Rafters learn to dance with river
By Mike Jarboe
Wayne Failing, outdoorsman, environmentalist, philosopher and licensed Adirondack guide, calls it a “dance with the river.” And this dance isn’t a fancy minuet. It’s more a break dance, jitterbug, Watusi and full-body twist performed in a rubber raft with nine partners amid some of the most breathtaking scenery you’ll find anywhere in the eastern United States. Or anywhere, period.
Failing is the choreographer par excellence for this 17-mile journey through the Hudson Gorge. We met him at Jane and Cathy’s Diner in Indian Lake, the starting point of the trip, for a delicious breakfast. Over omelettes and pancakes, he told fascinating stories of rafting in South America and the legendary whitewaters of Colorado. He was proving to be an engaging host even before we headed out to meet the river.
Failing, the affable owner of Middle Earth Expeditions and the Mount Van Hoevenberg B&B near Lake Placid, explained that our schedule would be determined by the dam opening and the release of tens of thousands of gallons of water to facilitate our trip. Failing and a dozen other rafting companies contribute to the $75,000 charged annually by the town for the release of the water.
We received a thorough talk on water safety and how to survive any mishaps on the river. It seemed Failing had thought of everything, no matter how remote the possibility of its occurrence. Quite reassuring for a beginner. “In the rapids, things happen quickly,” he said, something we would certainly find out within 50 yards of our departure.
The Lord of the Dance
By anyone’s standards, Wayne Failing is a master outdoorsman, a guide with whom any novice like me would be at ease. In addition to whitewater rafting, he is skilled in rock climbing, backpacking, canoeing, cross-country skiing, hunting and fishing. Over 25 years, he’s shepherded more than 10,000 people down the Hudson and has a perfect safety record—not one injury.
He explained that he’d be at the helm in the back of the 16-foot raft and that he’d be giving us directions as to what to do with our paddles, sometimes politely (“Back on the left, please’’) and sometimes stridently (“GO!!! GO!!! GO!!!’’), depending on the degree of urgency dictated by the water.
Failing made no bones that such a trip entails a bit of risk. He told us there have been four fatalities on the river. If any of us were to die, the most likely cause would be drowning after getting a foot snagged underwater. And so our guide emphasized that we were not to stand up in the water if we were washed overboard. “Feet up! I want to see your feet in the water!” he exclaimed.
We’d be dropping 500 feet over the course of our journey—fortunately, not all in one shot. Failing informed us that the bow was “the high-adventure spot,” the wettest seat in the boat. I quickly decided to let someone else take care of the high adventure and that I would secure a spot in the back.
“If I yell ‘Hang on!’ it’s like someone from the Green Bay Packers is about to hit you,” Failing told us. Enough said.
We got into our cars and headed for the put-in, the place where the dance with the river would begin.
Dressing for the Dance
No ballet tights or slippers for this performance. We would be clad in wetsuits and water shoes. This garb was foreign to me. I can’t swim a stroke and haven’t been in water other than a swimming pool in many years. And even then, I wouldn’t venture deeper than my waist.
I wriggled into my wetsuit and found it as confining as a straitjacket. We were warned that the site at which we were changing, about a hundred yards from the river, would be a garden spot for black flies at this time of year (late May), and this proved to be ample incentive to get the changing done in a hurry.
Once we had shoehorned into the wetsuits, we donned 25-pound flotation devices (all the gear is provided). “I could hand you two cement blocks and you would still float,” Failing said. For a non-swimmer, these were reassuring words.
We grabbed the handles of the 150-pound inflatable raft and toted it down to the riverbank. One could almost hear the dance orchestra warming up.
There were 10 of us in addition to our guide. Failing assigned us spots in the raft, and we pushed it into the water and clambered in, grabbing plastic paddles. I sat in the rear on the starboard side (right, to you landlubbers) and prepared to meet the river. I kept remembering Wayne’s warning not to stand up if you fell in. “It’s like walking on bowling balls coated with Crisco while someone is hitting you with a firehose,” he’d said. “If you fall in, just be like water.’’
