Boathouse on Rainbow Lake
The glassy water mirrors a perfect picture of the tangerine sun setting in the western sky. Trees stand on their heads in the shimmering upside down land. A loon cries nearby, answered by one further off, the haunting sound skimming over the flat water. Absolute tranquility. Two mallards land out near the middle of the lake, circular ripples finally reaching shore with a quiet nod. A tiny puff of breeze riffles up and dies again, slowly rocking and bumping the boats below in their moorings.
Sitting out on the deck, the stars come out and then the entire Milky Way is visible across the sky. The sky is big and dark and there are millions of stars. A couple of cabins away, some kids are getting excited about maybe seeing UFO’s , but they finally get settled in around their campfire, their Dad softly strumming his guitar. Snatches of quiet song drift over and float away. A nighttime breeze moves in off the lake and cools the cabin down for bedtime.
In the morning, a loon calls and a hot mug of coffee steers me out on the deck. Low fog is shrouding the lake as I lower into the Adirondack chair. As the sun rises, the downy cloud slowly floats upward, revealing a Great Blue Heron out in the shallows. He gracefully bends his long backwards legs then goes completely still. A lone duck swims quietly by, a V trail marking his wake. By the time sunlight reaches the far shore I am down on the yoga mat, getting ready for the new day.
After a breakfast of yoghurt and local peaches, it is time to explore with a relaxing paddle across the lake. The weather is just right, warm and calm. We lower ourselves into our boats for an easy glide over silky water. We head for the long, esker island, from a long ago glacier, that divides Rainbow Lake lengthwise. There are some cabins out there that are only reachable by boat in the summer. Some are small, rustic summer cabins, simple little hideaways, but there are a couple that look like they might be substantial enough for four seasons. In the winter folks have to traverse the frozen lake on foot or snowmobile (called sleds up here) to get out there. Last year it went down to 40 below zero, and high winds drifted the snow waist deep on the leeward side, scouring the land dry on the other. Sounds brutal, but maybe wonderful, to feel this place in the winter, hear the high shooting sounds of ice expanding, as long as you can cozy up to a nice warm wood stove.
Paddling out around the other side of the island, towards where a small creek flows in, and then zig-zagging upstream, there is a beaver dam, and it looks like a dead end. Back tracking into the lake again, we spot a tiny break out on the esker just big enough to get a boat through. It turns out to be a nice picnic spot with good sitting rocks and a fire pit that looks out to a section of lake where there seem to be more people and boats.
A family comes through the gap in four well-crafted kayaks in purple, red, green and yellow. We admire them as they go through and are told they are made of rosined fabric stretched over wooden frames, and weigh only 25 pounds. They seem to be perfect lake boats, easy to maneuver and light. I would not want to take them through a rocky river though.
We finish lunch and paddle up the other side of the island to where there is a place to pull canoes or kayaks up on shore with a trail heading off through the woods. The path is barefoot-soft with pine needles, winding through an amazing array of picture perfect fungi, and ends at a secluded pond with an empty campsite and a spare boat ready for fishing. We enjoy the peace and quiet for awhile and then retrace our steps to the parked boats. We could spend days exploring all the nooks and crannies on this lake. When the shadows start to lengthen we find our way through the water, back home to another beautiful warm evening, and a tiny slice of moon added to the sunset.
Awakening to another new day, we fill our water bags and pack food for a drive out to the Loon Mountain fire tower trailhead. Boating one day and hiking the next evens the muscles out- kayaking works arm muscles, hiking up mountains works legs and heart- especially a steep hike. The first part of the hike is an easy grade up an old logging trail until the blazed trail turns off and suddenly narrows into a muddy, rocky footpath. Moose tracks, only a day or so old, are pointed down as the trail heads up. Someone has been doing a lot of trail maintenance on the initial steep part, building footbridges over mossy, rocky waterways and past a few small waterfalls. After five or six little bridges the path gets seriously vertical and the trail climbs right up the middle of a drainage, gaining 1500 feet elevation in the process.
