Whitewater rafting on the upper Hudson

“Go, go, go!”

We hoist up our 15-foot rubber raft and march out into the frigid river. As my booted, wet- suited foot enters the water, I feel… nothing. No cold, no damp, just a slight pressure as the water closes around my calf. “Hey,” I think, “these things really work.”

We clamber aboard our craft and swiftly, albeit clumsily at first, paddle out into the current. Behind us, the next of several hundred rafts is already being man-handled down the bank.

We have entered the Indian River, a major tributary of the Hudson, a few hundred yards down from the dam that regulates its flow out of Lake Abanakee. During the summer, the Indian is a tranquil stream.

But that was months ago.

Now, the melting snows of Bullhead, Horseshoe, Little Panther and Bad Luck mountains have swollen Lake Abanakee with cold, clear water. We can see it cascading over the dam, exploding down a narrow channel before spreading and running swiftly but calmly past our embarkation point. We join the flow.

After bumping over a few small waves, we get a chance to look around. Clusters of fiddleheads – the tightly curled shoots of ferns that resemble the scrolls of violins – are poking up through the newly-thawed earth. Here, the river flows along the narrow defile it has carved among the peaks, overseen by the evergreens clinging to the slopes which angle up from the banks.

Interspersed among the deep green boughs are bare, silver-gray aspens, their slim branches only just beginning to break out in golden buds, an impossible dazzle of color in the bright morning sunlight.

Rounding a bend, we hear thunder. No more time for surveying the shore. The bed here is full o f glacial detritus, from gravel to boulders the size of buses, which whip the water into peaks and valleys, fountains of spray and standing waves that slam our raft – wash! wash! wash! – one after the other, tossing and twisting us and splashing over the gunwales into our faces as we whoop in part laughter, part terror.

We emerge spluttering from our first rapids with a foot of water in our raft, spray dripping from hair and eyebrows and noses, adrenaline coursing through arteries. The water isn’t swimming temperature by a long shot, but in our insulated wet suites, we don’t notice the chill.

“Did anyone get wet?” inquires our grinning guide….

Skip Grant is stocky and blue-eyed, with chiseled Hollywood features and a 24-hour smile. During the week, he is Hoyt S. Grant, is a salesman of some kind of incomprehensible high-tech computer equipment. But on weekends, he comes up here as a licensed river guide. And lets loose.

Shooting the rapids, our paddling had been raggedy; now we work on getting in sync. We’re still banging into each other as Skip calls out, “Back paddle on the left! Front on the right! Let’s spin this sucker around!”

We take a break at Blue Ledges, a prodigious scarp of several hundred feet that stands directly in the path of the rushing Hudson. As a huge raven flies overhead, catching thermal updrafts along the cliff, we bask on the riverbank rocks in the warm sun and watch armies of fellow rafters come splashing by.

Each outfitting company has a different colored wetsuit, so it’s like watching Kurosawa’s film “Ran”, with its color-coded armies. First comes a group in orange suits with orange vests, then a division of blue suits and orange vests, then a contingent all in blue plus red helmets. We drink coffee (but not too much – no bathroom stop for an hour!) and psych ourselves up for the next stretch.

By Carter’s Landing Rapids (sometimes called Mile Long Rapids) we’re paddling in sync, which is a good thing, because this is the most treacherous stretch of the river. It is market by several “holes” – gaps between boulders which catch the turbulent waters and trap them in pounding, roiling eddies.

You can roller-coster over them, but if you hit them at just the wrong angle, a raft can go over in seconds, dumping everyone. We pass “Jim’s Hole”, where one guide spilled his entire crew a few years back, and earned himself a place in local nomenclature.

(I learned later that, after our trip, an inexperienced group of rafters wiped out in Jim’s Hole – and one died. It’s rare, but it’s real. And danger is both the carrot and the stick of every adventurer.)

We pass the rest of the five-hour odyssey in a blur of exhilarating rapids and lazy flat stretches. It’s like the best carnival ride you’ve ever been on, but it lasts a lot longer than 30 seconds, and there’s no waiting in line.

By the time we pull out of the river near the town of North Creek, the sun is disappearing behind the mountains. Back at our hotel – the American in “downtown” North Creek – we realize that our bodies are far too keyed up to even consider sleep. Tranquilizers are definitely required, and the American has the best post-rafting oasis in town: the Thirsty Moose. It’s got a solid garnet bar (actually garnet ore, a bluish-black rock shot through with nodes and veins of the burgundy gemstone), and when we arrive the bar’s stuffed-head namesake is presiding over a hubbub of voices exchanging rafting tales over ales.

“…And then we hit the rock and he went right over the side!”

“That’s nothing – we bumped a shallow rock on a calm stretch and no one got dumped but our guide! He came up spluttering and real embarrassed….”

“I wish I could go again tomorrow. I checked and they’re all booked up.”

“I am going again tomorrow!”

Three hundred miles downstream, the Hudson flows quietly, a constrained river, between New Jersey and the skyscrapers of Manhattan. But here in the north she’s still a wild river. And she makes for one wild ride.

(Originally appeared in Capital Magazine. Photo by Chetan Sarva under creative commons license from Flickr.com)

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