Get Outside: Kayaking in Solitude
A high speed ride in a powerboat is exhilarating, skipping from wave crest to wave crest across the nearby Great Lakes. And I brim with warm, fatherly pride every time I take my children out and teach them how to operate the slow family canoe. But given the opportunity, when I can steal the minutes, my water craft of choice is a kayak. I paddle solo, at my own pace, exploring narrows and low-water hidden slots inaccessible by other vessels, and reveling in a gentle seclusion among the wildlife. Even if you’re accompanied by a couple of friends in kayaks of their own, having sole control over your own boat adds a sense of freedom to the experience.
Here are some quieter options to consider when seeking to avoid crowds on the water.
Ellicott Creek: Flexible for beginners
If you have never tried kayaking before, I recommend Ellicott Creek, a short drive from most of the region, and accessible from a number of put-ins, including one just west of Niagara Falls Boulevard. Ellicott Creek is sufficiently wide, so slow as to be still, and almost without obstructions, hazards, or wake-producing powerboats (unlike the Erie Canal or the Buffalo River and Harbor). A modicum of solitude can be found as you paddle in the back neighborhoods of Amherst, and see familiar terrain from a new angle.
Another beginner benefit of kayaking on Ellicott Creek: you don’t even have to have your own rig to give it a try. On Tuesday evenings throughout the summer, outdoor store Paths, Peaks & Paddles offers clinics and cheap rentals (visit www.pathspeakspaddles.com for more information).
Oak Orchard Creek, Alabama Swamps: Five-mile roundtrip
No two treks on the meandering waterways of the Alabama Swamps are the same. Busy beavers alter the landscape regularly. Formerly main channels become choked in lily pads and cattails. Rotted trees fall, barring entry and creating dams of gathering debris. Paddling Oak Orchard Creek’s swampy headwaters, slinking under branches, and splitting pollen-blanketed ponds, one can feel like an explorer discovering virgin territory.
The best put-in is on the west side of Knowlesville Road (County Road 23). From the Village of Alabama—marked by a blinking red light and the Alabama Hotel restaurant and not much more—go north on State Route 63, turn right on Roberts Road, then left on Knowlesville Road. You’ll find the put-in after the road bends north, and right before the bridge crosses the creek.
The trip starts downstream, to the west, into the publicly accessible Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. While the current is not strong, you will be fighting what little there is on the way back, so be sure to conserve energy for the return trip.
Oak Orchard Creek’s main attraction is the density of flora and fauna. The trees and grasses press in from all sides, occasionally affording only narrow openings for your boat. The shore birds sing a background song from beginning to end, and the herons and geese fly ahead as you meander. Even the fish can be restless, bucking and floundering in the shallows as you pass. Be prepared to double back, as wide channels can shrivel up unexpectedly, forcing you to pick other forks in the road.
After two miles of paddling, a sign of civilization will reappear: the concrete abutment for a bridge that used to span the channel. Sour Springs Road now dead-ends to vehicle traffic, the old link long since removed. You can’t paddle much farther than Sour Springs Road; a beaver has built a massive dam, and portaging through a bog is an exercise in wet-shinned futility. But please go check for yourself, as someday it will be gone; the swamp is ever changing.
Eighteen Mile Creek, Olcott to Burt Dam: Three-and-a-half-mile roundtrip
This short section of creek packs a lot of variety into a small package, and is perfect as part of day’s trip along the Lake Ontario shoreline. Buy some fresh fruit from a roadside stand, stop in a winery or two along the Niagara wine trail, eat lunch on the beach, and then paddle this hidden gem of a waterway.
The most convenient put-in is on the west bank, at the marina run by the Town of Newfane. From most of Western New York, take Lake Road (State Route 18) east along the lake shore, and turn left on West Main Street—before you cross the bridge that spans the creek—to access the marina. Don’t forget to stop at the office to pay the three-dollar launch fee, a small price for a great public facility.
The current is nearly imperceptible for most of this paddle, so don’t be deterred that the first half of the trip is upstream. The creek begins wide and slow, a mix of marsh-tailed wetlands and forested slopes through a low gorge, the slate just peeking through at the waterline; a couple thousand years from now, our descendants will paddle through a much deeper and more rocky path. The habitat variety of this first section makes it akin to a water-based nature hike: on my last trip, I surprised a family of groundhogs digging into the muddy bank, saw turtles sunning themselves on half-submerged logs, and caught kingfishers, red-winged blackbirds, and all manner of waterfowl among the reeds. Through it all, enviable homes along the gorge rim are discreetly shrouded in trees, or set back from the lip, so that the dominant effect is natural, not domestic.
The creek tightens considerably at the old Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg railroad trestle, which still majestically spans the gap, but connects nothing. From here, the stony bottom of the waterway rises to the surface, and increased skill and confidence are required to continue. As you pick among the rocks and wind your way up, remember that the current increases as it finds the deepest channel, but if you can do it, pushing the extra quarter mile is worth the effort. The fisherman flock to this section to snare the chinook salmon, steelhead, and brown trout that spawn here and chase away thousands of minnows that take refuge in the eddies behind the largest boulders. Fight upstream far enough, and you are rewarded with the ultimate view: the high Burt Dam and its spillway—no less than a wall of water rushing toward your kayak.
Brian Castner’s first book, The Long Walk, will be published this month by Doubleday. Learn more at briancastner.com.