DAM RELEASE RIVERS OF NEW YORK STATE
By Simon Wiles
(first published in 'Paddles' magazine).
Moosefest 2003. A group of experienced kayakers look on helplessly below Fowlersville falls, the first rapid on the run. One of their group is missing. Moments earlier he'd run the standard left hand line down the steeply sloping 40ft fall, but subbed out when he hit the powerful hole at the base of the fall. All the other boaters who subbed out, resurfaced towards the eddy on the left, or downstream, but John resurfaced away from the eddy and was drawn back towards the huge hole at the base of the falls. He's sidesurfed for a moment before windowshading violently. After a minute he swims. Normally a swim at Fowlersville is a humbling experience, at these levels it could be fatal. Throw lines arc out, but he is out of all our reach and help. As we prepare more drastic methods of rescue he disappears a final time, and after long tense moments, reappears downstream of the towback. His boat takes rather longer to wash out. Only once we've rescued him at last, do we realize his wife was watching the whole epic unfold, the first time she'd ever seen him paddle!
John on Fowlersville slide, Bottom Moose Rivermoments before the epic
The Moose is one of the Finest dam release rivers in New York state, just one of many rivers which allow planned guaranteed water throughout the parched summer months. Described below are some of the most popular dam release runs in north east USA.
New York state, located in the North East of the USA, contains the Adirondack mountains, and the Adirondack National Park, the biggest national park in the USA. The southern tip of this park is only 3 hrs drive from New York City.
The Adirondack scenery is phenomenal, and the wildlife plentiful. I saw 6 black bears on one weekend last year. There are good campsites all over the Adirondacks, and the area is very well known for hiking and mountain biking.
New York state has an awesome number of rivers. Spring and late autumn are when the snowmelt and rainfall respectively make river levels the most reliable; during these time the paddling options are almost unlimited; the two volume guidebook includes over 200 runs! However, as with the UK, there is an in-between period when the snowmelt has gone, before the late autumn rains, when most of the free flowing rivers are too low for boating.
In the UK, we have the Tryweyrn, HPP and the Bitches as reliable summer locations The first two requiring a sizable paddling fee, the latter a huge drive. New York State offers a number of reliable summer dam release rivers, at a variety of grades, all of which are totally free to paddle.
All these rivers are located towards the northern end of NY State, and are all within a couple of hour's drive of each other, some much closer. These rivers are really divided into two categories of release; those which release regularly (every day, or a number of days each week), and those with specific release dates.
Sacandaga - 3 Miles grade 2/3
For beginner/ intermediates, the Sacandaga river should be your first stop. This is a 3 mile grade 2/3 run from Stewarts Bridge Reservoir to Hudson River, releasing every day from about 10am to 5pm. The release is a very respectable 5000 cfs, but this is a great introduction to white water as the river is wide and hazard free, with easy rapids. There are two fairly longish grade 2/3 rapids, with a flat section in between.
You won't have the river to yourself though; the warm summer water, and usually good temperatures, mean that it is a popular destination for tubers, rafters and kayak schools. This is a sizable river however, and rarely feels crowded. There is a good kayak shop at the takeout 'Sacandaga Outdoor Centre' who can provide river information and even run shuttles for a small fee. For the more advanced paddlers, there is a playwave of sorts at the top of the first rapid on the right, but short boats will have difficulty staying on the wave. There was talk of creating some man made features on this river, which would certainly enhance the play potential.
Hudson Gorge - 17 Miles Grade 3/4
Located nearby to the Sacandaga, is the Hudson. This famous river has several good whitewater sections. The main whitewater section 'The Hudson Gorge' is a classic. You start on a side stream fed by a dam release, the Indian River. The Indian releases usually weekends and some weekdays, but check with one of the many rafting operators in the area. The release starts at 10am, and the main trick with this river is to stay with the 'bubble'. You don't want to play too long and miss the additional water as it works its way down river, and you don't outrun it. This is usually only a problem if you start late. You can find yourself running out of water a few miles from the end
This run starts just below the dam, and you can choose to run the hardest rapid of the day - grade 4+ - right below the dam. The rafts put in just below this rapid at an easier put in. The Indian is 3 miles of solid grade 3, with plenty of fun small play spots. Beginners will struggle due to the continuous nature, lack of eddies and shallow riverbed. As you head down the Indian, the next road access is 17 miles away. This is a very scenic remote run, spoilt only by the number of rafting operators, especially if you paddle this on a weekend.
