Whitewater rafting season is just getting started on the upper Hudson River but with river levels that are far below their usual springtime highs.
After a nearly snowless winter, even in the Adirondacks, snowmelt isn’t swelling the Hudson and other rivers the way it usually does.
That’s leaving commercial rafting companies that make guide-led runs through the world-class rapids of the Hudson River Gorge more reliant than usual on the schedule of dam releases to achieve quality rafting. And a least one company has opted not to do early-spring runs this year.
Early-season runs typically appeal to thrill-seekers, rafting company representatives said.
“Rather than disappointing people, we’re just going to start in mid-May,” said John Duncan, owner of Sacandaga Outdoor Center in Hadley, which does Hudson River Gorge runs. “What we have right now is a great water level for July. We don’t want to disappoint people by giving them summertime water levels.”
So far, this spring has been pretty much the opposite of last year, when snowmelt followed by days of heavy rain in May created high water and fast currents in streams throughout the Adirondacks. This spring, it hasn’t rained much, and that’s after a winter that was all but snowless, even in the sections of the Adirondacks that feed the Hudson.
Fortunately for commercial rafting companies, their runs through the wild and scenic gorge can be timed to match releases from a hydroelectric dam on Lake Abanakee in the town of Indian Lake, releases that send a pulse of water down the Hudson that rafters can use to their advantage.
That dam would normally be releasing water seven days a week during spring, but this year it is expected to operate even now on a summer schedule, with releases only four days a week.
The North Creek Rafting Co. started its season March 31, running four days a week, and most other rafting companies have also started operating.
“The water is a little low, but it’s still a great run,” said Nate Pelton, owner of the North Creek Rafting Co.
He said this weekend — the weekend after Easter — is generally the first popular one for the region’s commercial rafters. Helmets and wetsuits are part of the deal, so the chill of early-season water isn’t a problem for those grabbing a paddle.
“You get the adventure-seekers in the spring,” Pelton said, “then you get more family groups in the summer.”
The Hudson River Gorge runs through a remote wilderness surrounded by land that belongs to New York state and The Nature Conservancy. It is generally ranked among the top 10 whitewater rafting experiences in the United States, with Class 5 rapids during a high-water spring.
This year, the 17-mile run from Indian Lake to North Creek may not achieve the highest class of rapids, but “it’s still great rafting,” said Joanne Conley, Warren County’s assistant tourism coordinator.
Water will be released from the Indian Lake dam on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, raising the river level at North Creek by nearly a foot, according to recent gauge readings. “The dam releases help tremendously,” Conley said.
For communities like North Creek, whitewater rafting is big business in the early spring, which can be a slow time for tourism since it falls between winter skiing season and summer vacation months. Warren County has eight or nine commercial rafting outfitters, Conley estimated, and they make a major contribution to the local economy.
“It’s certainly one of our mainstays of the spring. In April, we’re all about whitewater rafting,” Conley said.
Once the rafting season starts, it generally continues through the summer and into the fall. Despite the low water so far, rafting companies generally say their inquiries are up.
“I think it’s more a factor of the warm weather,” said Duncan, whose company will also start short whitewater runs on the Sacandaga River at Hadley after Memorial Day.
One big whitewater event is still on schedule, despite the low water. The Hudson River Whitewater Derby will mark its 55th anniversary the weekend of May 5-6 in North Creek. It is expected to draw thousands of spectators for kayak slalom races on Saturday and downriver races on Sunday.
The Gore Mountain Regional Chamber of Commerce will sponsor the Adirondack Adventure Festival that same weekend. It’s intended to highlight other activities besides kayaking and rafting in the North Creek area. The festival offers a guided hike, organized bike rides, a craft fair and many other activities.
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