Photo Essay: Weekend Canoe Camping in New York’s Adirondack Mountains
Meals cooked over an open fire, skinny dipping in the sunshine, hammock naps, lazy paddles, and generous whiskey pours in the great outdoors
During my first decade in New York City, exploring what the Empire State had to offer outdoors-wise wasn’t exactly high on my priority list—flying west was faster and easier anyway. Then a contributor submitted a photo essay from a canoe camping trip to a small lake just south of the New York State-Canadian border and I realized there was a whole world that I was missing, way up north—the Adirondacks.
A unique wilderness area composed of public and private lands, the Adirondack Park was designated “Forever Wild” in 1892, permanently preserving six million acres of pristine wilderness for future generations to explore and enjoy. To put this into perspective, that’s bigger than Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountain, and Glacier National Parks combined.
The Adirondack Park is home to the oldest mountains in North America—once the territory of Iroquois-speaking Mohawk and Oneida, and the Algonquian-speaking Mahicans—and the state’s highest peak, Mount Marcy. Not to mention nearly 30,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 3,000 lakes and ponds, including Upper, Middle, and Lower Saranac Lakes. Within these three lakes exist 86 individual islands of varying size, upon many of which you can camp (if you manage to snag a ReserveAmerica reservation six months ahead of time). It’s the perfect place for a casual canoe camping trip.
On a recent long weekend we loaded up the rig with a generous collection of camp gear and rallied 275 miles due north from FM HQ in Manhattan, before picking up a canoe rental and setting out towards our own private island campsite.
"When daily life consists mainly of staring at screens, lazy lakeside days are more valuable than we can ever imagine."
The beauty of canoe camping is that, assuming your itinerary involves zero portaging, you can treat it almost like car camping. Two full size camping chairs? Sure. A proper cast iron skillet? Of course. A second stainless steel can of Stillhouse Whiskey? Naturally. This ain’t no ultralight backpacking trip, folks. And boy is it nice.
The downside of canoe camping is, well, boats are kinda freaky if you’re not super experienced. A little weather can turn an otherwise mellow paddle into quite a puckering situation. This summer’s visit marked my third trip to the Saranac Lake Islands Campground, and my third time having at least one moment where I thought my precious collection of rare camping gear from all over the world was going to end up at the bottom of the lake (like my Contax T2 did in 2018). Nevertheless, and despite Mother Nature’s modest efforts to blow us off course on both our paddle in and out, we managed to stay dry throughout.
Over the course of four days we tried our best to do the least. On these island camping trips, rest and relaxation is the end-all, be-all. Big, late breakfasts with Stillhouse-spiked coffee. Afternoons spent lounging on sun baked rocks like a lizard. Early dinners cooked over an open flame. Black Bourbon straight for dessert. And, of course, the occasional sightseeing paddle in between.
When daily life consists of staring at screens of varying sizes for more hours in a day than we’d ever like to admit, lazy lakeside days are more valuable than we can ever imagine. With this in mind, we’ll keep this trip report short—and let the beautiful film photography do the talking.
5 Do’s & Don'ts of Island Canoe Camping on Saranac Lake
Do pack in firewood but don’t stress about running out—there’s almost always surplus left over at empty sites nearby from previously over-prepared campers.
Don’t worry about bears, but do keep an eye on chipmunks. These extremely cute and clever little buggers are quick to steal a bite of bread or granola bar if left unattended.
Do let the lake chill your canned beverages—a local Labatt, or Stillhouse Vodka, perhaps—but be sure to secure them in place with larger rocks as surprise boat wakes and wind can allow floating cans to escape.
Don’t be shy about swimming in your birthday suit. It’s the wilderness after all—getting a little wild is only natural.
Do bring an extra insulated blanket or two. When next to water, a 65 degree night can feel much cooler than you might expect so overpack in the comfy bedding department.
Scroll on for more film photography from our Upstate NY weekend escape.