinner, we settled in for the night in the lean-to.
Day two began with scrambled eggs, cheese, and sausage. One of the best things about canoeing is the sheer amount and quality of food you can bring. With swollen bellies, we packed away our sleeping pads and bags, and set out east by northeast for the mouth of the Marion River. The winds had subsided, and though the lake wasn't exactly serene or still, we made much better progress. The clouds persisted as we wound our way up the marshy river, weaving through the tall grass and catching the occasional glimpse of a rising fish. We stopped for lunch right before a miniature beaver dam, enjoying the solitude and wilderness.
After the dam, the river began an even more circuitous route through the tall grass. I felt like I was on safari and a hippo might emerge from the brush at any moment. Fortunately, no hippo attacks occurred, and we reached the short portage to Utowana Lake just after noon. While the mosquitos were rather savage, their incessant buzzing in our ears only encouraged us to hustle through the portage and get back on the water. From there, it was smooth paddling through Utowana Lake, Eagle Lake, and into Blue Mountain Lake, which had a surprising amount of activity going on for a Thursday afternoon. We made our way to Campsite 3 on Long Island and cracked a hard-earned beer. We had paddled just over 13 miles, most of which was upstream. After scarfing down some Annie's Mac and Cheese, we promptly passed out at 9 pm.
Dense fog shrouded the island on the third day. We watched it gently roll through the trees and float over the water. The islands only a few hundred yards out in the lake had completely disappeared. By the time we had finished breakfast and packed up camp, the fog was beginning to burn off, and the ghosts of the islands were beginning to emerge. When we paddled over to them, the fog had lifted completely, and brilliant sunshine pierced into the crystal-blue water. The clarity was astounding. Even better was the bank of clouds blanketing Blue Mountain while the sun shone everywhere else. It looked like a mountain of cotton candy.
Our descent down the Marion River took no time at all. Our muscles had grown used to the steady rhythm of paddling, and the downstream current counteracted the headwind we never quite lost. As we paddled out into Raquette Lake from the Marion River, looking back over our shoulder at the distant Blue Mountain I was overwhelmed with joy. Michaela and I had paddled nearly 30 miles in three days, with minimal canoeing experience between us. We had overcome our doubts about the weather and the doubts about ourselves, and experienced an incredible trip because of it. I just can't wait for next year!