With the kids gathered at a picnic table on the beach, we put the question to them: Should we stay at this site or continue down an extremely windy Middle Saranac Lake?
It was the early afternoon of Tuesday, July 17, and I was leading a guided trip of nine children ages 10-14 on a five-day trip from Lake Flower in Saranac Lake to Lake Simond in Tupper Lake via the Saranac chain of lakes and Raquette River.
The children were part of Northern Forest Explorers, a program overseen by the Northern Forest Canoe Trail that gives children the opportunity to explore waterways near their home at minimum cost. The price for this trip was $100 per child, and reduced rates were offered for those who couldn't pay full price. Grant monies paid for the additional expenses.
The Northern Forest Explorers group gathers at the Tupper Lake Rod and Gun Club on Lake Simond in Tupper Lake after a five-day paddle that started in Saranac Lake. Front row, from left: Gavin Jarvis, Jayden Hoyt, Cassidy Romeo, Chris Gilman, Thomas Lattarulo, Brian Kelly, Brittney Heeren, Bryce Richards and Jack Skiff. Back row, from left: Sean Frantz, Ben Orszulak and Mike Lynch.
(Photo courtesy of Northern Forest Explorers)
In addition to the children, there were two other adult leaders on the trip, Brittany, an NFCT intern and Sean, an intern at the Paul Smith's College VIC and Mac's Canoe Livery, which had outfitted the trip.
On this particular day, our group gathered around a picnic table on the northeastern shore of the lake. We had arrived there after paddling from the Saranac River between Oseetah and Lower Saranac Lake. Our goal this day had been to get to a campsite at Huckleberry Bay on Upper Saranac Lake by 3 p.m. because storms had been forecasted for later that afternoon and into the evening.
Unfortunately, our trip was slowed by early afternoon. It was between 1 and 2 p.m. when we found ourselves stranded on the northeastern shore of Middle Saranac Lake. Upon entering the lake from the east, we had found the winds too strong too continue. So after spending some time on the beach, the adults asked the three children leaders of the day - Jack, Bryce and Chris, all about 10 years old - if we should continue down the lake or stay put.
At first, both Chris and Bryce were enthusiastic about continuing on our journey, despite the fierce winds and the forecast for severe thunderstorms. Jack, on the other hand, was a little more guarded and analytical. He thought it might be best to put safety first and stay put. The three adults were in favor of staying off the water for the remainder of the day, but we wanted this to be a group decision.
After a little more discussion, during which the children were provided further background on the forecasted bad weather and the group's ability to make up lost miles in the coming days, Bryce too became hesitant about leaving and soon the group's decision was made. We put safety first and would camp at our current location, several miles short of our desired destination.
After the decision, our group members quickly put up their tents while I scouted out a safe place to gather the children in case of extreme winds. I didn't want people hiding in their tents during the storm if strong winds came through the area, knocking down trees and limbs, which the storm later did in other areas of the region.
After the tents were set up, we had another meeting. This time I told them that if I blew my whistle, we would gather at the edge of a nearby clearing near a large boulder. I explained that being out of the tents would allow us to react to the changing circumstances of the wind, instead of passively waiting out the storm.
As we talked there in the forest near the shore, I also explained to the group that there was a good chance nothing would happen tonight. We just needed to be prepared in case it did.
As it turned out, our evening was uneventful. During the periods of heavy rain, the children stayed in their tents while the adults were under a tarp tied by rope to some trees. In between rainy periods, we took time to relax and enjoy the surroundings. We skipped rocks, viewed powerful lighting strikes in the distance, enjoyed the sight of a rainbow and watched the mist rise out of the forest on the other side of the lake.
There was little excitement for us in terms of the storm. However, that wasn't the case for another group on the lake. As it turns out, a group that had stopped briefly at the beach where were were at now, had gotten caught in some serious wind while we were setting up our tents. We later learned that 12 of their 15 canoes capsized.
We had two encounters with members of their group that day. The first came early in the afternoon prior to our decision to leave. As we were hanging out along the shoreline, their group of 30 people in 15 canoes pulled up on shore. Their arrival meant that there was now more than 40 people on the beach. It was chaotic. But that didn't last too long, as they had decided to make their way down the lake to their five reserved campsites.
When I saw the group getting ready to leave, I walked up to one of the leaders. I warned her that severe weather was on the way and asked where they were going. She said either to Weller Pond or near it, which wasn't far away. She didn't ask me any further questions about the weather and seemed intent on leaving. I told her half-heartedly, "You'll probably be okay. Just stick to the shoreline." It was quite chaotic and hard to have a conversation as their large group was now getting on the water.
After seeing them leave, I didn't give them much thought until a few hours later. That's when one of their leaders came running out of the woods by the water's edge. It was about 5 p.m. when she arrived and she began to tell us that all of their canoes had tipped.
I asked if anyone was injured. She said, "No." Because of that answer, I asked her why she didn't just set up camp and wait out the storm. She said the rangers told her to call if there was a problem. She also explained that they had lost a lot of their gear.
After the quick and slightly frantic discussion, she left and I dug out my phone to call DEC dispatch. My first attempts failed and I got a message that the network was busy. It may have been the Verizon network. I'm not sure. Eventually I got through and told them about the situation, but it turned out rescuers were already on their way. Later that evening, we saw boats shuttling the group off the lake.
In addition to the boats shuttling out the capsized canoers, a motor boat with a few people was riding along the water picking up their floating gear: things like paddles, water bottles and even a bag with now heavy rolls of toilet paper.
By 9 p.m most of the people were in their tents, getting some needed rest. The next morning, we awoke to flat water and mist rising out trees on the shorelines. We also saw an empty canoe floating near the outlet. Sean and Jayden, one of the kids, took one of our canoes and used some rope to pull it across the lake to where the others had been left the night before near the rescue.
After breakfast, we took a leisurely paddle along the northern shoreline of the lake. During the paddle, we saw gear scattered along the shoreline: canoes were half in and half out of the water, life jackets were hanging from trees and there was a big pile under a tarp tied between the trees. Sean, who had gone over to offer help the previous night, had even seen two canoes tied together in the water by a rope made from handkerchiefs.
The sight of the gear scattered everywhere confirmed that we had made the right decision the night before.
Instead of having to deal with the potential of someone getting injured in the storm, we took a leisurely ride down the lake. When we arrived at the inlet, near the carry, we were also rewarded with the sight of a large bald eagle that flew over head. It was the second eagle we'd seen in 24 hours. The previous morning we'd seen one take a fish out of the water as we approached Lower Saranac Lake on the Saranac River.
That night, after two tough carries, we arrived at our campsite on the Raquette River. That evening we practiced canoe over canoe rescues (also known at T rescues). Luckily, for us, we only practiced rescues on the trip.
In the end, we arrived at the Tupper Rod and Game Club on Lake Simond in Tupper Lake an hour early on Friday, finishing up our roughly 33 mile journey from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake with just a few scratches and blisters. The smiles on the faces of the children as we made our way along the lakes and rivers indicated they enjoyed their week on the water. And they proved themselves to be more than adequate explorers.