He's a sensible guy, my Dave. If I'd told him, "We are making a mistake of nightmarish proportions. Let's get to the nearest motel," I'm sure he'd have listened. That's why I said nothing as we prepared to pitch our tent, in drizzling rain and just before dark, at a campsite in the Adirondacks.
In fact, I'd been holding my tongue for weeks, ever since he said, "I'd really like the four of us to go canoe camping for the long weekend...." The more I heard—about half-mile portages (translation: spots where you have to schlep your canoe over land), and a new site each day—the more hellish the trip sounded. Sure, Dave and I had had fun camping years ago. But by the time we were ready to take our sons—Evan, 11, and Oliver, 9—our equipment was pathetically out-of-date.
Slowly, the itinerary evolved. Dave had initially sought advice from a paddling friend who enters Ironman competitions—a tactical error that even my husband realized. Then he got more reasonable suggestions from outfitters and switched to an easy, no-portage route in a network of ponds and streams banned to motorboats near Saranac Lake. He dug out gear from closets, replaced tired hardware. And gradually I acquired some Lewis-and-Clark spirit, throwing myself into provisioning and list-making ("Goggles. Duct tape. Constellation chart").
The plan was to rent canoes on arrival and tear off into the backcountry. But after a full day's drive from New York City in heavy rain, our little Corps of Discovery had been forced to bivouac for the night at a roadside campsite. We'd pick up the canoes in the morning—if the downpour stopped. Were we nuts?Should we bail?After all our preparation none of us could bear to give up.
The boys helped string a tarp between two birch trees. Under its shelter, we lit our camp stove and whipped up a meal of steak from our cooler and dehydrated potatoes. City-boy anxiety set in as night fell. It was too dark out, too wet; the loon's call on the lake was eerie. At an early hour we climbed into our beloved L.L. Bean tent, cozy despite the damp, and listened while drops fell on our ceiling and Dave strummed his backpacker's guitar.
Amazingly, that was the end of the rain. The next day dawned warm and clear and still, and the obliging (if harried) folks at St. Regis Canoe Outfitters soon had us set. To transport the group and our gear, we needed two canoes, and I wasn't all that sure that I could handle one—on previous trips I'd always been the crew member in the bow. But I became adept at steering in no time, with an enthusiastic Oliver paddling up front. Evan was obviously putting his muscles to good use in Dave's canoe, and sibling rivalry sent our vessels racing across Floodwood Pond.
In less than a half-hour we'd covered almost two miles and had entered an enchanting channel where ducks dabbled in the mossy shallows and submerged logs created an obstacle course that challenged our navigation skills. Oliver, though usually scornful of natural things, remarked on the speckled light reflecting off the water onto a low-hanging cedar bough.
Another 30 minutes of paddling took us into Little Square Pond, about a mile long and, oddly, not at all square. We hugged the near shore looking for the two campsites, free if available, that a St. Regis staffer had marked on our map. The first was occupied; the second...where was it, anyway?The woods grew close and wild down to the water's edge, and we almost paddled right by. Suddenly, we spotted it, a spacious site for the taking, on a bluff 10 feet above the lake. We pulled our canoes up on the sandy bottom—our private beach! There was room for at least three tents among the pines, a fire pit surrounded by big rocks for sitting on, and a ramshackle shelf someone had built by lashing together skinny birch branches between three trees. We moved right in.
However much you dread or avoid it at home, housekeeping is fun at a campsite. You feel like a pioneer as you sweep away pine needles and string a clothesline to dry dish towels. We pitched our smaller tent to hold our gear, hung a water container from a branch, and hoisted our food over another to thwart varmints. The boys busied themselves by collecting a passel of thumb-sized, oddly passive frogs that proved to be ideal companions, willing to be handled at length, placed on the head for jumping competitions, plopped into the water for swimming matches. Once their tour of duty as amphibious toys was done, the frogs happily made themselves at home in our canoes.
Though my menus may have seemed obsessive back in New York (each day's food in a labeled bag, not to be opened, under pain of death, before the appointed time), the planning paid off. After a day of swimming, paddling around, reading, and tinkering with the new water purifier, we feasted on pasta Alfredo, sliced cukes and baby carrots, and astronaut-style freeze-dried ice cream (much anticipated, ultimately disappointing).
Fears resurfaced as darkness fell, and it was endearing to see Oliver accepting hugs from his usually reviled brother. A friend had loaned us a tiny, high-tech headlamp that seemed like one more gadget than we needed. But it turned into the prized item: fastened to your forehead, it left your hands free to do whatever you wanted to after dark—wash dishes, climb a tree.
At sunrise, I scandalized my sons by skinny-dipping in the lake, then got to work on Bisquick pancakes. In lieu of Saturday morning cartoons, the boys watched five loons put on a show—calling and diving, flapping across the water's glassy surface, then flying so low overhead we could hear their wings creak. By now we realized our luck in finding such a prime campsite (during the day, we'd hear boaters voice quiet envy as they drifted by), so we decided to stay put for all three nights. We slung a hammock near the water and took turns swaying in the breeze.
Observing a sportsman hook a sizable walleye from his canoe right off our site inspired the boys to catch some fish of their own. My patience runs thin when it comes to tangled fishing line. Luckily, Dave was willing to devote endless hours to keeping the hooks in the water, and both boys reeled in (and released) a succession of sunfish and shiners.
After our second day we cleared the frogs from the boats and set off to explore. The map took us through several channels to a quiet island, where Dave fired up the stove to heat water for Cup-A-Soups while the boys and I artfully arranged salami slices on Ritz crackers. Back in the boats, we met more and more kayakers and canoeists until suddenly, alarmingly, we found ourselves on Fish Creek Pond, just off Upper Saranac Lake, with motorboats, gas fumes, big-bellied fishermen, and a well-trafficked shoreline road. We hightailed it back to our campsite, which our two city boys were already calling "home."
PADDLE YOUR OWN CANOE
Canoe camping is the easiest way to get into the wilderness on your own steam. Start with a modest excursion. For help in selecting a suitable route, consult local outfitters and experienced canoeists—preferably someone who has navigated the area you're planning to cover. You don't need surprises (rapids, waterfalls); you do need to know that campsites will be available. And remember that a route without portages means you can load your canoe with camping frills—folding chairs, pillows, sleeping mats, Dijon mustard
The American Canoe Association (703/451-0141; www.acanet.org) is a good source of information, as is the "River Trips" page of the Web site American Rivers (www.amrivers.org). A surprising number of books on regional canoeing have been published; search Amazon.com for a guide to the area that interests you.
One key to successful camping is knowing how to pack everything so you can find it again. The Joy of Family Camping, by Herb Gordon (Burford Books), especially its "Food" chapter, became my bible. So what if the rest of your family thinks you're Mussolini?At least you know where the ketchup is. And to find it in the dark, invest in a Zipka, a mighty headlamp (www.petzl.com; from $35) that weighs 2.2 ounces.
St. Regis Canoe Outfitters 9 Dorsey St., Saranac Lake, N.Y.; 888/775-2925 or 518/891-1838; www.canoeoutfitters.com. Both the in-town store and the branch at the Floodwood Pond launch site sell a full range of camping supplies. Canoe rentals start at $39 per day, paddles and life jackets included.
Garnet Hill Lodge 13th Lake Rd., North River, N.Y.; 518/251-2444; www.garnet-hill.com; doubles from $85 per person with two meals; children 10 and under $30, 11 and up $45. A good place to clean up at after a few nights in a tent. It's a hub of activity for cross-country skiers in winter, but more low-key the rest of the year. Warning: No TV's in the guest rooms.