Most often, visitors to the Adirondack Preserve flock to the high peaks region of this expansive park, and rightfully so – with 360 degree views that often span as far as the eye can see, and rocky summits that break through the tree-line – there’s no denying the beauty of this region. But we had other things on our minds than bagging peaks this fall. We had done enough of that this season already and the western lakes region was calling.
I had been itching to do some fishing and hiking in the remote streams and beaver-laden swamps of the West Canada Lakes region. Recently having been told of recovering populations of brook trout in this area, my goal was to get out there and try to catch some, while exploring this region in detail for the first time. You can research more about the history of acid rain and industrial pollution-based damage to this region with a quick google search, but it’s too much to cover in the introduction here.
The site of a once-famous national geographic article about the dead lakes of the region.
In my mind this would be the best kind of trip – reasonable mileage, epic scenery, remote isolation in a region I had never explored extensively, and one last chance at a weekend in the mountains before the winter set in. I planned a loop around Cedar Lake to meet up with the Northville-Placid Trail, which we’d follow out to Mud Lake – then we’d loop back around by Sampson and Pillsbury lakes. Perfect for the 3 days and two nights we had free. I set out with my good friend and hiking companion Rich, for what would become a tranquil and epic nature experience, even if a little bit less fishing-focused than I had originally hoped.
Our route in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness.
Rich and I set out at dawn on Saturday of Columbus Day weekend and headed straight up for the trailhead near Indian Lake. When we got up there, we spent some time navigating the unpaved logging roads – some marked, some unmarked – trying to find the trailhead. After realizing that we were supposed to DRIVE up what we originally thought was a trailhead, we found the almost-full parking lot. As if by divine intervention only, there was one last space for us. Bingo! The trail unfolded before us…
Just in time for the tail-end of the fall colors.
Our timing was a few days late for the best of the leaves, but we still were there early enough to catch the end of the seasonal display. In much of the Adirondacks where we usually hike, fires are prohibited to protect the forest. We were glad to know we’d have the warmth of a fire out here as the temperatures at night would plummet to 28 or 29 degrees both nights. We had a mix of sun and clouds on our hike in through the scenic backcountry.
A deep and dark brook surely held native trout. There is no shore to stand on and many of these brooks are not easy to fish. You have to get inventive.
We immediately encountered sketchy bridges, bogs and streams that had no banks to fish from and yet flowed deep and surely held native fish. I started to realize that I wasn’t in even remotely familiar-looking fishing conditions. Uh oh! The West Canada Lakes Wilderness is a vast and largely (currently) undisturbed area of land to the west and south of Indian Lake. While it was logged in the past, and some private sections continue to be selectively logged today, the wilderness area itself has been protected for quite some time now. As someone who as spent a lot of time in different parts of the Adirondacks, I can solidly say that this part has its own distinct feeling. Its remoteness is immediately apparent, but snippets of evidence discovered by chance add another angle… its almost as if one can feel the souls of some of the people who once stood in this place in a different time and under very different circumstances. One can find peaks, valleys, streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and beaver swamps all pressed right up next to each other. This makes for muddy, slow hiking and, as we would discover, difficult fishing. Bushwhacking, while offering rewarding opportunities for fishing, would not be recommended without serious navigational skills with a map and compass, or a modern GPS. It is no joke.
This bridge provided a place to get a short drift on a Tenkara rod. A traditional rod and reel could have accessed more of the river for fishing here.
Choosing the right fishing gear for this trek was the subject of much deep thought – before, during, and after the trip. If, for example, you want to be able to get a bigger fish or you like to throw a heavy line, use split-shot, weighted lures or tungsten bead-head flies, then you’re going to want a longer Tenkara or Keiryu rod that can throw weight around better. These rods are stiffer, especially Keiryu rods. Go long! Especially if you’re fishing lakes, because you’re going to get the extra length to cast farther and better, to throw a longer line while keeping more line off the water, and because if you have nothing hanging overhead, there’s no need for a short rod. The longer the rod and the shorter the line, the better your drift will be. While you can certainly throw a 20 ft line with a 10-11 ft Tenkara rod, you won’t really benefit as you would with a 13 ft or longer rod and a matching-length line. Experience has shown me this relationship is the most important part of my setup, much more than the fly. Of course I had unique goals in mind for this trip. After all, these aren’t pristine mountain lakes at 10,000 ft. You cannot even wade into them to wait for fish trolling near the shallow “shelf” extending out into the water before the bottom drops off into the deep. I knew I wasn’t going to be casting the longest lines on lakes; I was looking for flowing water.
