The ravens croaked at us from the blue ledges above the Hudson River as we ate sandwiches and shared stories about the rapids we'd encountered. The birds — large, shiny-black, intense-looking creatures — soared and perched, as if both curious and offended by our presence. The whole thing felt amazing and wild: A spring rafting trip through a remote section of the Adirondacks, along a turbulent river that stretches from the mountains to New York City.
A guided whitewater rafting trip easily makes the list of must-do Adirondack experiences. There's a team-building element to it, for sure, but there are also heart-pounding moments of frantic paddling, enveloping waves, and bucking-bronco worthy ups and downs.
My advice to the uninitiated: Get your friends and family and sign up for a raft run while the weather's warm, because winter shuts the whole thing down until spring.
The day started at Adirondac Rafting Company in Indian Lake. It's one of several businesses that raft the Hudson. We first stretched wetsuits over our bodies like tight, one-piece pajamas. Extra layers can be worn underneath, but I recommend a swimsuit, as the wetsuits are pretty warm. Once everyone was suited up and fitted with life vests, the guides hoisted the large rafts onto the shuttle buses and explained some basic safety rules. They all made sense, especially the one about keeping a hand over the top of the paddle at all times. The reasoning is simple: Unprotected paddles can hit someone in the mouth, leading to a condition one guide called summer teeth — "summer there, summer gone."
The bus dropped us off near the river, and we all carried the rafts down to the launch site. Our guide, Carrie, explained the basic rafting commands we'd be following. It seemed a little intimidating at first, but in practice it's all straightforward. Just pay attention, and paddle forward or backward when she says to. And when she screams "paddle hard" in the face of a swelling rapid, dig in and face the wall of water head on.
We weren't just thrown into the water, though. Before heading downstream, Carrie had us practice the moves on the flat water near the launch spot. One by one, I watched as rafts were carried away by the current. Then it was our turn.
Despite the fact that my astrological sign, Cancer, says I should have a natural affinity for water, I'm not entirely a water person. I love to swim, but rapids and deep, open water make me a little uneasy. Surprisingly, that apprehension didn't set in on the Hudson. As the raft picked up speed, it rolled over the smaller waves with no problem.
We hit the first set of rapids and everyone on board whooped and cheered as the spray surged around us. Carrie shouted over all of it: "Forward, forward, forward!" To get through a rapid, especially a big one, it's important to paddle straight into it, making the experience feel like a mini-battle. The raft heaves and tips, and everyone on board leans into the wave, paddling furiously to make it out the other side. It's awesome.
The trip down the Hudson went like this: Strings of rapids, dips, and small falls followed by stretches of calm, lazy floating. About halfway through the adventure we entered a deep, tranquil stretch of river that meandered through a couple of sweeping turns. That's when Carrie told us about the jump-off rock, which protrudes 8 feet from the surface of the water like the prow of an ocean liner. We could try it if we wanted, but it had to be quick.
My heart fluttered as a line of rafts pulled up to the base of the boulder and people filed out to take their turn. As my raft emptied, I knew I couldn't be the only one not to jump. I'd have to make the leap. I've heard the Hudson changes a man; I was about to find out if that was true. Now, I have no problem climbing steep slides or walking along the rim of a 100-foot cliff, but jumping off of an 8-foot-high rock into a river makes me nervous. But I did it. It took a minute to gather my nerve, yes, but I bent my knees, pushed off, and before I knew it I was gasping as the cold water sucked the air from my lungs. It was exhilarating to say the least, and I wanted to jump again. If you find yourself there, just do it.
We had more whitewater excitement before our boat entered the Hudson River Gorge, where we pulled over to eat lunch. The ravens were noisy, creating an otherworldly soundscape to our fruit and sandwiches. There was still a lot more river to go, and everyone was eager to get back out there.
The rest is a blur of white-tipped crests, laughter, and some pretty intense moments that involved both. And then we were just drifting along, the fading sound of the rapids slowly getting replaced by birdsong and the contended chatter of people who felt like they just went toe-to-toe with a force of nature and lived to tell the tale.