Paddlers in inflatable kayaks find thrills and spills in heavy whitewater on the Hudson River:
by Phil Brown
FROM TIME TO TIME I’ve played with the idea of putting together a list of quintessential Adirondack adventures. It would include, for example, climbing the Trap Dike on Mount Colden, skiing Mount Marcy on a bluebird day, and scaling the eight-hundred-foot cliff on Wallface.
Last summer, I ticked off another adventure on my bucket list: rafting the Hudson Gorge.
My friend Mike got me into this one. He arranged a trip with North Creek Rafting Company with the intention of writing an article for the Associated Press. I readily agreed to shoot some photos and video.
Our Hudson Gorge outing differed from most in one important respect: instead of riding in rafts, we piloted inflatable kayaks, known as duckies. These vessels are open, like canoes, but as in a kayak, you maneuver with a double-bladed paddle and sit with your legs stretched out.
“It’ll be like going down the river in a lawn chair,” remarked Nate Pelton, the thirty-eight-year-old owner of North Creek Rafting.
Sure … if the lawn happens to be experiencing a 6.0 earthquake.
We met Nate and his wife, Becky, at 8:30 a.m. at their North Creek home, where a barn in the backyard, filled with wetsuits, neoprene booties, and helmets of various colors, serves as the company headquarters. There were about thirty other customers, but only Nate, Mike, and I would be in duckies. The rest would be divided among four rafts, each with its own guide.
Before heading to the put-in in the town of Indian Lake, we all gathered outside the barn to listen to Becky’s safety talk. Perhaps the most important advice: if you fall in and can’t climb back in the raft, don’t try to stand in the rapids. Your foot could get trapped between rocks and the current could pull you under. Instead, float on your back with your legs pointed downstream and your arms splayed. And hang onto your paddle.
“Believe it or not, people who fall in have the most fun,” Becky said. “They have the best stories to tell.”
Because it was a warm day, with a water temperature above seventy degrees, many of the rafters chose not to wear wetsuits. Mike and I did wear them, since ducky paddlers typically get soaked, whether they fall in or not.
The put-in used by North Creek Rafting and other outfitters is on the Indian River, downstream from the dam on Lake Abanakee. In rafting season, the town opens the dam for ninety minutes in the morning several days a week, generating a “bubble” of water that rafters ride to the hamlet of North River.
We will travel seventeen miles in five hours: three miles of heavy rapids on the Indian to its confluence with the Hudson River; three miles of milder rapids and calm water on the Hudson; eight miles of heavy rapids in the gorge; and three more miles of mild rapids and calm water to the takeout.
“If we get through the Indian without incident, we’ll probably be good for the whole trip,” Nate told Mike and me.
After waiting in line with a crowd of rafters, we launched in a quiet bend in the river and almost immediately encountered rapids. Although each of us was in his own ducky, Nate acted as a guide, showing the two novices the best route through the roiling whitewater. But it wasn’t always easy to follow him.
Frankly, I was a little intimidated by the size of the waves. I have paddled throughout the Adirondacks but have very little whitewater experience. I had never been in surf like this before. The burliest rapids on the Indian are rated class III, which the American Whitewater Association defines, in part, as “moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe.”
Or a ducky. Within minutes, I found myself plummeting into the troughs between waves or bouncing along the crests. I did my darnedest to keep on Nate’s tail, but on a few occasions I got off track and glanced off a boulder. One time my boat got pinned, yet I managed to free it by leaning into the rock, allowing the current to lift the ducky and pry it loose.
At some point, I passed Mike and later saw Nate facing upstream. I was too preoccupied to turn around, but I suspected Mike had fallen out. Sure enough, I learned later that my friend had a story to tell.
“I came in at an angle at a rock sticking above the water and got hung up; I got turned sideways and just dumped,” Mike told me.
Was he scared?
“I was wet and angry. I had the paddle in one hand and kept my other hand on the boat on the gunwale. The current was pushing me downriver to the point where I couldn’t get my feet under me.” Eventually, he managed to belly-flop back into the ducky. A mile on, he got tossed again, this time after getting caught between two standing waves. Again, he was able to rescue himself.