There are lots of colorful mushrooms and wet mosses, and it is much damper than you might expect, considering the rocky elevation. This hike was called “moderate” in the hiking book but the second half of it is fairly difficult, both for footing and for pitch.
We finally reach an almost level path, where the shady woods gives way to a sunny, rock bald at 3340 feet elevation. There is a fantastic clear view from up here which makes it worth the trek.
The fire tower, a decrepit, rusty, erector-set-looking thing perches on the bare rock. The tower stairs have been removed but you can see fine without any more climbing. There are full views to the North, East and South. There is something barely visible on the horizon to the North. Zooming in with a camera, it turns out to be windmills on a ridge way out in the distance. Otherwise, there is a just a hint of a gravel road and a barely visible bit of power line cutting through the endless layers of green hills and flashes of lakes.
For some strange reason, there is a cloud of giant drone-like damsel flies hovering around the summit while we rest. They won’t sit still long enough for me to get a decent photo and it is hard to figure out why they are up here. One hawk cruises by, a little ways off, at about eye level, but that is about it for visible wildlife. After the exertion climbing up, we aren’t really hungry for our lunch, so we nibble on a few pumpkin seeds and cherry tomatoes, and drink some water before heading back down the way we came.
There is a side trail on the way with a view to the West so we detour over. From there we can see more lakes and even more green hillsin the distance. The total hike is 5.4 miles long on our GPS and takes us 4 hours, including the nice rest we had at the top.
By the time we get back to the car, we are drenched in sweat, so we change into dry clothes for the next leg. Our guide book says there are board walks on this short hike to a waterfall called High Falls, so my hot hiking boots get pulled off and replaced with sandals and a skirt. The “boards” turn out to be hand-hewn logs draped across the muddy patches, and the walk is an easy mile through the woods along the Salmon River. We pass no one on the way in. There hasn’t been anyone on the trails with us all day, actually. There are a few nice cascades along the way and the biggest waterfall is about thirty feet high and fifty feet across , with massive amounts of slightly tannin colored water flowing over it.
It would be a nightmare to go over in a kayak, but somebody brave or crazy has probably done it. At the bottom of the thundering falls the water makes an abrupt left hand turn and races downstream without bothering to stop and form much of a pool. There is a large, solid landing of rock to hang out on down at the bottom, facing the falls. It is not a very good swimming hole, too much volume and speed and churning about. Someone has built a throne of rocks to sit and gaze from on and we take turns sitting there for awhile, absorbing the sound and feel of the water. It is a great waterfall, mesmerizing to watch.
On the way back we pass a woman with two kids wearing swimsuits and carrying towels. They ask if they are headed the right way for the falls. We say yes, and then wonder later if we should have warned them about swimming there. Hopefully they were careful. We passed the dad a little further upstream, fishing.
Once back at the car we stick to the paved road, instead of the wash boarded gravel we came in on, and happen upon a little village on a lake with a sign for 24 hour gas, which seems like a good idea. There aren’t that many places out here to buy gas and a whole lot of back roads to use it up on. It turns out to be just a big gas tank with a single electric pump, set out back of a not-very- lucrative-looking store, but the lonely machine took our credit card and we felt better for having topped off our tank. There is a For Sale sign on the deserted building and another sign in the big dirt parking lot that says “Parking for sleds and ATV’s only”. It took us a while to figure out that a sled is a snowmobile and that in the winter it gets crazy with them up here. We get home just in time to see another nice sunset from the deck.
We must be finally relaxing, as we are getting up earlier in the morning now, sleeping deeper and more rested. Sunrise is not directly visible from our vantage point in the boathouse as it looks south and hugs a hill on the east side, but the lake is beautifully serene each morning, still and glassy, as the ducks and loons begin to talk and move about. Today we are resting up somewhat and going to the Wild Center Museum down in Tupper Lake. We have heard it is definitely worth doing.
