Escape to the Adirondacks!

Hitch up your trailer, throw a kayak on your roof and hit the road to adventure in the famed, family-friendly Saranac Lakes region of northeastern New York.

By Steve Wyman

When I was a kid, the magic word “Adirondack” was enough to conjure up images of remote, trout-filled lakes surrounded by dark, impenetrable woods sheltering moose, bear and, yes, even panthers. After all, this was the legendary stamping ground of the Mohawk Indians, French-Canadian trappers and buckskin-clad frontiersmen. This was wilderness!

I had good reason for such imaginings. In the mid-1800s, novelist James Fenimore Cooper and painters Winslow Homer and William James Stillman helped romanticize the region’s wild and scenic landscape—a paradise for sportsmen and those seeking respite from suffocating urban life. Happily, it still is.When I was a kid, the word “Adirondack” was enough to conjure up images of remote, trout-filled lakes surrounded by dark, impenetrable woods sheltering moose, bear and, yes, even panthers. After all, this was the legendary stamping ground of the Mohawk Indians, French-Canadian trappers and buckskin-clad frontiersmen.

Given the Adirondacks’ long association with outdoor adventure, I couldn’t wait to visit the area with my wife, Dyan, and our two kids, Emma and Ben. So last August we hitched up our 1970’s-vintage Sears Alumacraft to our Honda Odyssey and set off down the Mass Pike toward the New York border. As we pulled out of the driveway in our heavily loaded family truckster, I couldn’t help thinking of the movie “Family Vacation”—and we all know how that trip went down.

Fortunately, our drive to Update New York was uneventful, and we made the trek from southeastern Massachusetts in 4 ½ hours. Our adventure began with a short stay on Lake George, where I fondly remembered spending summer vacations as a child. However, the place had changed quite a bit, and now sported a honky-tonk, tourist-town vibe and considerable development along the shoreline. It was a far cry from the summer lake escape I remembered from my youth.


Rockin’ the Raquette

After a couple of nights, a bunch of laps around the go-kart track and a round of miniature golf, we decided to move on to remote Tupper Lake, where we had access to a three-generations-old cabin on the pristine Raquette River, which flows for 146 miles from Raquette Lake to Akwesasne on the St. Lawrence. A paddler’s paradise, the Raquette was once part of the “Highway of the Adirondacks,” a watery route of connecting rivers and streams that allowed fur traders to travel hundreds of miles by canoe. This was more like it!

With a boathouse of SUPs, canoes and kayaks at our disposal, we spent our first full day on the Raquette paddling, swimming and catching smallmouth bass as we floated to Tupper Lake. Nicknamed the “Crossroads of the Adirondacks,” Tupper’s sylvan shores and fish-filled waters have attracted generations of hunters and anglers dating back to the 1800s. Today, the lake and its eponymous village comprise a must-visit destination for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. One of its major attractions is The Wild Center, where visitors can check out river otters, local fish, raptors and many kinds of educational exhibits and presentations related to the natural wonders of the Adirondacks.

After two days of relaxing on the Raquette, we were ready to hit the road again. Like modern-day adventurers, we rolled out a map of the region and started plotting possible destinations, with an eye toward Lake Placid to the east. However, after traveling just 20 miles we noticed a gorgeous, hand-carved wooden sign for an intriguing place called the Ampersand Bay Resort and Boat Club. Why not?

As we pulled in, we were greeted warmly by resort manager Mary Gach, who gave us an impromptu tour of the property, which sits on northwest shore of Lower Saranac Lake. We never left.


Sampling the Saranacs

If boating and fishing in the Adirondacks is on your bucket list, there is no better starting point than Lower Saranac. Boats up to 30 feet can access the lake via the Lower Lock from Lake Flower, or by launching at Ampersand Bay or the Second Pond boat launch on Route 3. You can also rent one of the well-maintained aluminum fishing or pontoon boats at Ampersand Bay Resort.

Lower Saranac is one of the most scenic and beloved bodies of water in the Adirondacks, with countless tree-fringed islands to explore and a world-class smallmouth bass fishery. The lake also boasts a 62-site “boat-access-only” island campground, making it doubly attractive to boaters and paddlers.

