In the early years, 1998 through 2001, we didn’t have our own boat. We still enjoyed Saranac Lake, but in retrospect, it was nowhere near as much fun as having your own boat, tied up fifty feet from your unit, ready to hop into whenever you wanted.
Our first trip to Saranac Lake was in 1998. I know that because one of my most prized possessions is a well-worn USGS topographic map of Saranac Lake, which I have noted with trip highlights over the years. In the lower left is an “X” on Middle Saranac Lake, with the brief note, “picnic 8/20/98.”
Nate was 7 and Anna was 5 that year; it was our first real vacation since the kids had been born. Elaine and I had talked about the vacations we had taken when we were children. And we both liked the idea of a car trip to some destination in the Northeast. Her family had frequently gone camping, and at eight years old, she had figured out how to put up the family-size tent, while her father enjoyed a cold beer. One of their destinations had been Fish Creek, near Upper Saranac Lake. As my own family had always stayed in house-keeping cabins in Cape Cod or Maine, the idea of camping out, huddling in some cold nasty tent in the rain, appalled me.
But the destination, the Adirondacks, seemed interesting, and I had learned in twelve years of marriage that suggesting something familiar to my wife, something related to her own experience, was more likely to fly than some wholly alien concept. I used this new “internet” thing from my office computer to locate a promising place: the Ampersand Bay Boat Club, in the Saranac Lakes area, with housekeeping cabins. Cleverly having dodged the camping bullet, I presented the idea to Elaine, who agreed.
We reserved a cabin for a week, paid for it in advance, and arrived there in the first week of August, 1998. John and Kate were the owners and managers. They were definitely low-key. The cabins were adequately maintained, but no more. The towels were thin, well-worn, white with a green stripe, the type you’d find in any cheap motel. You carried your trash to the recycling area out back. They had a few rowboats for hire, equipped with 8 hp outboard motors, and one blue pontoon boat with a … *drum roll, please* … 25 hp motor. A distinctly low maintenance operation.
There were about 20 cabins clustered around an open grassy area fronting the lake and a little weedy beach. Standing on the beach, looking out west at Ampersand Bay, the three-story main building and driveway was on your right. Off to the left was the so-called Heron Creek Boathouse, a building even more run-down than the cabins, incorporating six tiny units perched above the boats.
One day that first year, I ventured to rent one of the rowboats. Nate and Anna donned their proper yellow life-preservers, with headpieces to help keep their little heads out of the water in the event, and we piled in. John showed me how to start the boat, how to use the throttle, and how to steer the boat with the motor. I nodded and tried to absorb, and then, on my own, promptly backed the boat in a nearly-circular course, stopped only by the weeds fouling the prop. We pushed off with the oars, cleared the tangled green mess out of the prop, got someone to shove us off a safe distance, and started the motor again. Or tried to start it. Drifting back to the dock, John took mercy on us, started the outboard, and shoved us off.
I gripped the tiller tightly and we moved off noisily. We certainly did not “speed off,” but chugged along, me with my hand on the tiller, grimly willing the boat forward. I had a map of the lake and my first thought was to explore the inlets and bays like Pope Bay, which we quickly learned, all look alike from the water. We motored on gamely, aiming for the river at the far western end of the lake.
Heading out there for the first time, the river channel leading up to Middle Saranac Lake was not easy to find, and we ended up in the dead end of Boot Bay. Circling back, we passed through the Narrows and found the red and green buoys marking the channel. Motoring up the winding river, through the lock, and continuing farther through even more swampy flooded land, it was beautiful, but a bit endless. Eventually we emerged into a broad open lake, thick with a distinctive water-grass in the shallows. The channel cut through the grass, when we got out onto the much larger openness of this lake, we decided to turn right and see what might be on shore. (We thus missed the main attraction of Middle Saranac Lake, its wonderful sandy beach, hiding several hundreds yard to the left.) With the young kids quite worn out and the sky getting overcast, we spotted an unoccupied campsite, marked by a blue and white #65 (?) sign. Beaching the boat, and having no choice but to shut off the motor, we ate our sandwiches. With no campfire, threatening clouds, cranky little ones, and a rented motorboat which I had already shown I couldn’t start, we didn’t stay very long. With a yank or two on the cord, John’s 8 hp outboard motor spluttered to life, and we thankfully headed back.
Through the tall grass, through the winding river, again through the lock, more sinuous river, and the rain began to come down. Elaine had brought rain jackets, and we donned them as we regained Lower Saranac Lake. My wrist and arm were tired from holding the throttle at full, but the little boat would only go so fast. We plowed back the 5 miles to Ampersand Bay.
The rest of that week involved car trips to local destinations like the Indian (?) Cave and Mine, fishing off the dock (or rather, watching the kids fish off the dock), and playing with the kids on the little beach at Ampersand.
The week drew to a close, and we liked the place. It seemed possible that might even want to return again the following year. We were not certain, but wanted to explore such a possibility. “John,” I asked, “when would we reserve the cabin if we wanted it again next year?” He smiled the broad smile of a businessman who has just closed a deal, and said “Right now.” We could reserve it then, and not have to put down a deposit until January.” That was easy enough, and if, by chance, we did want to spend another year at this odd little place, we could.
Eleven years later, and we’re still going back for more.