Wayne Failing: Master of Fun

by Michael Virtanen | December 2022

Photograph by Melody Thomas

He rolled into Newcomb in late September to save us from ourselves.

Solidly built and shrouded by bushy hair, beard and dark sunglasses, Wayne Failing looked like a modern mountain man. He pulled a whitewater raft behind his pickup truck, with supplies for three days on the upper Hudson, and efficiently outfitted and loaded the boat and us, his two passengers.

We would be descending the next rough and remote stretch of the river while reporting on its condition for a newspaper assignment. My colleague was already on crutches after we flipped a canoe in the first small rapids below Lake Henderson. I’d limped down from Mount Marcy’s Lake Tear of the Clouds, the poetically ascribed source of New York’s great 300-mile waterway to Manhattan.

Failing called his guide service Middle Earth Expeditions and talked about Tai Chi on the Hudson, finding and catching the flow. We needed him.

Both old school and New Age, he hand-rolled cigarettes as he cheerfully told us stories about mountaineering in Alaska, Europe and South America, sailing the Caribbean, rafting in Central America and the U.S. West. He mentioned the .357 Magnum he kept under his pillow that he used to scare a bear off his back porch. The big revolver figured in other stories from his free-wheeling Adirondack life.

“I’m in the fun business,” he said. He had the complete set of wilderness skills essential to his keeping it that way.

Failing was 46 years old then and by all sights and sounds in his prime. It was 1998.

He struck me more like an original Argonaut than a Tolkien character, someone who’d survived some harrowing times and settled north to live a still-adventurous life and take others along.

Approaching 70, this spring he signed a contract to put up for sale the Van Hoevenberg Lodge and Cabins—his property and home at the outskirts of Lake Placid. The longtime guide and innkeeper plans to head to Colorado, then maybe Hawaii, Costa Rica or the Caribbean.

“It’s a beautiful property but it’s a lot of work,” Failing said of the 5.43 acres with its wide unobstructed view of the High Peaks. “We’ll see what happens next. I’ve built that place up over 40 years. Some new adventure is around the corner. Time to be a pirate again.”

He expects another 10 years of strong chi beyond the effort and exploits already on the books. A reading in February of his Akashic Record said as much.

In the years since that 1998 trip, I’ve talked to Wayne many times and watched him go gray without losing his enthusiasm. Which is an extraordinary thing, considering.

Across four decades, he took 12,504 clients rafting down the upper Hudson River and its thundering whitewater and cites an unblemished safety record. “I never had to do first-aid,” he said.

He hosted thousands more guests at the lodge and cabins and took hundreds of hunters and thousands of fishermen into the backcountry.

“He’s a great, fantastic guide. He’s got the camaraderie,” said John Wainwright, a fellow licensed guide who took whitewater trips with Failing on the Hudson and down jungle rivers in Costa Rica. “If you’re a good guide, you have to be able to, on slow days, keep people’s interest and have some fun. And he’s just got that natural ability to do that.”

Failing grew up weekends and summers at his family’s one-room camp on Fourth Lake.

In his 20s, he became a master plumber, working for his father, and earned college degrees in biology and education. He climbed Denali, the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and Aconcagua, summiting the highest peaks on three continents. He took justice-involved youths into the Adirondacks on wilderness outings for the state for two years.

In 1983, he bought the dilapidated inn and eight cabins on those five-and-a-half acres along Route 73 for $42,500. He did major restoration and hung out the guide’s shingle he’d first posted in his hometown of Utica.

He was on the board for 30 years of the New York State Outdoor Guides Association, which provides training and a code of ethics. From 1988 to 1992 he engaged in the fight that ended aerial pesticide spraying for blackflies in the Adirondacks, later replaced by treating larvae with powder in streams. Spraying, he argued in public forums, was poisoning him, his clients and other people and animals caught beneath it.

Failing sold his rafting business after a head-on car crash in the Bahamas in 2013 that killed the driver, his friend and fellow guide Walt Boname, and left him lying on a dark road with his pelvis broken in half. 

He was airlifted to Albany, where surgeons reconnected his pelvis with screws and repaired his broken elbow. After months of physical therapy, he relearned walking, which one doctor considered unlikely, and has a wider gait. But full-time guiding was over. He turned his place into a healing retreat for a few years, then became mostly an innkeeper, musician and songwriter, a prior sideline.

Among changes Failing has noted over 40 years in the Adirondacks are a huge increase in development and build out and rise in real estate prices. His place is listed at $2.75 million. “If you took a picture of Lake Placid 25 years ago and today it would look, you know, completely different.”

It’s the same for the other tourist meccas of Lake George, Old Forge and North Creek, he said. Meanwhile the full-time local population, shown by school enrollments, has been dropping.

There are many more visitors and far more backcountry rescues of people lacking outdoor skills, Failing said. “The helicopters flying people out are almost on a weekly basis, and it never used to be like that.”

Winter has grown shorter, the weather warmer. “The ticks are moving north with the climate.… We don’t have them here at Van Hoevenberg yet, but we’re 2,000 feet above sea level,” he said.

He noted inflows of retirees, plus second-home buyers who rent their places online to short-term visitors. That’s made it hard for workers to find housing and businesses to find staff.

Still, Failing calls the Adirondacks “the garden park … lush and forested” and its best feature the 3,000 lakes and ponds and 30,000 miles of river that are clear and clean.

The upper Hudson’s whitewater, with winter flows, is as big as Grand Canyon rapids, he said. “It’s class five. It’s huge.… In the summer, without the dam release, it’s class two or three…. It’s a beautiful summer float trip through a wilderness gorge.”

On that 1998 trip down to North Creek, he rowed the flatwater south and helped the columnist and broadcaster Fred Lebrun get established trolling, explaining what fish were likely and where. He described the whitewater ahead, lower than the torrents of spring.

“How do we do it?” he asked, smiling, in a slightly gravelly rasp after we passed smoothly down some rapids. The Hudson was “scratchy” at low late-season levels. He used the oars, facing downstream, to avoid rocks and push the raft over others barely submerged.

It turned out that was a rhetorical question he liked to ask, sometimes loudly. Usually that came after steering, with a paddle in the stern, a larger raft full of soaked clients who paddled on his command. Followed by his soft answer: “With style and grace.”

Michael Virtanen is a former Associated Press correspondent, features editor at the Albany Times Union and author of two Adirondack novels. He’s working on a book about Wayne Failing.

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