As we are getting ready to leave, our boathouse owner comes walking up the path from his other boat house -he has three tiny ones in a row. The other two are more like boat garages on the water, no rooms above it like ours. He has a friend with him and they are in the midst of a recycle run after having his son’s family visiting for the past week out on the island. New York pays a nickel for each can and bottle you bring in, but you can’t crush the cans, they have to be able to read the bar scan. We ask him how the boathouses and docks faired in the winter, with all the ice heaving and snow, and he says they take a lot of work to maintain every year, and basically have to be constantly rebuilt. Last winter the ice grew 3 feet thick and it pushed a lot of the docks and boathouses askew. He pointed out a couple we had seen that were all jacked up on one side and leaning. It is just something you have to deal with and get used to around here.
When we get to the Wild Center it has a big field roped off with flags for parking and looks like a county fair sort of celebration going on. It turns out that they have just opened up a whole new exhibit area this July 4th and are getting a lot of new visitors because of it. The new part is called the Wild Walk and after buying our tickets ($20 each for adults) we decide to do it first. The Wild Walk is a tree top walk over raised boardwalks and swinging bridges leading to alcoves depicting different animals habitats.
One has a giant spider and web, made of ropes and netting stretched across a hole in the deck, that you can climb around on which is fun. Nearby displays teach cool spider facts. Did you know that static electricity plays a role in attracting insects into spider webs?
Another area has a giant stick-woven Eagles nest, built up high on stilts, with stairs leading up and viewing spots of different mountains. There are swings hanging down below and a swinging bridge takes you to a giant hollow tree trunk with all sorts of hidey critter homes in it. The rendition of the tree looks and feels incredibly real. There are realistically carved creatures, lurking in nooks all along the walk. One is of a porcupine and the artist is in the process of adding others on the massive wood posts supporting the walk structure.
Metal is also creatively used and the whole thing is great fun for kids (and big people) to explore and play around on.
It is getting pretty warm by now, being right at noon, so we head down a trail, through shady trees, onto two docks overlooking a marshy section of an oxbow on the Raquette River. There are too many people around to be able to see any otters and it is probably siesta time for most critters anyway. We had paddled on this same river the last time we were up here, but had not done this section. The St Regis Outfitters in Saranac Lake will rent you a boat or they can shuttle your boats if you want to use your own. Or you can paddle upstream from various put ins and float easily back down, the current is not hard. A boat is a good thing to have up here and there are lots of places to explore.
Next, we walk back around to the Museum by way of a manmade but natural looking pond that butts right up to the south side of the building. This property was once a commercial sand pit and they have used the already open space to create a wild looking pond and marshy area, with native plants and turtles and frogs. Once inside the museum, we realize that the floor sits below water level of the pond and there are huge windows, with wide wooden ledges and stools, looking out over the water. We buy a soft pretzel with maple mustard and drink some free water to cool off. The museum has a daily schedule of different live animals being brought out with an interpreter. When we first arrived it was a snake, and now, some turtles. Live river Otters come inside to their natural looking splash pool, from their private refuge outside, every day at 2 pm, and we are mesmerized as they glide around below water. You can get right up to the glass and watch them enjoying themselves, barely moving their limbs as they move underwater, pushing off rocks, rolling around and then slipping to the surface for some air and back down in one smooth motion. I could watch River Otters all day.
The Wild Center is full of interactive areas for kids to touch, smell, and hear woodland critters. They can grind on some rock like a glacier, put their hands in trickling streams of water, or even paint pictures. There is a search game to follow along, and lots of live fish and turtles and frogs in natural habitats.
There is also a huge, interactive, 3D globe suspended in the middle of a room that will show you about 800 different world happenings in real time. It will light up every place in the world that is having earthquakes, show the ocean currents and temperatures, and volcanoes that are erupting right now. There are shark tracking routes, radioactivity patterns from the Japanese earthquake, tsunamis’, hurricanes, even other planets. We spent a lot of time in there as there were so many different programs and the interpreter was very good at controlling the program. If no one is interpreting you can also control it yourself from a touch screen. The Wild Center is a great place for families to spend an afternoon and everyone will enjoy it. It is a fun way to learn and not stuffy at all like some museums can be. You can break up the inside and outside time as much as you need so you can keep the whole family happy.
There is so much to write about our trip that there is a second part coming later.
-Wendy lee Maddox
writing at https://www.edgewisewoods.com