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Locked Up

The Saranac Lake Uppers Locks Construction Project

An Adirondack Outlaw Scouting Report

The NYSDEC announced in early September that the upper locks on the Saranac River between lower and Middle Saranac Lakes would be closed until further notice beginning September 18th due to a planned reconstruction upgrade of the existing facility.

Having no immediate plans for boating up through the locks to access Middle Saranac at the time, I simply made mental note of it for future reference.

A bit later in the month, my brother Ray advised me that true to their word, the NYSDEC had indeed closed the locks, and along with them, reservation camping on the Middle Lake until further notice.

The “No Middle Saranac Lake reservation camping until further notice” aspect made me sit up and take note. A Zen Boat scouting mission moved to the top of my October priority list.

I made plans to head downriver for a quick look see on Saturday, October 7th, the opening day of duck hunting season. Those plans were scuttled, however, by experience and my read of the incoming weather. My son and I had danced with that wind fed whitecap Middle Lake fall storm devil before.

I had a sincere interest in putting eyes on the project’s fall status, but not at the risk of becoming the season’s first downed duck myself.

So, I sat safely at home through the weekend, watching it storm, for once in my life actually letting discretion be the better part of my valor.

However, as Monday, Columbus Day, approached, and with it a break in the weather, I loaded gear, camera & guns. I’d been locked up long enough.

The rains had let up overnight, but the pre-dawn winds were still steady, coming out of the south, blowing right down the South Creek chute coming off Stony Creek Mountain as my trusty Zen Boat and I quietly made our way quietly onto our favorite lake, hoping to jump the new season’s first ducks.

Columbus Day View:
Middle Saranac Lake, looking back towards South Creek

I’d jumped a small flock of three black ducks as I paddled my way down through the South Creek channel just prior to sunrise. I just smiled, nodded and watched that flock fly. This was primarily a scouting excursion. I was only casually hunting. I was armed with my camera. At that point I had not even loaded my gun.

The devil’s winds are deceiving on Saranac’s middle lake. The morning waters were relatively calm as I loaded my gun and my Zen Boat & I slowly made our way down along the lake’s south shoreline contours.

My Zen Boat & I didn’t encounter any more ducks as we worked down the lake. We did encounter a fisher cat scurrying along the rocks, and at one point had a bald eagle swoop low from its perch in the trees overhead. I wasn’t quick enough on the draw to snap a photo of either, but did manage to successfully capture this whitetail with my camera as we reached the lake’s eastern Ampersand shore.

My immediate objective was Bull Rush Bay. I wanted to check in on my lifelong cedar log lean-to friend. I looked out across the lake. Whitecap waves were crashing off First Island & Norway. I sighed and patted my trusty Zen Boat’s camo painted gunnel.

“We’ve danced with this devil before, my friend. Don’t fail me now.”

“The Devil’s Dance”
Destination: Bull Rush Bay

Winds still blowing stiff from the south, the ride across the lake was bumpy but quick. I barely had to paddle. Which was a good thing, because my paddle was my rudder, the only thing keeping my Zen Boat & I from getting turned broadside to the whitecaps that gained increasing strength as we left behind the south shore’s safe harbor.

My Zen Boat & I once again successfully outdanced the lake’s devil together. We reached Bull Rush Bay without incident.

Everything at the lean to seemed in good order. I could tell from the undisturbed carpet of pine needles that no one had been camped in there recently.

The Bull Rush Bay Lean-to
My Cedar Log Home

It was still early, not yet 9 a.m. I made a cell phone safety check call-in to my wife. I then decided to work back towards the channel and down into the river before the lake’s wind fed waves became utterly prohibitive.

Leaving Bull Rush Bay
Whitecap foam on the water

I jumped a flock of black ducks at close range as I hit the first bend in the river beyond the ledges. There must not have been much river boat traffic of late. They looked up at me as if to say “How in the hell did this guy get in here?!?” My appearance caught them by surprise.

I successfully bagged one duck dinner. My oldest daughter was going to be pleased. She has always savored the flavor of wild duck.

Protected to some degree from the wind, there was still good color on the trees along the banks of the river.

With what I considered a morning’s hunting success, I unloaded and stowed my gun. I then worked on down around the last bends in the river, towards my primary objective, an up-close view of progress on the locks.

Somewhat to my surprise, I could hear men at the locks working as I approached “Diamond Rock”. I don’t know why I call it that. I’m not sure it’s even shaped like a diamond. I guess I just have always called it that since I was a kid.

Be that as it may, once I reached Diamond Rock, I began snapping photos of the upper locks construction site.

Long Range View:
The Upper Locks Construction Project

I am not sure what I was expecting to find, but what I did see surprised me. There was a big fence around what had been the locks. A crew was on site diligently working, on Columbus Day, no less. Maybe they were bunked there on site in the caretaker’s cabin. Whatever the case, as I drew nearer, it was clear the project was already pretty far along.

Since the NYSDEC announcement had stated that canoes & kayaks would still be able to portage the locks site during the course of the project, I paddled in and pulled my Zen Boat ashore on the rocks, well beyond the fence, near the cabin.

As I approached the fence with my camera, one of the men looked up, gave me a quick nod and a greeting.

“How ya doin’?”

I took that as consent to my presence. So, I began snapping photos as I walked the rocks along the fence line.

The old wickets and gates had already been removed.

It looked to me like several sections of new railing have been installed, and a great deal of new concrete has been or is in the process of being poured.

Though at this point the old boat dock, slip and decking have not yet been replaced.

All in all, a surprising degree of progress has already been made. Rome wasn’t built in a day, or rebuilt, for that matter. I am certain a great deal of work lies ahead.

I don’t know what the final product will look like. Will it function as the old locks did, or will we all have to learn a new set of mechanisms? I guess we will all have to wait and see.

I’m also not certain what the construction completion timeline looks like. With an Adirondack winter ahead, and then beyond that, a black fly cold water spring, I’m sure the crew will face many seasonal challenges before project completion allows the locks to be re-opened.

I am quite certain of one thing though. We all look forward to the new upper locks and are grateful for all of the hard work and effort the NYSDEC and on-site crew are committing to this project.

Upper locks scouting mission complete, I relaunched my Zen Boat and retraced my route home.


Until Our Trails Cross Again: