Whitewater rafting is an inherently dangerous activity, but Patrick Cunningham, owner of Hudson River Rafting Co. of North Creek, has made it much more dangerous than it need be in recent years with sloppy, improper and even illegal business practices. Considering that, he got off pretty easy in a ruling handed down by Fulton County Court Judge Richard Giardino last week.
Cunningham is one of those legendary Adirondack characters — skier, paddler, businessman — that everyone tells stories about. In 1979 he started the first company to offer guided rafting trips in the Hudson River Gorge, sparking an industry that has become a major part of the region’s economy.
But his descent, from local hero to pariah, came as quickly as a raft going over the rapids. After nearly 30 years of safe operations, there have been a series of incidents since 2007 that showed negligence and a disregard for customers’ safety as well as the law. They included sending people off on rafts without guides, leaving them in the middle without guides, providing them with ill-trained and unlicensed guides — and in one case last September, with a drunken guide, which resulted in the death of a client when they both fell out of their raft.
After that incident, the state attorney general sought to have the court shut the company down, an action that would have been justified given the nature and number of Cunningham’s transgressions. Judge Giardino did order a temporary halt to guided trips last year, but he is now willing to let Cunningham continue in business if he complies with some fairly lenient conditions. Those are: Don’t rent rafts or kayaks to customers who pilot their own boats on rivers requiring licensed guides; post a $50,000 performance bond; and pay a $12,000 civil penalty for 10 documented instances of employees guiding rafts or driving shuttle buses without appropriate licenses.
The judge is giving Cunningham a chance to clean up his act, something he failed to do after being given another chance by another judge not long ago. Meanwhile, the other 11 rafting companies have been tarnished by Cunningham’s bad business practices. If he messes up again, he shouldn’t get any more chances.