By Marty Plante
To a canoeist or kayaker, it sounded too good to be true. And it was.
For decades, I had been driving past the Cedar River where it crosses Route 28 in Indian Lake. Like all paddlers, I would crane my neck each time, fantasizing about a trip down the inviting stream.
For 100 years, a day trip on the Cedar was impractical without permission from the hunting and fishing club that controlled the take-out point. Then, in 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that new lands added to the Adirondack Forest Preserve would make the Cedar River and its confluence with the Hudson River available.
“I encourage everyone to come explore the many outdoor recreational activities that this breathtaking area has to offer,” the governor said in a news release.
I’m not one to turn down an invitation, especially when it involves a new river to canoe. It seemed that I would have another playground to float my boat.
If only it were that simple.
Having been out of the public’s reach for so long, there are no descriptions of the river in any of my guidebooks. An internet search turned up nothing useful and none of my paddling buddies had ever paddled it. But satellite images on Google Maps seemed to show a shallow course with mostly flat water and only a few short and easy rapids. Part of my brain (the part I usually listen to) was telling me not to go on such a remote trip alone. But the other part kept nagging, “What could possibly go wrong?” So I decided it was time to see the Cedar.
I knew from my prior trips that the Upper Hudson could only be run at times of high water. I assumed (correctly, it turned out) that the Hudson’s neighbor, the Cedar, was much the same. The Department of Environmental Conservation has a practical, but inconvenient, habit of closing the access road to the Outer Gooley Club take-out point during mud season, when the river levels are perfect for paddling. At that time of year, it’s possible to drive only to a parking lot where the Gooley Club Road enters the Hudson Gorge Wilderness, requiring a 2½-mile schlep—with your boat—from the take-out to your car. This is also the time of year when the Adirondack backcountry is filled with blood-sucking black flies. Ugggh. When the mud dries up, the gate will be opened and you can park near the take-out, but by then the high water will be gone and you’ll likely have to wait for a fortuitous hurricane. God giveth with one hand and taketh with the other.
A trip on the Cedar is possible only when the Hudson River gauge at Newcomb registers 4 feet or higher, something that may happen only a few times per summer. The governor’s invitation to explore was beginning to seem optimistic. With the spring road closures and low midsummer water levels, the Cedar will probably never be a popular destination.
Says Ralph Pascale, an Adirondack Mountain Club whitewater specialist, “Like many Adirondack rivers, summer levels on the Cedar are unpredictable. The ADK’s paddling schedule is planned months in advance, making it impractical to schedule a trip there.
“It’s unlikely that the ADK (club) will ever have an organized trip on the Cedar, but we may make last-minute plans to run it when Mother Nature cooperates.”
When the river first became available to the public in 2013, I monitored the river gauge each week or so, eagerly looking for an opportunity to visit. Weeks ran into months that ran into years. Last year, I resolved to find a day to paddle it. I gazed at the website all summer, but didn’t get my chance until October, when a few days of heavy rain raised the river to a runnable level for a single day. The knock of opportunity that I had been waiting for had finally arrived.
My trip began at the end. I drove my car to the take-out point: the 1928 farmhouse of Olive and Mike Gooley just upstream of the confluence of the Indian and Hudson Rivers. The farmhouse was later used for hunting and fishing by Outer Gooley Club members, then acquired by New York State five years ago. The building has since been in limbo while various parties bicker over what should be done with it. For now, it marks the parking area used by paddlers, fishermen and hikers.
We left one car at the take-out, then my wife drove my boat and me to my starting point, seven miles away in the hamlet of Indian Lake at a riverside parking lot on Benton Road. The river began just as I expected: calm, shallow and very secluded. I passed a vacation home just downstream of where I launched, but for the rest of my 13-mile, five-hour trip, I didn’t see any other humans or manmade objects. My only escorts for the day were ducks, geese and a somewhat annoyed great blue heron. It was too late in the year for the usual garden of riverside wildflowers (swamp milkweed, Joe-Pye weed and cardinal flowers), but the October foliage was a magnificent substitute. The yellow birches and red maples were at their peak and the tamaracks were making their slow journey from parrot green to canary yellow.
If you think flat water is boring, you won’t be bored for long. Less than an hour after launching my canoe, I came to the first real rapid: Pashley Falls, an easy Class 2 ledge with a 20-inch drop (Adirondack rivers tend to use the term “falls” rather loosely).
I parked my boat on the right shore and walked along the Pashley Falls Ski Trail to scout the drop from downstream. Kayakers will enjoy boofing the small pour-over on the left; canoeists will prefer the deeper center tongue.
I had expected the trip to be mostly flat water with only a few easy rapids, but I soon found that it was an alternating mix of flat water and Class 2-3 rock gardens with lots of stones to dodge. Although the rapids aren’t very difficult for an experienced whitewater paddler, the unfamiliarity of the river, the remoteness of the area, the crisp weather and the absence of other paddlers made me cautious. A sprained wrist or damaged boat in the middle of nowhere would have really ruined my day, so I played it safe and stopped to scout the bigger rapids before committing to run them.
At the minimum-runnable level, most of the rapids have tight lines with a single clear route, so there’s no opportunity for surfing or eddy hopping. Higher levels (4.5 feet or more on the gauge) would probably afford more route choices. On one shallow rapid, I misjudged the depth of a standing wave and found myself balanced on a rock, rotating in the current like the plastic ballerina on a music box. When my boat slid off the rock, I was facing upstream and had to paddle the rest of the rapid backwards, a useful skill that I’ve had to employ on more than a few occasions.
If you decide to go, this isn’t the trip to try out your grandfather’s old Grumman canoe. You’ll need a real whitewater canoe or kayak and the whitewater skills to go with it. If you don’t know an eddy turn from a peel-out, pick a different river.
And keep your plans flexible. I tried to recreate my Cedar trip in April, only to find that the access was frozen bank-to-bank. Instead, I paddled an ice-free section farther upstream.
Downstream, there are no visible mountains or other landmarks, so leave your topo map and compass at home (if you haven’t already hawked them on eBay). While I’m generally opposed to consumer electronics in the backcountry, you’ll need a cellphone or GPS unit to monitor your progress on the Cedar. Cell service is unreliable on the river, so download an offline copy of the local area to Google Maps before leaving home.
The Cedar finishes with a bang. Its largest rapid starts about 150 yards before joining the Hudson, described as a Class 4 drop on the American Whitewater website, but a tamer Class 3 on my trip. The remaining three miles on the Hudson to the Outer Gooley Club have addition Class 2-3 rapids, but these are less technical, with just standing waves to float over.
I spotted the sign at the take-out, standing there like an old friend, telling me that my adventure was over and it was time to head home. My day on the water had been the best kind, enjoyable but uneventful, and I returned home without one of those river stories that my wife shakes her head about.