An Adirondack Wilderness All Your Own

Moments after parking our car and loading into a compact, one-propeller bush plane, my three friends and I were looking down at a lush boreal landscape, newly green after the long winter. The view of soft, wooded peaks interspersed with creeks and lakes extended as far as we could see, evoking the northern territories of Canada or Alaska.

But what lay below us was closer to home: the heart of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, its vast wooded expanse concealing the isolated campsite where we would ensconce ourselves.

Fifteen minutes into our loud, choppy flight, the pilot banked and touched down on the surface of a still mountain lake, then ferried us to a rustic plot at the far end. He would be the last person we saw until we flew out again three days later.

Within the roughly six million acres that comprise the Adirondack state park are some 2.6 million acres of forest preserve, broad stretches of which are open to public recreation. Disappearing into the wild, far-flung corners of New York state has been a tradition that began in my childhood, when my parents learned about the boat-access-only grounds at Saranac Lake that offer visitors the splendid isolation of their own island.

Some years later, we became aware of a new, more enticing approach. Away from Lake Placid, Lake George and other more crowded regional hubs, are several smaller hamlets that provide access to a handful of exceptionally remote lakeside campgrounds reachable only by pontooned floatplanes. With round-trip charters typically priced at $150 or less per person, some of the most secluded frontiers of the Adirondack Park are accessible even to travelers on a limited budget. Over the years, this little-utilized route into sequestered backwoods sites has become a prized secret among my close friends and family, and since my maiden trip with my father six years ago, I have been back every year with a rotating cast of companions.

On this trip, our group assembled in New York City, driving up from Washington D.C., adding people and collecting gear along the way. From there, we drove our rental car north, following the Hudson River before breaking off onto smaller roads that twisted and turned more and more sharply as we approached the foothills of the Adirondacks. After passing through several small burgs, each imprinted with the distinctive Adirondack architecture style, we arrived in Long Lake, N.Y., where a small shack on the side of the road serves as an airport, and a stretch of the skinny, 14-mile lake is the runway.

We planned our trip with Helms Aero Service, which has been doing business out of Long Lake since 1947. Payne’s Air Service, about 30 miles away, in nearby Inlet, N.Y., also takes travelers to another subset of lakes in the vicinity. Both are multigenerational family businesses, operating a few aging planes that take off and land from sandbox-size docks. The two are among the last charter companies in the Adirondacks that are licensed to transport campers, hunters and anglers to lakes in the park.

The campsites they service cannot be formally reserved and are available for free on a first-come-first-served basis, but the pilots keep a diligent calendar of which ones are open. In years past, many of the pilots have even helped the state steward the campsites, flying in supplies and occasionally helping stock certain varieties of hatchery-raised fish ahead of the fishing season. They also supply paddles and life jackets for those who want to use the canoes that are stashed in the various camping areas.

That the four of us could drive from our scattered homes and have an entire lake to ourselves is a testament to the remarkable success of New York state’s preservation movement. Ironically, though, the efforts that have made this singular experience possible have also taken a toll on the floatplane pilots who enable people like us to disconnect from the world.

Before 1972, commercial floatplanes were allowed to land on 57 bodies of water across the region, offering a wealth of options for visitors looking for solitude. Since then, the state has reclassified broad tracts in the park as “wilderness,” a designation that prohibits the presence of motorized vehicles. Today, floatplanes are permitted on just 15 lakes and ponds in sections of the preserve designated as “wild forest,” and only six fall in the immediate vicinity of Long Lake.

Now, with fewer flight-accessible lakes, and just two companies taking visitors to them, the experience faces an uncertain future. If the remaining bush pilots who have delivered outsiders to these sites for decades retire without others filling their roles, there may one day be no realistic way of reaching many of them.

Our first decision every year is which lake or pond to go to. All the lakes that are open to floatplane camping in the area are comparable in size, but each setting has its own subtle character and attributes. Some offer access to prominent hiking trails, such as Tirrell Pond, which lies along a particularly scenic stretch of the roughly 130-mile Northville-Placid Trail. Others, like Upper Sargent Pond, have islets that can be explored and even camped on, using the canoes on hand. Still others are known for good fishing, with plentiful brook trout, panfish and smallmouth bass, or geographic quirks like miniature peninsulas and beaches ideal for bird-watching and landscape photography.

Days before our flight, our pilot pointed us toward Pine Lake, a small, forked pool in a newly incorporated section of the park that the state acquired in 2013. The parcel of land that encompasses Pine Lake was previously owned by the paper company Finch, Pruyn, once the largest private landowner in New York state. But today, gaps and logging roads where timber was harvested years ago have mostly filled in, leaving seamless stands of old, soaring trees, resplendently reflected in the water.

