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Saranac in May

Sunday May 13, 2018
Participants:
Kayak: Chris Weed, Jeremy Anderson, Charlie Beyer, Chris Frost
Organizer: Chris Weed
Difficulty: int-adv WW
Level: medium
Gauge (ft): 5.25
Gauge (cfs): 2100
USGS Gauge Name/Link: SARANAC RIVER AT PLATTSBURGH NY
Author: Chris Weed

The Saranac had been running high for over a week, but by the week of May 6 showed promise of coming down to a sensible level, with little rain expected for the next several days. I posted about a possible trip, and Charlie expressed interest. By Thursday Jeremy had emailed me about the trip. Early on Friday I posted a plan to meet on Sunday morning, and Chris Frost signed on.

By that time the gauge was down to 5.5 - 5.6 feet, a nice medium level. I hoped it would hold into the weekend, and it did (at 5.25 feet). Saturday was sunny but chilly, but Sunday looked ideal, with a forecast high of 70 F or above.

As usual, we carpooled to the Grand Isle Ferry from the Milton Park and Ride (I-89 Exit 17) and met at the Maplefields convenience store on Route 3 in Redford shortly before 1:00 pm. After checking out the large rapid above and under Ore Bed Road just upstream from the store, we decided to change at the usual takeout (2.1 miles farther upstream) where Silver Lake Road meets Route 3 (in Clayburg). From there the shuttle up to the put-in is about 4.2 miles. (On the river, the distance is about 5.5 miles.)

By the time we started down the 200 yard put-in trail the weather felt like summer, and the sky was a gorgeous clear blue. Jeremy and Charlie were new to the run, and I was glad to see them experiencing the river with such beautiful weather and at a solid medium flow. We paddled uneventfully for the next 45 minutes or more down to Tefft Pond Falls, taking in the wild surroundings on the edge of Adirondack Park. The initial rapid right after the put-in is a nice extended warmup, which includes class 3 features at higher flows. After that is an extended meandering stretch of flat water through a wetland.

It ends abruptly at Tefft Pond Falls (Class IV-IV+), where we stopped to portage and scout the falls. I had seen it run on a couple of occasions by that time (by Max Redman and Noel Bailey) and knew of another run by Jamie Dolan. (Undoubtedly there have been many others by solid New York paddlers in years past.) All these were at lower flows (4.7 to 4.9 feet). As indicated, we elected to portage, but a run was certainly not out of the question. At 6 feet and above the drop is arguably Class V, with wood almost always a complicating factor.

The next rapid brought us to the top of the big Class III-IV cascade where mishaps usually occur. Jeremy and Charlie took the meaty line against the large central island, while Chris Frost and I took a couple of more conservative lines to river-left. Chris went right against the left bank, which includes a tricky bend and a couple of holes that can cause problems. He handled it without incident, and we met up in the large pool below. After surveying what came next, Chris took off and worked left, with me following farther to the right.

I focused on maneuvering through the staggered ledge holes in this section, and lost track of what Chris was doing. At the bottom of the rapid I looked around, and saw that Jeremy was giving chase to a boat. It quickly became evident that Chris was swimming. He self-rescued fairly readily on river-left, and corralling his boat became the main problem.

We ended up in front of the one house that fronts on the river below Tefft Pond Falls, where some confusion ensued. I pulled into an eddy and threw my paddle on shore, capsized my boat while trying to get out of it, and lost my water bottle in the process. At that moment I saw Jeremy scrambling to exit his boat, get on shore, and start running after something. I thought at first it was my paddle, but it turned out to be his; mine stayed where I threw it. Somehow in the midst of all this we did indeed rescue Chris Frost's boat, and were able to regroup and continue on down the river.

At the time I was worried that the owner(s) of the house might be home, and would strenuously object to our use of their riverfront, but nobody appeared. I've heard stories about unfriendly landowners along this stretch of the Saranac. Fortunately it is generally easy to stay either on the water or out of sight, or both.

After that episode we were able to relax and enjoy the continuous 2+ miles of rapids that follow, including the one remaining substantial drop on the run, where the river splits around an island. Plenty of easy whitewater follows, with some nice surfing opportunities, especially on river-left.

Running the Saranac can make for a long day, but the run to the upper takeout only took us about 2 hours. At 5.75 feet or above many may consider it worth using the lower takeout and running the rapid above Ore Bed Road, although this entails paddling about 1.5 miles of shallow quickwater (mostly Class I) to get there.

During a reasonably wet spring the Saranac stands a good chance of having good flow well into May. There are few things better than experiencing the wilderness feel of this run with a clear sky, warm air, and cool but not cold water. I continue to highly recommend it. (By the way, the Saranac is part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.)

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