By Matthew Sturdevant
New York's Adirondack region has a grandfatherly reputation—a place of 19th century wooden guideboats and Great Camps dating back to Industrial Age tycoons.
It can feel as mired in its past as a black fly trapped in amber.
In the mid-1900s, this 6-million-acre region between Syracuse and Albany, New York swelled with middle-class urban refugees who built summer homes there. Later it lost some allure to less congested retreats like Vermont and New Hampshire. By the 1980s, a handful of boaters knew it as a whitewater destination, and many more thought of the region as a bunch of lakes crowded by motorboats and jet skis—hardly worth more than a short drive to visit.
But that's changing.
The massive wilderness of mountains and raging rivers has been getting a lot of attention from whitewater and flat-water competitors alike. In the past two years, the King of New York whitewater series pulled together four popular events from July to October—on the Black, Beaver, Racquette and Moose rivers. Last year, anticipation built over months as kayakers racked up points until the winner took home a Dagger Green Boat.
"I think interest in New York is growing, and the region is underrated," says Kenny Unser, 36, of Westport, Conn., a KONY co-organizer with Mike McKay of Ottawa and Matt "Mutt" Young of Lake Placid, N.Y.
The individual events in King of New York series date back to the early 1990s when former American Whitewater board member Chris Koll founded October's Moose Fest. The race series has raised the profile of all four races, and attracted big-name boaters from Asheville, N.C., to Ottawa, Ontario. This year, Unser plans to raffle a kayak to a random participant to encourage even more boaters.
"Lots of people started participating because there was a Green Boat at stake," Young, the 30-year-old KONY co-founder, admits of last year's prize, which went to series winner Geoff Calhoun.
As the KONY series seeks to push participation past 100 paddlers this summer, the 90-miler Adirondack Canoe Classic race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake is booming. Already with a record number of entries, this year's race is drawing more than 500 competitors in nearly 300 boats. The 30-year-old race, held the weekend after Labor Day, is the first leg of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The NFCT is a 740-mile constellation of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams running to the northern tip of Maine that opened in 2006 and is quickly becoming the Appalachian Trail of canoe trips.
And to top things off, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo caught the rafting bug. In January, Cuomo proposed a national whitewater rafting competition to bring attention to the Adirondack Park. The first annual Adirondack Challenge on July 21 will pair a 15-mile, four-person flatwater canoe race on Indian Lake with a six-person raft competition on a Class III section of the Indian River, which Cuomo and other government officials plan to race.
The Adirondacks also have been featured in several recent episodes of McKay's online documentary series, "Currents." Additionally, both Young and Unser note that a resurgence in creekboating over freestyle kayaking has helped fuel the fledgling KONY series.
Still, there's room for more paddlers.
"The Adirondacks are probably the most underutilized waters in the country," says Koll, 61, the founder of Moose Fest on the river by the same name, who has kayaked Class V Adirondack rivers since the early 1980s.
Koll was among a close group of people who recast American Whitewater to become an access advocacy organization in the '80s. He says that the attention paddlers are giving the Adirondacks today has been building for decades—a steady progression of dogged work to attract boaters. Koll's work to start Moose Fest and similar events on the Beaver and Racquette was partly to boost the number of paddlers running the rivers on dam release days. He worried low participation could jeopardize the argument that recreational use is a valid reason for power companies to open the dam gates, which means losing money.
The biggest single factor back then, however, seems to be the same one bringing paddlers to the Adirondacks now. It's a factor that Koll argues has encouraged whitewater boaters over the last 30 years to go places they wouldn't have tried, or didn't know, to explore: word of mouth.