Joe Martens may be the head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, but he is no different from a lot of paddlers: he couldn’t wait to canoe a stretch of the upper Hudson River recently added to the Forest Preserve.
On Tuesday, Martens and Mike Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, led a flotilla of canoes on an all-day trip down the river, giving us a preview of an excursion that will soon be open to the public, perhaps in a few weeks.
“This is great; it’s beautiful,” Martens remarked halfway through the trip. “Maybe I appreciate it more now because I don’t get out as much as I’d like.”
Years ago, Martens got into whitewater paddling in a big way: he used to go on trips in northern Canada arranged by Buffalo Assemblyman Bill Hoyt. On one trip, they flew north of tree line to a river’s headwaters in a vast scrub-land. “It was almost like being on a different planet,” he said.
The upper Hudson is not as remote or as dangerous as the rivers of northern Canada, but it is not without challenges—especially if, like me, you’re primarily a flatwater paddler.
We put in at the Newcomb boat launch on Harris Lake, paddled a mile or so to the Hudson, and then cruised downriver six miles to a logging road just below the mouth of the Goodnow River. On the way, we encountered nine rapids. We carried around the two longest and most difficult—Long Falls and Ord Falls—and shot the other seven.
Dave Olbert, the owner of Cloud-Splitter Outfitters in Newcomb, rated all the rapids as class II (moderate), but he warned that Ord Falls can approach class III. Two of the rapids we went down were frothy enough that we scouted them first. (The video shows the first of these.)
If you lack whitewater experience, you may want to carry around all or most of the rapids. Either that, or go with a guide or an experienced whitewater paddler.
Also, bear in mind that the character of the rapids will vary with water levels. On Tuesday, the river gage at North Creek was just under four feet. Although the rapids were passable, there were rocks sticking out of the water. As the river drops, you’ll see more rocks. In summer, you may have to line your boat to get through some of the rapids.
The public will be able to do the trip to the Goodnow once Martens approves an interim public-access plan for some 22,500 acres of timberlands formerly owned by Finch, Pruyn & Company. The Nature Conservancy purchased the land from Finch in 2007 and sold it to the state in recent months.
Because sportsmen’s clubs are still leasing the timberlands, the public’s access to most of the land will be very limited until fall. However, DEC does intend to open a logging road to enable visitors to reach our takeout on the Hudson. Under the interim-access plan, paddlers will have to carry their canoes about a quarter-mile from the river to a parking area. The shuttle from the parking area to Harris Lake will be about ten miles, including three miles on the often- rough logging road.
What to expect? Here are some notes from our trip:
- We start on a bay on the south shore of Harris Lake, with an impressive of view of Allen Mountain, one the Adirondack High Peaks.
- When we reach the Hudson we see a small sign nailed to a tree. It points north to Mount Marcy and south to New York City. Dave Olbert remarks that a cabin on the spot dates to the 1800s. “It was a house of ill repute for the loggers. That’s what the old-timers tell me,” he says.
- After passing under Route 28N, we soon leave civilization behind. This part of the Hudson is wide and placid. Mike Carr spots an eagle soaring over the water.
- A mile below Newcomb, we reach the head of Long Falls. We follow a rough trail for a quarter-mile to quiet water below the rapids.
- Soon we reach Ord Falls, the most difficult rapids. The name is misleading: the “falls” is a stretch of whitewater that extends for nearly a half-mile. The carry sometimes resembles a bushwhack. Pooped, we stop for lunch at the foot of the rapids. Forest Ranger Dell Jeffery assures us that the hard part is behind us.
- After lunch, we paddle through two easy rapids. The next one is more lively. We all get out and study the water from the bank and decide to go for it. Everyone gets through safely, though not without striking a few rocks. I’m glad I’m in my Bell Yellowstone, a canoe made of tough Royalex.
- We go left around an island and through two easy rapids. Since leaving Newcomb, we had not seen signs of civilization. Now a cabin appears at the mouth of Wolf Pond Outlet. Dave Olbert is looking for an old white pine with a cross carved into it. According to lore, a logger died near here on a river drive, and his friend carved the cross.
- At the next rapid, we get out to scout again. Joe suggests staying to the right at first, next to a rock wall rising out of the water. The line proves to be a good one. No one capsizes.
- Looking straight downriver, we have a nice view of Polaris Mountain, one of the larger peaks on the former Finch land.
- After the last small rapid, we reach the mouth of the Goodnow. I go upstream a quarter-mile to take a few photos. Later, Dell Jeffery tells me you can paddle a half-mile before reaching a stepped waterfall.
- We take out just below the Goodnow, six hours after launching on Harris Lake.
In short, you can expect a rugged but beautiful trip. It will be a little less rugged if DEC clears and marks the carry trails. Although you can’t do the trip to the Goodnow just yet, you can do a longer trip now, taking out near the confluence with the Indian River. The Indian is about six miles below the Goodnow. You will encounter more rapids on this part of the journey and will have to carry a mile or so from the takeout.
Photos by Phil Brown: Top: Goodnow River. Bottom: View of Polaris Mountain from the Hudson.