Part of the motivation for fishing on this trip, other than the location, was that I had recently bought a new small-stream Keiryu rod, a rather short Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 18, from Chris at Tenkarabum. I wanted to compare it to my (now discontinued) Daiwa Soyokaze 24sr Seiryu rod. I knew I’d be in varied fishing environments so I threw in my Tenkara USA Iwana 11ft Tenkara rod as well. Should I find that I only had lakes and ponds to fish, I wanted the longer rod. It later turned out that this wasn’t close to long enough.
I am tempted to explain the differences between Tenkara, Keiryu and Seiryu fishing since I use all these kinds of rods, but I won’t because it’s rather complicated and could really use an article of its own. I will refer you to Chris Stewart at Tenkarabum.com for that. He has lots of info, as well as many rods that don’t fit into the Tenkara purist’s definition of a Tenkara rod, but which you should learn all about. There’s so much to learn out there! I hope to see more articles from him on the site at some point because they are always full of useful information.[Editor’s note: Back in August of 2013, Chris Stewart wrote an extensive Tenkara: State of the Market Report that not only identifies the best rods, but also helps explain the differences between Tenkara, Keiryu and Seiryu fishing and rods. The article is a great resource to learn more about this topic in addition to his website.]
I’ve been fishing mostly with these rods for the last few seasons and they are lots of fun:
“Top to bottom: Nissin Air Stage 240, Tenkara USA Iwana 11 ft, Daiwa Soyokaze 24sr, Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 18, and the impossibly small and light Nissin Pocket Mini 270. That rod is a dream, but I didn’t have it yet for this trip. I will be using it on all my backpacking trips going forward… maybe worth its own review later on. It really does pack down to 9 inches long and weighs in at 28.61 grams on my scale. Whoah.”
You can see my affinity for the shorter rods that suit my usual fishing destinations. However, the short length of most of my rods really hurt rather than helped on this trip… I found less overgrown streams and more open water than I had expected by a long shot. I spent most of the time fishing ponds and lakes, debating how to get more line out onto flat water – the opposite of what I usually worry about when fishing Tenkara style – and certainly not what I wanted to be doing, which was evaluating shorter rods for stiffness. I should have brought a pack raft and a longer rod and saved this goal for a different trip. Lesson learned. You really cannot fish this area in its entirety, and for its trophy fish, without being able to get floating on the water somehow. I knew this would mean I’d miss some fish, but didn’t realize until later on just how many.
As we neared Cedar Lake, we crossed a bridge. I fished for a few minutes and caught what looked like some kind of dace or darter… I don’t know enough about micro-fishing to know for sure. I should have fished down the stream more for trout, but the weather turned for just a moment and I packed up my gear instead. Worried about finding the best camp-site and looking to cover a little more ground, we pushed on to leave more time to fish later.
Fished here for too little time.
As is common in the Adirondacks, we encountered plenty of mud from day one. A side note here… in past articles and comments I’ve mentioned my aversion to using running shoes for backpacking in the northeast because of mud and water. I was constantly told that I just needed to try them, see how well they worked, and learn to live with the downsides. I spent a good deal of time and investment with different shoes, minimalist and non-minimalist, before coming back to lightweight waterproof boots for good. I find that in the Adirondacks, unlike at high altitude or out west in low humidity, trail-runners stay wet almost as long as waterproof boots, negating any benefits of using them over here, in my opinion. It often takes days for waterproof boots like a lightweight Solomon boot to wet through, and I’d prefer the 2-3 days of dry feet on a wet hike to all the days with wet feet, as happens when I wear day hikers on most trails in the Adirondacks. I now carry my Altra Lone-Peak shoes to use as camp shoes when necessary, and to wear for peak bagging, on trips where we set up a base camp. Not the case here.
Not all the trails are paved with wood, most are made of pure mud.
We soon found a prime campsite between two lakes that was too good to pass up, and we set up our tents. Rich is still “in transition” towards becoming more UL and he is moving, towards lighter options as his gear ages out and his budget allows. Normally he splits a tent with another friend of ours, which they co-own. On this hike I winced as I watched him take the entire 2-person marmot for himself. One day he’ll learn. I hope. There’s plenty of time for that in the years to come.
My zpacks soplex next to Rich’s marmot two-person tent, with Beaver pond behind us.
I learned from experience why you don’t pitch the tent right near the water on this night. I’ve never had condensation in my solplex before, even on the most humid of nights. I’ve put a good number of nights on this thing so far and it’s a real winner overall. Goes to show that bad site selection for a tarp or tent makes or breaks your condensation situation. Another lesson learned.
My Gransfors-Bruk Outdoor Axe is in the foreground, and my friend Rich’s new wildlife hatchet is in the background. Coincidentally both forged by Mattias Mattsson. We should probably send him a thank you note, they are very well made.
