NEWCOMB, N.Y. — Canoe campers and kayakers seeking solace in the wilds of New York's newest lake-studded Adirondack playground will encounter a few rules that run counter to the mountainous region's tradition of unfettered access.
In the Essex Chain Lakes, permits and reservations are required to pitch a tent under lakeside pines. And forget about gathering around a cheerful, crackling fire and toasting marshmallows. Campfires are forbidden.
The rules are part of a management plan proposed for the Essex Chain Lakes near Newcomb in Essex County. Although the public comment period on the plan doesn't end until Friday, the Department of Environmental Conservation has opened the area to camping under an interim plan that designates parking areas, launch sites and 13 tent sites accessible by permits administered by the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb.
"In general, we don't want to have a reservation system," said Joe Martens, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and avid outdoorsman, during a recent canoe tour of the new camping area. "But some places have a popularity problem. Permits are a good way of regulating the number of people and protecting the resource."
The permit system in the Essex Chain Lakes, which allows camping for up to three nights, is the only one of its kind in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Other areas require permits only when campers want to stay in the same spot for more than three nights. Permits were discussed when the 2000 management plan was being developed to ease severe overuse problems in the eastern High Peaks region near Lake Placid, but the plan was rejected.
And the ban on fires?
"We went back and forth on that decision for a long time," Martens said. "Campfires are a tradition. It's awesome to be able to have a campfire. But in this case, resource protection came first."
Right now, the forest surrounding the lakes is dense and rich, with dead, silvery tree trunks riddled with woodpecker holes, fallen branches decaying into mossy hummocks and bleached sticks strewn haphazardly. This is what natural forest looks like in the Northeast. Around campsites with fire rings, the woods are soon wide open and park-like, picked clean of every combustible twig.
The only other place in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park where campfires are forbidden is the eastern High Peaks region.
"I really want a campfire, but I understand DEC's point," said Lee Schaller, a kayaker from Niskayuna who enjoys remote wilderness camping. "I'm kind of in the middle about that."
The 18,000-acre Essex Chain Lakes tract is part of 161,000 acres purchased by The Nature Conservancy from Finch, Pruyn timber company in 2007. In 2012, the state purchased the Essex Chain tract, which includes 18 ponds ranging from 3 to 261 acres and prominent wild and scenic rivers including sections of the Rock, Cedar, Indian and Hudson.
Rules for the Essex Chain were designed to reduce damage from high use. Besides the permit and campfire rules, the plan also designates parking areas far enough from launch sites so some effort is required to access the water.
"There are countless places to paddle and not all of them have to be easy access," said Tom Esmond, a member of the Albany-based Capital District Kayakers group who explored the Essex Chain recently. "I support some being harder to access, which promotes greater wildness."
Others believe the management plan makes the lakes too easily accessible, leading to the need for restrictions to temper overuse.
"If they just close some of the access roads so you park at the boundary rather than driving deep into the interior, the level of use would be more in keeping with the actual carrying capacity of the land," said Bill Ingersoll, author of numerous Adirondack guide books. "By focusing on making the area a canoe destination, they're actually pushing out other types of recreation including hiking and backpacking."