The "Highway of the Adirondacks" began a long time before our present two-lane roads. It was much easier to paddle a birchbark canoe through a waterway, which offers fewer barriers than a dense forest.
These were the abundant river and lake routes that were joined by varying length of carries, also known as portaging, or as I think of it, the option of "carrying a canoe on your head."
Every fall, paddlers from all walks of life converge on the route known as the 90 Miler, the Adirondack Canoe Classic. Three days, almost 300 boats, three different classes of canoes, kayaks, and guide boats. (War canoes are allowed, too, but there has to be enough paddlers!) There's a big finish at the Saranac Lake docks on the shores of Lake Flower.
You want to be there.
Weekend after Labor Day
Labor Day is not the end of our paddling season, by any means. Especially since the following weekend is when the race takes place.
Fall paddling is a wonderful time to enjoy our waters, which are still warm. Especially toward the end of September, when the glorious fall colors are in full swing.
The idea is to follow the routes made famous by the region’s early settlers and Adirondack guides, who explored the region in the days when these highways were the only ones. They had been shaped by the area's very first settlers, the Native Americans of the Six Nations.
This Old Forge to Saranac Lake portion is also the beginning of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. This is a chain of water routes and hiking paths that continues all the way to Fort Kent, Maine, extending over 740 miles.
Long or short, three days or all the way, it's a paddling dream.
Old and new
For the competitors, this is an intriguing blend of history and high tech. They are following paths used for hundreds of years, but with the latest in paddling and camping gear — sturdy and lighweight.
What do they win? A fantastic experience, mainly. They get bragging rights, a T-shirt, mileage pins, awards, snacks, and boat shuttles from their accommodations to the put-ins and put-outs. While I love paddling myself, I am all about poking along as the spirit moves me, not keeping a pace or portaging the over 5 miles of carries involved.
There's a choice of camping along the route or arranging waterside lodging in the communities along the way. But camping is more likely to land you in the middle of a lot of like-minded companions to share stories and beverages with.
There's an 8 a.m. start from Bissels Field in Long Lake on the Friday of the event, everyone is in Long Lake on Saturday morning, and everyone converges on Saranac Lake on Sunday afternoon.
They range from near-professionals who love to paddle and do it a lot, to people who just don't want to come in last.
It seems to be a human impulse to add a competitive element to things they enjoy doing anyway. Something about having boats ahead and behind you adds to the already delightful thrills of Adirondack paddling and camping.
Everyone remarks on the instant friends and camaraderie the race comes with, and that keeps them coming back year after year.
Party at the dock
The great thing is that people can put their toes in the water by waiting at the finish line.
Bring chairs and coolers, browse the vendor tents, and listen to the stories of who all these folks are waiting for. Friends and relatives are waiting for someone special and appreciate any help in cheering them to shore.
Maybe one day you will have a group waiting in the park and another group paddling their way there. But don't delay! The applications have to be in by July every year. Slots are limited — for questions and help, contact MACS Canoe Livery. They are involved in support and logistics.
Once the event concludes, everyone heads for relaxation and sharing in downtown, just steps away. (The campers are particularly ready to have some food that hasn't been cooked over a campfire.) Our gathering places fill with good feelings and the thrill of victory. Everyone feels that way, no matter what ranking they wind up with at the end of the three days.
And they are right about that.
Whether you are a participant or a festive bystander, come on over and join the party.