Our campsite fell just east of Raquette Lake, around which the titans of the Gilded Age once built sprawling summer estates at the turn of the century. Camp Uncas, once owned by J.P. Morgan, and Great Camp Sagamore, the former stamping grounds of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and his relatives, are both situated on their own small lakes some 20 miles away, nearly indistinguishable from the lake we set up camp on.

Our much humbler site was also alongside the Cedar River, which we could hear flowing through gentle, nearby rapids before the river bends east and empties into the Hudson four miles downstream.

The same natural tranquillity that drew some of the wealthiest American families to parts nearby is on display everywhere. But the forests we ranged through are far more than a playground of the rich and powerful. Their history goes back thousands of years as the hunting grounds of Iroquoian and Algonquian people who occupied neighboring river valleys, and many of these people resettled in Adirondack mountain towns after being displaced by European colonizers.

Even in the centuries since, these lands have persisted as a rugged sanctum for outdoorsmen. With our tent set up and gear stowed, we paired off in canoes and paddled to a shore across the lake, where a trail leads to an old dirt road. That road continues several miles to a ramshackle farmhouse — the only remaining outpost of the Gooley Club, a hunting lodge that traces its origins to a sporting club founded in 1867 and operated until 2018 when the state removed its main complex on another lake close by.

When timbering and paper companies owned much of the land in the region, they often leased usage rights to sportsman’s clubs, allowing members to hunt there during the long stretches of time between harvesting trees. But as part of the “forever wild” provision in New York’s constitution, newly acquired lands added to the preserve are to be protected for posterity as “wild forest lands,” requiring the demolition of most existing structures like the Gooley complex in order to return the land to a wilderness state.

Today, besides the road itself, there is nothing to signal the previous presence of people. Yet somehow the image of earlier generations trekking along the same path, taking fish and game from the surrounding lands, was never far from our minds.

We settled in at our site exactly three weeks before the summer solstice, but temperatures still swung into the 40s after dark. During daylight hours, we faced near-constant attack by swarms of black flies assailing our heads and necks, leaving annoying, shallow bites. And though the black flies typically subside before July, there are always mosquitoes to swat away.

But these momentary nuisances are offset by the divine things, like the calls of loons and hoot owls we heard at nightfall, and the perfect clarity of the night sky, unspoiled by artificial light pollution. These conditions only improve deeper into the summer and autumn, as the water warms up enough to swim and the northern foliage takes on early fall hues.

Small natural mysteries are always a source of intrigue as well. Besides the birds, each evening after dark we heard a sequence of heavy splashes from the water that resonated like giants’ steps or small boulders falling from above, often coming too close for comfort. It wasn’t until we arrived back in town and talked to locals that we discovered the origin of the sounds: slaps of a beaver’s tail.

Not only does the floatplane open up isolated sites that often don’t connect to established hiking trails, but it also makes the experience feasible for almost any traveler. Other than the tediousness of getting out of the plane, which sometimes involves wading to shore, it is a straightforward journey doable for most people of any age. And while the environs are primitive, the usual restraints campers face with regard to the weight and size of their gear don’t apply when flying in.

On my first trip by floatplane six summers ago, my father brought a cooler stocked with butter and pancake makings, intent on recreating a boyhood memory of watching a more fortunate family indulge in flapjacks and maple syrup in the Allagash wilderness in Maine. Over the years, my experiences with cooking have grown more ambitious. This year, my friends and I armed ourselves with a variety of heavy equipment such as a steel fire-top grill and a cast iron pan, things that minimalists might consider extravagant, but that open all sorts of culinary possibilities. But even with the freedom to attempt wilder feats of campfire gastronomy, we opted for a vegetarian menu of egg and potato scrambles, grilled cheese sandwiches, three-bean chili, and roasted vegetables, followed by beers and spirits after dinner.

Coming to these campgrounds sight unseen requires a degree of adaptability, as some are more rudimentary than others. As most sites in the area are set up with little more than a rock fire ring and canoes, we were pleasantly surprised to find our site by Pine Lake outfitted with a dock where our pilot could moor, as well as a picnic table — small luxuries by backcountry standards. With a proper dinner table at which to eat our meals, we moved our camping chairs out to our private pier, spending hours fishing and watching clouds merge and fray and roll over the mountain terrain.

When the fire died down, the four of us retired to our sturdy, family-size tent — not the kind we would have brought had we backpacked in from town like most campers in the park.

Over-engineered as our shelter seemed for most of our stay, it proved its worth on our final night, when a violent thunderstorm burst over us around bedtime, disturbing our days of calm. Captivated by the energy of the storm, we flipped up the tent’s vestibule, making a roof to sit under and observe. Briefly forgetting the flight and the long drive ahead of us, we sat silently for a time, enjoying the rhythmic patterns of the rain and watching the flashes beyond the treetops.

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