Usually by the first of June, I’ve already burned off a couple layers of skin from my shoulders after sun-drenched weekends on the river. You’d think after 35 years I’d have learned better! But there’s something about a warm day on the river after a cold winter and spring that makes you throw caution to the wind and just reveal yourself to the sun!
But not this season. My arms remain a horrible pasty white color. Because as anyone living in the Northeast can attest—May has been a particularly damp month!
But am I complaining? Do you hear me whining? No! Because while the weather has been miserable…the whitewater has been glorious!
I wish I could change this basic truth of whitewater: the wetter the weather—the better the rapids. I wish the facts of the matter were that a river’s excitement increased with warm sun and dry weather. But that just ain’t the way it works.
It is practically a universal truth that higher flows on whitewater rivers increase the intensity of the rapids. The current moves faster, waves grow in size, rocks get covered and develop into hydraulics. Big water means big excitement!
It’s certainly true on the two rivers that ARO rafts in the summer—the Hudson and Black. Both rivers feature guaranteed flows that produce exciting whitewater throughout the summer—courtesy of water releases from upstream dams. But during a wet spring and summer—those levels are augmented by additional flows from the rest of the watershed.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned corollary: big water means big excitement. With both the Hudson and Black flowing at levels higher than typically found at this time of the year—the conditions for whitewater rafting couldn’t be better!
Especially if the rain would stop by the weekend! Need to work on my tan!
I have to make an awful confession: for me—the best part of a whitewater weekend isn’t the time spent on the river…
Instead—it’s the time after the trip reliving the day’s adventure with friends around a table with dinner and drinks.
Somehow—the rapids always get bigger, the swims more spectacular, and my paddling more heroic from the security of firm ground and in the comfort of dry clothes while enjoying hot food and a cold beverage. Funny how that works!
At ARO, we always end our trip with a barbecue complete with frosty libations. It’s the perfect opportunity to test your trial version of the day’s adventure!
Now, as conscientious guides, we make sure all the beverages provided for the barbecue are exhausted before leaving the party—we don’t want to create work for the cook putting away the extras! But it always seems the barbecue is never long enough to reflect upon all the glories of the day—or to polish up all the details of the stories!
Fortunately, ARO’s rafting bases are centered in areas famous for accommodating outdoor adventure guests. There are plenty of funky bistros and restaurants available for apre-raft celebrations!
Here’s a list of “guide-tested, guide-approved” destinations to provide the perfect conclusion to your day on the river:
(Company disclaimer: the phrase “guide-tested, guide-approved” does not merit the same gravitas as the Michelin Four-Star rating system. “Guide-approved” only confirms the availability of cold beer (usually at reasonable prices), better-than-average bar food, pool and/or dart games, relaxed dress code and an extremely tolerant attitude toward raucous high-jinx).
HUDSON RIVER GORGE: Just a few miles down the road from our Hudson base is the village of North Creek with a cluster of comfortable bistros including the Barking Spider, Bar Vino, Laura’s and Basil and Wicks. You can park the car and pub crawl to most of them. Extend the Après Rafting further by staying at Adirondack River Beds, a Hostel located near our base and run by one of our guides.
MOOSE RIVER: Our Moose River operation is based in Old Forge and the trip barbecue is hosted at the Back Door. Slickers Tavern, Tony Harper’s and the Tow Bar are all a few steps away. Stay at the Adirondack Lodge, our Moose River base, with great rates for our rafting guests.
BLACK RIVER: Maggie’s On The River is just a short stroll through the river-side park from our base in Watertown. Maggie’s features a deck overlooking Hole Brothers rapid and its raft and kayak surfing. For more formal dining, the historic village of Sacket’s Harbor is a 15-minute drive.
If you require additional information regarding prime apre-rafting locations—just ask any of the staff at the base. Or easier still—just follow them at the end of the day!
What makes a whitewater river unique? Why are some rivers transformed into tumultuous ribbons of foam navigable only by skillfully guided rafts or expert kayakers while other streams remain tranquil flows suitable for a quiet float in an inner-tube?
