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Saranac in May (episode 1)

Sunday May 18, 2014
Kayak: Chris Weed, Paul Carlile, Noah Pollock
Organizer: Chris Weed
Difficulty: int-adv WW
Level: medium
Gauge (ft): 5.6
Gauge (cfs): 2490
Author: Chris Weed

I began recruiting for this trip early in the previous week, even before it became clear we would get rain, but wasn't having much luck. At mid-week the Saranac's Plattsburgh gauge was at about 3.4 feet. This is normally considered way too low to be worth running, but Noah Pollock posted a reply to mine on the message board saying "don't cancel this trip". Why? Because, he said, 3.4 feet is actually surprisingly fluid, and provides numerous surfing opportunities in this 6+ mile run. I redoubled my efforts to find participants with an email to several people, but as of Saturday--the scheduled day--still wasn't having much luck. With the widespread and substantial rain on Friday several options were available, some of which involved significantly less driving for many of the usual suspects. So, I decided to reschedule the trip to Sunday.

On Saturday morning Paul Carlile posted to say he was in for Sunday. Noah had indicated by email that he was available after 1:00 PM on Sunday, and was already in New York and near the Saranac, working for NFCT. There were glimmers of interest from a few other people, but in the end it was just me, Paul, and Noah. This made it a reunion of sorts; along with Tony Shaw (as leader) we had done the run on April 17, 2011 at 6.5 feet. Aside from Tony that was a first run for all of us, at a higher level than Tony had previously experienced. I had done it 3 times since, in 2011 and twice in 2013.

Paul and I carpooled from Burlington, stopped briefly at the Milton Park & Ride (I-89 Exit 17) at 11:10 AM to see if we had any last minute joiners, and then headed up to the Grand Isle Ferry and across to New York. The route is pretty straightforward--Route 2 and 314 to the ferry, 314 in New York to I-87, a short hop south on I-87 to Route 374 West, and then onto Route 3 to Redford.

We arrived in Redford at the Maplefields convenience store and gas station before 12:30 PM. Since we weren't expecting Noah until 1:30 or later, we took time to do some scouting. It was immediately evident that the river had plenty of water. Less than a quarter mile upstream of the store is a bridge where Ore Bed Road comes off of Route 3 and crosses the river. A beefy class 3 rapid starts maybe 300 yards upstream of the bridge, and ends with a short but powerful wave train under the bridge, which offers a large turnout for leaving vehicles. We tentatively decided to take out there. A swiftwater rescue team from the town of Saranac was running a drill when we arrived. (They left shortly afterwards.) I checked the water temperature; it was 65 degrees F. The air temperature was about 60; no dry suits would be required.

After scouting the rapid, we drove around for the next half hour or so trying to find cell phone service for Paul's Verizon phone. A mile and half east of the store he got a connection and was able to send a text message and leave a voice mail message for Noah. After that we returned to the store, waited, and ate some lunch while wondering if Noah got our messages.

Right on schedule, Noah drove into the parking lot at 1:30, just as we were discussing how long to stay there before heading up the road. We agreed that Ore Bed Road was the preferred takeout, drove there and left a vehicle, and headed up to the put-in trailhead on Casey Road. The usual fumbling and head-scratching ensued as we tried to locate the trail, at precisely 0.9 miles up Casey Road--no lie, folks. The lone New York DEC sign is closely bracketed by private property postings on both sides; you need to really look for it.

We put on at about 2:35 PM after gearing up and doing the 200 yard hike down the trail. Some broken clouds had moved in, but the weather was close to ideal. On the river it was again clear that the level was very comparable to what I had experienced before. (Noah said it seemed maybe 8 inches higher than the previous Wednesday.) We decided that the gauge readings were simply misleading, presumably because the gauge is so far downstream (nearly 20 miles).

We arrived at Tefft Pond Falls about 45 minutes later, took the portage, and headed down to the next big rapid, dubbed the "Staircase" by Noah. This is a steep succession of ledges. The entry is divided into four channels by mid-stream islands, with the flow quickly merging downstream. Noah led the way into the big middle channel, which I had not run before. (I had used two small channels to its left.) Noah's line was on a tongue just to river left of the biggest island. It leads into a series of large waves and ledge holes, which all proved negotiable for us at that level. There are large eddies on river left at the bottom of this rapid--very useful if somebody swims. The river is non-stop class 3 for the next 3+ miles at a medium high level, so gear recovery can be a serious challenge.

From that point on is non-stop fun, with lots of waves and holes and occasional mid-river eddies for the next few miles. Near the end of this section is another big but short ledge drop, split around a rocky island. Another mile or so gets one to the first takeout, by the bridge where the North Branch of the Saranac comes in (at Route 3 and Silver Lake Road). As planned, we continued on, through 1.5+ miles of quick water to the final rapid, known as the Separator. It starts with a set of staggered ledges, which at high levels probably produce frighteningly wide and powerful ledge holes. These can be threaded to reach the final wave train, but the leader (moi) took a shortcut through one of the holes. It worked, but perhaps shouldn't be emulated at 6 feet and above.

So, that was the run--a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a beautiful afternoon in the middle of May. We were left wondering about what to make of the Plattsburgh gauge readings in the future. It was suggested that a bridge gauge ought to improvised as an alternative.

POSTSCRIPT: There was an interesting development today (May 22) before I began writing this trip report. I checked the Plattsburgh gauge, and was astonished to see it showing a level above 5.2 feet. Indeed, all the levels over the past several days had been revised, adding roughly 1.5 feet to the levels we had been seeing on the gauge last week and on Sunday morning. According to the revised data the river had been above 6 feet for a several hours late on Saturday. The upshot is that Noah's reconsideration of levels below 4.5 feet probably needs to be retracted; the USGS threw us a curve ball. The level we experienced on Sunday looked and felt like it was over 5 feet, and the data now indicates it was at 5.6 feet (as of 2:30 PM) and dropping slowly. I had a vague feeling even then that something was fishy, partly because the Hudson's North Creek gauge had gained nearly 4 feet going into the weekend, and was well over 8 feet on Saturday.

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