INDIAN LAKE - Though it seemed scary, I've wanted to go white water rafting since I was a kid because of a photo we had on the wall of my dad negotiating some rapids with his friends during his days as a guide in the 1980s.
I never had the time or money, but this spring, I was determined to give it a try. So I found a rafting company that would let me tag along on a trip.
Adirondac Rafting is owned by Bob and Kerry Rafferty. They live in Lake Placid and commute to Indian Lake to run trips from the spring to the fall, two days a week in the early and late season and four days a week from June to August.
A raft races down the Hudson River during a recent excursion, with reporter Jessica Collier seen far right.
Bob worked for another rafting company for years, then set out on his own to open Adirondac Rafting. He cultivated a whole family of rafters; his children Brad and Alissa are both Adirondac Rafting guides now.
I grew more and more nervous in the days leading up to my rafting expedition, especially after a week of snowy mornings ensured that the trip would be a chilly one. But I get up early the last Saturday in April and made the hour-and-15-minute drive to Indian Lake to Adirondac Rafting's River Base.
Kerry greets me and tells me that they weren't sure I'd show up on this cold day. The company takes a deposit of half the trip price when reservations are made, and they don't allow cancelations two weeks or closer to the trip day, or they'd have people cancel every time it's cold. Even with the deposit, they still get cancelations, most often from that one guy in each bachelor party trip (they get a lot of those) who partied a little too hard the night before.
Considering the distance I travel, I'm surprised to meet so many people from the Tri-Lakes area. A woman named Carrie from Saranac Lake hands me some gear, and I meet guides from Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake throughout the day. One of the guides was even a classmate of mine at Tupper Lake Middle/High School, and we have a nice catchup session as he helps distribute gear to the line of Boy Scouts.
The guides give each person wetsuits and a wetsuit jacket, booties and mittens made out of wetsuit material, a "splashguard" shirt to go over the top, a helmet and a life preserver. They advise me to take off anything that's cotton - yes, including underwear - and to put on anything wool or fleece I can add.
Then they check to make sure each life preserver was secured tightly because, as they explain, if someone falls out of the boat, guides will pull that person up by the straps on his or her life jacket.
After that, everyone loads onto an old school bus. We drive a few minutes down the road and pull into a parking area where at least five or six other large, repurposed schoolbuses have herds of brightly geared rafters gathered at their bases. One of the guides tells me there are maybe 10 or 11 companies total that launch from the same spot.
Brad Rafferty stands on the edge of a raft and goes through the safety guidelines for the day: Keep a hand over the top of the paddle so you don't smack someone with it - the number-one injury they see, Brad says - and if you fall out, swim or float, but don't try to stand up in the river.
Then the day's rafters are grouped into boats. A large group of Boy Scouts from the Rochester area are split up into three boats, and two groups of 20- and 30-somethings each get their own boat. I'm grouped with a couple from Boston - Aaron Kerlin and a woman who's name I did not catch the spelling of - and a father and son pair from south of Rochester, Olie and Eryk Olson. Olie is 54, and he has been rafting every year since the 1970s, save a few years' gap after Eryk was born 22 years ago. Brad will be our fearless leader for the day.
There's a little lagoon where all the rafters launch and practice their paddling techniques before heading out on the river - all forward, left forward (the people on the right side of the boat paddle backward), all back, etc. Our boat gets the hang of it pretty quickly and pulls over to the side of the lagoon to wait for the rest of the Adirondac Rafting boats.
Down the river
We all embark on the Indian River together. It's not long before the river starts rushing around us and we hit some Class III rapids. They include some sudden drops and bumps, and the water splashes high in the front of the boat, getting us all a little wet.
Once or twice, it crosses my mind of how cold it would be if I were to take a dive into the river so early in the trip, but the rapids are tame enough that I don't think that will be a concern. I am amazed that Olie and Eryk in the front of the boat are able to stay in, though.
After 3 miles of the Indian River, we meet up with the Hudson River. For the most part, we rest our paddles, but when we need to avoid a rock, Brad tells us to paddle. Usually a quick few strokes is enough to get us on the right path, then he tells us to rest again.
The river has enough flat sections for us to collect ourselves in between each batch of rapids. Brad warns us about the "holes" where rafts can get stuck, which carry interesting names like "Turkey Baster."
Each section, rapid and recognizable landmarks on the river has some name that imaginative guides have dreamed up over the years. The origins range from obvious, like Elephant Rock, a large rock sticking out of the middle of the river, to historical, named for loggers who used to push lumber down the river, like the Harris Rift rapid.
Brad tells us that the spring's water levels have been low in comparison to last year, when the Hudson hit the highest levels ever recorded, but the week of rain and snow before that weekend had brought the levels up a few inches. We see some traces of last year's flooding: first a dock stranded almost vertically in an island in the middle of the river, then later an aluminum rowboat that wrapped in half around a tree along the riverbank.
Hitting the rapids
After a stop for lunch, Olie tells me I have to try riding in front. I resist because I'm scared, but he's persistent enough that I give in and get in the front next to Aaron's partner.
I'm nervous once we hit our first rapids. As we hit, I can clearly see from my front-row viewpoint the big dips as we fly into them, and I shove my foot into the strap at the bottom of the boat to secure myself. After I realize I'm not going to be airborne the second we hit a few bumps, I start to enjoy the excitement of seeing the surface of the water fall before we do.
I let Aaron switch with me so he can try the front of the boat after a little while, before we hit the Kettle Mountain Rapids. That's the one Brad says is the most challenging. As we fall into the biggest dip, he tells us to get into the middle of the boat. We huddle toward the middle and are thrown around with the impact, but we all make it through.
As we turn around to assess the rapid we conquered, though, we see a woman from another boat bobbing in the water after being tossed out. A kayaker grabs her and pulls her to the closest raft. T.J., my guide friend, pulls her out of the water and brings her to the raft she fell out of, which she jumps into. All the Adirondac Rafting boats wait for her to get settled back in, then we take off to traverse more rapids.
There's a good stretch at the end of the trip when there are no more rapids, a nice cool-down at the end of the day. Brad, a teacher during the school year, lets Eryk get in the back and steer the boat for that section. The rest of us sit back and enjoy the scenery.
We pull over in North River and haul the boat up the riverbanks, grateful to load our shivering bodies into the heated bus.
The total trip is 17 miles, with 14 of those on the Hudson, and it takes about five hours total.
I'm glad I overcame my fear to enjoy the experience of rafting the Hudson. I'm already planning the next trip with my dad, who is energized after reminiscing about the fun he used to have as a guide.
For more information on an Adirondack Rafting Adventure, call 518-523-1635 or 800-510-RAFT or visit www.lakeplacidrafting.com.