We stayed quite warm and dry though, since in a totally overkill and ridiculous move, we both brought our hatchets with us. I can’t say I was sorry, as we made quick work of the abundant supply of wood that was dead and on the ground everywhere. I often spend way too much time deciding whether or not to carry the 1.1ish lbs of that hatchet since I rarely make a fire. But on this trip it was no question. The weather forecast had us facing below-freezing temps that night, and neither of us had cold-weather bags, or much patience for breaking wood with cold hands.
Sunset on Cedar Lake.
Rich makes quick work of the firewood. Never fear, I corrected his stance to move his foot out of the way right after taking this photo.
Rich enjoys the fruits of his labor, we had a roaring fire going in no time.
We were both totally taken by the silence in this region. Having spent considerable time in the high peaks region nearby and camping near the local lakes, seldom have I camped far enough from a river or stream, or in a place where I’m sheltered enough from the wind that to hear total silence. It’s almost jarring at first, especially when I realized how my ears were ringing and damaged from my life in the city. Yeesh. I took some photos of the moon on the water and called it a night.
Night-shots with no tripod brought mixed success.
We hit the sack early, falling asleep to the sounds of loons and flocks of geese commuting overhead. The owls came out later and woke me up a few times with their hooting. I always forget how they seem to congregate around lakes and rivers, and how loud they sound when there’s no other noise to overtake them. I fell into a heavier sleep as the cold settled in and awoke early to the first light of dawn in order to catch some photos of the sunrise, and hopefully some fish…
Sunrise over Cedar Lake.
Sunrise over beaver pond, unnamed peak in the background.
Cedar Lake with morning fog lifting.
The photos came out ok, but the fishing… well, that was another story. I just couldn’t reach the fish. You can’t wade into these lakes and ponds because of the silt and mud near the shores. The result is that you cannot cast far enough out to reach the fish with an average Tenkara rod. In many cases, you don’t have the room behind you to cast a long line on a traditional fly rod with a reel either. Packraft please!?
No way to reach the fish – they were rising about 40 feet out in front of me.
I tried to wake Rich up a few times but he was mumbling about sleep and wouldn’t budge. I gave up to keep fishing and taking pictures while he missed out on the sunrise. Once he got up, we took our time packing up and eating a light breakfast. When I showed him my photos, he lamented at his own laziness regarding sleeping in. We made sure the coals were out on our fire and started the hike to Mud Lake and the next trail junction.
These tall trees made us feel small.
As we hiked through impossibly-tall pine forests littered with Birch trees, I scanned for signs of the streams that I knew were flowing from lake to lake, between swamp and pond, and which surely held native trout… but due to low water, many of them had dried to a trickle. Others were too overgrown to cast into, or had no real shore on which to stand. Waders and boats were clearly in order here.
Plenty of shrubs, fallen branches and tall grass prevented me from getting my fly close enough to the edge of the overhanging bank to entice the hiding fish to rise.
After locating a promising stream on the map, we hiked a bit off trail to check it out. Again, casting from shore was not an option. The water was too cold to wade so we moved on. We intersected the stream again at a slower section. The water was crystal clear and moving slowly, giving up our position to any wary native trout. I cast a line and let a dry fly float near the edges where overhangs surely provided protection. Again, no luck. I spent too much time here trying to coax fish from their hiding spots, and it eventually came back to haunt me.
Rich ate lunch while I looked for fish. I was fishing in the wrong spot, but I was having fun.
We covered a few more miles as quickly as possible – I was pushing to get to better trout water. We had to detour around the side of a lake where a bridge had been washed out and more time was wasted there. By the time we could get around and back on the trail, the sun was dipping. At this time we found some absolutely ideal and yet unexpected native trout water between two lakes.
Some of the most picture-perfect Adirondack Brookie water I saw on the trip that wasn’t a lake or a pond. I will be back here to explore again.
I wanted to fish this section extensively, but this time I could tell Rich was itching to move on – he wanted to find a prime campsite while it was still light out, and while he was down to fish later, he wanted to keep hiking. I was crushed. But at the same time, I knew I had plenty of time fishing at the last spot, this was a fair compromise to make. I just wish I had more time! I noted this spot on the map and cannot wait to throw my line in here another time. I explored the stream for a few minutes and saw a few small brookies darting under rocks. This was it! Oh how I wanted to stay right there for another whole day. But we kept moving. I was praying for a quick hike to the next trail junction, where we had hoped to find good campsites near West Canada Creek and fish again.
Bridge over the water between Mud Lake and South Lake.
