Fish Creek transforms into small city during holiday week

From left, Braden Bacon, of Sodus, poses with Smokey Bear and Forest Ranger Capt. John Streiff Wednesday at Fish Creek Campground after Bacon and his grandparents took part in the annual campers' bike parade. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

SARANAC LAKE — The state Department of Environmental Conservation operates dozens of pubic campgrounds around the Adirondacks, but few are as well known — and none as large — as Fish Creek Campground.

Fish Creek, just south of Saranac Inn on state Route 30, has 355 campsites. Rollins Pond Campground, also one of the largest DEC parks at 287 campsites, is accessed through Fish Creek, putting the total number of spots at 642. With a maximum number of six campers per site, the two campgrounds together could host 3,852 campers. For reference, the village of Tupper Lake had 3,667 residents during the 2010 census.

Jesse Gonyea, who is in his third year as caretaker of Fish Creek, said that while the campground is full, his staff is doing a good job of holding things down.

“Every one of them [the campsites] is full, except for a few of what we call emergency sites,” Gonyea said Wednesday as he prepared for the annual kids bike parade. “But every site that’s reservable is taken right now.

“The year has been good. With the late spring, the weather was tough. But this year is going good.”

State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Capt. John Streiff, right, and Smokey Bear lead the annual campers' parade at Fish Creek Campground on Wednesday. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

Gonyea said despite having thousands of campers in his park, there haven’t been any big incidents. The campground has a narrow road, often with campsites on both sides. There are tents, trucks, trailers and RVs that can block drivers’ views and there are people walking, running and biking pretty much everywhere. Kids and dogs abound.

“Obviously, more people means more things can happen, but people look out for each other,” he said. “But I’d say safety and speeding are a big issue.”

Fish Creek is the first campground to open each year, with 15 sites open for camping as early as the middle of April. The park then opens in stages, as bathrooms and water lines are brought into service. Most of the other DEC campgrounds open in mid- to late-May. This spring saw cold temperatures all through April, and Gonyea said a late snowstorm made for some interesting times in that early part of the season.

“While we were open, we got dumped on,” he chuckled. “We couldn’t charge the water lines because there were still snowbanks on them. We had to use the tractor to get snow off sites. We had to shovel out fireplaces.

“But like I said, I’ve got great help, and Wendy [Newtown, assistant caretaker] and Steve [Lamica, head of maintenance] knocked it out.”

When asked why people would come camp in the snow, Gonyea smiled.

“Some of them are crazy,” he laughed. “I think people are sick of winter and want to get out and get their campers going. Obviously, it’s super-quiet in April out here. And you do catch some decent weather in early May.

“There’s nothing better than being out here pretty much by yourself.”

Gonyea said most people come to Fish Creek for the surrounding area, but he added that a lot of long-timers, people who camp at the park year after year, respect the work the staff puts in to making and keeping the campground nice.

Fish Creek has a beach with a lifeguard, a playground, pavilions and a recreation program with two dedicated employees who lead nature-based activities for kids who are staying at the campground.

“The amphitheater is always full. The rec girls do a great job of that. There’s a lot of stuff to do for children around here,” he said. “Hiking, biking, swimming. It’s such a nice place, and for the most part it’s really quiet. Controlled chaos is what I like to call it.”

Gonyea said that due to its size, Fish Creek is in a unique position to host larger groups, and that leads to campers becoming friends after meeting at the park. He said there’s a group of campers that use teardrop trailers that comes back every year.

And while campers were all smiles while getting ready for the parade, Gonyea said that Fourth of July is often a turning point, when the staff starts looking forward to a bit of a slow-down in the fall.

“In April, we’re looking forward to speeding up. We look forward to July Fourth. July is crazy. But around this time, we’re like, ‘I can’t wait until Labor Day,'” he laughed. “But we’re open to mid-October, so even after Labor Day we still have a lot of campers here. But it’s a lot quieter, a lot calmer.”