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A Zen Boat Journey of Discovery

Spending a “Shipwrecked” Day

Exploring Middle Saranac Lake’s Ship Island

Middle Saranac Lake
South Creek Channel View
“Ship Island”

The landscape canopy was still fully arrayed in splendid shades of bright green as my wife Robin & I made our way up along Route 3 from Watertown for what was intended as our annual late summer Middle Saranac Lake canoe trip.

We set sail aboard my Zen Boat canoe shortly after 10am on the first Tuesday morning just beyond Labor Day. We hoped the late summer mid-week lake traffic would be sparse following the holiday weekend as parents prepared kids for the return to school. We were looking forward to a quiet day trip on the lake for what we had planned as a three-hour tour. As every kid who grew up watching Gilligan’s Island on TV knows, “a three-hour tour” is how most shipwrecks start.

We were pleasantly surprised by the stark contrast we encountered as our vessel quietly cut rippled wake trails through the water. September’s early fall colors were coming in hard as my wife & I made our way down through South Creek.

“Early Fall Foliage”
September 5, 2023
South Creek

Not being a botanist, I’m not certain what causes South Creek’s strikingly vibrant early fall color change contrast with the surrounding terrain. My uneducated guess would be that it must be due in some way to the chemical composition of the pungently mucky bog soil in that area, or to that of the tannin-stained waters flowing down off the slopes of Stony Creek Mountain.

Stony Creek Mountain
September 5, 2023
View from South Creek

Regardless, there we were, my wife Robin & I, comfortably ensconced in our Zen Boat canoe, rowing our way down through South Creek, admiring the foliage on a beautifully bright sunny late summer early September fall leaf colored morning.

We were almost to the last bend before South Creek’s contents became lake, when right there beside us I spotted a small turtle, sitting there on a lily pad, minding its own business, enjoying the morning, sunning itself.

Now, at this point, folks have to appreciate that my reputation as a turtle photographer is somewhere beyond dubious.

The scenario generally consists of me spotting a turtle, getting all excited, fumbling around in my Zen Boat as I try simultaneously to stop forward progress and get the lens cap off my camera while not losing an oar in the water in my effort to zoom in for some close-up turtle photography. The outcome is inevitably me sitting there in frustration, foiled again as the turtle chuckles at my clumsy attempt and slides off into the water with me left there, photoless.

On this day, however, my lucky stars were aligned. The turtle I had spotted sitting there on a lily pad was both photogenic and patient.

Not only did that turtle sit there posing patiently while I got the lens cap off my camera, but it continued to sit there when, after the first turtle shot, my camera’s batteries went dead! I rummaged around through my rucksack, scrounging up some replacements. The turtle continued sitting there as I ejected the old batteries, inserted new ones, then maneuvered my Zen boat around to get one nicely posed close up turtle shot.

Buoyed by my newfound success as a turtle photographer, we continued our journey out onto the lake, leaving behind the fall leaf color kaleidoscope that appeared to be strictly confined to the shoreline along South Creek.

The lake was mirror still as we cleared South Creek’s mouth & passed by a seagull perched atop a monstrous dinosaur boulder. I’ve long been in awe of that boulder, sitting there like some prehistoric channel marker perfectly placed there by giants.

Nature’s South Creek Channel Marker
(I’ve had greater success photographing seagulls than turtles)

As we passed by the boulder, off in the distance, another Middle Saranac Lake denizen entered our view. We were clearly being surveilled. My wife & I spotted an eagle proudly perched atop the masthead of Ship Island’s westerly pointed bow.

While bald eagles have become a more frequent sighting on our family’s frequent forays into Middle Saranac Lake, it is still exciting to see them. I maneuvered my Zen Boat canoe into closer range slowly, by degrees, my wife and I each snapping photos each time I swung the canoe sideways & came to a stop. We managed to get in fairly close for some photos before the eagle finally spread its wings and took flight.

“Ship Island’s Lookout”

I’ve long been fascinated by Ship Island. I don’t know much of its official history, but I would surmise that it got its name due to its shape. It actually looks like some sort of ancient three masted schooner, moored there for eternity on Middle Saranac Lake, quietly biding its time until nature weighs its anchor and sets it to sail.

Once the eagle sailed off, we circumnavigated the island while I snapped the following series of photos.