Eventually, we got to the Hudson without further incident. In spite of Mike’s mishaps, I felt confident in the stability of the ducky and was looking forward to more rapids. So was Mike. The next set, Cedar Ledges Rapids, was fun, but not as challenging as the whitewater on the Indian. Then we came to a calm stretch where Elephant Rock rises out of the middle of the river. Rafters were lining up at the humongous boulder, waiting for their chance to jump into the water.
A few miles from the confluence, we reached Blue Ledge Rapids, a long stretch of class III whitewater. I turned on my GoPro camera, which was attached to my helmet, and started shooting video. It took about eight minutes to get through the rapids. If you want to get a vivid sense of what we experienced on this trip, check out an abridged version of the video (about two minutes long) on the Explorer website.
The rapids are named for Blue Ledge, a marble cliff that rises high above the river’s right bank. Blue Ledge sits at the head of the Hudson Gorge, which extends for about nine miles, hemmed in by steep, forested mountains. What makes this trip so attractive is that when you’re not barreling through rapids, you can sit back and enjoy these wild surroundings.
The entire gorge is now in public hands, thanks to the acquisition of the 2,800-acre OK Slip Falls Tract on the south side of the river. The state bought the land last year from the Nature Conservancy, which purchased it in 2007 from Finch, Pruyn & Company. In the past, rafters weren’t allowed to picnic or camp on the south side of the gorge. Now they can. They also can hike to OK Slip Falls, one of the tallest cataracts in the state. However, this detour is advisable only if you’re not relying on the dam release’s bubble to carry you to North River—such as in times of naturally high water or if you are camping and can catch a new bubble the next day. Otherwise, you might get stranded behind the bubble, with not enough water to paddle.
We stopped for lunch directly across the river from Blue Ledge. Nate and Becky handed out sandwiches, bottles of juice, and delicious cookies, baked by Café Sarah in North Creek. As we dined, I showed Nate my GoPro, and he pointed out that, contrary to my impression, the clear-plastic casing was not waterproof. So I had to stash the helmet-cam in a dry bag for the remainder of the trip. Too bad, because the biggest rapids lay ahead.
Even in summer, both the Narrows and Kettle Mountain Rapids reach class IV, which American Whitewater defines, in part, as “intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water.” The Narrows boasts the river’s tallest waves (up to four feet on this day), but the Kettle Mountain Rapids have the steepest drop and are considered more difficult.
We entered the Narrows just after leaving Blue Ledge. What a rush! Again and again, my ducky would plunge into a trough only to pop up like a cork. It was like riding a roller-coaster, only wetter. The powerful current, frothy and loud, made me feel puny as it pushed me this way and that. The gods must have been amused at my feeble efforts to control my fate with a plastic paddle. Words don’t do it justice. If only I had a video …
After the Narrows, we passed through five stretches of class III whitewater, including one a mile long, before hitting Kettle Mountain Rapids. Nate instructed us to steer clear of the biggest drop, which we did, and so we got through the turbulent waves intact. We went through two more class III rapids—Gunsight In and Gunsight Out—and then came to the last big one of the day, Harris Rift.
By this time we were somewhat separated, so I didn’t see what happened, but Mike went swimming again. Later he told me that his ducky overturned in a hydraulic—a hole created when water pours over a boulder and then flows upstream. “There were three ways to fall out, and I did them all,” he remarked.
We still had several class III rapids to go, the last being Bus Stop, so called because a big drop at the end is large enough to trap a bus. Soon after this, we passed beneath a railroad trestle, a sign that we had left the gorge and were returning to civilization. Over the next few miles, we paddled lazily downriver, riding through several easy rapids, and let our adrenaline levels subside to normal.
Upon reaching North River, we passed a family floating on inner tubes. They had entered the river from the nearby road to drift through a series of gentle rapids. Their fun was just beginning, but ours was coming to an end. Oh, well, we had our stories to tell.