Chasing Rapids

Spring into action at the Imperial Dam

Dark blue water gushes down the Saranac River at heights of 8-and-a-half feet during the river’s peak in April. Doubling its depth in less than a month, the Saranac becomes the perfect playground for whitewater kayakers. 

In March, traces of snow can still be found from the streets of Plattsburgh to the slopes of Whiteface. Come April, yellow, orange and red kayaks float at the base of the Imperial Dam.  Bobbing and darting around like little ducks tackling waves, kayakers race through the frothing rapids. 

Unlike long, narrow sea kayaks built for multi-day trips, whitewater kayaks are small, wide and light. When the paddle is pushed through the water, the kayak and its rider will go spinning around due to the boat’s rocker — the curvature of the hull. The more aggressive a boat’s rocker, the more maneuverable the boat is. Whitewater kayaks are built to take a beating; they’re the bumper cars of paddlesports, but they move with precision. 

Starting at Saranac Lake, flowing through Essex, Franklin and Clinton Counties, the Saranac River features adrenaline-pumping class I-IV level rapids. Class I rapids are considered by American Whitewater, a national river conservation nonprofit, as fast moving water that can be easily tubed down, lazy river style. For class II beginner rapids, you’ll want a sturdy kayak to maneuver around rocks and through small waves. Class III is an intermediate level featuring rough waves and complex maneuvering through fast water. Class IV are advanced rapids that feature high risk, unavoidable drops, large waves and fast paddling under pressure. 

The Permanent Rapids in Bloomingdale; Trail Rapids; Silver Lake Road to Claybury Rapids; and the Imperial Dam Rapids in Plattsburgh boast all four levels.     

Before you start whipping through rapids, specific gear is required for whitewater kayaking.  

An Adirondack spring is no stranger to cold weather, neither is the Saranac river. Snow-melt from the mountains floods the river, which means kayakers should wear warm non-cotton based clothing that might get wet, though hopefully won’t. 

A dry suit is required for this adventure. Dry suits are made from GORE-TEX, a waterproof material, sealed with neck and wrist gaskets so water doesn’t get in. Getting into the dry suit will make you feel like an aquatic astronaut. Be sure to zip the front and back or else water will seep in and get your clothes wet. Avid whitewater kayakers “burp” their suit before getting into their boats to avoid looking like an Oompa Loompa if they flip into the water. To burp a dry suit, bend down while holding open the neck gasket to let air out. 

Rapids throw kaykers into rocks and sticks making crash helmets an essential piece of equipment on whitewater. 

Don’t forget about a PFD. A personal floatation device will keep you afloat when you flip and need to get out of the kayak. While some people refer to these as lifejackets, kayakers don’t, because a PFD isn’t guaranteed to save your life. 

A spray skirt covers the opening of the kayak keeping you in and water out. Just remember to keep the grab-loop out for easy access when you happen to flip over.

 Pro-tip: always keep your feet up when popping out of the kayak to avoid getting a foot stuck under rocks in the quick moving river.

 A towline, gloves and water boots or shoes keep kayakers warm and safe. A towline is used when one kayaker is too tired, or in a dangerous spot in the rapids, and needs to be pulled out. Gloves and water boots or shoes keep your extremities warm in the icy snow-melt that surges down the Saranac river. 

Kelly Dobrin, an outdoor enthusiast, flew through the rapids at the Imperial Dam. She is drawn in by the excitement and challenge these rapids offer. Beginner or an expert in whitewater, there are different levels for everyone here. This gives her the opportunity to work on lots of different skills like rolling and edging, or trying new things like kayaking down a small waterfall. 

“Whitewater kayaking on the Saranac was my first time and I would definitely say it’s exciting and a really good place to learn,” says Dobrin with a smile.

Practicing skills and pushing the limits with whitewater is fun, but it comes with a lot of risk. It’s one thing to be able to hone skills and become better at a sport; it’s another to predict dangers and perform high risk maneuvers under pressure.  

“If you aren’t confident in your abilities you could get into a dangerous situation,” Dobrin says.

Once you’re on the water and moving, you can’t stop. Unlike rock climbing where you can stop and take a break on the rope, whitewater forces you to be present in the moment and conscious of the decisions you are making at all times.

 Dobrin felt comfortable whitewater kayaking with her teacher nearby to give her pointers and get her out of a bad situation if needed. 

Learning to roll in a kayak, going with a guide or taking a whitewater class are steps to consider if you are less experienced but interested in trying whitewater. 

 “I like whitewater specifically for the fact that it is fast moving,” Dobrin says, “and you don’t have a lot of time to make decisions so it helps me work on personal skills for decision making because even if you want to stop, the water is not going to let you.”  

Despite freezing fingers and high risks, whitewater kayakers are willing to brave the waves once spring comes. Grab a paddle and kayak and head out for your own whitewater adventure. 

Story by Sierra McGivney

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