Imagine days of paddling on a narrow, lazy river that snakes through marshes and pine forests, passing by large boulders and tiny beaches. Picture a land of herons and beavers, where the prints of a muskrat or raccoon sometimes reveal their passing, and where each bend in the river takes you further into the wilderness. Contemplate an area where “development” means a campsite, or in its most advanced form, a lean-to. One might think that such a place can only be found in the Western United States or Canada, but the east branch of the Oswegatchie River is actually found in New York’s Adirondack Park.
Accessing the Oswegatchie is a small adventure unto itself. South of the tiny tourist town of Cranberry Lake lies a hamlet called Wanakena, which, from the highway, appears to mostly consist of forest, picnic tables, hiking trails, and The Ranger School. Off of route 3 is a dirt road that leads back away from the highway for miles, deep into the woods, intersecting snowmobile trails. Abruptly, the road reaches the river and what appear to be a few seasonal homes. One of the camps is accessed by a footbridge that traverses the water. To the right is the end of the road and a public parking area at what is known as The Inlet, a grassy area with river access. While The Inlet has an outhouse and camping is permitted, an hour of paddling on the river leads to spots that are far more secluded, wild and peaceful.
One hot, August afternoon, my partner and I found ourselves at The Inlet, preparing to launch our canoe. The put-in has space to launch multiple boats simultaneously, which worked to our advantage as we happened to arrive as a large group was in the lengthy process of loading their canoes. We soon left them behind and within 5 minutes it seemed as though we had the river to ourselves. We paddled upstream along bends and curves and through tall grasses. There were holes in the grasses where small animals had made paths to access the river. In a few places the water was low over the rocks. In those spots, I was glad to have a “beater boat” that I didn’t mind getting scratched up. It turns out that the trip would be nearly impossible to undertake without scratching up a boat, especially this time of year. Motorized boats are not allowed on this section of the river. With the shallow water and frequent beaver obstructions, they would be completely impractical, regulations aside.
Less than an hour upstream from The Inlet we came to our first campsite. Under the pine trees that shaded the riverbank, we enjoyed a lunch break while gazing out on the water. The cool river, dark with tannins, was a refreshing spot for an after-lunch swim. Back in the boat, we paddled upstream through frequent curves and bends as the river gradually narrowed. Though we passed a few other paddlers, the river never felt crowded. Less than a minute later we were around the next turn and had the place to ourselves again.
After one bend in the river we discovered that we had arrived at High Rock. The Oswegatchie quietly flowed just next to a large boulder. The rock boasts a campsite, set back in the woods up by its top. While High Rock would be an exceptional spot to spend the night, it was still early in the day, so we continued on. Our Adirondack Paddler’s Map North listed Griffin Rapids as our next landmark. Aside from being listed on the map–an easy Class I section that didn’t require any hard paddling–the rapids were hardly noteworthy. In fact, the main difficulty of the day wasn’t even on the map. Prior to reaching our campsite at the Buck Brook lean-to, I had to exit the canoe in thigh-high water and pull it over a beaver dam that we weren’t able to paddle up. A good pair of water shoes and the ability to comfortably enter and exit the canoe in shallow water are a must for anyone undertaking this trip. The sheer number of beaver dams, especially further up the river, requires paddlers to get in and out of their boats often.
Buck Brook is one of several lean-tos along this section of water. From a bank along the outer edge of a bend in the river, the shaded lean-to looks out on the water. While the campsites along the Oswegatchie are numerous, they are spread out enough (with the exception of those at High Falls) that each one feels completely private. We opted to pitch a tent rather than get eaten by the swarms of mosquitoes that descended upon us once we pulled out our boat. The tent had an expansive view of Buck Brook and the marshland that surrounds it. Our guidebook specified that this section of the Oswegatchie is known for bear problems. As usual, we stored our food in a well-hung bear bag. Enjoying a fire in the pit by the lean-to, we had the site to ourselves. It was dark and our eyes were focused on the glow of the fire when we heard a large splashing noise in the water. We heard it once again and then no more.
The next morning, we ate breakfast with the early light glistening off of the water before getting underway. The paddling was more difficult than the previous afternoon. The river was narrowing, with less water flowing and more frequent beaver dams. Some of the dams we were able to paddle up, while we had to haul the boat over others. One of the campsites had some large river rocks and fast moving water that required some spur of the moment route planning. Further upriver where the Five Ponds Trail crosses the water, we portaged around some rapids that we couldn’t muster the strength to paddle up. At another section slightly further upriver we tracked the canoe up a very shallow section with swift water. The miles passed slower with all the obstacles and we considered turning back several times, but ultimately opted to continue.
By early afternoon we had finally made it to High Falls, our final destination. While the river continues above the falls, a simple portage away, such a trip was outside the scope of our one-night trek. Contrary to its name, High Falls isn’t a particularly tall waterfall. However, it is an attractive feature and very interesting to watch. The falls are multi-tiered with multiple flows that diverge and converge.
After contemplating the waterfall for a few minutes, we were glad not to have turned back earlier in the day. The mist and breeze off of High Falls kept the bugs away, making it the best lunch spot on the river. While visiting the waterfall is a worthwhile trip, the camping in the immediate area could be jarring after the quiet and solitude of the river. With five campsites and a lean-to, High Falls is a hub of activity. These campsites do have the advantage of easy access to hiking trails that lead to numerous ponds and a mountain. However, there is a quiet, private campsite just a short way downstream of High Falls that would be my choice if I were to camp in the area.
After our lunch at High Falls, we prepared to head back to The Inlet. While we had another 13 miles to paddle on the return trip, the second half would be downstream. Being able to paddle over most of the beaver dams rather than having to haul the canoe over them saved a lot of time and hassle. I was also able to find lines down the two sections of rapids that we hadn’t been able to paddle up. The faster pace did mean that sometimes I had to tell my partner to stop paddling so that I could steer us around the sharp bends. During the last hour and a half on the river we paddled hard to try to get off the water before a distant thunderstorm came too close. By the time we arrived back at the car we were tired and sore. Although our trip was more rushed than I would have liked, I was still left with a sense of awe from the serenity and wildness of the place. Anytime I feel that sense fading, I know where I can go to find it again.
All photos used in this article were taken by Tim Moody.