Switchback along the trail to the gorge.
Like most streams in the North Country, the Salmon River has been tamed, its formerly boisterous rapids harnessed by two dams to create electricity. Oh sure, water still surges playfully out of the powerhouses’ tailraces, and in a few spots along its path to Lake Ontario, you could even call it whitewater. But its ancient character has changed utterly, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the prehistoric riverbed which forms a spellbinding gorge between the dams.
While the law requires the power company to release sufficient water to keep the last 13 miles flowing fast and deep enough for recreational purposes, the dam valves feeding this part of the river are barely open, releasing enough to allow the three-something-mile section of the upper river to flow creek-size. Mother Nature made this stretch the wildest, freest, most beautiful slice of the Salmon River.
It’s also the most difficult to access because there’s no trail system. Indeed, there are only three places where it’s relatively safe to get to the bank (see Getting There below). Once you’re down there, the going is slow--and you’ll want to wear hip boots with traction devices.
But the breathtaking scenery makes it all worthwhile. Sheer walls of stratified limestone rise 70 to 100 feet above the water. Polished over the millennium by scouring rapids, the riverbed’s long stretches of bumpy sheets of fractured bedrock are littered with flat stones, and punctuated at the bends by channels and pools. Native flowers and mixed hardwoods crop its islands and pebble beaches. Here and there, huge boulders, calved from the cliffs, rise out of pools like pagan monoliths to ancient gods.
One of the most common hallmarks of natural beauty is austerity. Indeed, wonders ranging from Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon aren’t exactly what you’d call ideal wildlife habitat. Some would even say they took the pain nature dished out and made it into a song.
The Upper Salmon River fits this category perfectly. But hidden in its nooks and crannies are delightful surprises: trout and smallmouth bass. They can be elusive however few and far between, and the challenge of catching one is what draws an occasional soul into this wonderland.
Smallies are native to the river and have been here since the beginning of time. The best spot for them is the plunge pool below the Salmon River Falls.
Rainbow trout are stocked into Lighthouse Hill Reservoir every year. Those that survive trout season and winter will run the river in spring to spawn. Fast water critters at heart, some stay until rising temperatures force them out, usually in June.
Browns, descendants of last century’s stocking programs, live in the river year-round. These are truly wild; the savviest of the savviest trout species.
Brookies find their way into the river from tiny brooks that drain into it, or into Lighthouse Hill Reservoir.
Progress may have slowed the Salmon River down. Its water all but squeezed out of it, it still runs, albeit much slower, narrower and shallower. It just goes to show, you can take a river out of the wilderness, but you can’t take the wilderness out of the river.
Get there from Pulaski by taking NY 13 south. Turn left onto Co. Rte. 22 in the village of Altmar and continue for about 3.5 miles to Bennett Bridges. A fishing access site with parking is on the west side of the road, between the bridges.
To get to the Salmon River Falls Unique Area, continue on Co. Rte. 22 for another mile from Bennett Bridges. Turn right on Falls Road and continue for 1 ½ miles. The parking area is on the right. The footpath to the bottom of the gorge is open May through Nov. 15. The descent is 100 feet. Some areas of the gorge are restricted due to the sensitive environment of this area and visitors need to read and follow the instructions posted at the Falls.
To get to the old Dam Road Bridge access area, take Co. Rte. 22 to the edge of Bennett Bridges. Just before the first bridge, turn right onto Pipe Line Road. At the fork, bear left, slow down and keep your eyes peeled on the left for an old bridge. (The bridge is closed and declared unsafe for pedestrian or other uses so please avoid the temptation.)