INDIAN LAKE - Mythic. Iconic. The Holy Grail of Adirondack waterfalls.
Those are some of the words people have used to describe OK Slip Falls, a more-than-250-foot waterfall located just upstream from the Hudson River Gorge, in the northeast corner of the town of Indian Lake.
They've also used these words to describe it: "off limits," "private property" or "a forbidden place."
OK Slip Falls, located in the town of Indian Lake, will eventually be open to the public for the first time in more than a century as part of the state’s purchase of 69,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn lands now owned by The Nature Conservancy.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
For more than a century, the public has been prohibited from seeing one of the tallest waterfalls in the state.
Now, that's about to change.
The state has agreed to acquire 69,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberland, including the 2,800-acre tract that where OK Slip Falls is located, from the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy for nearly $50 million. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the purchase, which will be phased in over five years, during a Aug. 5 press conference in Lake Placid.
It will still be a couple of years, if not longer, before the state closes on the purchase of the OK Slip Falls tract and the property is opened to the public, but Nature Conservancy and state Department of Environmental Conservation officials recently gave a sneak preview to a small group of reporters and photographers, including this Enterprise reporter.
Rain is pouring down on the DEC van carrying the most of the group as it makes its way down a bumpy, dirt-covered road off of state Route 28, roughly halfway between Indian Lake and North River. Driving ahead of the van in his own pickup truck is Mike Carr, executive director of the Conservancy's Adirondack Chapter.
After about 10 minutes of driving, Carr pulls off into an grassy area on a bend in the road - the unmarked trailhead to OK Slip Falls. The van parks nearby, and the group assembles in the road, bedecked in backpacks and rain jackets. It's about a mile-and-a-half hike to the falls from here, Conservancy spokeswoman Connie Prickett tells the group.
"One of the crux moves on this hike is not falling over the cliff when we get to the waterfall," Carr jokes before the group heads into the woods.
The trail through the forest of maples and yellow birch is muddy, overgrown with vegetation and littered with downed tree limbs that have yet to be cleared, as well as with countless red-spotted newts - sure signs that few people have hiked this trail. It's actually an old logging road, Carr explains, although it's been decades since any trees have been cut here because the access road into the tract is too tough for tractor-trailers to navigate.
If we had kept driving down the dirt road, Carr says, we would have come to a boys camp on OK Slip Pond, just upstream from the falls. Owned by the Northern Frontier Brigade Camp Association, the camp is a private inholding in the center of this tract. It leases the land around it from the Conservancy and has an easement on the access road, which it will continue to be able to use after the state acquires the property.
Back on the trail, Carr says he thinks the hike to OK Slip Falls will become a popular day trip once it's part of the Forest Preserve.
"Our hope is it will begin to drive some tourism in surrounding communities like Indian Lake, and North Creek and North River - that people will come and want to hike and see the falls," he said. "This trail also continues on down to the river, and ends up on a beautiful beach in the gorge. From the river's side, the rafting community will have new opportunities because of the shoreline frontage."
If the waterfall itself wasn't enough of an attraction, Carr also explains that the OK Slip Falls tract is one of the most ecologically diverse sites on the entire acreage the Conservancy is selling to the state.
"The underlying bedrock here is Grenville marble, which is really calcium rich," he said. "The collection of rare plants on this site, essentially between OK Slip Falls and Blue Ledges (along the Hudson) - there's a very high concentration of biodiversity."
"There are species that grow in this gorge that the only other place they grow is in the Lake Champlain Valley," said DEC Regional Forester Tom Martin.
After about 45 minutes on the trail, the rain is starting to let up. The sound of raindrops pelting the trees is gradually replaced by the rush of a stream as the group reaches its destination: a pair of roped-off viewpoints overlooking OK Slip Falls.
Seen through the trees, the waterfall is on the opposite side of a densely forested, steep-walled gorge. The stream that feeds the falls cascades in at an angle before dropping off the edge of a steep, rocky precipice, flowing straight down to a jumble of rocks at the base of the ravine.
