Megan Mayhew-Bergman tackles a historic canoe route – five years after a condescending conversation with a male adventurer. Instead of revenge, she found a touch of transcendence
Five years ago, while on assignment in the Adirondacks – a New York state park with 2m acres of protected land – an over-confident outdoorsman attempted to dazzle me with his recent adventures. He mentioned that he’d just finished the Seven Carries, a historic canoe route through the Saint Regis Canoe Area.
I was annoyed by the conversation – the notes of toxic masculinity, the sense that he was waiting for me to fawn – but intrigued by the route, and decided I would one day complete the Seven Carries myself.
The route was first established in the late 1800s as a route between two Adirondack resorts – the Saranac inn and Paul Smiths hotel, now a college. It requires paddling nearly nine miles of lakes and wild ponds and completing six portages (where the paddler must carry a canoe across land until reaching the next shoreline.) The longest of the carries is 0.6 miles long; most are shorter.
Several things stood between me and this goal. For one, I’m not a confident navigator. If I couldn’t reliably turn the right way out of a hotel elevator towards my room, could I really be trusted to navigate the Adirondack wilderness? Plus, I didn’t have a lightweight canoe, just a heavy kayak I couldn’t lift on to the roof of my car myself.
After some research, I fell in love with Hornbeck Canoes, a brand of boats known for being both lightweight and built in the Adirondacks. Finally, after five years of boat lust, I decided to spring for one and drove into Olmstedville, New York, for a demonstration. I turned off of a dirt road into the lovely enclave of evergreens where the Hornbeck family has been building boats for 40 years.
I could hear saws and smell varnish as I stepped on to Hornbeck’s grounds. Rescue dogs napped in the shade. Mustard yellow and army green canoes were stacked and racked everywhere. I followed a path through several outbuildings until I found a small, shallow pond, where I tried different canoes.
The boats are built with Kevlar, and topped with a rot-resistant cherry wood strip. I chose a model that weighed a surprising 15 pounds – I could carry it on one arm, but it was still strong enough to support me and camping equipment on a backcountry trip.
Although I’ve spent over 20 weeks of my life camping in the Adirondacks, I’ve never been the kind of woman to confidently lasso a canoe to the roof of a car alone. But I have been steadily upskilling. There is power in risk-taking and mobility, and these days I crave more of it.
Now, five years after deciding I would complete the Seven Carries, I had the boat, but not the navigation skills. I mentioned the trip to a close friend, Els, a capable outdoorswoman. She reads maps with ease and grew up exploring the Adirondacks, and agreed to the adventure. We planned our trip organically, sending long texts about logistics when we could, both of us juggling parenting and writing deadlines.
We decided to drive into the Adirondack park the day before our adventure, spending the night near Lake Placid to allow us an early start. Els’ husband strapped two wooden boards to her existing roof rack to make room for our canoes. We took turns sawing the planks down and tying unwieldy straps, then hit the road with a lot of coffee and conversation.
The morning of the trip, we woke at 4.45am. A half-hour later, Els dropped me off with our canoes at Little Clear Pond. She drove to the end of the route at Paul Smiths, where she left the car and used an electric bike to return to our departure point.
My early morning alone on the pond’s edge was an unexpected gift. The sun rose from behind a silhouette of evergreens. Thrushes called from the woods, flute-like. A family of loons swam across on the flat water. I had a chance to inhale the landscape and let it settle me.
Els biked in a half-hour later. We organized our gear, consulted the map, picked our direction and found our rhythm on the water. It was so quiet that it felt wrong to shout to one another across the pond.
We knew the first portage was the longest and hardest, which was why we decided on a south-to-north route. Our shoulders would be fresh and loose, and we’d still have our sense of humor intact. We pulled our boats from the water, Els hoisting hers fully overhead on to her shoulders in a traditional carry, and me slinging mine over one arm.
My first portage wasn’t great, which wasn’t a surprise – I am a capable but chaotic adventurer. My dry bag clunked against the boat and I couldn’t find the best place to hold my paddle. After a half-mile of hiking with a boat on my arm, I was grateful for its light body.
Both of us suffered a little as we carried the boats down slim, well-worn wooden planks until we were standing in the most beautiful marsh area I’ve ever seen. We eased the canoes off our shoulders and on to the water of the Saint Regis Pond.
I stepped into the shallow water – expecting some squish – but the muck swallowed my entire right leg up to my hip. The scent of rich mud enveloped me and my heart was pounding as I gripped the dock and pulled myself out. We laughed, and I slid more strategically into the canoe.
The Saint Regis Pond – remote and only reachable by canoe carry – felt enchanted. Purple pickerelweed surrounded the shoreline; hundreds of damp spider webs glistened in the sun as we navigated to the next portage and Green Pond. Soon, the sun began to burn hotter; the bugs were thicker. I found a leech in my canoe, probably from the moment when my leg plunged into the bog.
I felt content out on the water in the wilderness with a friend, as if I were entirely present for the first time in months. Most of my preoccupations (invisible heartbreaks, work emails and parenting tasks) were drowned out by physicality, exertion and beauty.
At Middlebury College, in Vermont, I teach a class about depictions of women in outdoor literature. We talk about why we adventure – what do we hope to achieve. Adirondack adventurer Anne LaBastille wrote about the “fierce delight” she felt when slinging her backpack into a canoe. I’ve come to cherish that feeling, to look for it in the world. I don’t need to feel like I’m dominating or conquering something in an adventure. I want to feel reverent, or at peace.
While I first latched on to completing the Seven Carries five years ago with what some might call “proving energy”, I now felt settled into something more calm, a flow state, a quieting of the mind, a touch of transcendence. Finishing the route was ideal, but now it was suddenly enough just to be there.
We moved quickly through Little Long Pond and Bear Pond, then to Bog Pond, where the bugs were more ferocious. We navigated cuts and twists, our boats scraping over submerged branches. The water was a shade of melancholy blue. Carnivorous pitcher plants thrive here, rising up from the shallow soil.
Suddenly, we heard the hum of human noise. We spied a blue pickup through the trees, driving down a dirt road. We’d come to our last portage on to the Upper St Regis, a place of the old great camps of the industrialists like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Marjorie Merriweather Post. We stopped to eat lunch on a stone wall, and made small talk with two other boaters headed in the reverse direction.
I used to love the architecture of Great Camps, but right now, as we began our final paddle through the Upper St Regis, Spitfire and Lower St Regis, seeing the physical manifestation of great wealth of industrialists felt unnerving. In the face of staggering wealth, it still feels wise to consider the privilege of adventuring at all – owning a boat, taking time off, feeling relatively safe in the wilderness.
As we passed the Great Camps and their ornate boat houses, our conversation turned to income inequality. We were so deeply involved that we missed the turn towards our final destination. We wound back through another channel and decided – as the sun was bearing down – that it was finally time for a swim. We eased our boats into the shallows, stripped down to our bathing suits and dove down into the cool water. When we both came up for air, a bald eagle circled overhead.
The instructions told us that this last leg was longer than it looked, especially when you’re tired – and it was. We finished the route in the early afternoon, and both agreed that it felt like we had more in the tank, that the canoe route hadn’t taxed us too badly.
On shore, we dumped the water from our boats and hoisted them on to the roof of Els’ car. We drank a beer outside in a light rainstorm, and decided that next time we would go farther.
As someone who imagined the trip five years ago with a chip on her shoulder, this was almost hilarious – a reminder that reactionary thinking creates its own obstacles and rigidity. Perhaps I’ve changed since I first decided on the trip.
Perhaps I have less to prove.