Hudson Gorge - lots of rafts
The Indian River joins the Hudson after 3 miles. The combined river then takes on a more relaxed nature, with longer flat sections between rapids. There are a number of grade 3 rapids, and two or three 4's, but all can be inspected or portaged. Usual summer flows (on the Hudson guage) should read above 4ft when combined with the Indian release, so if the river is around 3ft, the Indian will add about 1ft, and give a good summer level. The scenery is spectacular, and you are a long way from the road, so be prepared and take lunch. The Hudson can be paddled in much higher levels, when it becomes much more serious, the volume is huge and the water cold.
As a railroad bridge comes into sight followed by a right hand bend, the river becomes flat for the last 3km, with the exception of the Greyhound Bus Hole.
The rafting operators, while numerous are very friendly and it is usually possible to catch a shuttle with their buses in the morning.
If you are not completely exhausted after 17miles, there are two lower sections of the Hudson. In the summer, you have to time your paddle carefully to take into account the delay of the Indian release coming downstream. Usually these lower sections would be too rocky to enjoy unless there has been some rain. These sections are the 13 mile grade 2/3 North River to Riparious, or the 8 mile grade 3 Riparious to the Glen sections. These sections are much less continuous than the Gorge, and are often run by open canoes.
The Black River - 8 miles grade 3-5
The Black river is a kayaker's dream. All summer long, releases from a chain of dams provide water levels at a minimum of 1000cfs, and two quality playspots. This runs every day during the summer, with probably the exception of Tuesdays. Check with the rafting companies, or the local shop 'Paddle Hut'.
The run starts in Watertown, in Northern NY State. Just above town is the Route 3 wave; depending on the level this wave can be clean or broken. This was a contender site for the Worlds Rodeo event. In town, by the normal put in, is Hole Brothers, a uniform powerful hole, with great eddy service. The top half of the river is characterized by sloping rock bands, providing uniform waves and holes. Many kayakers never venture past these two playspots which is a shame.
In higher water levels, legendary playspots appear, such as the 'inner city wave', which forms when the other features wash out.
Hole Brothers - Mark old school style.
Si Wiles with a little more dignity.
Downstream, the black river leads out of town, and is mostly easy water, with the exception of Knife Edge, a 3 stage grade 4 rapid. This rapid had a dangerous undercut wall on river left at the bottom so go with someone who knows the dangers. Eddies are very scarce above this rapid!
Below Knife Edge, easy water leads to a dam. Hopefully you will have waited at Hole Brothers until a raft group arrives (usually 10-12 am). The dam operators provide releases for the rafts, so this is one way to ensure that there will be water in the lower gorge. The rafts portage the Glen Park Falls at the Dam, but kayakers can run the falls on the left if the water is not too high (1500 cfs). From here, there are number of grade 4 falls in the gorge. At higher levels, these falls become very continuous and reach grade 5. This is a great stretch of water, with challenging rapids. The rocks are fairly sharp, so beware low levels. The gorge lasts about 1.5 miles before becoming flat just before the take out bridge.
There are also easier sections of the Black, above Watertown, check with the rafting companies for details.
The Beaver River is really something special. A chain of dams along this river interrupts the natural flow, but provide controlled releases at optimum levels for a number of days in late summer, usually in late August - September. The releases are coordinated to provide a number of sections to paddle in a weekend. These are all within a half hour drive of each other, and the Black river is nearby to get your playboating fix. Some great campsites are available right by the river.
Taylorville Section: 4 Saturdays, 400 cfs, Grade 3-4
The easiest of the Beaver runs. This section is great fun, can be run safely in playboats, and has a couple of good playspots. It is a short run, about 1.5 miles, so you don't have to have a shuttle, but it helps. It has five or six good grade 4 drops, including one great slide.
Moshier Section: 1 Sunday, 400 cfs, Grade 4-5
The best run on the Beaver. The real pity is that it only releases once per year. Paddlers from across the Eastern USA flock to this river. Usually releases on a 3 day weekend, so that paddlers can do all 3 sections on the Beaver and the Raquette on a long weekend.
This section starts below a massive fall/slide combo that has been run occasionally. Two good waterfalls follow, before the difficulties ease, and the river drops to easy grade 3.
The final section is a fantastic piece of water, a 200 meter long rapid with 4 distinct drops is the crux of this run. Certainly rated 4+, it pushes grade 5 when you consider the number of people in the eddies and sometimes in the rapids around you, and the number of spectators, photographers and inspectors on the bank. A short pool allows any carnage to be mopped up before the take out. Then it's back to the start to do it again! The whole run is perhaps 4 miles long.
