Monday, April 28, 2014

Whitewater: Paddling the Schroon River

Bob on the Schroon RiverSince ski season ended, I had been looking forward to my first whitewater canoe trip of the season.  The spring showers and melting snow had conspired to raise the river levels to dangerous levels, but they have now receded.   For our inaugural trip of the season, Bob, Horst and I decided to run the Schroon River.

The Schroon flows south for nearly 70 miles from North hudson to its confluence with the Hudson River in Warrensburg, interrupted in the center by Schroon Lake.  Most of the river meanders through hardwood forests, but is rarely far from a public access point and a good parking lot.  Largely free of rapids, it provides ample opportunities for flatwater cruising.  Today, though, our goal was to run the seven-mile whitewater section from Starbuckville Dam to the Riverbank parking lot just north of Northway Exit 24.  This section varies greatly throughout the year, from the giant standing waves in the spring, when the river overflows its banks, to the gentle rifles of mid-summer, making each trip a new experience.

Bob scouting the Big Drop on the Schroon RiverI had first paddled the whitewater section in the mid-1990s, when I was first learning to paddle and didn’t know what I was getting myself into.  I joined a trip that had been organized by the New York Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, making the four-hour schlepp from the NYC area for a weekend of Adirondack adventure.  None of us had paddled the Schroon before and we were pleasantly surprised.  The river was close to flood stage and the giant wave trains reminded some of our members of their prior canoe trip through the Grand Canyon. The big waves and my lack of skill kept my heart pounding throughout the trip.  Since then, I’ve run this section of the Schroon perhaps 20 times, but never at the level as that first voyage.

We launched our boats  –  canoes for Bob and me, a kayak for Horst – downstream of the Starbuckville Dam, immediately entering an easy shoot.  With the wind at our backs, we floated downstream to the next rapid at the Route 8 Bridge, then continued to the next, each more difficult than the last.  Most rivers in the Eastern US contain “rock gardens,” midstream rocks with eddies behind them, allowing paddlers a safe haven in which to rest, wait for others, and get a look at what lies ahead.  The Schroon’s rapids, in contrast, are an unbroken chain of standing waves.  Once you enter them, you’re on a non-stop freight train till you get to the end.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the absence of any fisherman.  The Schroon is stocked with trout each spring and there are usually many fisherman along its banks, sharing the river with canoeists and kayakers.  The sharing isn’t always amicable, though.  Most fisherman are cordial, exchanging a friendly wave, smile, and short conversation with passing boaters, but a small minority of them instead offer the kind of reception usually reserved for insurance salesman and IRS auditors.

The Schroon saves the best for last.  The whitewater section ends with “The Big Drop,” normally a Class 3 rapid, but with today’s high volume flow it’s a Class 4 demon.  We beached our boats far upstream of it and walked down to scout it.  Earlier in the day, we had considered carrying our boats around it, but after studying the rapid and discussing our options, we all decided to run it.  There are normally several routes to choose from, but today the only safe line is to stay far to the right, sneaking past the curling deflection wave that eagerly waits to capsize any boat venturing into it.  We all stayed on our line, safely running The Big Drop without incident, and paddled the short distance to the take-out.

This section of the Schroon River can be run by experienced whitewater boaters whenever the river level is at three feet or higher, up to flood stage, as measured by the USGS’s Riverbank gauge.  Most of the rapids can be scouted from Schroon River Road, which runs parallel to the river.  To scout The Big Drop, not visible from the road, land your boat on the left about 100 yards above the rapid and follow the trail downstream.  Adirondack Canoe Waters – South & West Flow by Alex Proskine provides a good description of the river.  It’s out of print, but used copies are available online.

Photos:  Above, Bob canoeing under the Route 8 bridge, and below, scouting the Big Drop on the Schroon River.

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Marty Plante was born and raised in New York City, but now lives in a log cabin in the Adirondacks. He has hiked and paddled on four continents, but feels most at home in the North Country. Marty can be found in the Adirondack woods playing with his skis, hiking boots, snowshoes and disturbingly large collection of canoes.

4 Responses

  1. laurie says:

    We drive that section of Schroon River Road often and I always wondered if people paddle it when the river level is up in the spring. Good to know somebody does. It looks so enticing, but fortunately I know enough to know it’s well above my level of padding expertise!

    • Marty Plante says:

      It’s actually very well traveled. The Adirondack Mountain Club usually schedules several trips per year on it. Additionally, many local paddlers, unaffiliated with a paddling club, run this river. The whitewater section takes only one hour to complete, so it’s especially popular in June, when there’s plenty of daylight, as a quick run after work.

  2. Naj Wikoff says:

    Marty, have you tried the upper section putting in on Rte 9 just off Exit 30, and going from there down to the takeout near exit 28? That too is most enjoyable early spring canoe. Naj

    • Marty Plante says:

      I once paddled the Schroon starting at Northway exit 29, near the old Frontier Town theme park. I didn’t think it could be paddled above that point, but based on your comments I’ll now have to give it a try.

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