Boreas Ponds

Our editor finds himself paddling alone on the crown jewel of the former Finch, Pruyn lands, surrounded by high mountains, many miles from the highway.

By PHIL BROWN

 

Recently acquired by the state, Boreas Ponds has sparked a classic Adirondack debate over how to balance public access and wilderness protection. Photo by Carl Heilman II.

In early June, I enjoyed one of my most memorable canoe trips in the Adirondacks: I spent the morning paddling around lovely Boreas Ponds, taking in breathtaking views of the High Peaks.

I had the place all to myself. This might seem surprising, given that the state had only recently purchased Boreas Ponds from the Nature Conservancy. Usually, such a magnificent acquisition to the Forest Preserve will attract curiosity seekers. Yes, it was a weekday, but my guess is that the explanation lies in the difficulty of getting there—especially with a canoe.

In theory, it would be possible to drive to Boreas Ponds along a well-maintained dirt road, known as Gulf Brook Road, but that thoroughfare is barred to motor vehicles. Anyone wanting to paddle the ponds will have to do what I did: schlep a boat more than six miles (or, better, wheel it in a cart).

Nancybernsteinillustration.com

DIRECTIONS: From Northway Exit 29 in North Hudson, drive west on County 2 for 7.4 miles to Gulf Brook Road on the right. The turn is 1.8 miles past a trailhead (on the left) for the Hoffman Notch Wilderness. After turning onto Gulf Brook Road, drive a tenth of a mile to a vehicle barrier and park on the right side of the road

Whether the road will remain closed to vehicles is an open question—perhaps the most controversial issue facing the state Department of Environmental Conservation as it draws up a plan for managing the 20,758-acre Boreas Ponds Tract. As of press time, DEC had yet to release an interim access plan for the property.

Wilderness purists want to keep the road closed, letting it revert in time to a footpath. If they have their way, Boreas Ponds likely would become a destination for backpackers and hardy day-hikers, with only occasional visits by determined paddlers.

Adirondack environmental groups, however, have endorsed a plan that would allow the public to drive most of the way to the ponds, as far as LaBier Flow. Under this option, Boreas Ponds could become a popular paddling destination, similar to Lake Lila in the William C. Whitney Wilderness. A variation of this proposal would allow visitors to drive only partway to LaBier Flow.

Local towns have set forth a proposal for more motorized access. Most people would still be able to drive only as far as LaBier Flow, but the disabled as well as guides and their clients would be allowed to drive all the way to Boreas Ponds. In addition, a few parking spots at the ponds would be open to anyone who obtained a special permit.

It seems unlikely that Governor Andrew Cuomo would sign off on a plan that closes all of Gulf Brook Road, given his comments about balancing environmental protection with public access and recreational tourism. Such a move would no doubt incense local leaders. Why would he do that if not even environmental groups are advocating this course?

Nevertheless, a closed road is the status quo for now, and so I got to find out what it’s like to carry a canoe for more than six miles (each way). Lest you think me some sort of he-man, I point out that I chose for this trip the lightest vessel in my fleet: a carbon-fiber canoe that weighs a mere twelve pounds. Since I intended to camp out, I also carried a backpack with a summer sleeping bag, bivy sack, and tarp, among other items. It probably weighed less than twenty pounds.

Visitors will encounter the vehicle barrier on Gulf Brook Road in just a tenth of a mile after turning off County Route 2 (also known as the Boreas Road or Blue Ridge Road). There is space to park near the barrier. Arriving late in the day, I started hoofing it up the road shortly after 5 p.m.

A paddler portages a canoe along Gulf Brook Road. Photo by Lisa Godfrey.

Gulf Brook Road is in excellent shape. Finch, Pruyn & Company, which sold Boreas Ponds to the Nature Conservancy, maintained the road for logging trucks. There are sturdy bridges and culverts. Plus the road is wide and smooth, which makes walking easy. The main drawback is that it’s long and boring, with little scenery to inspire the weary traveler.

Bear in mind that smooth is not flat. By my measure (GPS watch), it’s a 5.75-mile carry to LaBier Flow. With all the ups and downs, I ascended a total of 680 feet. It took me two and a half hours to reach the flow, including stops to take notes and filter water from a stream.

