The nose of my canoe splits the water, sending a slow-moving wake through the reflection of the red-and-yellow foliage. I paddle through the mosaic of color, around lazy horseshoe bends, and past intricate beaver dams as loons dive beneath my boat. I feel charmed to get to experience the Adirondacks in their peak beauty this October, but then, a bright-orange sign slung across the river on a rusty chain sucks the magic right out. NO TRESPASSING. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
The ’Daks are a big place, a 6-million-acre patchwork of state-protected public land and private property that encompasses 3,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers. If it was a bowl of cereal, the public areas would be the milk and the private the Cheerios: Even if you start and end a paddle on public land, it’s nearly impossible to stay within those bounds. But that shouldn’t really matter because a piece of state common law from the 1800s technically gives boaters the right to move freely on any waterway, public or private.
The edict isn’t unique: Laws granting public right to rivers date as far back as 1250 in England. In one of its first official acts, the U.S. Congress passed such a law that stated that “the navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence . . . shall be common highways, and forever free to the citizens of the United States.”
But some landowners—often the descendants of 19th-century tycoons—are testing those rights, and in at least one case in the Adirondacks, they’ve proven that they’re more than willing to take trespassing paddlers to court. The argument? The law was written to keep the waterways open to regional commerce, which at the time meant moving lumber and pelts to market. As if they would instead welcome paddlers pushing hundreds of tree trunks down the river, landowners argue that recreationists silently coasting through waters in the far corners of their estates don’t fulfill the purpose of the law. Except, maybe they do.
These landowners seem to be overlooking the fact that timber and fur are no longer the main economic pillars in the Empire State—tourism and recreation are. In fact, that tandem accounts for a larger percentage of total jobs than any other part of New York’s economy. In the midst of a campaign to highlight the region, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently touted the 12 million annual visitors to the Adirondacks, and the $1.3 billion industry that they support.
Unfortunately, New York’s highest court doesn’t see it that way. When a seven-year-long lawsuit filed by the owner of a 40-square-mile slice of pristine Adirondack forest finally went before the Court of Appeals in 2016, the judges concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to rule. Sure, they didn’t rule against the paddler, but their decision effectively freed up landowners to try again.
A lot has changed in the Empire State in the past 200 years, but water’s importance as a regional highway hasn’t—even if the goods being transported look a little different. Boaters today continue to keep the Adirondacks afloat, and that’s exactly what the law was intended to protect.
But if the landowners don’t agree, maybe we should all tie a log to the backs of our canoes and call it even.