A walk on the wild side

25 Sep

MOST rapids seemed to be named after people who had died or were rescued at the last minute from a terrible fate. Maybe someone long ago had thought that it would add to the thrill of rafting down the river, but to me it seemed rather depressing. I shivered in the sunlight.

We were just downstream of a dam on Indian River, about 3 miles (or 5km) into our white-water rafting adventure. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and I was glad to be away from the skyscrapers, subways and sirens of my beloved New York. Though born and bred a city girl, I had jumped at the opportunity of being in Adirondacks, the largest natural park in the contiguous United States (i.e. minus the state of Alaska), over a long weekend.

Around lunchtime on Friday, we pulled into Alynn’s Butterfly Inn in the town of Lake George. After a meal at a diner that belonged in Archie’s and Betty’s Riverdale, we headed off to Crane Mountain. “It’s a decent hike,” Al Smith, one-half of our host couple, told us, “but the best part is when you get to the top. There’s a pond up there and when you’re sweaty from the climb, you can just jump in.”

I suppose when you live in the middle of 6 million acres of protected forest land (2.5 times the size of the Yellowstone National Park), a water-logged crater like that could seem like a pond. But to us urbanites, that spreading mass of water was no more a pond than the Empire State Building is only a few storeys high.

The hike up the mountain took roughly an hour and a half. We stopped from time to time to admire the view (green valleys and rounded peaks), catch our breath and exchange a few friendly words with other hikers on their way down. By the time we reached the “pond”, glittering in the sunlight, it looked as inviting as an empty road at the beginning of a long drive.

The moss on the rocks made walking slippery, and the exploratory toe I dipped into the lake turned numb with cold in 2 seconds flat. Resolutely, I waded in, but it took me nearly 15 minutes to immerse myself as my frozen skin broke out in goosebumps and I steered away from swimming creatures.

It was a heavenly feeling, cooling down in a pristine lake—no plastics or cigarette stubs in sight—with only the trees and sky (and an almost-out-of-sight canoe) around. When I climbed out, my T-shirt clung to my skin and I discovered two insect marks that looked curiously like they had been made by a thirsty vampire, but the world was too beautiful to care.

The next morning, we left early for our day on the river. The Hudson has class 5 rapids during spring, when the ice melts, but in the more mellow flow of summer, the rapids lessen to class 3—just perilous enough to make the heart race. Perfect for a beginner like me.

At the meeting point, we were kitted out in colourful helmets and life jackets, belted and squeezed in till bending became impossible. Carrying red or blue paddles, we were bundled into a creaking yellow school bus.

“There are four commands that you must remember,” Bob, formally known as Robert Frederick, our fresh-faced, college-age guide, said before he listed them and made us practice in still water. Then, we were off into the currents.

Halfway into the trip, Indian River became Hudson River. “If you walk around the dams,” our guide told us, “in theory, you could raft down the Hudson all the way back to New York!”

Bob was quiet most of the time, except when directing us to paddle harder and faster or stop, and telling us the stories behind the names of the individual rapids. Except for a few—the Narrows, with large, rolling waves, the Blue Ledges, which ends at cliffs that rise 200ft—they all involved fatal or almost-fatal brushes with death.

Was it the air of morbidity that clings to the rapids? Or was it the gradient? I’m not sure, but one or two rapids made my heart race. In the thick of them, Bob called out instructions, and they were repeated down the line of paddles till the words reached me in the front. We rowed together, as though our arms were connected by strings and controlled by an unseen puppeteer. When he yelled, “Get down!”, we scrambled to the bottom, gripping the rubber sides with cramped fingers.

But it was a mostly peaceful ride, and towards the end, as monotonous as a highway. There was only so much floating with the current I could take. My fellow rafters lazed in the sun, no paddling required. I thought I was ready for the class 5 rapids.

That night, we were early for our dinner reservation at The Grist Mill. What about a short drive around town? We passed the antiques store, the art gallery and another shopfront. One was shut half-an-hour ago; that one’s closed today; this one we just missed. Eventually, we gave up and entered the restaurant early. Though the meal was lovely, the wine delicious, and the stream below the deck where we sat, soothing, I scratched my accumulated mosquito bites and was heartily glad we were heading back to New York City—to subways that ran all night and buildings that winked with lights, like old friends spotted across the room.

Also See Trip Planner (PDF)

This article was published on 25 September 2008 in the Indian newspaper Mint.

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