LaBier is an impounded section of the Boreas River, which is the outlet of Boreas Ponds. I got there near dusk, as the setting sun was illuminating Boreas Mountain to the northeast. After crossing the bridge over the river, I found an excellent put-in on the southwest shore. Paddling around a bend, I was suddenly struck by a view of the High Peaks to the north, suffused in the deep blue of twilight. Though spectacular, LaBier’s views were just a foretaste of what was to come.

The flow is relatively short and, much of it, quite shallow. In maybe a third of a mile, the waterway started to narrow, and I found myself paddling among large boulders. Bearing right, I canoed up an arm of the flow that soon morphed into a real river. I pulled out on the left when it became too rocky to continue.

With nightfall approaching, I looked for a good spot to bed down and stumbled across a series of pink surveyor ribbons tied to trees, flagging the potential route of a carry trail to Boreas Ponds. The next morning, leaving my canoe for the nonce, I followed the ribbons, but when the route seemed to turn in the wrong direction, I made a beeline for the ponds and emerged from the woods at a concrete dam. Boreas Ponds used to be three ponds connected by streams. By raising the water level several feet, the dam combined them into a larger water body with three lobes, referred to as First Pond, Second Pond, and Third Pond.

On a still morning, First Pond offers a gorgeous view of the High Peaks. Photo by Phil Brown.

Originally built for loggin, the Boreas Ponds dam and the one at LaBier Flow pose more questions for DEC. Should they be maintained? Should they be removed? Should they be allowed to deteriorate? Those who favor maintaining the dams argue that they enhance the paddling experience and improve fish habitat. The fate of the dams and of Gulf Brook Road may be intertwined, for if the dams are maintained, DEC presumably would need to maintain the road to drive to them.

On this day, though, the most pressing question was how to get my canoe to Boreas Ponds. Neither bushwhacking a half-mile through the woods with a boat on my shoulder nor dragging the boat up a boulder-filled stream appealed to me. When I returned to my campsite, I consulted my topographical map and discovered that the road to Boreas Ponds comes extremely close to LaBier Flow in a couple of places.

I paddled back to the northwest shore of the flow. From there I cut through the woods twenty yards to the road. Once on the road, it’s only a twenty-minute walk (about a half-mile) to the dam, where there is a good put-in. Until DEC creates a carry trail, this is probably the easiest way for paddlers to get to Boreas Ponds. Indeed, the portage along the road from this corner of the flow isn’t much longer than the carry trail would be. (See map for details.)

At last I stood at the shore of Boreas Ponds with my canoe. As the crow flies, the ponds are only a mile and a half long. If you were in a hurry, you could do a round trip in little more than an hour. But I was in no hurry. I planned to prolong my paddling pleasure by hugging the shore while circumnavigating the ponds clockwise. I also intended to explore, if possible, the stretch of the Boreas River upstream from the ponds.

From the put-in, I enjoyed a full-on view of Boreas Mountain. As soon as I got on the water and turned the corner, I encountered a jaw-dropping vista of the Great Range and other High Peaks. Gothics, with its wide bedrock slides, was easily recognizable. To its left, I identified, in geographical order, Saddleback, Basin, Haystack, and Marcy. Allen, Dix, and Sawteeth were among the other High Peaks that could be seen. Looming above me to the west, smaller but closer, were the North River Mountains and Cheney Cobble.

Paralleling the south shore of First Pond, I soon passed a boat dock. A path leads uphill from here to a large lodge built by Finch, Pruyn as a corporate retreat. Environmental groups want the lodge removed, but local officials want to see it kept as a ranger cabin, overnight hut, or visitor center. DEC says the lodge is expected to be dismantled this summer.

Mudflats along the wild Boreas River. Photo by Phil Brown.

In a half-mile, I turned into a channel between the mainland and an island that leads to Second Pond, by far the largest of the three lobes. Besides the views, one of the best things about Boreas Ponds is the variety. Each lobe is different, so it’s like getting three ponds in one. On Second Pond, I passed a forest of snags, ghostly trees that died when the dam raised the water and flooded their ground. Some were still standing; some lay prone in the shallow water. On the fallen trees I saw clumps of moss, grass, and tiny shrubs, nestled together like plants in miniature Japanese gardens.

