The trip was into what today we know as the St. Regis Canoe Area, a canoe wilderness with no motorized vehicles allowed, a place of wild character, where people love to paddle, fish, hike, and hunt. But in 1961 it had platform camps, snowmobile trails, small motorboats, and even the occasional seaplane landing on the larger ponds.
We started from the landing on Upper St. Regis Lake and paddled and portaged our way to St. Regis Pond. The portages were all relatively short and perfect for us kids.
Although my family had been motorboat and car camping for years, I’d never been overnight canoe camping. To have everything in our boats and transporting things from pond to pond was a new and exciting experience. And it was made even better because my canoe partner Franny Cantwell and I were so young, we didn’t have to haul the heaviest gear. We had daypacks with some food, water, and an extra layer. In my case, the layer was my heavy wool cardigan that my mom had knitted. It was beige with a big Newfoundland on the back and Newfie heads on each pocket. She made them for all the kids in our family and they were real works of art. It was a functional and beautiful piece of clothing that served as a coat, jacket, and heavy shirt. I wore it indoors and out, for formal dress and for work. It was my prized possession.
The trip was memorable for a number of reasons; equipment like Svea cook stoves and lightweight down sleeping bags were fascinating, but more intriguing was the sense of remoteness and primitiveness. We camped at the lean-to on the south end of the pond, but as far as I was concerned, it might as well have been in the far reaches of northern Canada.
The last day we headed out to Little Lake Clear, a canoe carry of three-quarters of a mile, the most challenging of the trip. We paddled our red-fiberglass canoe across Little Lake Clear and worked our way over to the north end of Upper Saranac Lake. The trip was to end at Indian Carry, eight miles to the south.
If you’ve ever paddled down Upper Saranac Lake you know that the winds frequently come from the southwest and can make things miserable for paddlers, especially young, inexperienced ones like me. When I was in the stern I couldn’t keep us in a straight line because I didn’t know how to steer. When I was in the bow I overpowered Franny. As a result, we zig zagged our way down the lake falling farther and farther behind.
We thought we’d been saved when two teenagers in an aluminum motorboat with a ten-horsepower motor came out to tow our canoe.
“Want a ride?” one said.
We said “YES”, and in the blink of an eye were in their boat, towing our canoe down the lake. But the wind was so strong and the waves so high that we didn’t go 100 yards before the canoe swamped.
Our young rescuers pulled the canoe up, emptied it, and I didn’t think twice as the canoe slid back into the water with my sweater and day pack in the bottom of it. They tried again to tow it to Indian Carry. By now the wind was whipping and the waves were as big as ocean rollers. We made it another 100 yards and the canoe swamped again.
This time the biggest Adirondack motorboat I’d ever seen came out and offered to take the canoe. For the Saranac Lakes it was huge. It had dual 75 horsepower outboards, the largest outboard motors of the day. The boat’s operator tied off our canoe and roared off. The boat flew down the lake with the canoe bouncing wildly behind it. Then it bounced off one of the rollers four feet into the air. As it came down it turned at an awkward angle and bounced even higher. And then, as if in slow motion, it crashed down onto a white-capped wave and snapped in two sending fiberglass splinters everywhere.
I was in shock and too stunned to speak until I suddenly thought about my sweater that I left in the canoe. My pride and joy, my mother’s pride and joy, the only article of clothing I had ever really cared about was waterlogged, out of reach, and slowly sinking.
“My sweater!” I yelled as it drifted away – down… down… down… It was too far away to save, and I watched it, helpless, as it sank into the depths of Upper Saranac Lake, where it rests to this day.
The folks in the big boat picked up the halves of the canoe and deposited them on the shore at Indian Carry and then sped off, never to be seen again. To compound things, it wasn’t even the Cantwell’s canoe – they’d borrowed it.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending, at least for Mr. Cantwell. First, his homeowner’s policy reimbursed the owner of the canoe. And second, the larger half of the broken canoe was turned into a dinghy and became the tender for the Cantwell’s family sailboat.
But as for me? My sweater, so beloved now and forever rests in the murky depths. I still mourn its loss and wonder how long wool survives in cold Adirondack lakes. Maybe someday I’ll rent some scuba gear, take a dive, and find out.