Essentially—whitewater is produced by three factors: constriction, gradient, and the structure of the streambed. Every whitewater river features at least two of these conditions. But each set of conditions creates a particular kind of rapid—and the character of a whitewater river is defined by the mix of the criteria.
Take the Hudson River Gorge. Many rapids on the Hudson are formed by gradient and constriction. When the river funnels through a narrow gorge, the energy of the water is compressed resulting in long, towering wave trains. The rushing water tumbles over and around enormous boulders on the streambed exploding into crashing hydraulics and breaking waves.
Typically, raft lines on Hudson River rapids are fairly straight forward. Squarely meet the breaking waves down the middle of the wave train. Avoid the hydraulics created by boulders. And enjoy the exhilarating roller-coaster ride through the heart of Adirondack wilderness.
The Moose is totally different. Rapids on the Moose are created when the river falls off the western edge of the Adirondack plateau. Instead of the long, continuous wave trains found on the Hudson, rapids on the Moose are quick, distinct drops where the river plummets over series of abrupt ledges, slides and waterfalls.
The result is a more technical rapid. Slide over a ledge on the right and then move back to the middle before driving back to the right to plunge over a final drop. Failure to perform the maneuver can often result in a flipped boat. Fortunately, rapids on high gradient rivers like the Moose are typically followed by calmer pools where equipment and swimmers can be reunited.
Obviously, some combination of gradient, structure, and constriction can be found in all whitewater rivers. But all characteristics are on full display on the Black River. The first half of the Black is more technical in character as the river drops over rapids with challenging ledges that require complex maneuvering before entering a highly constricted gorge. The Black offers a sample of both high-gradient ledge drops and constriction rapids.
Of course—there is one final criteria that contributes to the intensity of a whitewater river: volume. Typically, the higher the water level—the wilder the whitewater.
That’s why the Hudson Gorge is considered a high adventure trip in April and early May when spring runoff from the High Peaks forces more water through a constricted river bed—the waves grow bigger and wilder. Thanks to water releases from a dam, the Hudson remains a family-friendly adventure in the summer months.
The window for an appropriate volume is more narrow on the Moose. There needs to be enough water to navigate the drops—but too much water makes a high-gradient run impassible. The Moose whitewater season is restricted to spring runoff in April.
On the Black, higher May flows provide the most challenging conditions of the season. However, water releases from upstream reservoirs provide favorable water levels to guarantee exciting whitewater adventure all summer long.
Most people claim I’m crazy—but in my skewed estimation—the best time of the year to be in Old Forge is in April. Specifically--the three or week season when the ice breaks free on the Moose River and spring rains create favorable flows for whitewater rafting and kayaking.
The Moose was the first New York whitewater river I boated after moving to the state back in 1983 and it remains a sentimental favorite—my home river. Its difficulty varies from an easy class 4 at low water levels up to a solid class 5 at higher flows. It is the most challenging whitewater commercially rafted in the state.
But it isn’t simply the lure of the river that makes April my favorite season to visit Old Forge.
Some people associate the Adirondacks with the verdant green of summer or autumn’s riot of red and gold—but to my taste, the Adirondacks are most stunning in the early spring when the rugged bones of the landscape are revealed. The stark beauty of the mountains is on display.
Sure, the temperatures can be brisk in April. Often you can wake up to an April morning with the sky spitting snow. But just as often you can end the afternoon in brilliant sunshine and you’ve exchanged the sweater and boots for shorts and sandals.
But mainly, I like to hang out in Old Forge on April evenings after a day on the river. Old Forge was built to accommodate the crush of summer tourists but in April, the funky restaurants and bistros scattered throughout the village are populated only with other guides, whitewater enthusiasts and curious locals. It’s a comfortable and convenient time for a night out.
Don’t get me wrong—any place in the Adirondacks is pretty special. And at any time of the year.
Just not quite as good as Old Forge in April.