The flow of history
Book review by Michael Virtanen
Jeff Dickinson’s history of running the whitewater of the Hudson River is weighty with research: it has 111 pages of footnotes and bibliography. Those follow his 237-page narrative that launches with descriptions of the landscape and Colonial explorers, flows on through decades of log drivers and adventurers, then crests with the commercial rafting that began in the 1980s and brought tourists to the Adirondacks in the once-spare shoulder season of melting snow. Rafting has since matured into a spring and summer enterprise that extends even into autumn.
Dickinson, a whitewater guide himself, interviewed many people for his book. The evolving business of recreational whitewater rafting comprises the entire second half of the volume and contains its most gripping chapter. It’s about one Sunday in the early days when the water was so high that only a few guides went out, several clients and guides fell out of their rafts, and two people went missing.
It’s called Black Sunday, April 18, 1982, when various accounts put the river level measured at North Creek at about twelve feet, double what it had been. The story is told from the points of view of several guides, among them Suzie Hockmeyer:
“Back then rafting was considered an extreme sport, especially those brave enough to challenge the river in spring when it was guaranteed to be freezing cold, but worth it for the high adventure. …
“Carl [Otley] flipped in the Narrows. We saw him flip. I remember seeing that raft go up: It looked like a leaf. These were big, twelve-person, 20-ft.-long bucket boats and the wave turned the raft over like a leaf. And then the fun was on. I remember pulling several people into our raft. I remember Alan [Haley] going into holes with him screaming to everyone to hold on.”
Guides were doubled up in the boats that day because the whitewater was so big. John Voorhees was in the raft that flipped:
“I was experienced enough to have a certain reaction time in my mind when something like that happens, but this happened so fast that I was underwater thinking that I’m gasping for air—so shocked that the boat flipped over—that in fact I’m sucking in water. I don’t even know I’m underwater, I’m underwater so fast. So for the rest of the Narrows I’m like a bug in a vacuum cleaner hose and so was everybody else in the boat.”
Voorhees and another man, a client, didn’t get picked up by other rafts. They struggled to shore and watched the other boats go downstream. Expecting no help to soon return, they decided to try to walk out toward a road. As night fell, they huddled in their wetsuits in a depression in the ground and covered themselves in balsam branches, hoping to protect themselves from freezing to death. The others made it out. Searches began on both sides of the river. They were found about 2 a.m.
Truly raging rapids aside, the outings grew in popularity so much that in 2009 a dozen outfitters carried 25,455 customers, according to state figures. Dickinson presents some of the lengthy municipal maneuvering that sorted out the timing and costs of dam releases that guaranteed sufficient water and managing access to the put-in in the town of Indian Lake. This part is slow going.
Dickinson rushes past the four deaths of rafting customers in the 1990s. All four victims fell out of their boats, including one who tried to stand in a rapid (an inadvisable move) and got his foot caught under a rock. The 2012 death of another rafter gets little more than a mention. I would have liked to know more about each.
The inspiring theme that threads through the entire account is the draw of the river, beginning with a reference to Huckleberry Finn. In his introduction, he quotes Loren Eiseley’s book about the Grand Canyon: “If there is magic left upon this planet, then it is contained in moving water.”
“Doug Wheat wrote that to a river runner, moving water is a ‘living force to mount and ride,’ with all the river runners looking for that tonic of a wild river as they learn to interact with what the river is, flowing and not forcing,” Dickinson himself writes. Wheat authored Floater’s Guide to Colorado.
Dickinson has clearly done his research among the books, newspaper articles, histories, maps, and interviews cited. The book contains thirty-five black-and-white photos, most from commercial rafting and five from the log-driving days, plus two sketched maps.
I’ve run the Hudson whitewater a half-dozen times, mostly with the guide Wayne Failing (who is quoted in the book), both in heavy, cold whitewater in spring and the slower, sunny pace of late summer, when Failing introduced the journalist Fred LeBrun (who until recently wrote a column for the Explorer) and me to what he called river time. The geography is what Dickinson says it is. As for the details of the history, it seems likely they’re correct. The thrill, the tonic, the magic, it’s clear he knows those well. ■
Michael Virtanen once traveled the Hudson River from its source at Lake Tear of the Clouds to New York City. His novel The River’s Tale is about whitewater rafters on the Hudson. (The editor of the Explorer published the novel.)