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Adirondack North Country Weather

A Change in the Weather

Don't like the weather? Wait a minute. It'll change. This is a well-worn phrase, but it's still true. Adirondack weather is everything but dull. One mid-summer day you'll be sweating under an angry sun, and steaming in sultry 90-degree heat. That night you'll wake to the rumble of thunder and the crash of falling trees, as a cold front surges down from Canada, riding a gale of wind and lighting up the sky all around you. By dawn, you'll be bleary-eyed and tired from snatching sleep between storms, but the humid heat will only be a memory. The day will be perfect—clear, calm and dry. And the next night? You'll be shivering in 40-degree cold and wishing you'd brought your winter sleeping bag.

The Adirondack North Country's a big place. Bigger than many European countries, in fact. And it's big in every way. If you walked due east from Cape Vincent on Lake Ontario you'd plod more than a hundred miles before you were on the summit of Mount Marcy, and you'd still have 25 miles to go before you made it to Cape Cole on Lake Champlain. You'd also be almost a mile higher than you were when you began.

It would be a long, hard walk, of course, but air masses make this trip every day as they sweep along from west to east. They pick up moisture over Lake Ontario, get pushed up the western slopes of the Adirondack massif, cool down, and dump rain on the upland forests.

The valleys, too, steer weather systems. Storms crash their way down the Mohawk and St. Lawrence rivers, recharging lowland swamps and sending convective cells spinning off into the Adirondacks. And when north or south winds sweep along the unobstructed hundred-mile length of Lake Champlain, the resulting rollers may be a blessing for wind-surfers, but they're a danger to all but the strongest and most skillful canoeists and kayakers.

Mountains makes weather. Big lakes make weather. Put the two together, and even experienced forecasters will have a hard time knowing what's coming next. For paddlers, the best advice is to expect just about anything.

Paddling Through the Year

Snow Fun

The rivers start running in the southern Adironack foothills in late March or early April. They run high, fast, and cold—and they're no place for beginning paddlers. It's not unusual to arrive at the put-in in a snowstorm and find ice-shelves in the eddies. The larger lakes of the central Adirondacks will keep their ice till mid-April. Some pocket lakes tucked away on north-facing slopes will still have a fringe of ice around them as late as Memorial Day.

By the time of the Hudson River Derby in early May, the big rivers are starting to come down off their peak flows. May is Adirondack whitewater month. The days are long, the weather is warm, and the rivers still have good water. Of course, there are dry years and there are cold years, and it has been known to snow even in late May!

Come June, all but dam-controlled rivers are low and slow. The lakes, though, are coming into their own. The manic laughter of loons echoes across lonely bays, and trillium bloom in forest clearings. It's a bad time to forget your camera or your fishing rod. Adirondack mayflies may be a little slow to get started, but the trout don't care.

Don't think you can get by with just a t-shirt and shorts, though. For one thing, the mosquitoes and black-flies will bleed you dry. For another, you'll be cold, or wet (or both) much of the time. Early summer means thunderstorms. Lots of rain. Lots of wind. Lots of fireworks. Rain gear, warm clothing, and a good tent are must-have items in every month.

July and August. It's summertime and the living is…well, not easy, exactly, but it's not too bad. The rivers are just trickles, but the lakes and ponds invite lazy exploration. Days are often hot and sticky, even in the High Peaks, but nights are usually pleasantly cool. The black-flies have all but called it quits. A lot of folks think this is as close to paradise as it gets. A lot of folks. Boat traffic is at its peak. As a result, some lakes have a more or less permanent blanket of petrochemical smog. On a hot, still, humid, late-July day, you can close your eyes and swear you'd never left Bayonne. If you have asthma or other pulmonary disease, you may even find yourself struggling for breath.

And hot, still, humid days are common in summer. They're what country folk used to call "weather breeders." The weather they breed is thunderstorms. So when the little cotton-ball clouds start growing tall and developing tops like an old-fashioned blacksmith's anvil, it's time to get off the water—before the wind rises to a gale and before the thunder starts. Lighting doesn't care where it strikes, or whom. It just looks for the highest thing around. If you're in your kayak in the middle of the lake, that's you. Pretty hair-raising idea, eh?

Labor Day. Suddenly, it's September. The sun's going down much earlier now, and the days are cooler. There's a hint of color in the leaves. The crowds pack up and head back to Bayonne and Bognor Regis. Now maybe it really is paradise! Except that it can still be hot and humid, and thunderstorms are still a threat. Moreover, as the sun wheels south toward winter, weather systems start to move faster. Fronts push through more often. Expect all-day rains and nighttime temperatures in the 40s. And cover your gear in camp. Fog frequently blankets lakes in the early morning, soaking everything left unprotected. By the Columbus Day weekend in early October—it's Thanksgiving in Canada—there's a chance that the brilliant red of autumn maples will be highlighted by a white blanket of new snow.

Is the season over? No. Not yet. Not for everone. The fall colors are glorious, and the autumn rains awaken the rivers. October is the Adirondack's second whitewater season—for competent and well-prepared paddlers, that is. Days are short now, and nights are long and cold. Water temperatures are heading down. Fog continues to blanket the lakes and larger rivers, often lingering till mid-morning. In late October, a rime of ice is a common sight on the margins of sheltered ponds and shaded eddies.

By November, winter's grip is growing stronger. Low cloud blankets the hills for days at a time. Snow squalls come and go, as drifts deepen in sheltered hollows. Ponds are locked in ice. The only color left in the woods is the startling yellow of tamarack needles and the International Orange of hunters' vests. If, despite all this, the paddling bug is biting hard, it's a good time to explore the lowlands, where fall lingers longer and winter comes later. The big lakes are still ice-free, though, and the winds driving early-winter fronts down from Canada will challenge even the hardiest canoe sailor. This is no season for beginners, though. For them, and for most of the rest of us, it's time to get out the snowshoes, put a log on the fire, and look forward to spring.

A reminder! Whatever the season, Adirondack North Country weather can hurt. Be prepared for hot, humid days in summer, and for cold and rain at all seasons of the paddling year. If you want to be the first person on the water each spring (or the last person off in the fall), expect to paddle through snowstorms. Warm clothing, good rain gear, and a sturdy shelter are mandatory And don't forget to check the forecast before you leave home. Two National Weather Service websites can help you out:

  • From the National Weather Service Office in Buffalo, here's a clickable map of New York State for a seven-day text forecast. It's updated several times daily.
  • Planning on paddling Lake Champlain? Check the Marine Forecast prepared by the National Weather Service office in Burlington, Vermont. These are available from April until November, and are updated four times daily.

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Adirondack Guide and all pictures and drawings within are
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
Written by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

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