By George! A myriad of islands, nestled between
steep mountain cliffs, is the perfect setting
for Adirondack boating adventures.
What is it about Lake George that stirs songwriters into action? Try the most spectacular scenery east of the Grand Canyon. Imagine a thirty-mile-long Norwegian fjord plopped down into the middle of the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Long and narrow with a jagged shoreline, the lake is ringed by mountains whose shoulders drop 2,000 vertical feet or more into the deep, clear water. Much of the lakeshore is so steep and rugged that no road has ever traversed it. Secluded coves shelter isolated cabins and campsites accessible only by boat.

One of Americaís oldest summer resorts, Lake George was discovered long ago by visitors from New York City. Hordes of them. Songwriter Christopher Shaw likes to exaggerate, but his claim that his hometown swells from a winter population of 3,500 to "a little over a million in the summer" isnít far off the mark. Still, a resourceful sailor can enjoy Lake George without the crowds. The secret password is islands.

Two hundred islands dot the lakeís surface. Islands with names like Flirtation, Scotch Bonnet, Rock Dunder, Floating Battery, and Hen and Chickens. Fortunately, most of the islands are owned by the State of New York, which has established campsites on several dozen of them. Imagine waking up, opening your tent flap, and seeing a glistening expanse of water lying at the foot of a 2,500-foot peak.

Whether youíre on an island with 50 campsites or just a single site, each campsite has its own dock, tent platform, stone hearth, outhouse or chemical toilet, and a garbage can thatís emptied daily. Since the nearest roads are miles away, thereís no electricity or running water. Long-term campers (the maximum stay is two weeks) come equipped with essentials like ice chests, gas stoves, laptop computers, and battery-powered TVs and VCRs.

We travel light on our weekend trips, in order to squeeze three adults and camping gear into a 13-foot sailboat. That means limiting ourselves to a tent, sleeping bags and pads, dry clothes, a cooler crammed with food, and donít forget the flashlight and matches!

Where the fun begins

On our first trip to Lake George, the biggest obstacle was finding a place to launch our boat. In the summer months, the ramps are controlled by private operators who charge outrageous sums for the privilege, and they donít cater to sailors. We were persona non grata everywhere. "Sailboats take too long to launch," we were told repeatedly as we were escorted back to the highway. Finally we found a more hospitable ramp at Bolton Landing, and thatís where the fun started.

Once afloat, we tacked upwind to the Long Island ranger station, where we paid our bargain-basement camping fee and reserved a campsite. Sites are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, and you must show up in person at one of three ranger stations, all of them situated on islands accessible only by boat. Itís a logistical nightmare for the unprepared. Imagine sailing halfway across the lake, only to find a No Vacancy sign. And on a Friday or Saturday in August, thatís the rule, not the exception. If you get a sudden uncontrollable urge to go island camping, make sure itís a Sunday or Monday morning when everyone is leaving, or go in early July when the waterís still cold and the lake is uncrowded. A better idea is to plan your trip two weeks ahead and make a credit card reservation. It wonít guarantee you the campsite of your choice, but it will guarantee you a campsite.

Armed with two important documents - our lake chart and our camping fee receipt - we navigated the maze of islands until we found our campsite, just as the wind died. Pitching our tent under the tall cedars at the waterís edge, we ate a quick supper and slid into our sleeping bags as darkness fell around us.

Waking up late Sunday morning, it was already sunny and hot, perfect for a before-breakfast swim. In fact, that day we spent more time in the water than out of it. And what clear water! Except at the southern tip of the lake, you can easily see rocks ten or fifteen feet below the surface.

Adirondack Alcatraz

All good things come to an end, and for my friends Steve and Cindy the end came that afternoon. I sailed them back to their car at Bolton Landing, but I was ready for more adventure. I decided to change campsites. I wanted an entire island to myself! So I reached single-handed through the Narrows, the most spectacular part of the lake, and landed at the Glen Island ranger station. Looking over the chart, I put my money on Little Gourd Island.

Little Gourd turned out to be a desolate rock outcrop, 50 feet long by 20 feet wide, and it was just too small. It felt like Alcatraz. When the freshening breeze began to waft the ripe aroma of the outhouse in my direction, I abandoned the tent platform and moved my tent to a small carpet of moss on the very tip of the windward end of the island.

It was a restless night in solitary confinement as the wind blew ferociously, the waves crashed ever closer to my tent, lightning flickered across the sky and thunder rumbled behind the mountainsides. But the rain held off, and Monday dawned sunny and warm again, with a gentle breeze. I swam again, ate breakfast, and explored a few of the postage-stamp size "picnic islands," before sailing back to Bolton Landing, much wiser for my experience.

Cruising the rugged east shore

Everything clicked on our second trip. Avoiding the south end of the lake, with its petty launch-ramp tyrants and their obnoxious stinkpot clientele, we drove instead to Hulettís Landing halfway up the rugged east shore. There we launched the Over Easy free of charge, and there in front of us, barely a hundred yards away, was the Narrow Island ranger station! You could swim to it if you had to.

We chose a campsite on St. Sacrament Island, and it was our favorite by far. The sites were spaced well apart from each other, the island had a wooded interior to explore, it was away from the all-night motorboat traffic in the main channel, and the views were breathtaking in all directions.

Using St. Sacrament as a base, we explored Lake Georgeís northern half as far as Blairs Bay. Farther north, the clumps of islands disappear, and the rugged cliffs and rockslides give way to gentle hills. Route 9N hugs the west shore, but the largely roadless east shore offers a multitude of secret swimming and picnicking spots. We watched windsurfers, water skiers, a yacht race and parachute sailing.

It was a perfect weekend until the very last moments, when a drenching rain squall bore down on us as we were drifting into the beach at Hulettís Landing. We tossed our gear in the car, winched the Over Easy onto its trailer in record time, and dripped all over the seats as we climbed the steep, winding road over the mountain to Whitehall.

Next summer's goal is to sail from Hulettís Landing all the way to Ticonderoga and back, without getting rained on!

Copyright © 1989, 2003 by Jamieson L. Hess. All rights reserved worldwide.
Original edition first appeared in July 1989 in OFFSHORE Magazine.