Five years ago, while on assignment in the Adirondacks – a New York state park with 2m hectares of protected land – an overconfident outdoorsman tried to dazzle me with his recent adventures. He mentioned that he had just finished the Seven Carries, a historic canoe route in the Saint Regis Canoe Area.
I was disgusted by the conversation – the notes of toxic masculinity, the feeling that he was waiting for me to blush – but intrigued by the route, and decided that one day I would complete the Seven Carries.
The route was first established in the late 1800s as a route between two Adirondack resorts – the Saranac inn and Paul Smiths hotel, now a college. It requires paddling nearly nine miles of lakes and wild lakes and completing six portages (where the paddler must carry a boat on land until the next shore is reached.) The longest of the portages is 0.6 miles long; most are shorter.
Many things stood between me and this goal. For one, I am not a confident navigator. If I can’t reliably turn the right way out of the hotel elevator to my room, can I really be trusted to navigate the Adirondack wilderness? Plus, I don’t have a light canoe, just a heavy kayak that I can’t carry on the roof of my car.
After some research, I fell in love with Hornbeck Canoes, a brand of canoes known for being lightweight and built in the Adirondacks. Finally, after five years of boating, I decided to get one and drove to Olmstedville, New York, for a demonstration. I turned down a dirt road to the beautiful enclave of evergreens where the Hornbeck family has been building boats for 40 years.
I could hear saws and smell varnish as I stepped into Hornbeck’s yard. Rescue dogs that slept in the shade. Mustard yellow and green army boats were stacked and racked everywhere. I followed a path through some outbuildings until I found a small, shallow lake, where I tried different canoes.
The boats are constructed with Kevlar, and are lined with rot-resistant cherry wood strips. I chose a model that weighs a surprising 15 pounds – I can carry it in one arm, but it’s still big enough to support me and camping gear on a backcountry trip.
Although I’ve spent more than 20 weeks of my life camping in the Adirondacks, I’ve never been the kind of girl who confidently lassos a boat to the roof of a car by herself. But I am constantly improving the skill. There’s power in risk-taking and mobility, and these days I prefer it.
Now, five years after deciding I would complete the Seven Carries, I got the boat, but not the navigational skills. I mentioned the trip to a close friend, Els, a capable outdoorswoman. He reads maps with ease and grew up exploring the Adirondacks, and agrees to the adventure. We planned our trip organically, sending long texts about logistics when we could, both juggling parenting and writing deadlines.
We decided to drive to the Adirondack park the day before our adventure, spending the night near Lake Placid to give us an early start. Els’s husband tied two wooden planks to his existing roof rack to make room for our boats. We took turns sawing boards and tying heavy straps, then hit the road with lots of coffee and conversation.
The morning of the trip, we woke up at 4.45am. Half an hour later, Els dropped me off with our boats at Little Clear Pond. He drove to the end of the route at Paul Smiths, where he left the car and used an electric bike to return to our departure point.
My morning alone by the lake was an unexpected gift. The sun rose from behind a silhouette of evergreens. Thrushes calling from the woods, like a flute. A family of loons swam in the flat water. I had the opportunity to breathe in the scenery and let it inhabit me.
Els biked half an hour later. We packed our gear, consulted the map, chose our direction and found our rhythm on the water. It was so quiet that it felt wrong to yell at each other across the lake.
We knew the first portage was the longest and most difficult, so we decided on the south-north route. Our shoulders will be fresh and relaxed, and our sense of humor will still be intact. We pulled our boats out of the water, Els hoisting hers fully aloft on his shoulders in a traditional load, and me propelling mine with one arm.
My first portage wasn’t great, which wasn’t a surprise – I’m a capable but messy adventurer. My dry bag clung to the boat and I couldn’t find the best place to hold my oar. After half a mile of hiking with the boat on my arm, I was grateful for its light body.
We both suffered a bit as we carried the boats down thin and worn planks of wood until we were standing in the most beautiful area of swamp I had ever seen. We took the boats off our shoulders and into the waters of Saint Regis Pond.
I stepped into the shallow water – hoping for a little squish – but the mud engulfed my entire right leg up to my hip. The smell of rich mud enveloped me and my heart pounded as I grabbed the dock and pulled myself out. We laughed, and I slid more strategically into the canoe.
Saint Regis Pond – remote and accessible only by canoe carry – was mesmerizing. Purple pickerelweed surrounds the shore; hundreds of damp spider webs glistened in the sun as we navigated our way to the next portage and Green Pond. Soon, the sun began to heat up; the bugs are thicker. I found a leech in my canoe, probably from the moment my leg plunged into the bog.
I felt happy in the water in the wilderness with a friend, as if I was fully present for the first time in months. Most of my worries (invisible heartbreaks, work emails and parenting tasks) are drowned in physicality, hard work and beauty.
At Middlebury College, in Vermont, I teach a class on depictions of women in outdoor literature. We talk about why we venture – what we hope to achieve. Adirondack adventurer Anne LaBastille writes about the “tremendous pleasure” she felt when slinging her backpack onto a boat. I came to appreciate that feeling, to find it in the world. I don’t need to feel like I’m dominating or conquering something in an adventure. I want to feel respect, or peace.
Although I was initially hung up on completing the Seven Carries five years ago with what some might call “affirming energy”, I now feel settled into something calmer, a state of flow, a stillness of mind, a touch of transcendence. The finish on the route was perfect, but now it was suddenly enough just to be there.
We quickly moved on to Little Long Pond and Bear Pond, then Bog Pond, where the bugs were more ferocious. We navigated cuts and twists, our boats scraping against submerged branches. The water is a shade of melancholy blue. Carnivorous pitcher plants thrive here, rising from the shallow soil.
Suddenly we heard a human hum. We spotted a blue pickup in the trees, driving down a dirt road. We will arrive at our final portage at Upper St Regis, an area of the old great camps of industrialists like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Marjorie Merriweather Post. We stopped to eat lunch at a rock wall, and talked to two other boats heading in the reverse direction.
I used to love the architecture of the Great Camps, but now, as we begin our final paddle through the Upper St Regis, Spitfire and Lower St Regis, the physical manifestation of the great wealth of the industrialists is palpable. In the face of enormous wealth, it still feels smart to consider the privilege of adventure in everything – owning a boat, having fun, feeling relatively safe in the wilderness.
As we passed the Great Camps and their luxurious houseboats, our conversation turned to income inequality. We were so deeply involved that we missed the turn to our final destination. We returned to another channel and decided – as the sun was setting – that it was finally time for a swim. We lowered our boats into the shallows, took off our bathing suits and waded into the cold water. As we both rose into the air, a bald eagle circled overhead.
The instructions told us that this last leg is longer than it looks, especially when you’re tired – and it is. We completed the route in the early afternoon, and both agreed that we felt like we had more in the tank, that the canoe route didn’t tax us too much.
On shore, we dumped the water from our boats and lifted it onto the roof of Els’ car. We drank beer outside in the light rain, and decided that next time we would go further.
As someone who imagined the trip five years ago with a chip on his shoulder, this is almost hilarious – a reminder that reactionary thinking creates its own obstacles and rigidity. Perhaps I have changed since I first decided to travel.
Maybe I have nothing to prove.