On the way, we crossed another body of water, one that connected Mud Lake with South Lake. This was another prime fishing spot, but again, not perfect for Tenkara. However, the sheer number of fish rising around us was enough to force us to stop and throw a line in from the bridge for fun. It was mind-blowing. But it was also torture, in that we couldn’t reach the bigger fish… we couldn’t even get close. The smaller trout under the bridge were rising close enough, but the big brookies and rainbows were way out of reach. I hooked into a few small fish and landed one small lake or rainbow trout, it was hard to tell. I also caught another small silvery fish that I couldn’t identify, but it wasn’t a trout or a largemouth bass. Soon we gave up out of sheer frustration and the urge to get to camp as the sun was setting. We set off over the bridge as the sun set the surrounding hills on fire while it set behind the ridge on the other side of the lake. Still no time spent fishing the familiar flowing mountain streams and rivers. Bummer.
A perfect location for a motivated individual to cruise in a packraft chasing trout.
We arrived at the trail junction and a lean-to as the sun was setting, and discovered we were at another ideal trout fishing location. This was a much larger river in comparison to what we had seen so far, but still relatively small as rivers go. Again, this was textbook Adirondack brook trout water. West Canada Creek looked beautiful. We met an older gentleman who had sprawled his gear out around the lean to. We talked about fishing for a bit and he motioned to his fire, where he had just prepared the 11 inch brookie he had caught for dinner. We decided that since we had missed the fishing, we’d push on through the dark for a few more miles and camp near Sampson Lake instead. We made impressive time on these next couple of miles, arriving at a lean to and campsite at Sampson Lake. It was getting cold and the quick pace kept us warm. Brisk conversation was welcome, mentally speaking, as the isolation of the cold and the dark, and the lingering memories of missed fishing opportunities created a demoralized feeling on the trail. We pushed through it and had fun anyway.
Upon arriving at Sampson Lake Lean-to, it was clear that it was not as epic as the lakes we had already seen, and we set up camp in the dark nearby. We were pretty tired both mentally and physically. I didn’t even feel like screwing my stove into a canister to cook, so I just ate some granola bars and a cookie and set up my Solplex. Rich spent about 20 minutes moving his tent around trying to figure out where was far enough from the water, flat enough for sleeping, and yet far enough from the neighbors’ bear bag to feel safe. We were both pretty pissed that the people in the lean-to had decided that the edge of the campsite was a prime spot to hang a bear bag. Being that it was dark and they were asleep we didn’t wake them up to share our feelings. But I just can’t help but to point out that even if you think you’re alone at a campsite, be courteous! Never set a bear bag up close to camp… hike back at least a few hundred yards in the opposite direction of the water and the campsite. Do not ruin it for others, please.
I convinced him that we were safe and that our lives were not in danger and we talked before turning in early again.I fell asleep to the chorus of owls and geese, with the occasional interlude of a loon. The temperature was again hovering around 29 degrees, and I draped my down jacket over my western mountaineering caribou MF sleeping bag and cocooned myself inside, leaving just a small hole for my mouth. I haven’t slept that well in years. I awoke to the sound of our neighbors taking down their bear bag and hiking out. I kept my mouth shut, after all, it was a new day.
We packed up camp quickly as rain threatened to ruin our morning, but it never did. I snapped a few photos of the lake, the lean to, and Rich’s morning hairdo.
What’s the name of that street fighter character again… Ryu?
As we hiked the next few miles to complete our loop, I fell back a bit and spent some time hiking solo. The eerie feeling of the first day returned as I absorbed the atmosphere of the woods around me. I couldn’t shake the feeling of “abandonment” and bleakness I had felt earlier – but had man abandoned nature after the region was protected, or had nature abandoned man while he was here during the logging days? Did the early loggers and trappers feel this way out here too, or was this feeling left behind by their presence in this place? It almost felt like there were ghosts around me… that feeling is one that I have rarely ever felt before. Were the lost souls who had never made it out of this region watching me, listening to my every step and trying to follow me, trying to find there way ever still…? Or was it just the normal ritual of fall ending and winter making its claim on the woods? Discoveries like this old car only help to deepen those thoughts:
This old car’s undercarriage has sat untouched for who knows how long?
This wooden wheel has lasted as long as the metal. I’d almost still run that tire…
Some elements of design don’t change… this grease and cotter pin have been here for decades and remain unchanged.
As we neared the car I snapped a few more photos that captured the mood.
Fall is coming to an end, as was our trek.
We drove home feeling like we had experienced so much… there was almost too much to absorb to talk much about it. This weekend had left an emotional mark that somewhat re-defined the Adirondacks for me, in such interesting ways. I never knew just how epic and lonely it could feel, even in the company of others. But yet this feeling wasn’t a sad one, nor did it bring anything but the longing for more time in this wilderness, more fish to be caught, and more hikes to be taken with friends in the future. I think I’ve figured that feeling out now… maybe its just a longing to be in such a magical place, clearly owned by nobody and ruled by mother nature alone. I hope that you too can have a chance to visit this vast and complicated wilderness and experience it for yourself. If you plan to fish, bring a raft!
Logging roads lead in and out of the wilderness area.