As we set off downriver, I soothed my fears with the reminder that I was in the hands of an expert with 25 years of rafting behind him. “I read the river like a blind man reads Braille,” he said. He also mentioned that it takes a couple hundred yards to know the crew and their reaction to his commands and the demands of the river. It would take even less in this instance to find the need to make an adjustment.
Let the dance begin.
On the Floor
Our crew was in trouble within 50 yards, and to my shame I proved to be the weak link. At Failing’s first command, to paddle quickly, I lost my balance and only through great effort managed to fall forward into the raft rather than out of it. I was flailing on my back on the floor of the raft, right in front of Failing, and he immediately adjusted his commands to the other nine rafters to accommodate for the wretch floundering at his feet. It took me a while to regain my place, and I felt so ashamed I avoided making eye contact with my fellow crew members.
I’m not sure what the problem was. Perhaps it was because I am left-handed and was on the right side of the raft. Once the waters calmed, Failing repositioned me to the middle of the left side of the raft. This was much more comfortable, and I was ready to prove myself again after a rocky beginning. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, I was far and away the largest person aboard, which probably made my placement critical to our success.
Throughout the rest of the trip, I paid close attention to our leader’s commands lest I wind up on the floor again.
Turn Left, Now Right
As we paddled down the river, when he wasn’t barking orders, Failing entertained us with a fascinating oral history of the region and pointed out the flora, fauna and places of interest along the way. One such place was Virgin Falls, a small waterfall that legend holds has the power to restore chastity.
We also met several patches of whitewater that tossed us about, and we clung to our paddles and listened obediently as Failing told us how many strokes to make left and right—after which we always seemed to wind up in just the right spot. How does he do it? “Inside every river is a chi line,” he said, invoking an Eastern metaphor. “If you can get your boat on it, the river does the work.”
With Failing’s able guidance, we were becoming, literally, riverdancers. We passed through spots both placid and violent. On the Indian River, before reaching the Hudson, we went through Indian Head Rapid and Gooley Step Rapid.
The Slow Waltz
At the calm waters near Elephant Rock, some of the crew went overboard to take a swim amid gorgeous scenery. A few climbed atop the huge rock and leaped off, doing cannonballs into the deep Hudson.
As we drifted through the spectacular canyon, Failing took out a recorder and played a tune to nature in a humble plea that our crew might have safe passage on our journey. But it takes more than prayer to make it through the gorge.
“You watch where the bubbles move the quickest,” he said. “If I’m scouting a strange river, I’ll throw in a stick and watch what it does.”
On every trip, Failing keeps careful watch on the current, the wind and the people in the boat. He’s had to abort a few trips upon learning that clients weren’t up to the challenge.
“The guide has to motivate the crew, and then the crew has to step up to the plate,” he said. “It’s a beautiful team-building experience.’’ (He often takes sales and office crews on raft trips.)
Let’s Twist Again
I watched with trepidation as we approached Big Nasty, a mile-long rapid whose name promised difficulties ahead. Failing shouted instructions that had us negotiating the roiling water so that we enjoyed the thrills without overweening fear. But fear is part of the fun. “Doing something you are not afraid of is not showing courage,” Failing reminded us.
The people in the front of the raft got the best view and the most thrilling ride, but I was content to be in the more stable third position near the middle of the raft. As we continued, I became more confident. Hold onto the paddle, I thought, listen, obey, pay attention, be part of the team no matter how the waters tossed us about. Without Wayne and the rest of the crew, I would be as helpless as a wine cork bobbing downriver.
“People have fun and learn something about themselves,” Failing said. “There are lots of lessons of teamwork and cooperation here.”
I was tired, but despite my initial fear and unfortunate slip in the beginning, I was sorry to see the end of the trip draw near as we approached the hamlet of North Creek. I climbed out of the raft, rubberlegged, and was soon happy to shed my wetsuit.
At the end of each trip, Failing provides a hearty picnic lunch and some much-needed liquid refreshment. I can’t recall the last time a cold beer tasted so good and seemed so well-deserved. Over sandwiches, Failing told us that he’s probably made more runs on the river than anyone, and after seeing him at work it was easy to believe he was right.
The dance was complete. I and the other crew members exchanged goodbyes and headed back to our lives. But we all took something home with us. I’m a riverdancer now, and proud to be one.