Photograph courtesy of Wayne Failing
A 1980s rafting guide revisits life on the river
Our raft left the Indian River behind and entered the Hudson three miles below the Lake Abanakee Dam, outside Indian Lake, and I reflected on how deeply you can absorb a landscape, especially if you traverse it repeatedly for years. I wouldn’t have imagined I’d remember every inch of the Indian River’s whitewater since my last trip down it 10 or 12 years earlier. And in truth I did get confused about what was coming next, but only in the same places I always got confused when I guided on that river and the Upper Hudson Gorge 40 years earlier.
That’s the way it is with the Indian—it’s relentless. So that kind of counts as remembering.
The Indian, and the Hudson River Gorge for the next 14 miles, with its continuous Class III–IV whitewater (depending on water volumes), dominated my working and imaginative life for a decade. Back then, in the early ’80s, all the commercial rafting took place during the six to eight weeks of rain- and snowmelt-swollen runoff in the months of April and May, when temperatures were often in the 30s or 40s and it could be raining, sleeting or snowing.
On this day last August, however, cardinal flowers lined the banks of the Indian and Cedar Ledges below the mouth of the Indian in the Hudson, almost as far as Mink Pond Falls (painted by Winslow Homer, along with other scenes along the river). The leafy understory shaded and darkened the banks where the sun had previously shone on bare ground or unmelted ice. We wore shorts and sandals, instead of wet suits and neoprene booties. Our guide, Asa “Ace” Connor, 26, of Burlington, had a light touch and guided our 14-foot self-bailing raft flawlessly: my wife, Sue Kavanagh; my longtime friend, fellow ex-guide, and North River outdoor recreation legend Dick Carlson; and me. All three had been there in the first bloom of commercial rafting on the Hudson. We were never outfitters, always hired hands, but with equal if personal investments in making rafting a major force in the region—as an economic boon as well as a wilderness-based activity that continued an earlier and highly idealized profession from the days of log drives, but with fewer drownings and very low environmental impact. As Ben Woodard, the wilderness ranger in those days, used to say, “The only way to get that many people through a wilderness area in one day with so little impact is to fly them through.”
It wasn’t so long after the final dismissal of the proposed Gooley hydro project that had threatened to impound the river in a series of dams from Newcomb to The Glen, even to Lake Luzerne, and not long after the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Our reasoning at the time was that the more people you could expose to the Gorge and its glories, the more people you could depend on to protect it.
But this was our first time down the Gorge in 10 years, since the town of Indian Lake had relented to pressure from rafting companies for limited summer dam releases. It was also our first time since the state acquisition of the former Finch-Pruyn lands in the Upper Hudson corridor from Newcomb on down.
I was there to note the differences not only between spring and summer rafting, but between the state of the profession then and now.
Here’s what I remember:
April 1981: Wake on somebody’s couch at 5:30 after little sleep from worrying about high water. Assess hangover, consume four aspirin. Call pre-Internet river gauge: the number you’re not supposed to know but that everybody does. Wait for the clicks, the long buzz, then count the number of short buzzes, note the pause, count the second series of short buzzes. Try to not lose track of the count—wait, was that 6.9 feet or 7.9? Big difference! Call Carlson. “Yeah, 7.9. Feeling the love? I’m watching the weather right now. Looks bad!” Consult thermometer. Thirty-eight degrees? Strategize layering.
Examine condition of rain gear, guide gear—gloves, fleece, waterproof shell (was there even Gore-tex yet?), PFD, handy double-bladed rafting knife mounted dramatically on the PFD where you could use it to fend off anacondas or cut the floor out of a raft in case of becoming pinned underneath it. (This never happened.)
