Friday, May 27, 2011

Mary Thill: Hudson River Rafting Travails

Hudson River Rafting Company owner Pat Cunningham pleaded not guilty in Hamilton County Court Thursday to two counts of reckless endangerment. He is scheduled to go to trial in August. Adirondack Life just posted details of the case in “Risky Business,” a story Mary reported for its May/June issue. The Almanack asked Mary Thill to bring our readers up to speed on the latest developments – ed.

The charges are connected to two trips on the Upper Hudson River last summer. But for more than a decade, guides who’ve worked for Cunningham have said that the Hudson River Rafting Company sometimes 1.) overbooks rafts 2.) sends customers in rafts piloted by unlicensed guides-in-training and 3.) launches inexperienced customers in their own boats without guides. The company’s reputation among the guiding community and in rafting towns like North Creek and Indian Lake has not been good for a while. For reasons that are explored in the article, that reputation has been held as local knowledge, until recently.

The other ten other outfitters on the river are members of the Hudson River Professional Outfitters Association, which disavows unguided rafts and whose bylaws mandate a high-water cutoff as well as adherence to some basic river safety practices. Cunningham parted ways with the association a few years ago, and the group is now skeptical of his wish to rejoin.

But the Adirondack Life article is as much an examination of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s commitment to its own rules as it is about one outfitter’s legal problems. Cunningham was one of the first guides to take customers through the remote Hudson River Gorge, in 1979. In the mid 1980s New York State implemented standardized training and tests for whitewater guides. The DEC today requires five training runs down the river for which a license is being sought as well as passage of a written exam and basic first aid and CPR courses.

It appears that DEC forest rangers have recently stepped up oversight of on-river safety, and they brought the charges that are now going to trial. However, an open question is how well DEC oversees required Water Safety classes. With DEC’s consent, most outfitters—including Hudson River Rafting Company—are allowed to conduct the classes themselves, essentially giving them power to approve their own trainees for guides’ licenses. Guides who took the Cunningham course have told me they were rubber-stamped and that they captained paying customers down the river before they had logged five trips.

Unfortunately DEC would not talk to Adirondack Life, choosing to withhold even basic information behind the front of the catchall “litigation.” “Due to the ongoing litigation in Hamilton County that your questions are directly or indirectly related, DEC will not be responding to any of your questions at this time,” spokesman Dave Winchell said in an e-mail.

It says something about the professionalism and self-reliance of river guides that more people have not gotten hurt on the Hudson; the safety record there seems to be comparable to Maine’s, which has some of the most rigorous white-water licensing standards in the country as well as wardens who make a point of knowing every guide on a river.

In the meantime, the snowpack held until the beginning of rafting season this spring, and the Hudson has been running high since. Hudson River Rafting Company continues to send rafts down the 17-mile route. Cunningham failed in April to get the town of Indian Lake to release water from Lake Abanakee just for his company (the town contracts with the outfitters association to schedule releases of an extra cushion of water from its dam). The minutes of Cunningham’s discussion with the Indian Lake Town Board are online.

After the Adirondack Life article went to press in March, the original indictments against Cunningham were dismissed because Judge S. Peter Feldstein reportedly felt that a video of a raft overturning in a rapid called Bus Stop was prejudicial. The video had no direct connection to the case. The reckless endangerment charges were reported anew out of a Grand Jury in May. District Attorney James Curry said he dropped three charges of endangering the welfare of a child because the children were no longer available to testify. The trial is scheduled to begin in Hamilton County Court on August 15.

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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

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