Residents of Manhattan are accustomed to seeing a somewhat polluted mile-wide Hudson dotted with commuter ferries and cruise ships. Here in the North Country, we see a different face of the Hudson. During spring, as the river swells with crystal-clear snow melt and April showers, the Upper Hudson has some of the best whitewater runs in the East.
Each year since 1958, the Hudson River Whitewater Derby is held on the first full weekend of May from North River to Riparius. This year’s event, on May 6-7, will mark its 60th anniversary, making it one of the oldest continuously run whitewater events in the country.
Prior to its rise as a recreational mecca, the Hudson had a more utilitarian position. Beginning in the early 1800s, logs destined for lumber mills were floated down the Hudson each spring through the same rapids that tourists and natives now paddle. The logs were corralled at Glens Falls, at one time the lumber capital of the world, to be processed and sent throughout the developing nation.
The log drives lasted a century, ending in the 1950s, freeing the river for the growing sport of whitewater paddling. The Johnsburg Fish and Game Club held the first Derby to commemorate the days of the log drives, drawing 35 boats and 44 paddlers to the one-day event.
The inaugural event started as a downriver race where competitors paddled eight miles through Class III rapids from North Creek to Riparius. Their only objective was to be the first to cross the finish line with the canoe upright.
The next year, the event was extended to two days to accommodate a new slalom race. Modeled after ski slalom races, the whitewater slalom course has a series of “gates” (poles suspended by cables across the rapids). The racers descend the river, navigating their boats through the gates, some of which must be negotiated upstream against the current. Penalties are assessed if a gate is touched or missed. The one-mile slalom race is run in less than 10 minutes, in contrast to the downriver race that takes about an hour.
At the Derby’s 10th Anniversary in 1967, Senator Robert F. Kennedy competed in the downriver race. He paddled a tandem closed canoe – for the first time, according to an article in the autumn 1967 issue of American White Water Journal – with an experienced paddler from Pennsylvania.
Accompanying Kennedy that weekend was US. Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall. The two were supporting a river conservation bill in the U.S. Congress and the Derby was a perfect venue to help publicize the proposed legislation. The bill passed a year later, soon after Kennedy’s death. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 instituted a National Wild and Scenic Rivers System to help protect the environment. It currently protects 208 rivers throughout the US, but the Hudson isn’t one of them.
The race course, between the hamlets of North River and Riparius, are a series of Class II and III waves and rock gardens. Between them is North Creek, finish line for the slalom race and starting line for the downriver race. The railroad station at North Creek was completed in 1874 and has been restored to its original condition. It’s little changed since 1901, when Teddy Roosevelt boarded a train there to assume the presidency after receiving a telegram announcing William McKinley’s death.
At its peak of popularity, the race drew thousands of spectators, not all of whom were well-behaved, compelling some of the local residents to leave town for the weekend.
Sunday’s downriver race ends at the hamlet of Riparius, the former site of Millbrook Boats. In 1975, whitewater racer John Berry moved his boat-building business from Vermont to the former stagecoach sheds at the Riparius rail station. The boats he built there revolutionized the sport and anyone who paddles a whitewater canoe today owes much to his pioneering ideas.
Each time I paddle past the old Millbrook Boat factory, I think of my first whitewater canoe, which was made there. By a happy coincidence, John decided to end his whitewater slalom career at the same time mine was beginning. After buying from him the Kevlar canoe that he had built for his personal use, he brought me to his basement and showed me all of the trophies and ribbons he won with it. I used that boat to compete on the Hudson River Whitewater Derby and other races for the next few years, with much less success than its original owner.
The 60th Hudson Whitewater Derby will be held May 6-7. Race and registration information can be found online.
Photo of an early Hudson River Whitewater Derby courtesy of Hudson River Whitewater Derby Inc.