Kicking off the King of New York series
Inside the Black River Festival, Northern New York’s most notoriously wild whitewater party
By Kenny Unser
Photos by Caitlyn Vickery
There was a feeling of uncertainty in everyone’s minds about the 2014 Black River Festival. Rare summer rain torrents brought the Adirondack river to a juicy level with thunderstorms threatening to persist throughout the weekend. Circumstances had already forced a date change and a new venue for Northern New York’s most notoriously wild whitewater party. A new generation of festival organizers found themselves faced with a host of challenges as carloads of paddlers arrived in Watertown, N.Y.
To the relief of festival co-organizers Dave Gardner and Ciaran Brown, the weather cleared and safe release levels were established through the steep ledges that form Glen Park Falls. Attention turned to the uncertainty surrounding the first race of the King of New York race series.
An endurance challenge, the Black River Race is the tune-up event of the King of New York series. Injury or commitment had sidelined the dominant perennial challengers. It suddenly became clear to the locals that a rebuilding year for the festival meant big points were up for grabs in the Whitewater King of New York race series.
Carnage would ultimately dictate the victor. Race frontrunners, Dave Gardner and Brett Mayer had spectacular crashes at Glen Park Falls; Gardner dropping over backwards in his 17-foot sea kayak. Paddling conservatively in his 14 foot race boat, Tony Gianfagna held it together for a close finish ahead of Ciaran Brown. Phil LaMarche rounded out the podium as rescue crews worked to put everyone back in their boats. The ladies had solid overall finishes with Ali Burhans edging out Carly Koll to win the women’s class.
Following the race, the “Sic Byrd Bro-Down” freestyle event was held at Hole Brothers where Dave Gardner was redeemed with the win. Gardner edged out showman, Ciaran Brown, with a good technical display of rodeo moves. The Bro-Down was a successful new addition to the proven Black River Festival formula of downriver racing, live music, cold beer, and permissive camping. Whitewater Challengers was a worthy venue for the party while band, Annie in the Water, kept the crowd going late into the evening.
The reinvented Black River Festival is clearly here to stay. A capable new generation of Black River locals has taken the reigns. With the Black River Race in the books, focus shifts to the Beaver River Rendezvous in late August where 2 more King of New York races will establish the contenders for this year’s whitewater crown.