September 19, 2017
One of the more unique features of the Adirondacks is the proximity between its lakes and mountains. In some cases, the two are right next to each other with a trail from lakeside to summit, such as Long Pond Mountain in the St. Regis Canoe Area, Castle Rock on Blue Mountain Lake, and, of course, St. Regis Mountain on Upper St. Regis Lake. This creates an awesome opportunity to combine a paddling trip and a hiking trip, and the paddle-hike combo up St. Regis Mountain is one of my favorites. It's also one of the Saranac Lake 6ers, meaning you can scratch one off the list if you do this adventure
The trip begins at the Upper St. Regis Lake boat launch, one of the more peculiar of its sort in this area because it serves as both a private marina for residents and a public boat launch for general use. You never know what you’re going to see when launching there; one day it could be a collection of antique guide boats, and another day you might see a fleet of canoes from a summer camp ending their weeklong expedition. The morning my paddling partner and I set out toward St. Regis Mountain there were only a few stray canoeists, and we had the lake largely to ourselves, a rare experience on a beautiful sunny day.
The St. Regis lakes are some of my favorite bodies of water in the Saranac Lake region, mainly because of the plethora of white pine trees around most of the shoreline, adding a picturesque frame to the canvas of historic summer retreats. If you like architecture, especially in the Adirondack rustic style, Upper St. Regis and Spitfire Lake simply can’t be beat. Famous “Great Camps” such as Merriweather Post’s Camp Topridge, Fredreck W. Vanderbilt’s Pine Tree Point, and George H. Earle, Jr.’s Camp Cobblestone all reside on these lakes. For the history buff, paddling from camp to camp can be an exciting foray into the past.
As we paddled northwest on Upper St. Regis, the namesake mountain appeared on the horizon. It’s an exciting experience knowing that you’re going to be standing on that summit in a few short hours, looking over the landscape across which you traversed earlier that day. This is another unique aspect of paddling-to-trailhead combinations. For many peaks in the Adirondacks, you aren’t afforded a view of the summit when you begin hiking, or even as you ascend. When you paddle across a body of water to a mountain, however, you can take in a view of the peak in its full grandeur as it slowly rises in the distance.
Once around the corner of Ward Island on the western side of the lake, it was only a few more minutes until we reached the takeout for the beginning of the hike. The shoreline is quite steep here, so a small dock has kindly been installed on which to moor your craft of choice. Four canoes were already tied up, so we expected to see some other hikers on this portion of the trail. You’ll know you’re in the right location not only by the dock, but also by a sign recently installed by the DEC, as well as blue trail markers and, in our case, an orange bandana (please make sure you carry out what you carry in, and leave behind only what should be in the woods). From the dock, we tied up our canoe, switched into hiking boots, and hit the trail!
This path, named the Teddy Roosevelt Trail after the president responsible for protecting 230 million acres of public land, connects with the main trail approximately 45 minutes from the lake. Some spots on this trail are wet and muddy, so please remember that it’s best to walk through the mud, not around it. By doing so you won’t contribute to trail widening, which occurs when new mud-avoiding trails are created and they become just as muddy as the old trail. I was reminded that walking through the mud is proper trail etiquette when I tried to avoid a particularly wet-looking patch, and in doing so slipped on the muddy embankment and fell to the ground, cutting a nice gash in my hand in the process. Thank you, Adirondack karma, for the reminder.
We didn’t see anyone on the Teddy Roosevelt connector trail, but as soon as we arrived on the main trail we encountered a diverse range of hiking groups. From young families to retired couples, it’s always enjoyable to see so many different people enjoying an Adirondack climb. The section of trail from the intersection to the summit is relatively moderate in terms of difficulty, with some scattered patches of mud and a few steep sections thrown in, many of which have seen some excellent trail work by dedicated volunteers.
The summit greeted us with clear skies, sunbaked rocks, and a stiff wind. We had the peak to ourselves for a good 15 minutes, which was surprising for such a gorgeous afternoon. I was happy for some peace and quiet, though, and it was especially nice having the fire tower to ourselves. The 360-degree views from the tower are second to none. As we were hiking up the mountain, a woman told us that she’s “heard the views from the summit are the best in the park.” They are certainly fantastic; you can see everything from the ponds and lakes of the St. Regis Canoe Area to the highest peaks in the state.
The St. Regis Mountain fire tower was erected in 1918, and saw 80 years of continuous use, the longest period of fire tower operation in New York state. Following its closure in 1990, the tower fell into disrepair and was eventually closed to the public. In 2015, The Friends of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower, a non-profit organization devoted to the restoration and stewardship of this historic icon, began restoration work on the structure. This led to the opening of the tower to public use once again on September 1, 2016. I was grateful to be the beneficiary of their hard work!
After several photographs and a hearty lunch, we headed back down the trail, leaving the summit to be enjoyed by other hikers. Once back in the canoe, we left the dock and headed toward the landing, this time exploring the bog on the other side of Ward Island. As soon as we rounded the edge of the island we were greeted with 10 to 12 white sails of the idem sailboats racing around Birch Island off in the distance. I felt as if we were transported back in time, and wished that I could feel the excitement of flying across the water in an 1800s sailboat race. These sailboats are quite unique; they were built specifically for the St. Regis Yacht Club at the turn of the century, and have been used for racing ever since. Idem sailboats are believed to be the oldest one-class racing design still sailed in the United Sates.
As we landed our canoe, I reflected on all that this trip has to offer. If you’re a history buff, you can see more well-preserved historical icons on this trip than many other lakes combined. If history isn’t your thing, the natural landscape and recreational variety will draw you in. And for those of you who are gearing up for leaf-peeping season, just know that there are far more trees out there than my beloved white pines!