RAFTING BRINGS MANY RIPPLE EFFECTS

Whitewater sports influences upper Hudson River economy, attitudes

FRED LEBRUN
Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"How do we do it?'' our guide Wayne Failing roared with demonic glee over the din. The self-described flower of God had done it again, he had just ably spun our 14-foot raft through a narrow whitewater flume between two gigantic hydraulics.


A hydraulic is a nasty piece of work, a raging back current below a huge boulder that sucks in whatever falls in, and can easily flip boats and rafts. We were in the middle of our whitewater adventure run with Wayne, thoroughly soaked, and, if not scared, at least anxious. In other words, we were getting what we paid for.


This is September, after all. These aren't 10-foot natural waves from snow run-off in April. We're riding the two-hour bubble of water releases from Lake Abanakee down the Indian, and then the Hudson. A total of 17 wild and crazy miles, even if it is engineered craziness. Without that water release, the Hudson here right now is so low and bony you couldn't go 50 feet even in a canoe without grounding.


The river of solitude above Newcomb has become an imitation at least of the springtime river of intimidating force. You could see where this would be a paralyzing wonder in the spring. Even now, the strength of a river current out of control created by a 3-foot water release makes you gulp.


In the 30-plus years since the first Maine entrepreneur recognized the value of turning this section of the Hudson into the only whitewater rafting experience in the state, rafting has evolved greatly. Instead of just a springtime terror dependent on nature, it is three season, abetted by $75,000 a year in dam releases four days a week through Columbus Day. The money is paid by the 11 outfitters who do this, with Wayne's company, Middle Earth Expeditions, the smallest.


Whitewater rafting has become a huge economic engine for this otherwise struggling corridor from Indian Lake to North Creek. This year, rafting brought 15,000 paying customers to the Hudson, and rafting employs hundreds.


The best thing that's happened to this stretch of the river in the last 10 years is the acquisition by the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy of the former Finch-Pruyn lands on both sides of the Hudson.


For more than 150 years, these lands were in well-protected and well-nurtured private hands. But now any chance this last great swatch of wild Adirondacks could be lost to development or fragmentation has been saved by the Nature Conservancy. For now, natural wonders like the OK Slip Falls just up from our campsite remain off-limits to public trespass. Those falls are among the highest in the state, and a terrific hiking destination. In the future, God and the Dow willing, the state can buy those lands and carefully regulate how they're used and accessed.


Meanwhile, Mike Carr of the Nature Conservancy, just like Joe Martens of the Open Space Institute up in Newcomb, is looking for ways to preserve and enhance Adirondack traditions and opportunity, accommodating not only those anxious to add to the Forest Preserve, but local economic development too. These include preserving the many hunting leases on the old Finch-Pruyn properties, and maintaining logging and timber management. And we hope, promoting rafting as well. Rafting is not totally without environmental impact, but is a fair trade-off. Those walls of water have been found to have little impact on macroinvertebrates and stocked trout populations. The bubbles do take away cold water refuge spots during the hot months, which stress fish.


We stayed for two days at our campsite deep in the interior, far from any cellphone reception or roads. Sitting on a log and listening all day to the babbling of OK Slip brook will do more to lower your blood pressure than all the chemistry in Jersey.


Still, the occasional plane going overhead was a reminder that we were players in the theater of wilderness.


Even so, as Wayne is passionate in pointing out, the experience he provides in a whitewater raft or a back-country canoe requires the preservation of the character of wilderness along the shores to be convincing, not just galloping waves or big bass. We saw eagles and osprey. I caught trout and small-mouth bass.


But I also smelled the rotting vegetation along the shorelines at low water, when the bubble had passed. And the water temperature had to be in the 70s throughout this stretch of the Hudson, the danger zone for trout. In September. That's not good. I'm not sure rafting has anything to do with that, but what it does tell me is that the river here is fragile. Proceed with care. Still.


''Life is good,'' Wayne said with a broad smile, at least 30 times. Ditto to that.


BOX:


Follow Fred LeBrun as he retraces his 1998 trip down the Hudson River. He will post updates at http://timesunion.com/storyofalbany as well as a week's worth of stories.


BOX:


- Monday: Mount Marcy and the watershed. Origins of the Hudson.


- Tuesday: The river of solitude where ghosts hover. First navigable waters.


- Wednesday: White- water Hudson. The theater of wilderness.


- Thursday: A river of commerce and hydro power. Lake Luzerne to Glens Falls.


- Friday: An old debt to the river is repaid. Dredging the Hudson.


- Saturday: The Champlain Canal. A river waiting to be renewed.


- Sunday: Close to home. The Hudson we think we know.


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Follow Fred LeBrun as he retraces his 1998 trip down the Hudson River. He will post updates at http://timesunion.com/storyofalbany.