Escape the Urban: Salmon River Runs

31 Jul

This is the latest in a series of articles on learning to be a whitewater raft guide for Adventure Calls Outfitters. Here are the previous two entries on Dreaming of the Salmon River and getting into The Flow.

My grandfather used to say “Anticipation is Greater than Realization.” He usually pulled out this uplifting gem in late December, as we grandchildren were eagerly looking forward to Christmas morning. “No matter how much fun your new toys may be,” he would remind, “your imagination of what you will receive is always more vivid than what you’ll actually get.” The life of the party, my grandfather. Always sowing seeds of hope and optimism.

Fortunately, when it came to rafting the Salmon River last weekend, his advice was absolute bollocks.

Image courtesy americanwhitewater.org.

Thank God for New York and our rock-bottomed creeks. Pour a little water over some exposed earth in this part of the world and you’re bound to eventually create a whitewater playland. The Salmon River runs west off the Tug Hill plateau, an unimpressive massif thrust up between the southern Adirondacks and Lake Ontario. A wild collection of proud redneck ville’s, untrammeled boondocks and prime hunting and fishing grounds, this section of upper New York would not, at first glance, seem to contain prime whitewater. In fact, driving in from the south on Interstate 81, I never even saw the Salmon. It has not yet cut away any great valley in the land, and instead blends in innocuously just behind the next grove of trees or down some small ravine. Exiting at Pulaski and heading east, the land simply rises gently, river out of sight, the road winding into backwoods hamlets and angler-friendly campgrounds. When one enters Letchworth, by contrast, there is no question where the water is. Here I was afraid I had made a wrong turn.

I should not have worried. Tucked into a narrow black slate-walled canyon crossed by crumbling railroad trestles, the Salmon makes up in quality water what it lacks in initial flash. Most of the year, the Salmon River sports some of the best fishing – steelhead, trout, and yes, salmon – in the country, and the local businesses reflect that. Here tackle shops and designated fish cleaning stations pop up every hundred yards and the motels have names like “Salmon Heaven” (thanks Brenda for the hospitality). But three weekends a year, the reservoir is opened and prime fly-fishing country becomes prime whitewater – a guaranteed 750 cubic feet per second of tannin-stained warm goodness that draws kayakers and rafters from across the northeast.

The ten mile, three and a half hour run starts east of the village of Atmar and bears west through Pulaski, where the largest rapids lie. The slow build of the river yields a progression I most enjoy – lazy and luxurious up front, while you teach your boat to paddle together. Then a steady increase in size and difficulty, to ease newcomers into the idea of rapid running. Lastly long challenging rapids through the final third, culminating in a grand finale of the best drops of the day: Lusitania, Titanic and Black Hole. Nothing like the prime water at the end as a reward for a day of paddling in the sun.

On Saturday afternoon, as I was picking my line through Town Rapids, ferrying upstream to hit the maximum number of holes for my happily screaming guests – including two girls, twelve and fourteen, who self-admittedly rarely saw the outside of a mall and their adventure minded uncle who was determined to change that fact – I realized I was in the middle of a unique experience. I was a guiding a river I had never run before.

On the Catt and the Genny I received training and orientation runs before stepping into the back cockpit. And if I move on to other rivers and other companies in other parts of the country in the future, I’ll most certainly need to do the same. But here, hopefully as a vote of confidence but probably due to the reality of the large number of guests, I was assigned as a middle guide on my first trip down the river. The middle guide is the low man on the totem pole, neither responsible for picking the lead line on the point, nor sweeping for straggler boats as the drag. But on the swiftly moving and twisting Salmon, the boats in my front and rear went out of sight on more than one occasion. I and my four paddlers could have been the only souls on the river. And what lie ahead – the size of the rapids, the depth of the holes, the scattered rock gardens, the washing machine churn along a sheer cliff wall – was as much of a surprise to me as the newbies in my raft.

Does it get any better than that? Anticipation and realization merged into the same frothy moment last weekend. Lucky is the kayaker, rafter or guide on their own personal first river descents.

One Response to “Escape the Urban: Salmon River Runs”

  1. pirate's code August 1, 2011 at 9:48 am #

    Yup, that’s exactly how the pirate clan saw it a few weeks back.  Catching glimpses of the river through the trees as we drove east along Rt. 13, I kept thinking, “That’s it?  Really?”  I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the time we loaded onto the bus for the short trek to the put-in point.  Anticipation of disappointment turned to howls of laughter as one of my sons — the wanna-be outdoorsman — fell out of the raft within the first 30 seconds and was running downstream to catch us.  It was mostly laughs, and plenty of “holy shit” moments, thereafter.

    Being a group of five, our raft was guideless — literally and figuratively — and we often found ourselves seemingly alone on the river as the boats in front and behind just sort of disappeared for five or ten minutes at a time.  My sons and I took turns in the back, each with about the same degree of success in finding the right line, and finding the right solution when we didn’t find the right line.

    With gas, tolls, snacks, the (very reasonable) fee to the outfitter and dinner in Syracuse afterward, it was the best several hundred dollars the pirate family has spent — as a family — in a long while.  I’ve recommended it to a number of friends looking for a day-trip that is somehow different, and we’re already thinking about a return trip next summer.

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