Escape the Urban: Dreaming of the Salmon

10 Jul

This article is the latest in a series on learning to be a river guide with Adventure Calls Outfitters here in Western New York. The last entry, on the wonders of wetsuits and booties, can be found here.

The lazy days of summer have affected our rivers as well. The season on Cattaraugus Creek is six weeks gone now, shrunk as it is from its magnificent spring flows. I hiked down into its canyon this past week, right up to the confluence of the main and south branches under towering Point Peter, and I barely recognized the rushing waterway I knew from April and May. Blanched and crusted over are shale banks that were previously under two feet of teeming froth. Hikers and bathers frolicked in the midst of the combined swells, their flow more soothing than harrowing. Where in mid-April I was dumping swimmers now a middle aged man was sitting drinking a beer.

The Genesee in Letchworth is also slowing. Never the biggest water, the lure of a current trek on the Genny is plenty of sun, plenty of scenery, plenty of opportunity to swim in the refreshing waters. We’re converting from six person rafts to single and tandem inflatable kayaks, to navigate the lower water, or raised rocks, depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty.

The record rain in the spring, a boon for us rafting, has given way to a near drought. Picnickers are happy. Kayakers and guides are not.

“Pray for rain,” my boss said as I left ‘work’ on Monday, a spectacularly beautiful day of sun, but also the lowest water I had ever run. I was bruised from head to foot, a jammed finger on my left hand swelling alarmingly and turning purple to boot, from freeing rafts stuck on rocks most of the day. I was beat up and worn out, as though I had been ground on the bony bottom of the river for the length of the five mile run from Lee’s Landing to St. Helena.

Where can a poor river guide find deliverance from the mid-summer/low-water blues?

The answer, dear pilgrim, is the Salmon River.

I had heard other guides talk of the Salmon from opening weekend in late March. As we shivered past floating chunks of ice and frozen waterfalls clinging to the gorge walls, bound from head to toe in neoprene and bulky dry suits, the veteran guides told stories of a magic place where Big Water and Good Weather met, a storybook land of swimsuits and rapids and sun-drenched swimming holes. Of clear tannin-filled waters, an iced tea flood as opposed to our chocolate milk runoff. Of cigarette trees and rock candy mountains. Of the Salmon River, in the low lands between Tug Hill and Lake Ontario, four hours to the east.

The Salmon River’s most attractive feature is not the river at all, but the reservoir that sits above it, collecting the winter’s runoff and holding it to heat in the summer sun. Every week I shivered on the Catt I thought of the water growing ever warmer in that man-made lake, waiting to be released in summer splendor to provide eager whitewater enthusiasts a torrent of wet Zen. There are three dam release weekends, long scheduled and anticipated, of which this weekend is the first. I will be at the next one: July 23rd and 24th, getting in as many runs as possible in the guaranteed Class III churn and probable summer sun.

Two more weeks til the highlight of the rafting season.


6 Responses to “Escape the Urban: Dreaming of the Salmon”

  1. RaChaCha July 10, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    Visited the confluence & Point Peter myself yesterday — for the first time. Wow!! Something everyone should see.

  2. pirate's code July 11, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

    Brian —  We loaded the family into the suburban assault vehicle and made the trek to the Salmon River on Saturday.  It was, I think, much as it was described to you.  

    I know little about rafting, or the classification of rapids, but we experienced lazy paddles on flat water, washboard riffles that confounded us time and again as to the best path, and at least a half-dozen spots where we encountered “holy shit!” moments — and came out laughing on the other side.  We stopped to body surf a bend in the river, had time to examine some of the rock walls that were oh-so-close, and marveled at the seeming incongruity of having some of the wildest ride right in the heart of downtown Pulaski.  It was both curious and charming to see the veteran kayakers move to the side as the five rafts went past — giving both a wave and a grin as we tried to look like we knew what we were doing.

    We were clearly beginners, with only one of my pirate sons having rafted (Catt, I think) before.  We were really good at getting stuck, but got increasingly proficient at getting unstuck.  And, the only time I fell out of the raft was when we were resting.  My clan had a raft of our own, that was somehow self-draining, making us the envy of the 25 or so who made the run with us.  We had a ball, and I expect we will do that again — soon, I hope.

    The weather was perfect, the water warm enough that swimsuits and t-shirts were all that were needed, and your friends at Adventure Calls Outfitters were courteous, friendly, and professional.  And, this all got started for us when I read your first Escape the Urban column about rafting.  For that, many thanks.

    • Christopher Smith July 12, 2011 at 12:40 am #

      I have never, in six years, received that kind of positive validation for my writing and videos. Good on ya, Brian.

  3. Brian Castner July 12, 2011 at 9:10 am #

    Pirate – Chris is right; you made my day. I’m glad you had a good time, though I’m sorry I missed you. And you just remotivated me to do another year of these columns that get few comments and thus unknown readership. I truly appreciate it.

  4. pirate's code July 12, 2011 at 9:45 am #

    Brian — I look forward to reading your take on the Salmon River trips. I have nothing to compare it to, so the views of an expert (?) will be interesting. Won’t change the family’s reaction to our adventure, but I am curious.

    Chris — After reading several of your Morning Grumpy posts, for a fleeting moment I had the urge to set up a toilet on the steps of the Capitol in Albany and have myself a grumpy. Hope that helps.

  5. Brian Castner July 12, 2011 at 11:29 pm #

    @ Pirate – Expert? Certainly not. But I will do what I can, and a curious reader is a beautiful thing.

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