After winning an important legal battle and a decade of waiting, paddlers expecting to finally be allowed access to one of the most intense whitewater opportunities in the Adirondacks are still waiting. This time for regulators to send a simple letter.
After the lengthy battle that pitted paddlers against the state’s energy monopoly, federal energy regulators, and private landowners, a year ago the Almanack reported that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)issued an order requiring New York State Electric & Gas Corporation (NYSEG) to permit access to the Ausable Chasm across its Rainbow Falls hydroelectric facility. The hydro dam is just upstream of the point where the Ausable River flows into Ausable Chasm, from there expert paddlers (many sections are Class IV, one route is Class V) could make their way the nearly three miles downstream through Ausable Chasm to the bridge at Route 9. Both banks of the river downstream to the take-out at Route 9 are private property, including portions owned by the popular tourist attraction.
The original order was appealed to FERC by NYSEG (and others), but upheld in September of last year. The standing order required NYSEG to develop a whitewater access plan from the Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend through the end of October and required NYSEG to consult with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation (OPRHP), American Whitewater, and the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) in the development of the plan.
With the help of its required partners NYSEG developed the plan [pdf] and submitted it to FERC in late November, but memorial Day has come and gone and the 4-foot-wide, 7-foot-high, galvanized steel pedestrian gate that was to provide access to the river has remained closed. NYSEG refuses to open the gate until it receives a letter accepting the plan and formally requiring them to grant public access.
American Whitewater (AW) has asked FERC to approve the whitewater access plan for the Rainbow Falls Project (Project # 2835), but received no response. AW is now asking paddlers send FERC a comment requesting access to the right away.
What Paddlers Are Missing
According to NYSEG’s plan, the gate will be open from sunrise to sunset from the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend through October 31; gate will be locked during the rest of the year.
Those who wanting to scout the river from above will need to use the Ausable Chasm Company’s private trails (their fees apply). Flow information is available via the USGS Ausable River stream gauge.
What follows is a description of the key feature provided by the NYSEG plan, and a response by the Almanack‘s own Don Morris about the safety of the route.
All river descriptions and classifications are user-generated estimates based on limited
experiences at limited flows (173-576 cfs). All features have the potential to change.
Horseshoe Falls (III/IV): Visible from the Route 9 bridge, Horseshoe Falls consists of U-shaped,8-foot-high vertical ledge/waterfall followed by large eddies.
Unnamed Rapid (III): Immediately below Horseshoe Falls is a short rapid containing a several waves ending in a pool.
Diagonal Slide (III/IV): A long low angle slide with a diagonal wave stretching across it serves as the lead in to Devil’ s Oven.
Devil’s Oven (IV left line, IVN right line): The left channel, accessible at moderate and high flows, is a twisting series of small drops and waves. The river-right channel is a more challenging vertical drop of 6-8 feet with a steep entrance.
Unnamed Rapid (IV): A series of breaking waves terminating in a cliff wall at the base of the rapid. Paddlers have paddled left to follow the river, or eddied out to the right of the cliff wall and then ferried across the current to continue downstream.
Mike’s Hole (IV): Mike’s Hole consists of a series of waves and holes leading to a narrow constriction containing a final hydraulic. The rock wall on the river right side of the final hydraulic may be undercut. Submerged remnants of an old steel bridge are located in and at the base of the rapid and may pose a hazard to boaters. Portaging or scouting this rapid at river level is extremely difficult or impossible.
Table Rock (II): This rapid is characterized as a small wave train.
Concrete Wall (II): Concrete walls constrict the river and several pieces of an old steel bridge are submerged.
Whirlpool (II): Includes rapids and a large eddy where the river makes a sharp 90-degree righthand bend.
Below Ausable Chasm (I): Between Whirlpool and the Route 9 Bridge, the river is wide and
shallow and provides limited whitewater challenge.
Last year, Don Morris responded to concerns that the route was too dangerous. Here is what he wrote:
To me, safety is a relative term and absolute statements about safety are not appropriate. Safety is related to the skill of the paddler, the paddler’s judgment, water levels, and river features. I ran the Chasm at about 600 cfs as part of a feasibility study. It was a Class 4 run at this level and no one had any problems with the run as far as I know. At 600 cfs the river is safe for competent Class 4 boaters. In my opinion, people with only Class 3 skills should not be on this section at this level, though could probably paddle it safely at lower flows. At some point the Chasm becomes too high. I’ve heard people guess that 500-800 cfs is a good range and at least one paddler (who is better than I am) has guessed that 1,000 cfs is all he would ever want to tackle. Many Class 4-5 paddlers have done harder runs than this and have been in remote gorges where it would be even more difficult to get someone out. At 600 cfs, the biggest hazard in the Chasm is man-made: a large I-beam above Mike’s Hole. At higher water I suspect Mike’s Hole would be a bigger hazard. Bottom line–I think this is a safe run for competent paddlers at moderate flows. Strong intermediates could probably do fine at minimal flows and more extreme paddlers could paddle it safely at higher flows, but it’s up to them to decide what they can handle based on their skill and judgment.
Take a look at this video of a paddler running this section in 2006.