High Alert: Reading a River Can Save Your Life

by Annie Stoltie | June 2022

Photograph by Manuel Palacios, Zone 3 Photography

The boy slipped. There had been a big rain the night before, so the river was higher than usual. In an instant he was swallowed by the Ausable’s current and flushed down the Jay rapids near the covered bridge. His father jumped in to help, but he too was powerless against the swift water. Moments later both father and son emerged beneath the bridge, where the rocks give way to a sandy stretch. They were banged up, but alive.

My kids told me about this incident a couple of years ago—they’d been swimming upstream, in shallow flatwater before the East Branch of the Ausable tumbles over boulders. We live near the Jay rapids, so they’ve grown up hearing my constant warnings and they’ve learned to watch the river, to never trust it, particularly after it rains.

The Flume, a town over from us in Wilmington, is a dramatic crevasse carved by the Ausable River’s west branch. While people cannonballing from its ledges into the froth below is a well-documented feat on Instagram, “I would discourage people from going there,” says town supervisor Roy Holzer. Parking near the Flume is “a huge traffic hazard, the area’s become inundated with garbage, and we’ve had fatalities—people going into the whirlpool area that they can’t recover from.” He adds, “I’ve never felt comfortable with how some advertise the Flume as a swimming hole. We’ve got a beautiful beach at Lake Everest for that.”

Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger Rob Praczkajlo has assisted with rescues and recoveries at the Flume. On a warm spring day it might be 80 degrees outside, he says, but the water is 30 degrees—frigid enough to cause cold-water shock. “But it’s the super strong, post-rain events when it’s the most dangerous there.” Praczkajlo  describes the current as “blasting and flattening you against the rock wall. It feels like you’re being pulled under.” People get pinned there while their friends stand on the cliffs above, trying to reach for them. “Then the person in the water starts to get nervous and exhausted. All it takes is that one gulp of water and then they’re done.”

Several years ago a young man visiting from Ithaca jumped near the falls at the Flume and was immediately overwhelmed. According to Praczkajlo, a former Navy Seal happened to be there that day, but even he couldn’t save him. A couple of years before that, a Plattsburgh high-schooler leapt from the Flume’s ledges and went under the engorged falls. His friend jumped in to help and they both drowned.

“We recommend reach, throw, go,” says Praczkajlo. If you can’t reach the victim, find something, maybe a downed limb, they can grab onto. “The last resort is jumping in. Very often you’re sacrificing yourself.”

That’s what happened at Split Rock Falls near New Russia in 2004. Four counselors from an Adirondack summer camp lost their lives after one of them accidentally slipped into the raging Boquet River. His three friends jumped in to save him but were immediately sucked into the turbulent water, fed by runoff from heavy rainfall. Praczkajlo was among those called to the scene. “I’ve been to Split Rock for broken legs, drunken people jumping onto rocks and busting themselves up, but the counselors … that was a huge water event.” When conditions are like that, “you’re a pinball in the bottom pools of those falls. The current is so strong you can’t swim to where you need to get out.”           

Rockwell Falls, where the Hudson and Sacandaga Rivers meet, is another potentially treacherous place. Visitors have jumped from the towns of Hadley and Lake Luzerne’s Bridge of Hope or from the fall’s rocky cliffs into the white water below with fatal consequences. Through the years there have been multiple deaths there. “They just don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” says Praczkajlo.

Years of reading and writing about these tragedies and what can go wrong in this park have put me on hyper-alert. I didn’t used to be this way. In my 20s I ended up in the back of a police car with a pricey ticket for climbing through a hole in the fence of a downstate gorge. One sprinkle of rain, the officer told my friend and me, and we’d have been swept away. I realize how lucky—and foolish—we were. 

How to balance fun with danger? In the Adirondacks there’s always calculated risk, whatever you do. Putting “potential danger” signs on state land would mean covering every inch of this six million–acre place. Rocks might be slippery, a tree could topple or a storm could blow in. When it comes to a river, if you aren’t familiar with it, ask someone who is. Find out if it’s running high, advises Praczkajlo. “And if you’re the only party there and other folks aren’t swimming, it’s probably dangerous. You may want to question if it’s a good idea to go for it.” 

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