Hudson’s wild ride

Whitewater rafters enjoy the thrills and chills of riding the Hudson River in spring. Photo by Paul Buckowski/Courtesy of Albany Times Union.

By Fred LeBrun

You think you’re physically ready, braced for the worst. But no matter how many times you’ve clung anxiously to a raft catapulting and careening down the wild upper Hudson River during spring runoffs, there’s no way to be really prepared for that first heart-stopping plunge into a wall of frigid water.

“Why did I agree to this suicidal madness?” you ask yourself while shaking the icicles out of your ears. This is after the feeling of pure shock and primal fear and before the adrenaline starts pumping and you start paddling in a frenzy to barked commands. No time, no time to think about it right now.

Rafting on the Hudson is big business. Photo by Paul Buckowski/Courtesy of Albany Times Union.

“Forward left, back right, BACK RIGHT!” your guide yells above the river’s roar, as you try to avoid this huge boulder in your way. He or she is standing or sitting in the rear. You and your half-dozen daredevil companions, all decked out head to toe in neoprene suits, respond as if your lives depend on it.

And they could. Five people have perished over the last 20 years while rafting the upper Hudson, though none recently. Most of those were back in the woolly, flamboyant 1980s, before outfitters and clients smartened up to the risks. On rare occasions, rafters are still flung overboard, and there’s always the danger of hitting your head on a rock or being held under by a nasty hydraulic, which is a sucking-under pothole below a big rock, or finding yourself trapped by a big tree stuck underwater, a “strainer.” Yet, the prevailing truth is that the Adirondacks’ natural roller-coaster ride is probably statistically safer than bicycle riding. Mom, take note.

Most of the dozen or so outfitters running the waters of the Hudson Gorge spend a lot of time and money on good equipment, and they prepare their clients extensively on how to be safe. For instance, Wayne Failing, owner of Middle Earth Expeditions, and his assistant, Diz, spend about an hour going over safety rules and worst-case scenarios and building team confidence. Plus, the outfitters often go down the river cheek to jowl and look out for each other. It’s good business.

Pat Cunningham, perhaps the biggest outfitter for upper Hudson rafting and a 23-year-veteran, estimates about 16,000 people pass down the gorge during a rafting season that begins for the truly hearty on April 1 and putters out on Columbus Day weekend. In early spring, the Hudson rafters rely on melting snows to roil the river. Later in the year, controlled water releases on the tributary Indian River create a “bubble” that carries rafters through the gorge. Cunningham estimates that Hudson rafting contributes $12 million to the local economy. That’s a fraction of what skiing brings to the Adirondacks during the winter, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

On a summer weekend morning, there might be 200 rafters with their guides waiting in gaily colored wet suits at the put-in just below the dam at Lake Abanakee. From there it’s three miles down the Indian River to the Hudson and 14 miles of rushing whitewater (including Class 5 rapids), if you catch the 11 a.m. bubble release just right, down to North Creek. The outfitters pay the town of Indian Lake $76,000 a year to open the dam for the releases.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

While the iron taste of fear is a necessary ingredient for thrills, rafting the upper Hudson in spring is really more of an inner journey, and a joyous one. It’s beautiful, wild country, offering probably the longest stretches of uninhabited, wilderness shoreline along a major river east of the Mississippi. In between the bouts of intense paddling are long moments of drifting and solitude between riffs and rapids. The imagination conjures up days gone by when millions of white pine logs scooted through these waters and generations of rugged men lived and died along this river. On flat spots along the banks, among trees now fully grown, are vague outlines of encampments.

The first time on a whitewater rafting trip, these mo-ments of serenity and imaginings may be underappreciated. But with subsequent trips, they take on lasting value. Besides providing safe passage, a good guide fills you in on the history and legends of this historic stretch of water. Being a successful Adirondack guide is a lot more complicated than it was when “sports” were interested only in getting a shot at a 200-pound whitetail or going home with a string of brookies.

All commercial whitewater rafting guides are supposed to be licensed by the state, and they must carry their licenses. It is entirely appropriate to ask a guide, before you slip into a raft, whether he or she is carrying that license. Unfortunately, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has grown complacent about checking on guides, because there have been so few accidents. Last year, for example, only about a dozen guides were ticketed for not having licences with them. Veteran observers suspect that a number of younger guides hired by a few of the faster and looser outfitters don’t meet the requirement, but seldom are hassled by DEC.

So when hiring an outfitter, ask. Of the thousands who are properly licensed by the state, a few hundred belong to an elite outfit, the New York State Outdoor Guides Association, which subscribes to a set of high ethical and safety standards. If it matters to you, ask about that as well.

In June 1959, Outdoor Life (then 35 cents) offered a feature titled “Hudson River Secret” by Wynn Davis. “It’s this: the big, dirty river that flows past New York City’s skyscrapers has stretches far upstream than offer some of the East’s scrappiest gamefish.” He goes on to describe the taking of huge rainbow and brook trout near the confluence of the Boreas and Hudson and other spots. Sadly enough, those days of trout as long as your arm coming out of the Hudson are long behind us and likely will never be back.

Rafters plunge through rapids on the Hudson in early spring, when snow still blankets the riverbanks. Participants wear neoprene suits to protect themselves against the frigid waters. Photo by Melody Thomas.

But in that same story, Wynn quotes a state forester about running the Hudson in the spring and where the dangers are. “The most vertical drop you’ll have is over Ord Falls, about three feet straight down. Better carry around that.” The big rapids, he said, “start just below the Blue Ledges and roar for five terrifying miles to where the Boreas River tumbles into the Hudson.” (“Them’s fire-snorting rapids,” an old-time lumberman is quoted as saying. “That river shoots down them rocky chutes between boulders like the devil himself was beating on its tail.”)

The trick to making it through on a canoe, the forester noted, is to stick to the channels with the fastest water. Modern guides follow pretty much the same principle for rafting, punching right through the whitest water. Wayne Failing has been down the Hudson so many times that he can envision the whole run in his mind. “When you come out of the Indian River, you want to stay in the center of the river. Unless the water’s running very high, we’re only talking Class 1 and 2 rapids. Easy stuff. The action really begins at the end of the Blue Ledges, with the Narrows, where you want to stay in the middle again. It drops 500 feet in no time. You go through Osprey, then Big Nasty, which is a mile long. Then you start tight left, move to the center and slalom around the hydraulics.”

Failing continues an imaginary run past Rap Rock, O.K. Slip, Kettle Mountain (“probably the most difficult. Tight left in low water, the center in high”), through Gunsight In and Gunsight Out, the long Harris Riff and finally Bus Stop, also known as the Black Hole. “In high water, through most of the run, you’ve got to line it up as you go through,” he notes. “Ten feet to the right or the left, and you’re going to be upside-down.”

Not life threatening, perhaps, but darned uncomfortable. About as good a reason as any to make sure that guide is licensed.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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