Moshier - Middle of last gorge.
Moshier - 4th drop of last gorge.
Eagle Section. 5 Saturdays / Sundays, 200 cfs, Grade 5
The Eagle section is usually timed to run in the afternoon after either the Moshier or the Taylorville section. This is the hardest of the Beaver sections, and the most spectacular. On one side of the river, a towering cliff, on the other, a steeply sloping rock ledge. Once you are on the river, you are not getting off easily. This section is steep and short, with 5 large sloping ledge falls pretty much back to back. There are small eddies, usually full of other paddlers. Plenty of spectators on the bank let you know that the way is clear for your attempt on the next drop. This is the nearest thing to a waterpark since Allt A'Chaorainn (but harder!) Each run takes at most 10 minutes if the queues are not bad, and it is up to you how many runs you fit into the afternoon. Lost paddles and dislocated shoulders are not uncommon due to the size of the falls.
Eagle - below 3rd Fall.
Eagle - 3rd Fall.
Raquette (Stone Valley) - Grade 4-5
6 Saturdays/ Sundays July - Sept 720 - 900 cfs
The Raquette is another great run tucked away at the northern end of NY state. Different release levels allow for easier and harder runs. The higher the release, the higher your chances of getting spanked.
It all starts below the dam. One warm up rapid, then Colton Falls, 60 feet of continuous ledges and slides, with multiple routes depending on the water level. Below this rapid are a number of large grade 4 and 5 drops in the first mile, some of them very serious. Every rapid should be inspected. The last two miles are grade 2. This is a fun, but serious run, definitely a step up from the Beaver.
The Raquette does get run at higher levels during the spring, up to 2000cfs when new lines open up. Rather you than me! Also it is allegedly a good bone run when there is only compensation flow releasing from the Dam. In these cases a good grade 4+ run can be had at 200 cfs, but the latter mile will be scrapey.
Raquette - Bottom of Colton Falls.
14 Weekend days April - June
6 Weekend days October
The Moose has become justifiably infamous due to the annual Moosefest held in Old Forge each year. Paddlers from all over congregate there for the end of the season party.
There are three separate runs on the Moose; the Middle, a 3 mile grade 3 run; the Lower, a 9 mile grade 3/4 run; and the main event, the Bottom Moose, which is 5 miles of grade 5. I haven't yet paddled the Middle or Lower, due to the flatter nature of these sections, but if the level is high, these become more continuous and would suit a group not up to the challenge of the Bottom Moose in high water.
The Bottom Moose is the scene of many epics and injuries each year. It is a test piece river that many paddlers aspire to before the end of the season. Usually the runnable levels are 2.5 - 5.5 ft on the gauge. Moosefest 2003 saw the flow at 8ft only 2 days before, and dropped to 6ft by the weekend. The river was not as crowded in comparison to previous years!
The Bottom Moose holds a number of rapids, in the grade 4-5 range. Fowlerville Falls, a steep sloping fall with powerful stopper at the base, has held a number of paddlers for extended periods. Epics happen here every year! Funnel, Knife Edge and Double drop, all grade 4 lead to a pool before a dam. The dam falls are usually portaged, but have been run on occasion. Following the Dam, the harder stuff starts. Agers Falls, an 18 Foot vertical fall, with a complicated run out, Shurform, Powerline, Crystal and Magilla, all rated grade 5 except for Powerline. These rapids complete one of the best pool drop rivers anywhere.
Simon - Agers Falls.
As with all rivers, rainfall may affect levels. All of the rivers described here can be run with natural flows, early in the spring with snow melt, or during periods of heavy rain. They will not have the 'optimum' flows of the releases, and all the higher grade runs will be more difficult if not impossible.
Crystal on the Moose.
These and practically every other NY state river are in 'New York Exposed' a recently published two volume guidebook. These are an indispensable guide if you decide to visit. The tales of carnage and misery on solo hair boat trips are worth the read even if you never plan to ever visit this area.
For further information on paddling in NY state
http://www.americanwhitewater.org/rivers/state/NY/ for river levels and guides
http://www.npmb.com discussion, release schedules
http://www.whitewateroutlaw.com The most comprehensive NY state guidebooks ever
Now living in Vermont USA, only 1hr from NY state! Thanks to Perception UK for their support.