When viewed sequentially, they appear to actually capture Ship Island in motion.

I am still not entirely clear on the sequence of events that transpired shortly thereafter, the outcome of which was our Zen boat canoe suddenly aground, its passenger & crew washed ashore on a deserted island.

So there my wife and I were, on Ship Island, shipwrecked.

Though it is quite possible our circumstance may well have been voluntary.

There is no designated campsite on the island.

Though there were clear signs that we were far from being its first human inhabitants.

I immediately began scouting the area, because one important lesson I’ve learned from studying the last seventeen seasons of ALONE is that any found items are fair game in the fight for shipwrecked island survival. Accordingly, I almost immediately spotted & salvaged several nice lengths of good cordage.

“Shipwrecked Salvage”

Cordage would come in quite handy for all sorts of key survival tasks, such as building a shelter, strategically placed snares for catching mice, squirrels and rabbits, a fire making bow drill, fishing rod or a net, or as lashings in the event we suddenly needed to build a raft because a rogue bear poked big holes in our Zen boat.

However, I did not rest on my laurels. One thing I knew from a “Castaway” shipwrecked island survival training film mentor named Wilson:

“WILSON !!!”

After doing the math,

we were gonna need more rope.

All kidding aside, there are several interesting aspects to Ship Island, which appears, geologically speaking, to have at some point in the Adirondack’s earthly history, risen up from Middle Saranac Lake’s depths primarily as one solid moss-covered bedrock formation, caped in a canopy of white birch and conifers.

Ship Island’s Western Crest
One solid mass of moss-covered bedrock.

There is a well-defined little trail that runs the ridge crest island length.

Ship Island measures approximately 134 yards long,

bow to stern.

I know this for a fact because every good Army Ranger knows his pace count & I paced it off.

A well-defined trail running the length of Ship Island

Ship Island’s contours are very narrow, and quite steep. About four paces wide across the peak, the terrain rises well over thirty feet at its highest point from the base, which is not more than twenty yards across at its widest point.

Another interesting aspect of Ship Island’s construct I discovered is that it runs almost perfectly east west, like headings on a good old-fashioned magnetic compass.

Ship Island’s Stern Setting
“Due East”
Ship Island’s Bow Heading
“Due West”

I discovered several nice vista points while traversing the trail:

Hungry Bay is visible across the lake to the north.

Hungry Bay from Ship Island
“Due North”

On the other side of the island sits a vista of Stony Creek Mountain and the channel entrance to South Creek.

Stony Creek Mountain & South Creek
“Due South”

Ampersand Mountain is visible from the island’s southeastern stern shoreline.

Ampersand Mountain
View from Ship Island’s Shoreline

So, with our day’s shipwrecked island landing site fully reconnoitered & scouted, my wife & I did what all of our survivor’s training films taught. We harvested wet stones from Ship Island’s rocky danger buoy marked underwater bow shoals.

Then sent out an S.O.S. signal, constructed of rocks.

I’d have built a big “HELP!” signal bonfire, but that somehow seemed a bit over the top.

Plus, the last thing I need at this point in my outlaw life is more warrants.

Shipwrecked survivor’s tasks successfully complete, while we awaited rescue, my wife & I settled back in under our shaded cedar bough canopy for some lunch…

And a nap.

Another appealing Ship Island aspect is its highly elevated level of quiet. There is a distinct lack of chattering chipmunks, scolding red squirrels, or animate activity of any sort about.

This is a factor I may have accidentally on some previous Middle Saranac Lake Adirondack Outlaw adventures discovered. For while there is no NYSDEC designated campsite on this island, I may or may not have once or twice taken up refuge on the island, fallen asleep seated under the stars, and taken a nap that lasted through the night until morning.

(That is not a confession. I’m simply offering up a hypothetical scenario.)

Be that as it may, fully rested and with no sign of impending rescue in sight, as afternoon waned, my wife & I packed up our gear, bid farewell to Ship Island, and rescued ourselves.

We piloted our Zen boat canoe back up through South Creek and headed for Saranac Lake’s Adirondack Artists’ Guild to view some Bloomingdale Bogscapes.

But that Adirondack Outlaw adventure is a whole ‘nother story.


Until Our Trails Cross Again: