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Saranac take 2 in 2013

Sunday Jul 7, 2013
Kayak: Chris Weed, Brock Richardson
Open Canoe: Tony Shaw, Eric Bishop
Inflatable: Dan Sherbrook
Organizer: Chris Weed
Difficulty: advanced WW
Level: medium high
Gauge (ft): 5.75
Gauge (cfs): 2670
Author: Chris Weed

Based on participation in two runs in 2011 led by Tony Shaw, Chris had been promoting the Silver Lake Road to Redford section of the Saranac on the message board for a few weeks, and had made a run on June 15th with Jamie Dolan. Normally this would not be an option in June and July due to lack of water, but 2013 is not a normal year. It's the weekend after July 4, and Lake Champlain is almost at flood stage!

After another rainy week in northeastern New York and northern Vermont, the Saranac was holding nicely into the weekend at around 6 feet on the Plattsburgh gauge. Brock had been hoping to do the Swift in New Hampshire for the first time, but it was way too low. I pushed for the Saranac as an alternative, and a small group came together. Only Tony and Chris had done it before in recent years (twice in 2011, plus the June 15th run), and Eric's last and only run was over a decade ago. Brock and Dan had never been on the river.

Four of us met at the Milton Park & Ride off I-89 Exit 17 at 12 noon, Sunday. Dan caught up with us about 20 minutes later on Route 2, after a bit of cell phone communication. The drive to Redford is straightforward: Take Route 2 and Route 314 (VT) to the Grand Isle Ferry, cross the Cumberland Head, take Route 314 (NY) to I-87 south, take the next exit (38N) onto Route 374, go 7.3 miles to Route 3, and stay on Route 3 to Redford (12.1 miles). We used the regular takeout, which is at the intersection of Silver Lake Road and Route 3, adjacent to a bridge. The North Branch of the Saranac enters the Saranac at that point.

The put-in is a canoe trail off Casey Road (in the town of Saranac). Drive 3.4 miles up Silver Lake Road to where Casey Road splits off on the right by a house. (There is no sign. If you come to a bridge over the Saranac you have gone too far.) Drive another 0.9 miles down Casey Road, and STOP! Get out of your vehicle, and walk the left side of the road. The trailhead is right there, but it is easy to miss while driving. The distance is from AW's river guide, and it is exactly right. (Google Maps clearly shows the convergence of road and river.) The trail lies on a narrow swath of New York DEC land between private parcels (which are posted). The river is not visible through the woods at this point. The trail is about 200 yards long.

Unfortunately we did not follow the above advice to the letter, and wasted a few miles of driving and some time. Nonetheless, we were headed down the trail by about 3:00 pm after completing our car shuttle.

Chris was last to arrive at the river; everyone had launched or was about to launch. As he put on his gear, he felt for his car keys in his PFD. They weren't there. After an anxious search he yelled across the river that he was headed back up the trail. Back at his car, he confirmed that the keys were not on the roof (part of his normal routine) or in the ignition. A search around the car yielded nothing. So he headed back down the trail, studying it closely but finding nothing.

At the river, Tony and Eric were back at the put-in. After a bit more searching Chris abandoned the effort and decided to put on. Some discussion of options ensued on the river, while paddling the introductory class 2-3 rapids to Tefft Pond. Gradually, the concern about the keys was set aside and attention turned to the river.

This run has a nice warmup. It starts with two rapids that certainly get one's attention with a few ledges, holes, and substantial waves, but are not long or difficult. It then quiets down to slowly moving flatwater through Adirondack marshland, a section known as Tefft Pond. A couple of houses appear along the pond. After the second house the channel narrows, and before long it rounds a bend at which a low roar can be heard. This is Tefft Pond Falls, a class IV+ drop. At higher levels, it is certainly a class V drop. The portage is on the right. Fortunately, it is easy to take out here. At this point one has covered a bit more than 1.5 miles on the river.

We have never considered running Tefft Pond Falls, although undoubtedly it can be run by solid class 5 boaters. At the bottom of the falls and the very short portage trail it is clear that the game has changed. One ferries out into a wave train. There is a brief pause, and then another beefy class 3 rapid with plenty of holes. This leads down to the top of a steeper rapid-essentially a cascade of wide ledge holes. It is crucial to eddy out on river left at this point, and we did.

We took some time to scout, and everyone decided on a line. Eric wasted no time, and took his canoe down the far left channel between the left bank and a small island. (It is obstructed by a tree at the top, so a brief walkaround is needed.) This is a somewhat tricky line with ledge holes, but the volume in the channel is relatively small.

Tony took his accustomed line, on the left side of the main channel, where he could skirt the really big holes that start at that point. As in previous trips, his canoe skated neatly over the edges of a staggered series of holes, and he eddied out on river left. While he ran his line Chris and Dan were still in scouting position downstream on the river left bank.

Brock had declared his intention to follow Tony, and he hiked back promptly to the top of the rapid. (Chris had some misgivings about this, because in the past runs Tony's line had not been friendly to kayaks, even creek boats like Brock's Dagger Mamba 8.6.) As Chris and Dan were making their return trip Brock started downstream and launched over the first ledge. He meant to avoid the first big hole, but a log had to be first passed on the right, forcing a right-to-left manueuver.

That manueuver didn't go as hoped. The hole grabbed its quarry, and Brock was quickly out of his boat and swimming. He later said that while the ledges were smooth he was very glad to receive a rope from Tony, who had quickly set up downstream for the rescue. This concern was understandable, because from this point on the river is almost continuous class 3+ rapids easing eventually into big class 2-3 rapids, all in a wide channel with relatively few narrow eddies at the banks, traversing 3.5 miles or more. Unfortunately, Brock's paddle was caught up in this flow, and continued on to points unknown.

Chris and Dan saw all this, and hurried back to the top of the far river left channel. Chris had selected another line for them, referred to as "Noah's line". (Noah Pollock had used it in April 2011.) It required a quick ferry across the river left channel and an immediate drop onto a small tongue to the right of a second tiny island with a tree on it. The tongue was framed on the left by a log, well out of the main flow. The tongue led right into an eddy, where subsequent options could be assessed. All in all, this is the most conservative route for a kayak (or a packraft like Dan's).

A minute or two later, Chris and Dan were down in an eddy near Tony. Brock was getting into an eddy downstream. At that point we saw Brock's boat; it had partially washed up on an island near the bottom of the main rapid, surrounded by wood as it turned out. Eric had earlier seen where Brock's boat had settled and had ferried out towards the island, but ended up with his canoe under a log on its river left side, not so easily seen from upstream. At this point he was out of his canoe and working to free it.

In a few minutes Eric did free his boat and tied it off so he could focus attention on the marooned kayak. However, something was amiss; the painter wasn't securely attached to the canoe, and it soon floated free. In a matter of seconds it started moving downstream. Eric was unable to reach it, and returned his attention to the kayak, quickly reached it, and after a few attempts freed it, pulled it onto the island, and dragged it to an eddy on the downstream side.

Those of us on river left were expecting to tow the boat over to river left, but Eric had another plan in mind. He settled himself in Brock's boat, and paddled it sit-down C-1 style downstream, deftly ferrying over to river left. He had kept a rope with him and soon had the Mamba securely tied to shore.

At this point the choices were pretty clear, if unpalatable. Brock and Eric hiked downstream on the river left bank. Tony followed them on the river. The details from here on are a bit sketchy, but Eric's canoe was recovered quite some distance downstream and Brock paddled his Mamba C-1 style with a spare canoe paddle for the remainder of the run, after an unpleasant hike along the heavily wooded bank. This was his second opportunity to do this, after a recent experience on the Gale River on May 27. He admitted (as an experienced canoe paddler) that it was quite an enjoyable alternative to using a kayak paddle, even sitting down.

Dan and Chris continued downstream, expecting to rejoin the group when the second canoe was recovered. Chris got ahead, and lost sight of Dan, who had seen the canoes and (eventually) got himself over to river left bank. Chris even stopped and scouted back upstream for some distance, but saw no one, so he returned to his boat and headed downriver solo. This included a run of the last big drop, consisting of a beefy wave train alongside an island, requiring that one catch an eddy and work left to avoid a big hole-not so hard if its expected.

Chris reached the takeout well ahead of everyone else, but eventually all were reunited, and Tony and Chris headed up to the put-in to retrieve Chris's car. Of course, the missing car keys were now the main concern. On the river, Chris had gradually realized what he had probably done. His boat and gear had been pulled a few yards down the trail by the rest of the group during the first shuttle run. He had walked to it, set his keys on the stern (as he often has at a put-in), and pulled on some of his gear with the intention of completing the process by the river. The keys had slid unnoticed off the boat and onto the trail, and the crucial step of zipping them into a PFD pocket had been skipped.

During the drive back to the put-in Chris explained this possible scenario, and Tony was the first one down the trail to where the boat had been left. Sure enough, the keys were sitting on the side of the trail in plain sight. Tony and Chris returned to the takeout in their respective vehicles and were greeted with relief by Eric, Dan, and Brock. It was well after 7:00 pm at this point (on a Sunday!).

The moral (at least one) is: On a river like this, be really well prepared to recover gear in case of mishap. In this case, that meant that anyone taking a somewhat risky line through the ledge cascade should wait until the remainder of the group is assembled at the bottom and ready to recover whatever comes downstream. Of course, the other implication is that having a good-sized group is highly advisable. Two boaters alone would be hard put to handle the situation, with miles of continuous rapids to follow. As for the trip leader, well, mea culpa.

That said, this is a beautiful river with a ton of quality whitewater, fed by multiple lakes in its headwaters. It really deserves to be run more often. It offers an easier option-a four mile run from Union Falls Dam (on Union Falls Pond) which can be reached via Casey Road or via Silver Lake Road and Union Falls Road.


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