Tag Archives: Letchworth

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.


Escape the Urban: Our Froth-Filled Rivers

15 May

The older guides tell me the rivers change every season. A year’s worth of carving ice and rain move silt, churn rocks, form bony gravel bars, strip gorge walls and deposit new strainers in ever novel ways. Therefore, a late winter pre-season scouting of the river each year is required, to learn the new hazards laid out for our boats.

It is my first season, so when the veteran guides talk about how Pinball or Lee’s Landing or Cruncher are different this year, I have no frame of comparison. I am still in the polite dating phase, buying dinner and getting to know each river from scratch. I don’t remember when the river had a wild streak that has since been tamed, or, conversely, note how they have grown grumpy and mean in their old age. The rivers are still as fresh and new to me as hand-picked flowers on a first date, and exciting in their unpredictability as I get to know them.

The personality of any river is in great part dependent on how much it had to drink the night before, meaning the amount of rain that has fallen in the last several days. While the record rainfall this spring soured many (and washed out the spinach in my garden), it did provide consistently excellent water conditions that we are still enjoying. Even as a new guide you learn to check the online US Geological Survey flood gauges for the Genesee and Cattaraugus Creek early and often. A good water reading on Friday can mean great whitewater on Saturday.

Map courtesy americanwhitewater.org

In Letchworth State Park, we raft a five mile section of the Genesee River, all downstream from the three iconic waterfalls and popular trestle railroad bridge that spans the gorge. The rapids start strong right from the put in, with Entrance, Red Ball and Lee’s Landing coming in quick succession. And while the consistent Class II (and Class III with the water up so far this year) whitewater is respectable, many enjoy the trip for the view as much as the thrill of the churning hydraulics. The overlooks at Archery Field and the Big Bend are some of the most photographed terrain in Western New York outside of Niagara Falls. But with no trails or roads leading down the steepest cliff sections, most tourists are left high and dry at the old stone block walls lining the parking lots above. 

When paddling the river run, on the other hand, one gets a new view of the park from below. In the section we raft the Genesee winds through the deepest part of the gorge, the 450 million year old sedimentary walls rising 550 feet above you in the highest bit, past geologic fault lines, lacy waterfalls and secluded dells one can’t see from the upper lip. If the water is good, the tour stops at Wolf Creek, a trickle on the chasm’s rim that transforms into a wide rushing waterfall suitable to splash in by the time it reaches the river below. Tucked as it is into the side of the canyon wall, the only way to access (or even see) most of Wolf Creek is from a boat. 

Just past the end of the gorge, the traditional raft take out is at the former town of St. Helena. Once a bustling little village, St. Helena was dismantled brick by brick to make way for the lake created behind the Mount Morris Dam. The last family left in 1948, though the town was approaching haunting status in the 1920’s after a series of floods. Today, when you disembark your raft at the end of your trip and hike up the dirt trail that used to be Water Street, you see no sign of the town; even the cemetery was moved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Map courtesy americanwhitewater.com

If the Genesee River is the widely popular and famously beautiful cheerleader, Cattaraugus Creek is the punk-rock free spirit; you know she is a little dangerous but she also really knows how to have a good time. Sure Zoar Valley is pretty too, with its own 400 foot high canyon walls, trickling cliff-side waterfalls and stands of old-growth forest. But I dare you notice them the first time you’re bouncing down a wave train and into the awaiting foamy Class III wall of Confluence, or tossed upside down while spinning backwards through Redline Slot. The Catt starts slow, eases you in, and makes you deceptively comfortable. It’s only once you are settled and complacent half way through your trip that Pinball hits. From there on out the bouncing barely slows, five miles of rapid after frothy rapid, with just enough flat water in between to let you catch your breath and brag to the boat next to you about how you got dumptrucked* back at Cruncher or started a new swimming team at Tannery.

And while the Catt is wild, it is also finicky and temperamental. Highly dependent on melting snow runoff and rain in the early spring, the rafting season on the Catt runs hot and short. Flash flooding is common in the Zoar Valley gorge, as the creek can transform too-low to too-high over night, leaving a small window afterwards for ideal rafting conditions. The regular April showers have water levels near perfect so far this year, giving hope that the season may stretch to June.