"It's spectacular," Carr says. "It's over 250 feet high: a beautiful waterfall in a deep, deep gorge. In fact, you have to be right on top of it when you're flying over the gorge in order to see it. The walls are just so steep. It's just incredible."
Carr says this is the best place to see the waterfall; the gorge is too steep to try and hike to it from below, even though the trail continues on to the beach along the river. So the members of the hiking group take off their backpacks, pull out their cameras and grab a bite to eat.
Prickett notes that the amount of water coming over the falls now is nowhere near what it can be in the spring. She said she's grateful for the rain; she was afraid there wouldn't have been much more than a trickle coming over the falls, given the dry summer the Adirondacks have exprienced.
The OK Slip Falls tract has been in private hands since the Civil War; before that it was part of one of the giant land tracts that made up the North Country. Now that people know it's eventually going to be open to the public, Prickett said she's had a lot of contact from those who are eager to see it, particularly waterfall entusiasts who want to check it off their life lists.
"I keep having to tell them, 'not yet, not yet,'" Prickett said. "People certainly know of this waterfall."
"Very few people have seen what we're looking at," said Rob Davies, director of DEC's Division of Lands and Forests, "very few people in over 100 years. It's an iconic feature that people have heard about for a long time but they've never seen it."
During an impromptu question-and-answer session with reporters at one of the viewpoints, Davies talked about the state's timeline for acquring the former Finch, Pruyn lands. He said the state would like to open up a long section of the Hudson River by next spring, in time for rafting season. He said rafting guides are excited about getting access to a remote 12-mile stretch of the river that he said would be "a unique wilderness rafting opportunity, something you don't find east of the Mississippi."
As for opening up the OK Slip Falls tract, "The exact time frame hasn't been worked out," Davies said.
Davies and Martin said public access to OK Slip Falls will likely be from a yet-to-be built roadside parking area along Route 28, not where we parked along the road. Martin said the boys camp has a private right-of-way over the road, and it's too narrow to accomodate a lot of traffic. That would mean the hike to the falls would be a little longer than it is today, probably closer to 2-and-a-half miles.
"It will be a beautiful hike," Davies said. "I don't anticipate bringing in a lot of people for camping, but mostly for hiking, to come in, see the falls, and go down to the beach along the river."
The land classification for the area will be determined in consultation with the state Adirondack Park Agency, Davies said; however, he noted that OK Slip Falls is surrounded almost entirely by land classified as primitive, a kind of wilderness-in-waiting.
"The commissioner has been clear in saying that more internal areas should be wilderness," Davies said. "I think this tract fits in that area, but we can't predetermine it."
Just to the north of the OK Slip Falls tract is the much larger, 16,000-acre Essex Chain of Lakes tract, which state officials said they plan to acquire first, possibly by fall of next year. Davies said the series of nine ponds in the tract could become a great family canoeing and kayaking area, not unlike the St. Regis Canoe Area near Paul Smiths. The tract also has a series of roads that could allow for more motorized access and a greater mix of recreational opportunities, Davies said.
When pressed on what the state land classification could be for the Essex Chain tract, Davies was reluctant to speculate but said, "It could be a combination of wilderness and wild forest."
The state's plan to purchase these tracts and add them to the Forest Preserve is just the latest chapter in a story that began in 2007, when the Conservancy bought a total of 161,000 acres owned by Finch, Pruyn, mostly in the Central Adirondacks. It has since sold 92,000 acres to a Danish pension fund, with conservation easements that prevent development but allow logging to continue on those lands. At the end of 2010, the Conservancy sold the conservation rights on all but 3,000 acres of that acreage to the state for $30 million.
The state has faced criticism from some who feel even more of the property should have been kept in logging, but Davies said the deal embraces the right balance.
"The 90,000 acres that have conservation easements, the highest and best use for that land is continued forest management," he said. "I think it's pretty hard to argue against the fact that the highest and best use for unique places like Boreas Ponds, OK Slip Falls and the Essex Chain of Lakes is for protection and public recreation. That's the balance."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.