||The Erie Canal almost single handedly made New York City the center of world commerce. Unfettered access to the west and water's ability to transport huge quantities of stuff with little effort was the foundation of the Big Apple. Water level routes have one particularly attractive feature; they're flat.
A water level route was getting some traction with a group of four, over 40 year old adventurers. Especially since one of them recently blew out his Achilles tendon. A couple of us had done the Sierras, Cascades and Tetons the past couple of years. We were ready for some flat decadent travel. Is it possible to venture into the wilderness in a primitive manner and eat, drink and be merry in cruise ship style? Yes, it is.
Canoeing has been the preferred mode of transportation in the Adirondacks for the past 10,000 years give or take. The eastern United States is the largest hardwood forest on earth and the Adirondacks are its crown jewels. The heavily forested and rounded peaks mask the fact that the Adirondacks are rising at the same rate as the Sierra Nevada. Relieved of its mile high ice burden 10,000 years ago, the Adirondacks are recoiling still. Low mountains, slow streams and numerous lakes characterize the area. Exquisite marshes, loons, ducks, deer, geese, bear and coyote abound. As do black flies, mosquitos and no-see-ums. In the fall, beech, birch and maples explode into a cornucopia of vibrant color. We scheduled our trip for the last week in September trying to catch the color at it's zenith and the bugs at their nadir. As it turned out, we were about one week too early for both.
Long Lake is a big long lake (hence the name) just about smack dab in the center of the Adirondack park. It's 10 miles long and a mile wide at the fattest point. Fed and drained by the Raquette River, Long Lake is really an aneurysm on the river. The major axis of the lake runs from southwest to northeast. We would start our trip at Long Lake Village on the south west end. Gino (non ham) and my sister Wendy (non ham) in one canoe. Tom (KC4YJU) and myself (N2XE) in the other. Between the four of us, we were carrying 400 lbs of gear. Easily. Maybe 500 lbs... No more than 600 lbs I'd say. In addition to the usual camping gear, a partial list of extravagances would include two (yes two) Coleman double burner stoves, full climbing rack, rope and harness, fly rod, machete, sawvivor (collapsible wood saw), AM radio, steak, keilbosa sausage, can of Chef Boy-ar-dee ravioli, sauerkraut, eggs, olive oil, fresh fruit, 5 Hershey bars, four bottles of wine (one Merlot and three Cabernets), one bottle of peppermint schnapps, one bottle of gin, Baileys Irish Creme (for the coffee) and yes, lots of coffee. Almost as an afterthought, I took the Elecraft K1 loaded with every available option.
Satellite photo of the scene of the crime.
Soon after casting off from Long Lake Village, we discover the wind was pretty stiff from the south west, square on our backs. I know of only two activities where wind can be a major concern; bicycling and canoeing. In the 25 years I've been cycling and canoeing, this was only the second time the wind was in our favor.
Tom (KC4YJU) is a bailing wire and chewing gum kind of guy. An engineer's engineer. Tom has a unique ability to take a situation and work it to his advantage. Wendy gave Tom a small tarp and a few bits of string. Utilizing a couple of paddles and the materials Wendy provided, Tom had, within two minutes, lashed our canoes together and deployed a spinnaker.
Wendy on the left, Tom on the right, wind in our sail (pretty good sail trim too))
This was too easy. Hundreds of pounds of gear, cruising at up to four knots (GPS verified). Gino and I tended to the helm while Tom and Wendy keep the sail trim. Since the wind was blowing us exactly where we wanted to go, there wasn't much helm to tend. Gino took advantage of this and uncorked the schnapps. So it went, wind in our sail, a bone in our teeth and the schnapps making the rounds. We covered Long Lake in short order.
There's a group of islands about six miles up the lake called "Camp Islands". We figured with a name like that, it would be a good place to settle in for the evening. Not so, all private property, posted. We headed over to the east shore and camped on top of a 40 foot bluff. It was a likable spot. Soft pine needle ground, loads of wood for the fire and a great rock on the bluff to cook on.
