Photos courtesy Brian Murphy, Kenny Unser, and Bagel from Hudson River

By Chris Gragtmans

The Black River in Watertown, N.Y., is a fun Class IV stretch of whitewater with a nice 12-foot waterfall, and a sweet park and play spot. The downriver race held there at the annual Black River Festival is a real bear though—6 miles-long, with a LOT of flatwater, and a mandatory portage around a dry eight-foot dam. It's a dead-out sprint, so sea kayaks and plastic downriver style boats are actually the most competitive, even though they're not the most practical craft for the larger drops.

The start of the race and home base for the festival was once again the Hudson River Rafting Company. The people there are awesome, and are always extremely generous to out-of-town paddlers, like myself. They continually hook it up with parking, camping, shuttles, and sweet after parties, such as this year's themed superheroes & villains shindig.

After everyone got a practice run in the day before, we lined up for a mass start, facing upstream. Race organizer Kenny Unser and his girlfriend Caroline started us off with a foghorn blast, and everyone started thrashing around trying to turn around. My strategy was a bit different than everyone else's—I paddled as fast as I could backwards. I watched the chaos unfold behind me as everyone crashed into each other, and I carved out a nice lead with a backwards sprint before turning around farther downstream.

I had a good advantage, but I couldn't be complacent. Matt Young and other local favorites were breathing down my neck, hungry for the win. Matt reeled me in consistently through the flatwater above the waterfall, and we hit the dam at the same time. I channeled Steve Prefontaine on the portage, and had a good transition period to put some space in again. The rest of the gorge was a bit of a blur, but Matt and I both had good lines and kept the pressure on each other to charge as hard as our bodies would allow.

Highlights included:

– 5th palce being taken by a Topo Duo
-Numerous subouts and carnage in "Poop Chute"
-An epic battle for the 3rd-6th spots through the falls and the rapids below
-A valiant rescue of a lost dog in the gorge
-The cops showing up to give spectators a warning about the fireworks they were shooting over racers

In the end, I was psyched to take 1st in the race.

The day finished off in proper Watertown style with a "float-ee-o" competition in Hole Brothers, and the previously mentioned superhero themed party at the rafting base.

The Black is the first of the quad-race King of New York series, and any class V chargers should take a good look at the Labor Day weekend for a stacked list of Adirondack rivers and two more incredible races on the Beaver and Raquette.

Check out Gragtmans’ head cam footage from the 2012 Black River Race below.