Spotlight: Racquette River, N.Y.
A closer look at the rebirth of an Adirondack classic
By MATTHEW STURDEVANT
Former American Whitewater editor and longtime kayaker Chris Koll calls the Stone Valley section of New York’s Racquette River “one of the hardest commonly run rivers in the Adirondacks.”
To see it in spring—a roaring white tumult—makes it tough to imagine that this three-mile stretch of the Racquette was nearly dry during the best paddling months.
I spent part of my childhood summers in this area northwest of the Adirondack State Park, not far from the border with Ontario. I hadn’t heard of anyone paddling Stone Valley in the 1980s or early ‘90s. There wasn’t enough water. A hulking pipe diverts most of the river’s flow and rushes it alongside the river to a power plant downstream.
The Racquette has a long history as a hydroelectric workhorse dating back to 1912, farther upstream from Stone Valley. The first pipe was built in 1918. It diverts water to the Brown’s Bridge power plant from a dam in the center of Colton, N.Y., a small town about 100 miles southeast of Ottawa.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, dams all across the Adirondacks were due to be re-licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC. American Whitewater, which was a much smaller and less experienced advocacy group in the ‘80s, Koll said, used the re-licensing process to lobby for stronger flows in various rivers.
“We realized there was a ton of opportunity to locate whitewater rivers in New York,” said Koll, 58, who splits his time between homes in Marcellus (near Syracuse) and Old Forge, in the heart of the Adirondacks. “The Racquette was one of these rivers that would have real potential if the water came about.”
In the case of the Racquette, AW and the power company at the time, Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., worked together on a flow study to figure out how much water to let over the Colton dam. The study started in the early ‘90s, Koll said. It was a long, tedious process between the time AW first lobbied for the flow rights and the parties had a working plan. Koll now coordinates with the power company that currently operates the dams, Brookfield Power, to schedule six dam-release days, cranking it up to 720 cfs from the usual 180 cfs flow.
The first scheduled release was Labor Day weekend September 2002, which drew more than 100 paddlers.
“It was just chaos,” said Mark Simon, who oversees trail maintenance along the Stone Valley for the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Laurentian Chapter. “People were dragging kayaks through the woods. It was crazy.”
Even at 720 cfs during that first run, a moderate flow, the Racquette proved fierce. It’s a quick succession of drops and pools. The river plummets about 230 feet in the first mile, and the last two miles are Class II with one Class III.
“There’s holes on that river that, if you get in there, you’re not coming out,” Simon said.
During that first run in September 2002, kayaker and medical doctor Richard Ginsburg, 50, died after getting trapped in a hole at the bottom of a 10-foot falls below The Narrows, the fourth major rapid which is about a half mile downstream of the dam, according to American Whitewater and the Kayak & Canoe Club of New York.
“It was freakin’ awful,” Koll said. “It was the first release day … I promoted this on the Internet. We had well over 100 people there … We were all pumped up on this sunny, gorgeous day. After all this elation, I found out my wife—she wasn’t paddling that day … they were down watching a body pulled out of the river.”
Stone Valley has roughed up paddlers since in the last nine years, but it hasn’t claimed another life. Even with the water running now, the river only attracts about 30 or 40 people during those half dozen days when the dam opens up. They come from as far away as Vermont and West Virginia. One difficulty in attracting people is that release days are never back-to-back, which is part of the FERC agreement. So, you drive a long distance for one day of paddling. The other part is the location. It’s a tough sell, especially when gas prices are high.
Despite being tucked in a far-off corner of New York State, Stone Valley in within 15 miles of two college towns: Canton (St. Lawrence University) and Potsdam (State University of New York at Potsdam and Clarkson University). Potsdam is closer, and it offers a bit of nightlife. Colton also has a state park with camping on a Racquette River reservoir upstream of the Stone Valley, Higley Flow State Park.
Koll sums up the river by saying, “The Racquette is a legitimate Class V run. There are a lot of pretenders out there—in reality they’re Class IV … The Racquette is a very challenging, hard river.”
IF YOU GO:
For a description of the rapids, flow information and directions on how to get to Stone Valley, visit American Whitewater. Liquid Lore also provides great photos and beta on the run. The confirmed Racquette release dates for 2011 include the following Saturdays: July 9, July 23, Aug. 6, Aug. 20, Sept. 3, plus Monday, Sept. 5. View the gauge here. At the time of press, the river was flowing at “Hair” levels well over 2,500 cfs. The Racquette has a very large and marshy headwaters area that starts in the heart of the Adirondacks at Blue Mountain Lake winding through Long Lake and Tupper Lake. This makes for a long and consistent spring runoff and now there’s a lot of water backed up in the above reservoirs.