Wendy and Tom on chef detail
After setting up camp, I put up a dual band (20M, 40M) dipole as close to the bluff as possible. I figured an antenna 50 feet over average terrain, favoring the west, would be a cherry set up. It was. Lots of background noise (QRN) on 40 meters. That's a good thing. Experience tells me that if the band is really quiet, it's usually because your antenna sucks. SWR was 1.5 on 40M and 1.1 on 20M, before I kicked in the tuner. I'm sure Les Moxon would have approved. I never used a tuner in the woods before I got the K1. Seemed like cheating to me. Given how this trip was shaping up, the tuner fit the theme. Another nice thing about the K1 is the internal battery pack. Again, it seems weird not to have to hook up an external battery. I throttled the K1 back to about 2.5 watts and proceeded to chew the rag with anyone and everyone that would listen. Most seemed to get a kick out of the "sailing canoe" story which I told over and over. After an hour or so I had to wonder why no one was telling me to turn that damn thing off and do something productive. I observed one empty bottle of wine and three content campers next to it.
N2XE in the captain's chair.
The next morning, the wind was still stiff and from the south west. Wendy and I watched a Monarch butterfly trying to head south. For 15 minutes he flapped with all the determination and commitment he could muster. By our estimation, he was loosing about 10 feet per minute. Tom was emboldened. Throwing caution to the wind, Tom set of to create the ultimate wilderness vehicle. A vehicle capable of a beam reach. With a little luck, a vehicle that would make upwind progress. What emerged was the "catacanoe". The catacanoe had many design improvements. A wider stance for stability. A mast mounted to give the proper center of effort. It was, to date, Tom's finest wilderness creation.
The catacanoe under construction. N2XE in foreground, Tom, KC4YJU back.
Tom adjusting the downhaul.
Gino keeping us on course.
We sailed the craft to the north east end of the lake and up the Raquette River. The land is low, marshy and primitive. Quintessential Adirondacks. Less wind due to vegetation. It was silent as we glided down the meanders of the Raquette. Primitive and unspoiled, the view has been the same for the past 10,000 years, unaltered since the last great ice sheet receded. We found a sandy beach, docked the good ship Lollipop and prepared lunch. The sky had brightened and the temperature climbed. The crystal waters of the Raquette begged us to jump in and who were we to disagree.
Wendy takes a dip in the Raquette River.
After lunch we explored further down the Raquette then turned around back to camp. As soon as we emerged on the lake, a fresh blast in the face signaled the end of the party. We would have to paddle the four miles back to camp with a stiff headwind and waves breaking over the catacanoe. We pointed for the western shore so we could test the catacanoe's beam reach capability. As it turned out, we would actually have to point into the wind by 5 degrees or so. Using our paddles as centerboards, the craft did actually make slight upwind progress. It wasn't too speedy, maybe 1.5 knots but it was preferable to paddling which we had been doing constantly for the past two hours. Tom's creation was a success beyond our wildest dreams.
Tom switched hats from engineer to chef with Gino as his assistant. I fired up the K1 and Wendy uncorked a bottle or wine. Tom prepared our favorite backwoods dish, Kielbosa and sauerkraut with onions, peppers and garlic. They say food always taste better in the woods, I have a feeling this one would be fantastic at home as well. The sunset, another bottle of wine made the rounds. We settled down, the loons started getting frisky.
The following morning breakfast discussion focused on the fact that we really hadn't expended much energy on this trip. I was hoping Wendy wasn't disappointed since she flew in from Seattle to go on this trip. She had to endure new airport security and a redeye transcontinental flight. Feeling guilty, we decided on a six mile hike out to Kempshall Mountain and back. We bushwhacked a tenth of a mile from our campsite and intersected the Lake Placid trail. After a flat mile and stopping frequently so Wendy could photograph fungus, we came to the trail up Kempshall Mountain. TRAIL CLOSED it said on the biggest sign I've every seen on a trail. We took that as a challenge and headed up the 1800 vertical feet to the summit.
I wouldn't say the trail was closed, not maintained would be more accurate. Loads of deadfall, overgrown and slippery. At one point we had to traverse a pine log that fell lengthwise on the narrow path. It was a highwire traverse of sorts. As I was three feet from the end of the log, the bark peeled away. I descended one leg on the left, one leg on the right and a solid log coming up at increasing velocity. Fortunately I was able to shift ever so slightly landing on one of the largest muscles in the body. Thus the fruit stayed safely in the loom.
Tom navigating the log we dubbed the "nutcracker" and not looking too happy about it. He's obviously trying to avoid my near disaster he just witnessed.)
