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Riding the Raquette River rapids

September 1, 2010
Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist

The day dawned bright and blue, offering ideal conditions for an overnight expedition along a lonely stretch of the Raquette River. Our journey promised a taste of whitewater rapids, mixed with long stretches of flatwater and the opportunity to enjoy many miles of a relatively untapped fishery.

    We planned to put in at Dead Creek Flow, which is located about a mile downriver from the Piercefield Dam, a massive structure that eliminated a deadly section of rapids that took the lives of numerous log drivers.

    In gathering information about this particular section of river, I spoke with numerous people who had fished and hunted the area. Yet, I could only track down one person who had traveled the entire stretch. He had done it in a raft, during low water conditions and described the trip as “brutal.”

    There is very little information available about the river, beyond what is described in Paul Jamison’s book “Adirondack Canoe Waters, North Flow,” which has an emphasis on navigating the whitewater sections.

    Nothing prepared us for the steady headwinds we encountered on the wide flatwater sections.

    Although I have often fished the Raquette below the Piercefield Dam (depending on water levels), I usually return upstream or take out at Dead Creek. I had ventured around Sol’s Island only once before, but I returned before reaching the rapids.

    Early in the morning, my friend Eric Granger and I set off in solo canoes with measured confidence. While we didn’t really know what to expect, the water levels were quite low and the current slow. So was the fishing, as we later discovered.

    As we paddled down Dead Creek and left the highway behind, we recognized that there was no turning back. Although there are a few dirt roads, the entire corridor is inaccessible to the public, except for the locations of the put-ins and take-outs. In between, there are three major waterfalls and several dangerous sets of rapids.

    The stretch of river from Dead Creek Flow to Jamestown Falls is a 14.5-mile route that can be extended an additional 2 to 3 miles for a take out on Carry Falls Reservoir.

    Our first hint of whitewater came with a distant roar. Rounding the bend, we encountered the Upper Sols Island rapids. A slow current permitted an easy takeout to scout the rapids and after scouting, we decided to portage the gear and paddle the rapids in empty canoes.

    While the rapids are rated a Class III, at the low water levels they were challenging but easily handled.

    Although the initial run proved uneventful, it provided an opportunity to dust off our whitewater skills and to get in some much-needed practice. The run also supplied our first rush of adrenaline.  There would be more.

    After lining our canoes over a small waterfall at the Upper Sols rapids, we reloaded the gear before setting off to fish. Eric continued to fish the backwater at the base of the falls as I drifted downriver, casting a fly to rising fish.

    As I approached the next set of rapids, I had to quickly maneuver the canoe into the middle of the flow as a fast current took me over a drop and through the Lower Sols rapids.

    Although the drop was only a few feet, I disappeared from Eric’s view. I immediately let him know that I was all right, and I paddled to shore to regroup. So much for an adrenaline rush.

    Eric later explained, “I looked up when you yelled and then you just disappeared.”

    Below Lower Sols rapids, the following six miles consisted of the Moosehead Stillwater, a wide, flat and seemingly wild stretch of flatwater. In short order, the day turned blustery, with a steady headwind that negated the river’s meager current.

    The riverbanks were dotted with an occasional camp, but otherwise there was little sign of the hand of man. There was also little evidence of any type of management, as the entire corridor was devoid of signage beyond being posted as a state Forest Preserve. The area is part of the Raquette-Boreal Wild Forest.

    While the river offers an incredible recreational resource, the lack of established campsites, portage trails or even a “Warning Rapids” sign, makes the journey feel even wilder and more remote.

    Unfortunately, the din of traffic can usually be heard from Route 3, which parallels the river from Piercefield to Seveys. The hum of heavy equipment from active logging operations on the opposite shore is also apparent.

    As we progressed downriver, there were a number of abandoned camps along the left bank. The camps, some with small clusters of buildings, are all that remain from leases that were discontinued when the state purchased easements from the lumber companies in 2004.

    After that time, the camps were to be removed or relocated to IP or Conservation Fund land. To date, many of the old camps still remain on Forest Preserve lands that are located within the river corridor. There is still a great deal of resentment over the issue, as we discovered while speaking with a few camp owners that we encountered along the river.

    The buildings, most of which are tucked into the woods along the riverbank, have the appearance of small ghost towns. Some have been burned to the ground, while others have been gutted and left to rot. Most are in various stages of disrepair.

    Much of the existing Forest Preserve lands were once mostly owned by large timber companies, which leased the land to individuals and groups for use as traditional hunting camps. Many of the camps were passed down from generation to generation.

    Today, the entire river corridor, which is generally 500 feet wide from the highwater line on both banks of the river, has been designated as the Raquette-Jordan Primitive Area.

    According to the Adirondack Park Agency, these lands now form a core of the unit and are classified as a Primitive Area “due to the presence of biological resources of statewide significance, as well as for their unique and significant resource values for its sense of remoteness and outstanding opportunities for solitude.”

    Sadly, it was the hunters who appear to have once valued the area’s “presence of biological resources of statewide significance.” Currently, it seems that very few people take the opportunity to visit the corridor, making it very primitive.

    We found plenty of solitude on the river, encountering only one other boat and a couple of fishermen in two days of travel.

    A key feature of the Raquette is that most of the river is inaccessible to motor vehicles. Yet apparently, there remains a good deal of ATV use in the Primitive Area, as the riverbanks have a defined road with fresh tracks evident.

    We made camp on a high bank, as a rainbow settled on the opposite side of the river. The faint roar of the Moosehead Rapids could be heard in the distance, as a misty fog enveloped the scene and ghosts of untold lumbermen stirred in the silent eve.

    Fortunately, I was too tired for such dreams to keep me from sleep and I was snoring well before flames departed the fire ring.

    Currently, Forest Preserve lands within the Raquette River Corridor do not identify or provide any signage indicating suitable portage trails or designated campsites. It is a difficult trip where paddlers will encounter several very difficult rapids and two dangerous waterfalls that require several long and arduous portages.

    Novice paddlers should not attempt this stretch, as the remoteness of the river corridor will compound rescue efforts. Anyone attempting this section should possess competent whitewater canoeing skills and should carry adequate supplies to spend an extra night on the river.

    Scouting of all rapids is a necessity and safety equipment, including a throw bag, is advised. Even in low-water levels, canoes should be fitted with air bags for floatation. When in doubt, it is always safer to carry around an obstacle than taking the risk of running it.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
Eric Granger of Jay navigates the Raquette River rapids during a recent journey down the river.



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