Throw everything into the back seat of your 13-year-old car. Rummage around for leftovers from late dinner at Basil and Wick’s (the original one, since burned), proceed to Smith’s Restaurant, or Anna’s (now Chrissy’s) on Main Street, in the dark, being careful on rain-slicked streets with balding tires. Enter Anna’s, its windows befogged by steaming bodies. Peruse the booths and counters packed with local guides, drivers, hangers-on, trainees, prospective trainees. Slide into booth between Carlson, Karla Matzke, also of North Creek; maybe John Lando, from Wilmington; “Big Jim” McGowin, of Wevertown; or photographer and guide Vincent Woolley. Await first diner coffee in green-striped porcelain cup. Order the works. “If it’s 7.9 now,” Carlson says, darkly, “what’s it going to be around noon, when we hit the Narrows, with the rain and snowmelt from yesterday in the High Peaks? Eight and half? Nine?” Some of us have never seen it that high. Outside, the temperature has risen into the 40s, a good sign. Devour enormous breakfast in a growing state of anxiety. Borrow $4.58 to pay for enormous breakfast.
Begin drive to Indian Lake in ancient, decrepit vehicle alone or with multiple other raft creatures. On the long climb up Route 28 between North River and McGinn Meadows note precipitation change from rain, to sleet, to driving wet snow. Arrive at “headquarters,” in this case a parking area along Route 28 outside Indian Lake, where the first customers are arriving or waking up in their cars, and the used school buses are idling their diesel engines. No bathrooms, no changing rooms, no coffee. Hand out cold wet suits to groggy customers in blowing wet snow. Women may change on the bus, but they and the men often just strip outside their cars and struggle half naked in hats and mittens into the cold suits and booties, then stand around like penguins and shiver. Eventually an urn of coffee arrives with the equipment bus and other guides. Go around adjusting life jackets as Carlson begins the safety talk, replete with one-liners, quotes from M*A*S*H, insinuations of trouble on the river if you fail to tip the guide. Hand out paddles. Board customer buses.
Arrive at the put-in on Chain of Lakes Road, below the “Otter Slide,” where a sweeping eddy behind a mid-river island in the Indian makes a natural harbor that can hold numerous boats. Dozens of rafts belonging to various outfits have been inflated and lined up on shore in the snow by guide trainees and guides, in the order they are scheduled to take off. The rafts are “bucket boats”—ungainly affairs that need to be bailed after every wave with five-gallon joint-compound buckets carabinered to a thwart, so you spend the entire trip with your bootied feet in 35-degree water.
Eventually the customers array themselves on either side of the rafts and drag/carry the boats to the put-in, slide them through mud and snow into the water, then scramble and tumble into the bouncing cold rafts. You climb in last, secure your place on the slippery, cold Hypalon tube by jamming your feet between said tubes and the sagging water-filled floor, and commence to order practice strokes for the first inkling of how well your crew will help you avoid trouble, and how to adjust the load. Then the rafts begin to peel out of the eddy and disappear around the island straight into the Indian’s unreadable froth.
What’s the point? you wonder, as the water washes over you in repeated waves, and you try above the roar to keep the boat on a safe but sporting line. It’s hard to see what about any of this could be construed as “fun,” in the sense of being an easy and untroubling diversion, a lark, a trifle. Which means there must be some other attraction, one having to do with the nature of wilderness travel in any and all conditions and our collective memories of it. I hesitate to make too much of this, but there it is. Few of the outfitters used wilderness as a selling point, few used it to promote what, for most people, was an adrenaline high. But it was all around you and dominated everything. You were in it. It was big, the water and the land; it was here, and it was real.
In the first few years a sizeable amount of capitalist jockeying and display went on among the various outfits and guides. It had started by April 1979, when Joe Kowalski, of Wilderness Tours, in Pembroke, Ontario, and Wayne Hockmeyer, of Northern Outdoors, in The Forks (pronounced “fawx”), Maine, arrived simultaneously at the fisherman’s access on the Indian, immediately downstream of the Lake Abanakee Dam and the Otter Slide, to run their first scouting trips. Each had a summer river where they made most of their money, but the Hudson provided a high-water spring trip their rivers didn’t. Today they claim a long friendship, and for the most part relations were cordial, at least on the surface. But the tensions of low-profit, high-status capitalism (and exploiting a free public resource) pertained. Word got out and attracted other outfits, including local start-ups like the one we worked for. Any new and local outfitters who arrived on the scene were met with resistance from earlier arrivals. Outfitters formed an “association” with little authority to do anything other than intimidate newcomers and negotiate with the town to control numbers, put-in times and dam releases when necessary. Amid an atmosphere of general fellowship and cooperation, an undercurrent of rivalry persisted.
