“That’s too far, you’ll never make it before dark,” our guide responded – although his words went unheard as the raft disappeared around a bend of the Upper Hudson River.
More rafts followed with a half-dozen young men and women waving and laughing as they paddled by our campsite, seemingly oblivious to the set of whitewater rapids they were about to encounter.
Our guide showed us the map of the river, telling us his concerns: “Those rapids just around this bend are probably Class IV or V, given the high water now.” From my previous experience river rafting in the West, I knew whitewater was classified as grades of difficulty, where IV and V required technical skills to maneuver successfully to avoid capsizing.
I wondered if those young people had the wherewithal to paddle through the most difficult part of the trip, especially seeing there were only one or two paddlers in each small yellow raft. I felt safer in our larger raft with an experienced river guide.
This trip was thirty-eight years ago, undertaken after I’d read an article in the local Syracuse newspaper about river rafting on the Upper Hudson. The reporter told of a guide from Rochester who ran trips down the River using military surplus rubber rafts, large enough for four to six passengers with a guide rowing in the middle of the craft on a wooden bench.
That spring in 1977 I had convinced my friends, Bruce and Jerry, to go on a two-day trip in early May. Our guide, Richard, a railroad engineer with credentials in whitewater rafting, provided an extensive list on what we were to bring – waterproof ponchos and pants; sneakers; wool socks, hat, and gloves; and camping gear suitable for 40 degrees. He’d supply the food.
On a chilly sunny Saturday morning we met our guides (there were two rafts, therefore two guides) and fellow passengers on the banks of the Hudson near Newcomb, equipped with all our gear. Bruce, Jerry and I struggled as we tugged our waterproof slickers (rubber yellow jackets and pants from an army-navy store), over our wool clothes. We helped to tie the food and supplies to the rafts using ropes securely wrapped around the metal frames.
Four of us climbed into the raft with Richard. He told us to sit on the inner edge of the raft and lean in, especially when going over big waves. And to grab hold of the ropes so we wouldn’t be tossed around. “If anyone gets thrown out, what we call swimming, do not fight the currents in the river,” he said. “Float on your back with your feet in front of you. Get out on the shore if that is where the current takes you. We’ll pick you up.”
After a couple of hours on the water we stopped at Blue Ledges and set up camp for the night. We made dinner over the fire, warming ourselves as we ate. We draped our wet clothes as close to the fire as we dared to dry before we took off down the river the next day.
About an hour after the sun set we heard some noise from the cliffs near the shore of the river. Two young men from the other river party emerged from the wooded area by the river shouting, “We need help. Two of our rafts capsized.”
Their haunting words continued. “One of our friends is missing. We all got to shore but him. We don’t know what to do.”
After Richard was convinced that their leader was OK, and was with the rest of the party, he asked for volunteers to go to their site to see if we could help. Bruce and Jerry volunteered, put their shoes back on, and, with flashlights in hand, followed Richard and one of the young men down the riverbank and through the woods.
Those of us who remained sat around the fire, listening to the young man in the party who had stayed, tell his story.
“After we saw you, we got through the first rapids OK. I was near the back and saw two rafts in front tip over as they went through some more rapids. I yelled ‘Everyone get to shore.’ We all did, except for John. He did not come to shore; we don’t know what happened to him.”
Then he gave us some background on who they were – all Eagle Scouts, including the leader, wanting to experience an adventure trip in the Upper Hudson wilderness. As their leader said the run down the river would only take a few hours, they had not planned to camp overnight and did not have any extra clothes. After the accident and they got to the shore of the river, they built a fire to keep warm. As darkness set in and it became colder, the leader decided that they needed to make contact with our group so two of them bushwhacked to our camp.
Every one arrived back at the camp safely, but traumatized, as John was still missing. The Eagle Scouts and their leader stayed with us that night, sharing our warm clothes, food and shelter. The next day they walked out on a trail to the road. Their rafts remained where they had left them the night before.
I watched them head up the trail, concerned, not with their safety as the trail was well marked, but that this harrowing experience would weigh on their minds for years to come, possibly their lifetime.
The young man was never found.
After saying goodbye and wishing them the best, we started down the river as we had done the day before, with one exception. While bushwhacking back to camp the night before, Richard had slipped on a rock and twisted his ankle, which affected his rowing prowess. Maneuvering through the rapids required the full use of his body, including planting his feet firmly on the bottom of the raft. He did, however, with much pain, struggle to row us through the most difficult rapids. Then Bruce took over for the remainder of the trip. I was proud as Bruce maneuvered the raft around the rocks, staying with the current to minimize the possibility of capsizing. Richard sat in the back with his swollen ankle, yelling out orders to Bruce, relaying instructions as to how he should guide the raft in and over the rapids.
Even with all the trauma and tragedy, I wanted to go again, to experience other rafting trips down the Hudson and was pleased when regulations by the State were instituted. Also, a professional outfitters association was formed to provide support, advice, and standards for guides.
After reviewing this article, river guide Bob Rafferty wrote, “Wow, reading about the late 70’s sounds like it was a hundred years ago, all we’re missing is the log drivers. The biggest change I have seen in 30 years of working on the river is the level of professionalism and a big improvement in equipment.”
Since the first trip in 1977, I have gone on over 20 commercially guided trips on the Hudson since that fateful run 38 years ago. Although now I go in the summer – not as exciting as the rapids are only class II and III – but warmer.