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Adirondack paddling: Onion River

The placid Onion River, with Rice Mountain in the background.
The placid Onion River, with Rice Mountain in the background.
Photo by Phil Brown

They say the Onion River is the only river in the Adirondacks that flows into a brook, which is your first clue that the Onion is not the mightiest of rivers. It is, however, one of the most charming.

You can paddle the Onion only a mile and half, at most, from its mouth to the wetland where it originates, but to get to the river you need to paddle across two other delightful waterways, Madawaska Flow and Quebec Brook. In all, you can get in six to nine miles of paddling—more if you like.

The three waterways were purchased by the state from Champion International in 1998 and now belong to the forever-wild Forest Preserve. Getting to the put-in requires a six-mile drive along a dirt road through commercial timberlands (see directions below) to a parking area with a trail register.

The road continues beyond the parking area, but it is gated and closed to vehicles. To reach the put-in on Madawaska Flow, portage down the road for 0.4 miles, until you see the water nearby on the left.

Your objective is to paddle a mile across the flow to the outlet dam. At the put-in, the flow is very shallow, dotted with tufts of marsh grass. After launching, head toward a wooded island to the southwest. You need to go left around the island. If you try to go right, you’ll become mired in the marsh. Once past the island, look for open water on the right (to the north). This will lead you to the outlet, Quebec Brook.

Take out left of the dam and put in the brook on the other side of an old woods road. This is the same road you walked in on. If you wanted, you could portage all the way from the parking area to the dam, but this would require carrying your canoe or kayak for a mile.

Upon entering Quebec Brook, you pass through a small cattail marsh where you might flush a great blue heron. Beyond the cattails, the brook is bordered by grasses and low shrubs. You can see Jennings Mountain dead ahead and Rice Mountain to your right. On the left is the embankment of an old railroad bed.

At 0.4 miles, you reach the Onion’s mouth on the right. The river is quite broad at the start, with hardly any current. Like the brook, it’s bordered by marshland that affords wide views. Conifers grow in the lowlands near the marsh, while hardwoods dominate the hillsides. In fall, the green conifers and multicolored hills provide a pleasing contrast.

About a third of a mile from the mouth, you come to the first beaver dam. If the water is high, you can paddle over it with little trouble.  In another half-mile, you come to a larger dam. This one requires more effort to paddle over. You may need to get out and pull your boat across.

A mile upriver, the Onion braids in the marsh. Bear left to stay in the main channel. Soon after, the stream narrows considerably as alder thickets close in. At 1.2 miles, progress is stopped by a large beaver dam. Most people probably will not want to continue, but if you carry over the dam, you can push on for another quarter-mile or so before you run out of water and elbow room.

Once you’ve seen all the Onion has to offer, return to Quebec Brook. You now have the option of heading back to your car (for a six-mile round trip) or exploring more of Quebec Brook (for a nine-mile round trip). If you opt for the latter, turn right and head downstream. Presently, you come to the charred ruins of a low railroad bridge. If you lie flat you may be able to squeeze under, but it’s safer to carry around the bridge.

Numerous tamaracks—the only conifers that shed their needles annually—grow in the marshland that borders both sides of the brook. Although the state now owns Quebec Brook, you occasionally see old no-trespassing signs by the shore.

You’ll pass over a few low beaver dams before reaching boulders and rapids, a mile and a  half below the Onion. When the brook is high enough, whitewater enthusiasts can run Quebec down to Blue Mountain Road. If you’re flat-water paddler, however, you’ll want to turn around at the head of the rapids.

Once back on Madawaska Flow, you could extend your trip by exploring the pond and the inlet (also Quebec Brook). Click here to read an article about a trip up the inlet that appeared in the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

DIRECTIONS: From the junction of NY 30 and NY 86 in Paul Smiths, drive north on NY 30 for 9.1 miles to NY 458. Turn left and go 1.5 miles to Madawaska Road on the left, marked by a wooden Department of Environmental Conservation sign. Follow this dirt road six miles to the parking area. The junctions along the road are not marked: at 0.4 miles, bear left; at 1.1 miles, bear left; at 5.0 miles, bear right.


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