Saranac, New York
Town of Saranac
Town of Saranac Lake
Saranac Chain of Lakes
Upper Saranac Lake
Middle Saranac Lake
Lower Saranac Lake
Six Different Saranac Beers
Folks in New York it seems, once they decide they like a name, reutilize that thing until it’s done. Seriously. We we totally confused the GPS just trying to get to a little spot in the Adirondacks outside of “Saranac.” It was like Uncanny Valley, where everyone, and everything, is named Saranac. Seriously?
feeding the ducks
It was, and is, lovely. Idyllic even. Which is why we went back. We were there about 20 years ago and liked it immensely. We camped on the shores of 8th Lake when the girls were 3, with the loons waking us in the pre-dawn on mist-tangled mornings, making coffee on a campfire.
One day while in Old Forge for supplies, on the second floor over a hardware store, I came across a cedar strip canoe and an Adirondack Guideboat for sale, with cards left inside by the local builders. That was a revelation for me – when I realized small boats could be something truly beautiful, something other than a floating piece of Tupperware. (Which also happens to be the name of yet another lake in the Adirondacks, coincidentally: Tupper Lake). I’ve been smitten ever since.
The Adirondacks are pocked with hundreds of glacial lakes, large and small, which are all linked by narrow water passages – streams, rivers, channels, locks, etc.. Mostly short, some steep, some stepped with locks so the mailboat could get through. Rising up from the lakes are forest covered mountains. Deep forest, the kind you wander in for days and never come out, or certainly never want to.
But they – the lakes and mountains – are civilized. In the late 1800’s the valleys and larger lake shores were semi-populated by villages, rustic hotels, and beautiful elaborate enormous estates of New England aristocracy (referred to with false modesty as “camps”), people familiar with the trappings of city life. There’s a sense that culture is at least spoken there, if not the native tongue. In this way, the Adirondacks are very different from the Southern Appalachians where I grew up.
(Which were NOT populated, and the few people who lived there had not been pollinated by urban culture for at least 5 generations, and in fact cross-bred their own unique hybrid culture in the crucible of isolated mountain hollers, like something born on a geological scale rather than human. When you hear mountain music, sung by mountain people, you know it didn’t come from anywhere else.
Yeah, that’s where I’m from. Gospel music, banjos, and snake handlers. Story-telling, not telly-vision. Couldn’t get reception up there, even if you could afford a TV, which most people couldn’t.)
So, we found this place on the shore – just feet from the water – of Kiwassa Lake. Or Lake Kiawassa. Which connects with Oseeta Lake. Which connects to Lower Saranac Lake. Which is connected through Middle to Upper Saranac Lake upstream. And downstream . . . well, forget it. The entire watershed encompasses about 5000 miles of freshwater streams and 300,000 acres of 235 significant freshwater lakes,. Even if you DON’T include the 500 square miles of Lake Champlain. There’s a lot of water here.
Back before the city swells brought in railroads, the only way you could get around was by water. And the only boat that could do it well was a canoe. You needed a boat that rowed or paddled easily, that one man could carry over portages between lakes, around falls and rapids, and keep going. Native designed birchbark canoes were ideal, and were quickly adopted by trappers and explorers moving into the area. As wealthy visitors followed, these backwoodsmen served as hunting and fishing guides for “the sports.” Conveying city people into the wilderness in canoes became a steady business.
But it requires special trees and special skills to build a birchbark canoe. By the early 1800’s all the large birch trees were gone, and boat builders had to improvise. Consequently, the Adirondack Guideboat was developed as a direct decedent of native American birchbark canoes, tailored to the needs of wilderness guides. What evolved was a strong, light, streamlined canoe-like craft made of very finely crafted wood. So finely crafted that a tremendous amount of skill and labor was required to produce them. So finely crafted that a new traditional handmade Guideboat today can cost over $20,000.
What do you get for that money? Well, a thing of incredible beauty, to be sure. But to this day, Adirondack Guideboats are the fastest fixed seat rowing craft on the continent. There’s a story of told by George Washington Sears, an Adirondacks naturalist and photographer, about a fellow in 1881 who rowed a friend 80 miles overnight, between sunset and sunrise, to visit a dying friend. Apocryphal or not, it was not so far-fetched as to be impossible.