With Ampersand Bay Resort as our base camp we got to enjoy the best of both worlds. We took full advantage of the resort’s canoes and kayaks, and my kids could not get enough of the stand-up paddleboards and paddleboats. As for Dad, I was in heaven bouncing plastic worms off the bottom for smallmouths. Occasionally, I would get serious and take the Alumacraft for an early-morning offensive of catching pike and smallies, or a covert evening foray to drag Jitterbugs and Hula Poppers across lily pads for explosive hits from largemouth bass and the occasional pickerel.

Lower Saranac is one of the most scenic and beloved bodies of water in the Adirondacks, with countless tree-fringed islands to explore and a world-class smallmouth bass fishery.

View of Lower Saranac Lake | Photo by Mwanner, via Wikimedia Commons

Our last day at Ampersand found my son Ben toting an aerated bait bucket full of shiners, which were given to us by Eric, a young man who had befriended my family. Eric had also given Ben some local intel that included a crude chart scrawled on a piece of cardboard. With this “treasure map” in hand, we motored out of the cove, steered clear of a well-marked rocky shoal and ended up between two fishy-looking outcroppings at the mouth of a marshy creek.

What unfolded over the next few hours was an epic fishing experience. As a bald eagle eyed us from a nearby branch, we fed one terrified pike minnow after another to huge smallmouth bass and several enormous yellow perch. We also landed several toothy northern pike, the first of which was so large that it caused my son to reconsider swimming in a lake that harbored such monsters!


Village Life

Lower Saranac also happens to be close to Saranac Lake Village, rated by National Geographic as one of America’s “Top Adventure Towns.” With just over 5,000 residents, Saranac Lake is the largest village in Adirondack State Park, and is home to a hospital, an airport, a theater, restaurants, galleries and shops. It makes a great rainy-day option or side trip if you want a break from the sun.

If you’re curious about the area’s rich history, stop by the headquarters of Historic Saranac Lake, a not-for-profit preservation group that also maintains a local museum. Visitors are invited to take a Saranac Lake walking tour and experience the area’s celebrated park system, created by the Olmsted Brothers in the 1800s and now owned by the Village Improvement Society, a volunteer group that has cared for the park since 1910.

Saranac Lake Village | Photo by Mwanner, via Wikimedia Commons

But there’s more to explore by boat beyond the lovely confines of Lower Saranac. In the southeastern corner of the lake, boaters can enter the well-marked 2 ¼-mile channel—actually a section of the Saranac River—that links Lower and Middle Saranac. To pass from one lake to another, you must negotiate the manually operated Upper Lock with the help of a friendly lock tender. It should be noted that Middle Saranac is a broad and exposed body of water that can get pretty choppy at times. On hot summer afternoons it pays to monitor the weather and keep an eye out for approaching storms, especially if you’re traveling by canoe or kayak.


The Big Lake

While it’s not possible to access Upper Saranac by boat from either of its sister lakes, this spectacular body of water has unique charms of its own. Upper Saranac is the largest of the Saranac chain and the sixth largest lake in the Adirondacks. To accommodate boaters, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation maintains a large launch facility at the northern end of the lake and a carry-in site called “Indian Carry” at its southern end.

Upper Saranac is known as the centerpiece of the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest and is considered by many boaters to be the best boating and fishing lake in the Adirondacks. It boasts 37 miles of breathtaking shoreline, nearly half of which is publicly held and protected from development. It also features 20 primitive campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. While cruising around, you might be fortunate enough to spy a vintage Hacker-Craft or Chris Craft, as the big lake is home to several beautifully maintained, antique wooden boats.

Speaking of history, Upper Saranac is bordered by several luxury hotels and resorts that occupy the sites of former “great camps” established in the 19th Century. These rural retreats attracted wealthy families such as the Rockefellers, Astors, Guggenheims and Vanderbilts, who considered a trip to lavish lodges a form of “roughing it.”

As for the Wyman family, we’re happy with just about any accommodations that let us visit this beautiful part of the world. Will we be back? You bet! As I was relieved to discover, the Adirondacks still stand for outdoor adventure and unspoiled natural beauty, and hopefully my kids will also dream of big pike, dark forests and lonely loon calls when they hear the magical word.

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