The variety of water conditions in northern New York is a continual source of amazement to a visitor. For a water lover who isn’t ready to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel but hungers for more of an adrenaline rush than lovely, languid creeks can deliver, there’s the whitewater of the Black River.
Between the drops and twists of this Class IV rapid there are mellower stretches where one can take in the exquisiteness of the Black River Valley. This rift is carved by a flow that on many spring days measures well over 60,000 gallons per second. High, layered walls of granite cocoon you away from the sounds of traffic and medium-sized city life. The canyon is clearly still evolving and deepening, with chunks of stone sometimes calving and falling into the river and tree roots more finely crumbling the rock face.
You’ll want to paddle with an expert guide (I was fortunate to raft with Alex Atchie, a veteran guide with Adirondack River Outfitters) who’s up to date on new hazards and opportunities for fun. And yes, those are often one in the same!
At one point Alex decided to play in a vortex. Paddlers were allowed to opt out and wait on a limestone ledge — many did.
We spent a few long minutes hurling ourselves from one side of the raft to another to keep from keeling over. At any given moment one of our crew or another was submerged or invisible through spray. At one point when our raft was barraged and seeing that I wasn’t freaked out, Alex decided to strike up a casual conversation with me. “Pretty stupid way to make a living, eh?,” he joked. Absolutely not! “It’s refreshing,” I replied, encompassing both the cool, clear water running over our shoulders and the lifestyle Alex embodied.
The Black River, which runs 114 miles from the Adirondacks to Lake Ontario, probably gets its name from concentrations of dark tannic acid deposited by trees — some oaks are especially rich in it. A bit of trivia for your imagination: If alligators lived as far north as the Black River, they’d be quite dark because their hides pick up the tannic acid.
Apart from hawks a-wing, the biggest predators you’ll likely spot on the Black River are nautiloids. These gorgeous fossils dating to the Ordovician period bulge from limestone at several haul-out points. Unlike the gently spiraled chambered nautiloid of today’s Andaman Sea, many of these invertebrate ancestral hunters had shells shaped like javelin tips. Though the examples I saw on the Black River were measured in inches, one discovery in Arkansas measured eight feet long! You can see in these nautiloids development toward today’s squids, who are also propelled by water jets. An apex predator during an age of high levels of atmospheric CO2, nautiloids ruled warm seas that overflowed the continents as never before or since. That epoch seems to have ended in an Ice Age 443 million years ago.
- Ordovician life in an illustration posted by the University of Wisconsin.
- Similar nautiloids unearthed in Morocco and exhibited at the Museum Victoria in Australia. (Photo by Simon Hinkley for Museum Victoria)
For me, seeing these fossils was as thrilling as the whitewater that nearly tossed me into them a few times!
Of course gawking at fossils in a strong set of rapids might be a reliable way of becoming one yourself. When it comes to the Black River, seasoned whitewater paddlers worry most about the Knife’s Edge where water can push overturned paddlers into hollows. Alex has an endearing habit of telling our group about worst case scenarios regarding each rapid after we’d zipped safely by. He did, however, give us repeated and explicit instructions on each approach and wasn’t shy about barking out navigational commands over the roar.
Alex has bonded himself to the Black River for 30 years and knows its ways. He’s also a font of the Black River’s natural and industrial history, and how they’ve intertwined. The river’s admirable present condition is in great part thanks to advocacy from paddlers and diligence from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which maintains a Black River website for salmon, bass, trout, pickerel and pike fishing enthusiasts.
The Black River is a place of stories — whether your own fish tales and whitewater rafting boasts, local lore or the fossilized life its coursing reveals from deepest time. Looking ahead to next spring, make time to visit and let those stories live through you!