I next came to a cluster of bog islands. Paddling through a narrow channel between two of the islands, I got a close-up look at carnivorous pitcher plants, leatherleaf, cotton grass, and the pink blossoms of bog laurel. As I rounded the pond’s northwest shore, admiring a huge boulder rising out of the water, I was startled by the call of a loon. It and a mate were only fifty feet away. Perhaps I had come too close for its comfort. The call was answered by another loon on a different part of the lake.

Soon after, I entered Third Pond, where I enjoyed the day’s best view of Allen Mountain, a mammoth wall of green lying just three miles away. This pond has a sickle-shaped archipelago of bog islands. I followed the outer curve of the sickle, still hugging the shore, until I reached a narrow bay. At the far end of the bay, I came to a road culvert, an unseemly conduit for the otherwise wild Boreas River.

The Boreas rises in wetlands north of the ponds. Judging from topo maps, this wetland complex extends through Marcy Swamp to Upper Ausable Lake. Somewhere in there is a watershed divide: the waters of Marcy Swamp and Upper Ausable flow into the Ausable River and then Lake Champlain, whereas the waters of the Boreas flow into the Hudson River and eventually New York Harbor.

I had heard no reports on the navigability of this stretch of the Boreas, so I was eager to investigate. At a takeout just before the culvert, I found a wooden step and a short plank walkway, now rather spongy, leading to a dirt road. The road, part of the former logging network, circles the ponds. The local towns want the road open to mountain biking, but environmentalists oppose this idea.

On the other side of the road was a shallow still water choked with snags and boulders. The Boreas did not look inviting. I almost turned back, but I decided to give it a shot, and I’m glad I did. After threading my way through the snags and boulders, I entered a truly wild river meandering through mudflats adorned with grass tussocks that reminded me of corn-husk dolls. I imagine the flats are regularly flooded in early spring.

As I wended upstream, I flushed a few ducks. Later I spied two Canada geese in the tall grass, raising their periscope heads to get a gander at me. In town, geese are considered a nuisance, but in their natural habitat, you can appreciate their beauty. I managed to paddle for three-quarters of a mile, until the river was no wider than the length of my paddle. And very shallow. I might have pushed on, but that would have required the skills of a gondolier. Still, it was exciting to contemplate how close I had come to the source of one of the Adirondacks’ great rivers.

The water level of Boreas Ponds has been raised by a dam. Photo by Seth Jones.

Upon returning to Boreas Ponds, I completed my circumnavigation under darkening storm clouds. Crossing First Pond again, I looked up to see the lodge on a bluff above the water. With its green lawn and flagpole, the lodge served as a reminder that the Boreas Ponds Tract, though now “forever wild” in law, is not wild in fact. It will be decades, perhaps centuries, before humanity’s thumbprint is no longer visible.

All told, I spent three hours on Boreas Ponds and the river, traveling seven miles. Once I got back to the dam, I still had a half-mile carry to LaBier Flow, followed by a half-mile paddle, followed by the nearly six-mile-long hike to my car. During the journey, I thought about the similarities between Boreas Ponds and Lake Lila. Both are sizable bodies of water in wild landscapes. Both have navigable inlets. Both are remote from paved highways. Lake Lila is reached by a long drive down a dirt road and a relatively easy carry, and if Gulf Brook Road is open to vehicles, the same will be true of Boreas Ponds.

John Davis is one environmental advocate who insists that the road should stay closed, arguing that most of the Adirondack Park is already too accessible to cars. “Roads bring in invasive species, pollution, overuse, and disruptions to wildlife movement,” he said in an email to the Explorer.

Davis, an Adirondack resident who works for the Wildlands Network, a national conservation group, said people who cannot hike or portage to the ponds could hire a horse-drawn wagon as is done at Camp Santanoni.

David Gibson, a partner in Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, sees little chance that Governor Cuomo would go for that. Gibson thinks part of the road should be open, but he isn’t sure that people should be allowed to drive all the way to LaBier Flow. One alternative, he said, would be to establish a parking area a mile or two from flow. The idea is to provide “reasonable access” while protecting the ponds and keeping the place wild.

“There needs to be a lot of physical effort to reach the ponds,” he said. “You don’t want to make access too easy because of the threats to the ponds.”

It will be up to DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency to decide where to draw the line against motorized use. Whatever they decide, Boreas Ponds will remain a spectacular place to paddle. The only question is how many people you’ll have to share the water with.

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