A Spectacular Canoe-Camping Adventure
Over the past 15 years, when hiking around Massawepie Lake, I have longingly looked at the lovely Distillery Hill campsite thinking this scenic spot would be a great place to spend the night. Well, on the first day of autumn, I packed my camping gear and canoe equipment and headed to Massawepie Lake with a gorgeous weather forecast!
Most of the lands, lakes, ponds, and trails around the Massawepie Boy Scout area in Piercefield are open to the public from September 1 to June 15 each year. (Easement lands at the Mire are available year-round.) There is a parking area one mile in on the left along Massawepie Road and an easy canoe put-in for Massawepie Lake across the road from the parking lot.
Paddling to Distillery Hill
It was dinner time as I began my canoe trip on the northeastern shore of Massawepie Lake. The Distillery Hill campsite is about 1.3 miles away on the southern end of the lake along the Mountaineer Trail.
A distant raptor perched on a dead snag at the edge of the lake. It began to vocalize identifying itself as a Bald Eagle! Another, more distant Bald Eagle, gave a reply.
I was the only paddler on Massawepie Lake with just Bald Eagles and Common Loons for company! Approaching the bay by Distillery Hill, a Bald Eagle vocalized. It was almost directly overhead! I decided to forgo heading to the campsite and watch the eagle instead. It was calling to its mate and within a few minutes, the other Bald Eagle flew into the snag with its partner. They faced each other and vocalized – it was beautiful!
The moon rose behind the Bald Eagle pair setting up a fantastic photographic opportunity. It was quite a challenge to take photos from a rocking canoe! Fortunately, the camera was forgiving and captured several nice photos of this lovely spectacle! Both eagles had silver leg bands, and were likely banded in New York State.
The light was beginning to fade and setting up a tent in the dark isn’t fun, so it was time to leave the Bald Eagle pair for Distillery Hill. The eagles were still visible from the campsite. Distillery Hill is a peninsula of elevated land, so views of the water are on three sides of the campsite. It is ringed with tall, coniferous trees. It feels private, yet offers lovely views of the water. There is large island in front of the campsite which keeps the water placid around the peninsula.
After my campsite was set-up, I had a late dinner and gazed at the lake as the light faded away. Five different Barred Owls started vocalizing in all directions around the camp! The Bald Eagles continued to call and they moved toward the outlet of the lake. The haunting calls of Common Loons echoed in the night. The moon was captivating.
During the night, Common Loons continued to call and Barred Owls hooted. Coyote packs howled. A sea of migrants flowed overhead on north winds. Migrating Gray-cheeked Thrushes called throughout the night. The sounds of migrating Canada Geese was non-stop.
Dawn on Distillery Hill
Dawn is a thrilling time for birders, and I excitedly jumped out of my tent like a child on Christmas morning! Hermit Thrushes surrounded the campsite and suddenly, they all began to sing! The song of the Hermit Thrush is considered by many to be the most beautiful song of any bird in North America and they rarely sing after mid-August.
Other birds began to sing as I sat with my coffee – Blue-headed Vireos, Brown Creepers, Common Yellowthroats, Pine Warblers, and White-throated Sparrows. A Pine Siskin flew over calling, the first I’ve heard in quite some time. A Belted Kingfisher rattled around the bay. A Pileated Woodpecker’s loud call echoed from the forest. The metallic notes of Purple Finches could be heard flying overhead.
It was a beautiful dawn with fog drifting over Massawepie Lake.
The Mountaineer Trail
Hiking on the Mountaineer Trail is a great option and it gave the fog time to burn off the lake before paddling to the outlet. The trail leads through boreal forest on the northern fringes of Massawepie Mire. Hiking through the fog in this wet, boreal vegetation, the world felt primeval.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet migrants were singing parts of their songs. Pine Warblers continued to sing. Bushwhacking off the wooden walkway to a foraging woodpecker revealed a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but also resulted in wet feet! Three curious Gray Jays flew in to see what was going on.
The terrific new bridge that the Boy Scouts built over the outlet of Massawepie Lake was a good place to turn around.
The sun appeared as the moon as it tried to burn through the eerie fog.
Colorful mushrooms lined the wooden walkways that make up much of this trail.
Two Common Loons could barely be discerned in the middle of the lake through the fog.
A Palm Warbler pumping its tail flew into the trees by the camp during breakfast.
Paddling on Massawepie Lake and Its Outlet
Canoeing from the campsite toward the outlet, Massawepie Lake appeared as a mirror. The lilies and the reflection of the trees in the water were reminiscent of an impressionistic painting.
Bypassing the outlet with its new bridge I found a scenic bay behind a long, thin peninsula. There are at least three different campsites in this quiet area and one canoe-carry trail to Pine Pond. A pair of Wood Ducks kept ahead of me in this spot and a Belted Kingfisher rattled as it fished. Pine Warblers lined the lake and sang all morning. Throughout the paddle, I could hear the Bald Eagle pair vocalizing.
Returning to the Massawepie Lake outlet, I paddled under the new bridge, and I didn’t even need to duck! A second canoe-carry trail to Pine Pond was discovered along the way. The first beaver dam seemed like a good place to turn around. This waterway is lined with boreal habitat. It is possible to paddle all the way to the Grass River Flow on this route. I plan this future trip as a thru-canoe to Route 3 past Shurtleff.
Back at the campsite, it was time to break down my tent and pack up. The three Gray Jays came by for a visit! Paddling north on Massawepie Lake, Common Loons loudly called and I assumed the Bald Eagles must be nearby. Sure enough, the Bald Eagle pair was perched together near the canoe take-out with a Common Loon below. Bald Eagles are a threat to loons, and the loons loudly vocalize when eagles are nearby.
It was difficult to leave such a scenic place, and even more difficult with a pair of Bald Eagles and a Common Loon at the take-out location! I look forward to camping on Massawepie Lake again soon. It was just the wilderness respite I crave.
The Massawepie area offers a myriad of recreational opportunities – bicycling, hiking, fishing, camping, paddling, and cross-country skiing. If you need equipment, there are helpful outfitters nearby along with comfortable lodging choices and great food!