In 1981, the first time Wayne Failing, of Middle Earth Expeditions, in Lake Placid, showed up with a single boat and eight clients, he immediately took heat from another local outfitter telling him the association was closed and he couldn’t launch there. He stood his ground and insisted on his equal right to a public put-in. After a couple of years and numerous meetings, he prevailed. Wayne stood out in those days. He had a red boat and wore a long red sash around his forehead. In all his years rafting he never used more than two boats. He also had more training in swift water rescue, carried more emergency equipment than most outfits, and effected numerous complicated rescues. It wasn’t unusual in those days to come around a bend in the Indian or the Hudson and see a couple of boats overturned or pinned to rocks, customers standing on rocks or on shore, swimmers everywhere. Recreational kayakers went out of their way to pull people back in, as did the other passing rafts. There was almost never any serious injury, but on busy days or at low or high water it could look like mayhem.
By 1980 Wayne Hockmeyer had learned that a trip at high water could result in flips and end in boats and customers lost until dark. Local businesses loved the extra six or eight busy weekends after skiing. Eventually the association hammered out a rough cooperative plan and the larger and smaller outfits sorted themselves out. Senior guides and more experienced outfitters started training newcomers better. River levels more or less cooperated and a couple of years later, by the time the Department of Environmental Conservation figured out it should get in on the act and monitor day use, a thousand customers went down the river on one rare sunny day in April.
Karla Matzke, one of the few women guides from those first years, grew up in North Creek and started kayaking downriver ahead of the rafts to set up lunch for Hudson River Rafting in 1980. By ’81 she worked with Dick Carlson, Vince Woolley, one or two other regulars, and me, first for Adirondack Wildwaters, on the Hudson and the Sacandaga, until we all moved together over to Old Forge–based Adirondack River Outfitters, now AROAdventures. Karla, an artist, guided rafts all the way through college and grad school and now owns the Matzke Fine Art Gallery and Sculpture Park on Camano Island, Washington.
When I called her we had a hard time remembering the names of any other women guides, though there were one or two, especially on the Sacandaga in the summer. Mostly she remembered a bad swim she had at 8.5 feet, and the fact that “owners were unreliable,” and close with a dollar. The established outfits from Maine had rigorous licensing requirements and better guide training, and paid accordingly. No such incentive attached to local outfits, at least at the beginning. When Dick Carlson showed up to guide on his first day in 1980 he was told, “There’s your boat, here’s your paddle, watch out for the Soup Strainer,” a mid-river rock at the top of Giveny’s Rift that could flip a boat at high water, or pin it at low water. He had never been in a raft per se, but he was a whitewater canoeist so at least knew how to navigate a rapid.
The outfitters’ assumption was that you were involved in a supposedly glamorous activity (and should therefore be happy to do it for nothing), yet one that required arcane skills and experience, and a level of cold-bloodedness. Staring down a half-mile train of eight-foot waves from the top of the Narrows, with eight or 10 family members or office friends in your boat, for instance, would definitely make you feel responsible for their lives and their experience, and that, yes, that should require more training and pay enough to more or less live on, if only during the season.
After the trips got off the river a lot of wild northern scenes took place in the bars and rafting headquarters, as well. You hear the phrase “like the old West” a lot, referring to the après-rafting shenanigans in Indian Lake and North Creek. But the West had nothing on the Oak Barrel Tavern in Indian Lake (where my wife and I shared beers the first day we met), or the old Basil and Wick’s, in North Creek. I put in my time in both, and it led to the end of my drinking life a few years later. For most of us rafting came at the end of a long winter, a new source of work that was also connected directly to old times and brought a sense of expansiveness, opportunity. A lot of acting out resulted.