Along the way we spotted several poles with insulators pins on them. That strongly hinted there was a man made structure at the summit. Most likely a fire tower since those had phone lines strung up to the tower so they could call in and report a fire. Most of these towers were erected in the 1920s when wireless was not so refined. As we arrived at the summit there was clear evidence of a fire tower and ranger cabin. Unfortunately both were gone as was the view since the trees had grown tall in all directions. Here's a link to what we should have seen... http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/bberch/bskempsh.jpg
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation considers fire towers "Nonconforming Structures" in wilderness areas and has removed many of them. I can't fathom what supreme lack of thought lead to this ridiculous dictum. The wilderness area wouldn't even be there were it not for these towers.
In the early 1900s the Adirondacks regularly burst into flames largely due to timber practices of the time and careless hunters. Timber towers were constructed staffed by rangers and fire spotters. The timber structures were replaced by steel towers manufactured by the Aermotor Company in the 1920s and 1930s. Aermotor, by the way, is the company that makes those windmills so common in the middle of the country. http://www.aermotorwindmill.com/ (for those that checked the site... "oh, THOSE windmills)
The towers served a critical function until 1990 or so when aircraft were deemed more effective and less expensive. The towers had an important place in the history of the Adirondacks. They heighten the wilderness experience both figuratively and literally. It makes one wonder how they got them up there in an age before helicopters. Instinctively you know it had to involve buckets of human sweat. From an engineering point of view you have to admire how something so spindly has persisted on that summit for over 60 years subjected to God knows what. To take them down is to spit on the effort and dedication that scores of rangers provided to save a wilderness area just so some bureaucrat can dream up silly edicts. It's a good thing the long arm of the DEC doesn't extend beyond New York State borders... "gee this Giza Plateau is a wonderful place... except for those piles of rubble. Let's get rid of that and while you're at it, bulldoze that Sphinx thing. That freaking ugly face is creeping me out..." Not everything man makes is bad. The steel arch bridge over the New River Gorge doesn't disfigure the scene, it enhances it. It provides scale and proportion to the place. It highlights mans irrepressible need to span the chasm. Fire towers are not defacing the summit, they are an exclamation point on it.
Fire towers also make excellent support structures for just about any antenna configuration you can imagine and they provide a view to die for. And I really mean that. My son and I were recently up the Stissing Mountain fire tower in Dutchess County, NY near my home. It's a 90 footer (about as tall as they get) and the wind was a constant 30 MPH. We were getting bounced around like sneakers in a dryer, I thought we were gonna die. The view was good. You can key up any repeater within a 100 mile radius with only 300mW.
From the cab in the Stissing fire tower, son Greg.
It's refreshing to see signs of man here and there in the wilderness. Let's face it, after a while the trees get a tad boring. If we really wanted a primitive adventure, we'd venture out with nothing but a loin cloth. All the nylon, Gore-Tex, Polartec, aluminum, radios, etc. we take with us is a testament to how humans really want things to be. The Kempshall Mountain fire tower now sits in the parking lot of the Adirondack Museum near Blue Mountain Lake overlooking a sea of Winnebagos. Now that's a nonconforming structure.
Anyway, we had a nice lunch...
Lunch on the summit of Kempshall Mtn.
We returned to camp with a lot of sunlight left and immediately hit the water to remove the grime and collection of pine needles caked around or necks. With a little help from Dr. Bronner's Castile soap (highly recommended) we emerged minty fresh and sparkling clean. I set up the K1 and recounted the day's adventure. "You do that so fast" Wendy remarked. Wendy is a hot air balloon pilot and on occasion tunes in a VOR for navigation. "I'm still trying to figure out the Morse identifiers for the VOR". "It just takes practice", I said. "Why don't you just talk to these people on the Internet?", she asked. "Because I can I suppose. It's not about talking to people", I replied. "It's about radio. It's about launching a wave into the either with something you built from a bag of parts. It's about using an arcane language. Talking to people is just a pleasant byproduct. Why build a catacanoe when you can buy a great sailboat? Besides, I don't see an ethernet jack on this rock". I think she got the point.
(BTW, Wendy and her husband publish Balloon Life Magazine for ballooning enthusiasts. See http://www.balloonlife.com)
The wind persisted from the southwest. We finally had six miles of honest hard paddling back to Long Lake Village.
John Ceccherelli, N2XE, Senior Engineer at IBM, Hopewell Junction, NY, He is a zany outsdoors person, creative adventurer, and prolific contributor to The ARS Sojourner.