Saranac Lake Islands

Kelly has been telling me about Saranac Lakes for years and we finally were able to pick a weekend to get out there.  She was originally only able to get a reservation for Friday night at the Saranac Lake Islands Campground but we knew we could probably get a walk-in reservation for Saturday too.  If not, we could just paddle around all day Saturday and then drive home.

I got there first so tried to figure out with the folks at the registration booth how this would be easiest.  Like many other parks, they use ReserveAmerica to manage their reservation system, which sucks.  You can only make reservations online, except for that same day.  And the people at the booth can only see what’s open that same day, not what’s open the next day or any other time.  I don’t know how the parks function like that.  It drives me crazy and I don’t even work there!

I had no cell signal at the booth to check what was open the next night, but the guy in the booth gave me a list of the sites open that night, and I drove up the road to get online and check if there were any sites available for Saturday that were also open for Friday, so we wouldn’t have to change campsites at all.  There were not.  I went back to the booth and decided to at least change to a site that was much closer in, so we wouldn’t have to paddle back from the farthest corner of the lakes in order to get a new campsite the next day, which is where we originally had a reservation (Weller Pond off Middle Saranac Lake).  Because they couldn’t just assign me a site for Saturday then, we had to come back to see what was open in the morning.  And we had to physically come back, not pay over the phone if we somehow had cell signal, and not even leave my credit card for them to charge and pick it up later.  It was very convoluted.

We got site #53 at the opening of Pope Bay on Lower Saranac Lake.  Kelly arrived and we moved over to the boat launch to unload and pack up and it started downpouring.  We hopped in her car to wait.  Fifteen minutes later the rain stopped, we got out and started loading a few things, and it happened again.  Back in the car to wait another fifteen minutes.  This time when it stopped, we were able to load the boat with everything and launch.

The boat was feeling a little heavy with the cooler and firewood and chairs and all sorts of other lovely gear that you can bring canoe camping.  We headed out through First Pond and just before we got to Lower Saranac Lake proper, there was suddenly thunder and lightning and another heavy downpour.  Being in a metal boat in the middle of a lake by ourselves was not ideal so we quickly paddled to shore, tied the canoe off in a partially sheltered spot, and got on land ourselves to wait.

Another fifteen minutes went by, the thunder and lightning passed, and the rain lessened a little bit, so we got back in the boat.  It was still raining when we got to camp so we unloaded and then stood around for a bit trying to figure out what to do.  We did set up a tarp that I’d brought over the picnic table (which was obviously already wet) but somehow in setting that up, the underside got wet too and just dripped on us as we sat there.  So we started drinking wine.

The rain stopped after about a half hour so we quickly set up our tents and decided to tour the campsite and surrounding areas.  Each campsite has its own privy and all of the campsites are really well spread out so you don’t have to see or hear your neighbors.  I don’t think we had any.  Despite the campground being “sold out” most of the sites we paddled by were empty.  It sounds like people reserve a week or two and then only come sometimes, which is very annoying if you don’t have a reservation and are trying to get in.

After the tour, we snacked and drank and watched the sunset, then set to work trying to make a fire.  The firewood had been soaked through in the previous downpours so it was not easy.  We used up all the paper we had and I even used up all the fuel for my alcohol stove trying to get something started.  It never happened.  I’ve never not been able to start a fire before and it was very demoralizing.  So we went to bed.

Saturday morning dawned fairly nice, or least it wasn’t raining.  We ate breakfast while waiting for the registration booth to open and then called to see what site we would be assigned.  (Luckily, we did have cell signal.)  Since our new site was on the same lake, we decided to leave our things for the moment and paddle over more quickly with an empty boat.  We took care of registration then ran out to a store to get more drinks (we’d run out of wine with nothing else to do on Friday night) and a firestarter.  I thought we’d just be buying a small one but Kelly wanted the Duraflame log.  She was not taking any chances with a repeat of the night before.  We also grabbed some more dry firewood out of my car and then headed back to our campsite to pack up.

We packed everything up in the canoe and headed out, only to have it downpour again once we were in the middle of the lake.  This time it only lasted for a few minutes, but that was still plenty to soak all our things again.  We were headed to site #11 on Knobby Island, which we found after circling the whole island was actually switched with site #12 on the map.  It had a very steep, washed out climb to the site, but it was a very nice site once we got all our things up the hill.

We set up the tarp and tents again, hung up a clothesline to dry more stuff, and enjoyed just sitting and snacking in the sun.  Then we put our bathing suits on and got back in the canoe to paddle around the lake.  We explored some of the shoreline but also enjoyed just floating around too since there was no more rain.

Back at camp, we quickly jumped in the lake before changing into dry clothes and starting a fire, much easier this time with the Duraflame log.  I’m embarrassed to admit we used it but it worked.  Once we had some good coals, many camper pies were eaten while we listened to music and played a little Bananagrams.

There had been one other group camped on the island when we arrived but we’d heard them packing up to leave so we decided to take a walk around the island for sunset.

Then it was back to the fire for a bit of reading before bed.

Sunday was sunny from the beginning and stayed that way.  I hung in my hammock for a while reading while Kelly did some yoga and then we leisurely packed up camp so we could paddle around some more.

We wanted to go down through the Narrows onto Saranac River so we could go through the Upper Locks to Middle Saranac Lake.  We didn’t realize we’d be rowing upriver.  It was a little harder than the previous paddling we’d done.  We got to the locks and let some other boats go through first while we ate lunch and watched the process.

From our direction, they opened the gate and we paddled into the lock (two boats can fit).  Then the gate behind us closed, the water rose, and the gate in front of us opened for us to paddle on.  These are manual locks and they did have a lock tender in place for the weekend to run things, but it’s also setup where people on boats can get out and handle it themselves if needed.

The river was feeling very winding and long by the time we got out to Middle Saranac Lake and we were rowing into the wind too which was definitely not helping.

We eventually made it to an outlet leading to a car top boat launch, where Kelly stayed with the boat and I did a quick hitch back to get my car so we could load up and be on our way.  I get her obsession with the area now and am already planning my reservation strategy for next summer.


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  1. Hi There! I really enjoyed this read. We are staying at site 53 this weekend and are loving all the information you provided! Do you know how long it takes to canoe there from the boat launch? I’m thinking of bringing my pup but don’t want to torture him with an hour long canoe ride. Thanks!

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