For customers, you wanted women, who paced themselves and worked together without a lot of showing off and stupid locker-room hijinks. They wanted to perform, be safe and hit the good routes. The same was true on dry land, where they also held their own.
But the testosterone poisoning ran high, and things got out of hand. More than once I recruited women from Whiteface or around Saranac Lake, who would go down to the Hudson and train with one of the outfits, and then refuse to continue. There were a lot of shared crash pads and camping spots. One excellent recruit told me she’d never go back after a night of drunken harassment. I didn’t appreciate that my team could be so prone to idiocy.
And it was almost completely white. Manuel Cruz, a Dominican mechanic and rock-climbing guide in Albany, guided for Whitewater Challengers for years. Other than him, nadie.
Last August our water level with the Lake Abanakee dam release was in the respectable mid-4s on the gauge. We rode the waves of memory where all the rivers were one river again, and felt like ourselves. At that level the Indian is quite sporty, as are the larger rapids in the Hudson. Dick Carlson and I observed that with our light, dry boat and only four paddlers, Ace had hit every route and every wave exactly as we would have. It could have been hell for him guiding old-timers who knew the river when, but we did our best not to bore him to death.
We hooted like tenderfeet in the Narrows, Giveny’s and Harris Rifts (Mile Long). Halfway down Blue Ledge Rapid, where the 200-foot escarpment with its nesting ravens came in view, my heart exploded as it always did. At the right-hand turn going into Harris Rift, Kettle and Pine Mountains rose straight up around us, softened by shiny summer greenery where before they had been gray and dark, with tendrils of spume pouring a hundred feet over their ledges, and where I had one of the memorable experiences of my life, where I had understood our origins in water and mind as flowing. By then we had fallen into the old rhythms and, as you always hoped would happen to your customers, stopped talking.
On the bus to the put-in I had ridden with a couple of women of color from Long Island, one of them a return customer. Out on the river the groups in the other boats showed far more diversity than in the early 1980s. There were women guides, and more than one outfit now included female ownership and guides, though most were still men. The recent land acquisitions had opened shorelines and mountain summits on both sides, as well as justly celebrated OK Slip Falls, where you could arrange to hike to the falls, meet boats at the river and raft out. When I asked Carlson about the concern some anglers and game clubs had with dam releases harming the fish, or raising the water levels too fast for wading anglers to avoid (they don’t), he said, “They got over it.”
To the naked eye the wild Hudson Gorge of 40 years ago, with its endangered riparian ice meadows, its brown, rainbow and wild brook trout, remained intact. We floated out the last few miles, ran Perry Ellers’ Rapid along Route 28, in North River, and lifted our raft out of the water across the road from ARO headquarters: two large, well-equipped garages, an office, ample changing and bathrooms, kitchen and covered dining space. The trend in rafting had been to merge, and ARO had recently absorbed Whitewater Challengers and moved across the street to their headquarters.
I joined my old boss, ARO co-founder Gary Staab, who just turned 73, grilling chicken behind the garage. He told how he and Bob Burke, of Old Forge, had discovered rafting on a spring trip to North Carolina in 1978, and already planned to buy boats and start a company on the Moose River before they got home; how the early years were wide open and how things had settled into dependable if still low-margin predictability. The snows, rains and water levels had cooperated, more or less. Guides were better trained, had more experience, and many had insurance. (Though Ace was sleeping in a tent.) There still weren’t enough women or non-white guides, but there were some. Gary said, “If you had told me 45 years ago I’d be doing this today, I would have said you were crazy. But it’s given me a full life.”
Wayne Failing said that rafting and guiding had given him “an incredibly meaningful life. I’m lucky that at 26 I found the right livelihood.”
Which is the way you feel if your repeated navigations have layered you deep into a place and connected you there forever.
Former Adirondack Life editor Christopher Shaw wrote the essay “Sensory Fieldwork,” in the 50th Anniversary Issue of this magazine.