A river worthy of respect

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One of many rock gardens on the south arm of the Grasse River parallel to Tooley Pond Road. French photo of Tom

By Tom French

My adventurous 20 year old daughter has been watching this trip since I took her to the top of Copper Rock Falls last year and saw the yellow ‘canoe carry’ discs. Like most paddles with her, I knew it would involve covering several miles with our 18ft canoe. Ah, the things we do for love.

This section of the Grasse River is so remote that even Jamieson doesn’t know it. At the time of writing (1994 edition), he was private with “guardian patrols” and the risk of “confrontation with this gambling club”, but that all changed in 1999 with the state acquisition of New York from the South Branch Corridor. along the Tooley Pond Pathwhich stretches between Degrasse and Cranberry Lake in St. Lawrence County.


RELATED: “The Park’s Most Magnificent Waterfalls”


Our original plan was for May, shortly after Emma returned from college, but recent rains had swollen all the creeks and creeks. I recognized the access along Spruce Mountain Rd (next to Tooley Pond Rd) and it was ripping. Other research has suggested that caution is advised. The rapids can be technical, cold and challenging. Moreover, information from various sources was incomplete, contradictory and incorrect. I decided to postpone the trip, and I’m glad we did. This river is not for the faint of heart. A spring trip when the water is high and cold is best left to the experts with the right gear, including a wetsuit.

We tackled it in mid-August. We spotted the takeout at First Brook Hand Launch, about a quarter mile south of Rainbow Falls, when we dropped a car. It was clearly marked just downstream of the class II rapids.

The easiest part of this Grasse River Paddle is the bridge access along the Spruce Mountain Road, four miles upstream from the top of Copper Rock Falls.
The easiest part of this Grasse River Paddle is the bridge access along the Spruce Mountain Road, four miles upstream from the top of Copper Rock Falls. French photo of Tom

Half an hour later, we were parking the Highlander at the Spruce Mountain Road boat launch, where a bridge crosses the river. The rapids that had been submerged in May were just below the bridge, but we hauled the canoe along the shore and launched below them.

Emma’s first response as we cruised down the river was “Wow, that’s beautiful.” Something she said several times throughout the day despite our difficulties.

We passed a campsite on the right with signs of use, a beaver jumped off the shore and slid under our boat, then we came to our first gravel bed which required getting out of the boat and floating over 30 meters. A tall conifer, with a designated DEC campsite disk nailed to its trunk, had been deposited in the middle of the shallows during a flood – demonstrating the potential power of the river. Cedar wax wings swooped down on us. I suspect they were nesting in the deadfall.

The power of the South Branch of the Grasse River in the flood phase can be seen along much of the river where trees and debris accumulate along the bank.
The power of the South Branch of the Grasse River when it is in the flood phase can be seen along much of the river where trees and debris accumulate along the bank. French photo of Tom

A second, more difficult rock garden was a third of a mile away. Below I started looking for signs of the Long Rapids portage on the right, but we were quickly in the bones and never found the trail. Dave Cilley, in his “Adirondack Paddler’s Guide” (Paddlesports Press, 4th Edition), says “Most people…run the rapids.” Or walk them, which we did, although we were able to float in a 20 meter pool and then navigate pillows and slides for another 20 minutes. Ninety minutes later, we hit rock bottom. Maybe a bushwhack would have been easier.

rocky passage fat river
Floating the Long Rapids – Not having found the half mile portage along the right side of the river, we floated the canoe through most of the Class II drop. Dave Cilley in his Adirondack Paddler’s Guide suggests that most people take these rapids, although the water should be higher at a time when it’s probably also colder. French photo of Tom

Cilley’s map shows a short reach (with a campsite) through a point of land around a bend, although I think Cilley is confusing the portages as he implies a length of 375 yards for the second reach. It was under 50. No sign of the campsite despite a disc.

We relaunched the canoe with the deep hope that it might be in calm water the rest of the way to Copper Rock Falls, but the sleepers kept jumping into the troubled waters and biting the bottom of our boat, and then we have spotted a well-marked report. the left – clearly the real Brumagin Rapids.

‘Wilderness Factor 9’

Cilley classifies the river as a “wilderness factor 9”, but his descriptions have several inaccuracies, including a travel distance of 20 miles, the missing transport through this point, and the distance from the Brumagin portage. My calculations put it at half a mile.

The good news is that it is well marked and after a short jaunt up a hill you reach an old logging road that will make you think you should have brought wheels, even though it quickly turns into brush with thickets of tall ferns and multiple windfalls that require weaving right and left or stepping over. Watch for the yellow discs as the trail eventually leaves the road back to the river. Don’t get excited when you see the water. You will have to walk another 200 meters in the most difficult section. Expect scratches on your arms and legs unless you are well dressed.

Long, calm water ensues that makes you think you finally have a chance to reach Copper Rock Falls, but a Class III drop into a pool before the portage was like every other wading pool that day.

It was 4pm when we reached the bottom of the Copper Rock Carry, a 100ft half mile drop. We could have bailed out and walked to the car along Tooley Pond Road, but decided to continue knowing we could bail out again at Newbridge Bridge. We left the marked trail to reach the bottom of the Copper Rock waterfalls. It quickly became another bushwhack to access flat water.

Fortunately, multiple rapids and rapids are punctuated by splendid sections of calm water, although rocks often bite the bottom of our boat from below.
Fortunately, multiple rapids and rapids are punctuated by splendid sections of calm water, although rocks often bite the bottom of our boat from below. French photo of Tom

But that still water, almost to takeout, was the most enjoyable of the day. Perhaps it was the late hour of the afternoon and the glow of the sun. We went under the bridge and decided to continue.

We navigated several fast water sections which were almost exhilarating. We spotted the railway line leading to the Clifton Mines on the left. The DEC may open it to vehicular traffic at some point. This may provide better access to this part of the river – an easier set up at the bottom of Copper Rock Falls or the bridge would really provide some recreational paddling.

Half a mile above the exit we encountered our last significant rapids. Maybe because we were tired and it was six o’clock, it seemed like the toughest tenth of a mile of the day. The water was dark and the hard to see rocks were slippery.

The canoe transport sign was in view when we reached the last Class II drop. By then we knew our day was over other than picking up the Highlander.

I wouldn’t recommend this paddle except for the sturdiest ones. It’s a serious adventure in the Adirondack wilderness. With more riffles and rapids than I can count, most requiring getting out of the canoe, as well as challenging portages, it was a long day that took eight hours to cover eight miles. I told my wife that if Emma ever said she was only doing it for me, let me know, because I’m only doing it for her.


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