Historical look at Rainbow narrows

We set off from Buck Pond campground in Onchiota, and as soon as we hit the water, the bugs were gone with a light breeze that barely rippled the water.

Within 10 minutes, my wife and I were already heading through history as we made our way out of Lake Kushaqua and into the Rainbow narrows. We passed under the old railroad bed, through a tunnel that was built in 1904, but looks surprisingly good for its age.

Kushaqua and Rainbow lakes have a lot of history associated with them. The levels of the lakes are controlled by the Kushaqua dam, but Rainbow Lake itself was once much smaller. Rainbow is fed by a couple of streams that come in near the west end of the lake. According to the Rainbow Lake Association, the lake was first dammed in the mid-to-late1800s by Jim Wardner.

Wardner came to the area with his brother, Seth, for a hunting trip in 1854. The pair were told of a cabin built on a small, unnamed pond. The brothers went to locate the cabin, and soon named the pond after the builder who was only known to them to have the last name of Osgood.

The Wardner brothers and their guide, Alonzo Rand, used the cabin as a base for their hunting. The trio had a contract to provide the Army with sides of venison, and readily met their contract requirements.

Jim Wardner decided that he liked the area, and even though Osgood had abandoned his little cabin because the soil was no good for farming, Wardner became convinced that if he could find some hardwood trees, there would be good soil there.

After a few months in the area, they followed a stream that led them to a large wetland, and eventually made their way to a lake that had a single island and fish aplenty. This was the lake that the men had heard about in local legends referred to as Arcenciel, which translates roughly to “rainbow.”

The men found a narrow outlet at one end of the lake which made an ideal place to put in a dam. Wardner also found his sought-after stand of hardwoods on the esker between Rainbow Lake and Clear Pond.

Wardner didn’t get around to building the dam for some time, but when he did the lake flooded and eventually stabilized. Once the fall came around, he took the planks out of the dam to lower the water level. This left a water mark on all of the trees that were now part of the newly enlarged lake, and once the lake and swamp froze, teams of men, along with their horses, went out and cut down all the trees below the water line.

Wardner left the logs in place and then floated them out in the spring, but the stumps of the trees were still below the water, and persisted for decades, if not longer.

After my wife and I paddled through the old railroad tunnel and under the Kushaqua-Mud Pond Road bridge, we came out into an open area of the narrows where a branch of the Saranac River comes in. We hung a right and kayaked up the river about a half-mile, again going upstream but not struggling with the current.

We found an island and made our way around it to swing back into the main channel of the river. On the back side of the island, there was a veritable forest of tree stumps, some sticking out of the water with plants growing on them, others just under the surface as we floated by. There were turtles and dragonflies, blue jays and lily pads. We even got a front-row seat to a hunting exhibition put on by the blue jays, who deftly plucked dragonflies out of the air and flew to a nearby nest. We could hear the blue jay chicks screaming with joy as mom or dad popped into the nest with a big, juicy dragonfly.

After paddling back down to the narrows, we again took a right and started to make our way, leisurely toward Rainbow Lake. We took a break to enjoy a pair of loons that were fishing, and noticed with pleasure that the rope swing was still in place about a third of the way through the narrows as we floated by, eating lunch in the kayaks and letting the breeze push us along.

We only saw one other boat on the water and a couple of guys fishing, but that had been earlier. Audrey and I made jokes about buying one of the camps that dot the eastern shoreline of the narrows, plotting ways to convince the bank to give us a mortgage that we in no conceivable way could afford. But man, would it be nice to have a place on such a quiet and historic stretch of water.

We finally made it to the end of the narrows, to the place where Wardner had built his initial dam. The narrow bridge over the outlet is charmingly dangerous, with only a few wooden poles acting as guard rails. The small and short tunnel was barely wide enough for our paddles to fit cross-wise, but we went through and paddled a way out into the lake, rounding another island before turning around and heading back toward the campground.

And although we didn’t know all this history going in to the paddle, reading about it afterward has only enhanced our nice day on the water. The tree stumps we paddled past weren’t left from Wardner’s dam, but it’s hard not to picture yourself in his place, enjoying the majesty that is Rainbow Lake, and imagining all the possibilities that could be.