The Hudson River begins at Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks, near the summit of Mount Marcy. The highest point in New York State, Marcy was being climbed by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt when word came that President McKinley had succumbed to complications from an assassin's bullet. As readers of A Little History of the United States know, Roosevelt went racing back to civilization along rough trails and muddy roads until he reached the railroad station at North Creek, where he was sworn in as the new president. It's along the river here that a whitewater derby is held every year, consisting of a "giant slalom" race held on Saturday and a downriver contest on Sunday.
The slalom is too odd for any hardcore paddlers to attend. Its gates are spread much farther apart than Olympic-style courses (hence the appellation "giant"). But it provides good fun for old duffers and youngsters alike; and a group of us have been coming to it for well over forty years now. For us, it's like the annual rendezvous that the Mountain Men used to hold at the end of their fur trapping season, when they gathered to sell their season's catch and whoop and holler. Come to think of it, our rendezvous has persisted for far more years than the fur trappers' version, which lasted little more than a decade in its heyday.
There's a novice slalom race that allows newcomers to the sport to ease into the competition without too much paddling experience; but the giant slalom requires crossing the river to a number of gates on the far side, which can be dicey in higher water. And the last five gates are set in bigger rapids, which require more skill. By now we know the course by heart, though there are variations from year to year, as to which gates are reverse (you have to back through) or upstream (which requires paddling upstream through them, against the current. Every year we scout the position of the gates, debate how to maneuver around the boulders and souse holes, and take our one shot on the course for yet another year. Almost always there's some screw-up, major or minor, which leaves us the rest of the afternoon to float downriver with friends and debate what we did wrong. The capsize below is from three years ago, and took place a few weeks before I had a cataract removed that had left me temporarily blind in one eye. Not that I need that kind of excuse to capsize!
This year nobody spilled and the weather was fine. My coauthor on The Complete Wilderness Paddler, John Rugge took top honors in his class as usual, paddling with his grandson Mishkin, who has been racing since he was about eight or nine. Below, they're negotiating Gate 18 quite nicely, the most difficult needle to thread this year.
And after the float down the river, it's back to a nearby farmhouse where we stay, for a nice communal dinner, political debates, and margaritas. I suspect if the Mountain Men had margaritas, they would have kept coming back for forty years too...
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors