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A new discovery around every bend in the river

July 6, 2011
By JOE HACKETT, News Outdoors Columnist
There is no denying the pull of a river, it is a peculiar allure that makes flowing waters distinct. It is a feeling that is often difficult to describe, but there is no doubt that a downriver journey provides a far different experience than a trip on a lake or a paddle across a pond. 

The uniqueness of such travel may stem from the ever-changing character of flowing water and the unusual sense of discovery and anticipation that rivers often provide.

Whether motoring up the lake or paddling across a pond, travelers can usually observe their destination in the distance. There are always familiar landmarks to chart their progress and to define their route of travel — whether it is a far point of land, an island strait or a huge glacial erratic along the shore.

A flatwater voyage often provides very few surprises since most travelers can see what’s coming and they know what to expect. As a result, there often isn’t a tangible sense of anticipation.

However, floating down a river always offers a surprise and the thrill of discovery that awaits, hidden ‘round almost every bend. Flowing waters have a life of their own and they are constantly reshaping their surroundings.

Rivers have always provided a means of discovery. Without the access afforded by flowing waters, the grand adventures of Lewis and Clark may never have occurred.

Rivers and streams are powerful, always in constant motion, drawing travelers ever onward. Flowing waters move travelers in a way that transcends simple transport. 

I call it the Huck Finn syndrome. It is a journey that can make river rats out of grown men and rabid adventurers out of even the meekest of travelers.

Several years ago while fishing along the Raquette River, I met up with two young boys who had drifted nearly a mile downriver from the Piercefield Town Beach on an old air mattress. They appeared quite surprised to see me.

When I asked where they had come from, they pointed upriver, puffed up their chests and proudly exclaimed, “Mister, we’ve gone further downstream than anybody has ever gone before.”

However, their proud personas rapidly disappeared when I asked how they intended to return back to the beach. With a rather quizzical look, the taller boy sheepishly responded, “Ahh, uh, I guess we didn’t think about that.”

I promptly loaded them in my canoe and paddled them back upriver to the beach, where their parents were already frantic and the lifeguard was nervous. Needless to say, the boys had enjoyed a grand adventure, as only a river can provide.

A hike in the mountains may capture your attention for a day and a trip up the lake can take a hold of you for a season. But on a river, we can become spellbound.

Bob Marshall, founder of the Wilderness Society, and a summer resident on Lower Saranac Lake recognized the charms of river travel when he claimed, “Each mile on a river will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road.” 

As the wild west was being tamed — primarily due to the access afforded by horses — in the east, the Adirondacks were undergoing a similar effort to chart the interior. Rather than using horses like their western counterparts, the eastern surveyors often utilized small wooden boats to explore the region by means of an elaborate and connective watery web. 

Guideboats and river dories became their waterborne steeds, and the rivers again proved to be equally important in the taming of the eastern wilderness.

More often than not, it was water that led the first adventurers to places unknown, and for many of us it still does. On a river, there is always a tinge of excitement that comes with the anticipation of what lies in wait, just around the next bend.

It may be a whitetail wading in an attempt to escape deer flies, a rabble of butterflies on a sandy riverbank or a wood turtle depositing her eggs. Rivers hide the mystery for paddlers to discover.

Flatwater travels rarely offer such similar thrills, since the landscape remains largely static. Other than the unnatural intrusions brought on by human development, the natural shoreline of most Adirondack lakes remains the same today as it was a century, or even a thousand years, ago. Lakeshores are timeless.

This same sameness does not invite true adventure since travelers, by and large, know what to expect.

However, the flowing waters of a river are ever-changing and they mock any landscape that attempts to tame and confine the flow. A river bottom is regularly scoured, bends are reshaped, banks are undercut and trees are toppled. As if in defiance, rivers always seem to attack any efforts that endeavor to control their flow.

In similar fashion, rivers attempt to control the occupants of the small boats that venture upon their water. Paddlers never own a river, they only rent the flow. This is what makes river travel so inviting and so uniquely Adirondack.

Focus turns to swimming

Now that the Fourth of July holiday weekend has come and gone, the heat of the summer season is set to begin. Although the area has received more than a fair share of precipitation this year, the region’s rivers have now returned to their normal flow.

Fortunately, the heavy rains of June have served to keep the oxygen content high and the water temperatures low. As a result, they are currently in excellent condition for fishing, paddling or just plain hanging out.

Area swimming holes will again become the center of attention. Whether jumping from a cliff or hurling off an old rope swing, the allure of an old swimming hole often uncovers the small kid that still remains buried within most adults.

Tame that wild beast

Just as cowboys had to tame wild horses in order to explore the west, there is a need for modern day adventurers to learn how to control their “steeds.”

An upcoming local event may offer the perfect opportunity, as the Adirondack Freestyle Symposium returns to Ray Brook from July 10 to 15.

Freestyle is a term used to describe technical paddling skills, which can help canoers to optimize their paddles and their paddling efficiency to control the craft. Freestyle canoeing has been called, “obedience lessons for your canoe.” It offers a base of knowledge and skills that can be applied to both flatwater and wild water paddling.

The Symposium will be based at the Sherwood Forest Motor Inn on Wolf Pond this year. The group will provide lessons for local paddlers, in addition to offering a public demonstration of the sport on Mirror Lake in the late afternoon of July 14. 

For additional information and registration contact event organizer Charlie Wilson at 523-9696 or

Article Photos

Photo provided
Joe Hackett negotiates rapids on a downriver run.



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