Canoeists explore stretch of upper Hudson recently acquired by state.
By Phil Brown
Some say the upper Hudson River below Newcomb has always been open for paddling, and they’re right—assuming you’re capable of shooting class IV rapids in the Hudson Gorge. For the rest of us, this part of the Hudson opened this spring.
In December, the state bought a long stretch of the Hudson from the Nature Conservancy, part of the 17,320-acre Essex Chain Tract. As a result of the acquisition, you can now paddle down the Hudson from Newcomb and exit before reaching the dangerous gorge.
As part of an interim access plan, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has designated two takeouts, both marked by signs. The first is just below a steel bridge (which is just below the confluence with the Goodnow River). The second is six miles farther downstream, just before the confluence with the Indian River.
DEC is recommending that paddlers start their journey at the boat launch on Harris Lake near the Newcomb Town Beach. The department has erected a kiosk with a map and register. From the put-in, paddlers will have the option of paddling roughly seven and a half miles to the first takeout or nearly fourteen miles to the second. At either end, paddlers face a carry of nearly a mile to a parking area. Also, the longer trip will necessitate a shuttle of about forty miles between Indian Lake and Newcomb.
For a shorter trip without a shuttle, people could put in near the steel bridge and explore the Blackwater Stillwater, a quiet stretch of the Hudson, as well as the mouth of the Goodnow River. You should be able to get in a few miles of paddling, more if you’re willing to line your boat through a rapid or two.
Yes, rapids. It’s not the Hudson Gorge, but the newly opened stretch of the Hudson does contain numerous rapids and rocky shallows. You’ll need some whitewater skills or the willingness to carry or line your boat. One of the rapids, Ord Falls, is considered a difficult class II and may be class III in high water.
I was surprised by the frequency of rapids when I canoed the Hudson to the steel bridge in mid-May with several others, including state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens and Mike Carr, head of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy.
Now that the state owns the river corridor, paddlers can carry around the rapids if they choose, but the going may be tough. On our trip, we carried around the two biggest rapids, Ord Falls and Long Falls. We followed rough herd paths without too much trouble, but the portages would be much easier if DEC opts to build carry trails. DEC will make that decision as it develops a management plan for the region.
We paddled through seven smaller, gentler rapids. Two of them were challenging enough to require scouting. All of us banged into some rocks during the day, but no one capsized.
On the morning of our trip, the U.S. Geological Survey gage in Newcomb measured the depth of the Hudson at just under three feet. If the river were a bit higher, perhaps we would have had fewer encounters with rocks. If it drops much below three feet, paddlers may have to line their boats through many of the rapids.
Although the forecast called for sunshine, the sky was overcast when we launched our flotilla of eight canoes on Harris Lake. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a fine view of Allen Mountain, one of the remotest of the High Peaks. After paddling east for about a mile, we reached the lake’s outlet and soon thereafter the Hudson. Two wooden signs shaped like arrows informed us that going upstream would take us to Mount Marcy, while downstream would lead to New York City.
Dave Olbert, a Newcomb guide, pointed out an old hunting cabin that dates back to the 1800s. “It was a house of ill repute for the loggers. That’s what the old-timers tell me,” he said.
After we passed under Route 28N, the Hudson broadened considerably, spreading into marshy wetlands. We could see Vanderwhacker Mountain to the southeast. Mike Carr spotted an eagle soaring over the water. Before the river began to narrow again, Olbert advised everyone to turn around for a marvelous view of the High Peaks.
A mile from the highway, we reached Long Falls. The name is misleading: it’s not a falls, but a more or less continuous series of rapids. We took out on the right bank (as you should for all the carries) and hauled our canoes and gear more than a quarter-mile through the woods.
We were much relieved to get back in the boats, but it wasn’t long before we came to an even longer carry, around Ord Falls. Again, the “falls” proved to be a long sequence of rapids. Forest Ranger Dell Jeffrey, who had scouted the rapids earlier in the week, estimated that the portage was a half-mile. Parts of it resembled a bushwhack. At the end of it, we decided to have lunch by the river. Jeffery assured us that the hardest part of the journey was behind us.
After lunch we paddled through two easy rapids and then came to one big enough to demand a look-see. Jeffery, in a solo canoe, showed us a good line, and we followed in his wake. (Click here to watch a video of canoeists shooting this rapid.)
Soon we came to a large island. We went left and shot two more easy rapids. Since leaving Newcomb, we had not seen signs of civilization, but now a cabin appeared at the mouth of Wolf Pond Outlet. Like other hunting cabins on the newly acquired lands, it eventually will be dismantled. Dave Olbert told us to keep an eye out for an old white pine with a cross carved into it. According to lore, a logger died near here on a river drive, and his friend carved the cross.
Farther downriver, we left our boats to inspect another rapid, and I took the opportunity to ask Joe Martens about his impressions of the trip. “This is great; it’s beautiful,” he said. “Maybe I appreciate it more now because I don’t get out as much as I’d like.”
As it turns out, Martens has a lot of whitewater paddling experience. Many years ago, he used to go on expeditions in northern Canada arranged by Buffalo Assemblyman Bill Hoyt. On one trip, they flew north of tree line to a river’s headwaters in a vast scrub-land. “It was almost like being on a different planet,” he said.
I did not hesitate to take his advice on how to get through this rapid: stay to the right, next to a rock wall rising out of the water, and then turn left as the rapid peters out. The line proved to be a good one.
After this rapid, we found ourselves looking straight downriver at Polaris Mountain, one of the larger peaks on the Essex Chain Tract. It was a sign that we were nearing the end of our trip. Sure enough, after passing through one last easy rapid, we could see the steel bridge that’s used by members of the Polaris Club to reach their hunting grounds. I extended the excursion a bit by paddling a short distance up the Goodnow River and taking some photos. Later, Jeffery told me you can go about half-mile up the river before reaching a waterfall.
Altogether, we spent more than five hours paddling and portaging. A smaller group no doubt would travel faster, but unless you shoot all the rapids, plan on a long day. The stretch below our takeout also contains numerous class II rapids. So if you intend to continue to the takeout near the Indian River, you may want to camp overnight. After all, it’s your land now. ■