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Rollin' down the river - not the highway - offers best way to see Adirondack Park. Group canoe trips and mountain hikes give city dwellers a chance to discover New York state's vast wilderness

The E-Z five-step way to see the Adirondacks: 1.Start your Buick.

2.Hit accelerator.

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3.Turn on air conditioner.

4.Push cruise-control button.

5.Settle back and zip down Route 30.

But if you want more than a blur at 55 m.p.h. as a memory, Dick Beamish has an alternative to ``wilderness on wheels.''

On the edge of tiny McCauley Pond near Saranac Lake, Mr. Beamish runs Adirondack Wilderness Tours. From here the Adirondacks can be experienced gracefully and quietly, by total immersion, with no superficial flash.

For seven days, twice a month, Beamish offers canoe trips and mountain hikes (cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter) guaranteed to bring out the Davy Crockett in any city slicker here on the greener, unspoiled side of the Big Apple.

``There are higher mountains out west, and more lakes in northern Minnesota, but what we have here is a wonderful combination of both,'' said Beamish to new arrivals as he flicked through color slides in the darkness of the lodge.

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Adirondack Park is the largest one in the contiguous United States: It makes up one-fifth of New York State and is roughly the size of Vermont. ``People can't believe it's that big, but it's true,'' says Beamish.

Between the many hills and mountains are some 2,800 lakes all strung together by 30,000 miles of brooks, streams, and rivers.

``I'm trying to introduce adults to the Adirondacks wilderness area - to make new friends for the Adirondacks - friends who will preserve it and make it an even better place a hundred years from now than it is today,'' Beamish says.

Early on the first afternoon, a group of 14 newly arrived guests gathered at the foot of the lodge on McCauley Pond for canoe lessons.

``In a week everyone will be a competent canoeist,'' Beamish promised. ``It's something you'll never lose - like riding a bike.'' Soon everyone was paddling through an obstacle course as deftly as an Algonquin Indian, J-stroking around the lake, slipping between rocks, and ducking low-hanging branches.

Early next morning, as everyone tumbled out from lofts, adjoining lodge rooms, and nearby cabins for breakfast, Beamish and our two guides, Jim and Jamie, were planning the day's itinerary.

Trips are based on the weather, so nothing is really decided until breakfast. On blustery days, quiet, sheltered streams are chosen over the windy, open lakes. A really savage day will dictate a worthwhile trip to the splendid Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake.

During the time I spent there last September, we were swimming one day, shoveling out from four inches of snow the next (the earliest in 20 years), and swimming again the day after that. So goes the fickle weather here.

``Today we're canoeing in the Mount St. Regis area,'' Beamish announced one bright, chilly morning as we washed down the last spoonful of cereal with coffee.

``It's a 12-mile paddle and five-mile hike. It's a rigorous trip, so you'll want to wear your best hiking boots. There's a portage here and there, as well.

``You'll want to take your bathing suits, too,'' he added, to a chorus of br-r-r's. ``But you may not want to use them.''

``OK, everyone grab a bag lunch,'' announced Marion Hoezel, resident cook. ``The vegetarian lunches are over here for those that requested them.''

After a few warm-up exercises, we piled in a large truck towing eight red, yellow, green, and silver canoes. At about 10 a.m., our rainbow flotilla slid into a stream. We paddled for a few hours, creeping up on hooded mergansers or pied-billed grebes, an occasional deer, or playful otters, and stopping to drink in the brilliant, warm autumn colors. At noon we pulled in for a picnic lunch and a short catnap before tackling the mountain.

Each day before our return, Beamish chased the resident squatter, a red squirrel, from the wood pile and fired up a giant, barrel-shaped sauna. Shrieks of ``Pleeease! Oh, pleeeaese don't spray us!'' were ignored, as women rushed from sauna to lodge and men sat in ambush, armed with a hose of the iciest water imaginable.

The hour before Marion's bountiful dinner was just enough time to unwind by the crackling fire, read, play some Bach, and scratch old Ginger behind the ears. Ginger, the live-in pooch who belongs to the cook, is of Heinz 57 ancestry, appropriately.

After dinner there's thigh-slappin' mountain music by some local amateur musicians or a lecture and slide show by a naturalist or forester, or a brief talk by an authority on Adirondacks architecture. Guests occasionally succeeded in persuading the rather shy Marion to drop her wooden spoon and softly serenade us on her dulcimer.

That's basically how the week goes. ``We don't want anyone to feel rushed or to overextend themselves,'' Beamish says. ``People are here to enjoy themselves. Not only to enjoy, but to learn as well.''

If you'd rather just spend a day at the lodge and read or fish, that's fine, too. The week-long programs cost $550 and are limited as to the number, not age, of guests.

Beamish puts it this way: ``The emphasis is on self-propelled rather than mechanized getting around, but age itself isn't a factor. We had a woman from Boston during a winter session who went snowshoeing every day. She was 81.''

Practical information

For details on canoe/hiking trips or winter openings, write to Richard Beamish, Adirondack Wilderness Tours, McMaster Road, Saranac Lake, NY, 12983; or call (518) 891-1080.

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