Chasing Waterfalls and Fleeing Lightning – Adventures in an Adirondack Kayak
Be it by canoe or kayak, there’s something expeditionary about paddling –
When exploring unknown waters in a regular boat, you need bearings, knowledge of depth soundings, – and for most of the world, these factors have already had the mystery mapped out of them.
Not so with a kayak. Moving in one, you can actually get into nooks and crannies unknown to others. Making tiny discoviers that are yours alone. And like an ancinet mariner, you guide journeys on speculation, word of mouth, and sheer curiosity.
The narrow brook rumored “to empty into the west side of the lake some miles northward, and is filled with turtles you can’t really see elsewhere in such numbers”, becomes, in a mini-way, a challenge to confirm or discomfirm; to see with one’s own eyes and report back- as if no one had before tested those waters. A small island you come upon unexpectedly becomes a place to land and roam. A place to plant your imaginary flag and claim as your own.
And when you come home, you have all the land marks plotted in your memory. You also return with stories – of ghostly abandoned settlements on the shore, of the enormous heron that flew suddenly at your head – of the beavers that met you at the banks of the river, and with whom you traded lonesome stares.
All this talk is grandiose, but these are the sorts of thoughts that begin to enter the head after hours on the open water, monotonously paddling, alone with the scenery and with your flighty mind.
Succinctly put:— there is always something unexpected that happens when embarking on a kayak expedition, and sometimes that something can be truly magical.
-Especially in the Adirondacks – that rough, boreal range. Mountains once the size of the Himalaya, all but their hardest stone worn away by the eons. Ancient peaks scatter about the landscape and, in between them: timelessly dark and forbidding forests, and vast, twisted networks of lakes, marshes, and streams. It is possible up here to journey hundreds of miles by canoe or kayak. Even all the way north to the mighty St. Lawrence River; and conceivably all the way to Montreal. This eroded dome of the northern sky has eluded the not-distant cities so much so that it remained virgin until the late 1800’s; — and even still, has parts that are yet to be really explored.
Today the goal is a waterfall south of the lake, on the Raquette River, a flow often referred to as the aquatic highway of the Adirondack. We set off from town with the following words as our sole naviational aid: “move south as far as you can go – when the lake narrows you will see a small island, which is a nice place to rest upon; after this, you will see marshy areas: steer ’round the rock outcropping and enter the river. Keep upstream until you reach a landing marked with a white ‘X’.”
It is a great feeling to be floating atop this vast and synaptic network of streams and lakes. We hit the lake with confidence- taken with our easy glide through the water. No sooner had we settled into this lovely, jaunty pace, when a great wind pressed directly before us. Our progress challenged, we began to bear down. And as the wind ceased to let up, we ceased to let up; and strained against it for hours, even as whitecaps overswept our bows.
Remembering a landmark from years ago, we cut across the center of the breezy lake and fought around a rocky point and finally into a marshy cove, sheltered from the wind. Now stopping to rest for the first time after maniacally pressing forward, the mind began to entertain thoughts of going back – of cruising that great wind back to the comfort of home, and to a nice lunch; but —– also to regret and “what if”.
This respite cut short by biting flies, we pushed onward, and came upon a small island (“…you will see a small island“…) Relief. Then not terribly later, the wind turned merciful, and the landing marked with the white “X” appeared, at the base of an impassable rocky cascade.
Now a mile hike – to the Falls.
“There is always something unexpected that happens when embarking on a kayak expedition, and sometimes that something can be truly magical.”
We were elated to make the falls – lunch tasted so good, like it always does after succeeding a challenge. The water was running low, and other travelers were swimming in the rapids of its outflow, bouncing all about the submerged boulders, and jumping from cliffs into frothy maelstroms. We saw a man basking at the foot of the waterfall.
“I want to go where that guy is”
We clamored into the pool near the base of the cascade, wading into the surging whitewater, careful of boulders and the current. We found a perch at the very foot of the falls. An incessant blast of water. There’s no natural power quite like it. This was the reward. The unexpected magic. Full enchantment. These turbulent pools became an oasis of innocense- none of us had had this experience ever before.
Happily having forgotten time, we indulged our reluctance to get on our way and leave the wonderful torrent.
Our inner clocks had stopped, and we’d neglected the minutes.
But now we were behind schedule and the weather beginning to foul. We sprinted back under a darkening sky and fickle gusts. Trying to find the direction of the wind with wet fingers and monitoring flags on the rocky shore, wishing for a thread to tie on as a telltale.
Forks of lightning flashed in the distance. The water, steely by the hazed sun that remained, turned metallic and alien. The chop became chaotic. We, out here in the middle, unprotected. Fighting to get close to shore.
Then, the wind got itself organized and turned suddenly to the east. By some ancient instinct, you know what this change of weather means – you’ve now undoubtedly entered the storm. The peaceful sojourn in the narrow, clean currents of the now far off Raquette River have turned into a jelly-muscled full-on push, and an ever-growing fear of the lightning. By this point there were not many worse places to be than here on open water.
The wind was taking control of the kayak, despite my fight. A sense of powerlessness crept in. I was beginning to find myself helpless to the unharnessed forces around me.
Nature trumps all.
All of us, long since having lost each other, by some providence reunited near where when had started out. Now there was huge rain, a terrific gale- the middle of the storm. Lying low in the boat, avoiding the lightning with a feeling of futility, we raced home.
Finally docking, ecstatic and adrenalined by the experience, now in the warm comfort of dry indoors, we reveled, like the ancient explorers, in recounting our legends – The biting wind, the thoughts of turning back, the cavalier way of navigating, the frustration, fatigue, and how we were schooled by that damn storm.
But – where our excitement really lied, was not in our travails, but in what we’d found. The rest was great adventure, but every great adventure needs a discovery. And for all the curses yelled into the weather out there, the fact was – we discovered, by our design, luck, and folly, a place where we could swim under a waterfall for the first time in our lives, laughing with those closest to us.
More on the Adirondacks: