Organizers aim to bring back river feature to attract paddlers
By Cal Seeley
A whitewater park on the Saranac River will return to downtown Saranac Lake right below the LaPan Memorial Highway bridge. The park, slated for construction in July 2024, will be the second of its kind in the Northeast.
“There are no real precedents [in the Northeast] for an intentional whitewater park like this, except for the recently finished Mill Creek park up in New Hampshire,” said Tyler Merriam, park-proposer and donor outreach manager at the Ausable River Association. “We’re hoping this will be precedent-setting in New York state.”
Unlike the whitewater slalom course built in the 1990s, the park will showcase one large paddling feature: a standing wave designed for surfing, complete with eddies on both sides of the wave. Paddlers will be able to practice techniques like ferrying and eddy-line crossings. There will be no slalom gates like the previous park.
Merriam and Scott McKim, paddler and boat restorer, had the idea to revive the whitewater park back in 2016, and they hope the park will follow in the footsteps of other community-proposed projects that have sprung up around the town, and they believe Saranac Lake has an affinity for projects aimed to benefit the community, like the Dewey Mountain lodge, the skatepark and the Mt. Pisgah lodge.
McKim believes that this project will attract more than the paddling community, and adds that whitewater parks are key to the economies of many mountain communities out West.
“These whitewater parks, they’re a dime a dozen out West … they kind of act like magnets for the downtown corridor.”
This park, Merriam and McKim stress, is meant to be open to the entire community, not just the paddlers.
“We certainly want to avoid the moniker of being elitist and only catering towards hardcore whitewater paddlers, that’s not what this is about,” said McKim. “This is an opportunity to draw some more positive attention to the river.”
In addition, the park will be a center for education and outreach. They hope to partner with local schools and youth organizations to make paddling more accessible.
“As a community we’re missing an opportunity if we’re not exposing more kids to paddling, a lot of kids might not have the means otherwise,” said McKim.
Merriam and McKim emphasize river-restoration all throughout their project, and hope that it will greatly improve the fish habitat and health of the river.
“We will be altering the river, but it is very much altered in its current state and is in pretty poor health,” said McKim. “I think a big win out of this project will be for the anglers and the fishing community.”
Designing and constructing a whitewater feature is thoughtful and involved.
“Primarily, it will be positioning very specifically large boulders into the bed of the river to alter the form of that particular section of river,” said Merriam.
The positioning, mainly done by excavators, will be so specific that the boulders, if off by more than half an inch, may not produce the intended whitewater feature.
“It’s actually relatively complicated,” said Merriam. “It takes a little bit more to create a quality feature.”
Merriam and McKim are thankful to the community for their outpouring of support, and plan to name the park after the late Tom Boothe, once completed.
“He really helped us get this iteration of the park off the ground both financially and logistically,” said Merriam.
The park received its funding from Gov. Hochul’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, which allocated $9.7 million to Saranac Lake. From that, the whitewater park received $411,000. With an increase in inflation and costs of construction, they predict they will go over their budget.
“We expect we are still going to need to raise more money than that,” said Merriam. “What was fully funded in 2019 is quite a different story now.”
As a result, they are accepting donations and spreading awareness about the whitewater park through AdkAction, a non-profit offering information about community-led projects around the Adirondacks.
If all goes smoothly and accordingly, the park will be open for paddling, spectating and fishing in September 2024.