With only seven runs total under my belt – 3 on the Genny and 4 on the Catt – I’m still a newbie, almost as green as they come, and literally still wet behind the ears. But I’ve also passed an important milestone, passed my basic check-out ride, and am guiding my own boat among the veterans. In other words, I’m comfortable enough that I’m not buying dinner anymore, and the punk-rocker and I are spending both days together this weekend. But I have a long way to go in my training, lisencing and certification, and a lot to learn about being an outdoor guide. More on that coming up.

* Dumptrucked – when the raft stands up on one side, everyone falls out, and then the raft flops back down, right side up but empty. 

Escape the Urban: Letchworth

29 Aug

Escape the Urban is a new regular feature exploring the outdoors near Western New York.

What more is there to be said about Letchworth State Park, the Grand Canyon of the East, a regular destination for families and tourists from Western and Central New York. Perhaps you have driven the winding roads, walked along the stone walled gorge edge, and enjoyed a waterfall or two. You may have had tea at the Glen Iris Inn, or marveled at the railroad bridge crossing high above the canyon. The western edge of the gorge is very car friendly, civilized, accessible, and, if you don’t mind me saying so, paved.

For a different perspective, try the other side of the gorge. The eastern, unpaved, uncivilized side, where a different view is possible.

Upper Falls from the east

This eastern side follows old canals and railways, hidden valleys and streams, and provides a completely new appreciation for a park many of us have already visited often.

Middle Falls

For my son’s first overnight backpacking trip, I chose a nine mile trek from Portageville in the south to a bivouac shelter up in the hills above the Genesee River. Nine miles is the perfect mix of misery and accomplishment, exhaustion and achievement, to provide the true backpacking experience: tired feet and shoulders, aching back, empty stomach, and the exhilaration that you trudged sleeping bags, tent, food and water up a path only accessible by your hard work and sweat.

Our trip was exclusively along the Letchworth Trail, a spur trail of the mighty Finger Lakes Trail, that connects Allegheny State Park with the Catskills, and provides access to the Great Eastern Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Long Path along the way (more about our unlikely and tremendous national footpaths in a future column). Those nine miles, only one third of the Letchworth Trail’s total length, cover a wide variety of Western New York history and habitat.

The southern end of the hike, climbing out of Portageville, and up the eastern side of gorge, quickly picks up and follows the old Genesee Valley Canal, this section built in the 1850’s and used into the 1870’s to connect Rochester to Olean via waterway, by skirting the massive falls of the Genesee River. The path is relatively level, just wide enough for the mules that used to ply it, and splits the gap between the gorge on one side and the abandoned canal on the other. All that is left of the canal itself, a massive construction undertaking rendered obsolete in less than twenty years by new rail lines, are massive ten foot timbers, the rotting former walls of the canal, and beaver dams backing up the water in low pools not yet filled with rock slides and debris.

The end of the gorge

The Letchworth Trail leaves the old canal bed after a couple miles, and takes a nearly half mile detour around a massive landslide, before joining the old bed of the Genesee Valley Railroad, the progeny and successor of the canal system, and now the Genesee Valley Greenway. The railroad was, astoundingly, not removed until the 1960’s, though throughout much of its life, construction equipment was permanently stationed on the gorge wall to repair track done in by the natural processes of erosion. Now these old right of ways provide transportation opportunities of a different kind: hop on your bike in Letchworth, and you can peddle to Genesee Valley Park in Rochester via the Greenway.

Inspiration Falls from Inspiration Point on the east rim

The Greenway/Letchworth Trail continues along the gorge edge, past Inspiration Point (with a view a Inspiration Falls), and then plunges into the hills, leaving the fading rock walls behind. The Greenway leads to an old DEC road for a short time, and then becomes a true footpath again, across Dishmill Creek (ingeniously named for the industry that used to occupy its shore), and fording innumerable tributaries that form the Genesee Valley watershed. The beauty here is more subtle, and less dramatic, than the wide views of the canyons and waterfalls left behind. Stands of long needled White Pine and Shagbark Hickory. Solitary giant oaks and maples, remnants of the old growth before the logging. Narrow slate bottom creeks, rock tabled from years of erosion, where one could imagine a smaller Falling Water being right at home. Up, and down, and across, five more miles later, my son and I spotted our shelter with weary gratitude.

A different view of the famous railroad bridge