Connecting With Life Through NNY Rivers

Ginger Anson and Reese Anson, 8, explore an area of the Black River in Glen Park where they’d often picnic, covered in water after rain and melting snow.

BY: Neal Burdick

The north country’s rivers run fast and high this time of year. It’s as though they’re trying to wash the winter away and usher spring in as quickly as they can. Sometimes, in the exuberance of their freedom from months in ice, they jump their banks and go exploring, invading farm fields and basements without so much as an invitation. Other times, they merely shout and leap for the sheer joy of it. But by late summer, they’ve settled down, snoozing in the warmth of the sun. They’re a lot like us that way: spring fever gives way to the placid somnolence of mid-summer.
    I’ve always believed rivers have personalities. The Black, for example, is mercurial, fluctuating over its course from roiling and angry to mild-mannered and steady. We call the St. Lawrence “mighty” so routinely it’s become a cliché, and yet it is indeed brawny and powerful (it’s estimated that 20 percent of the world’s fresh water passes through it, draining the Great Lakes into the Atlantic Ocean; that’s a lot of muscle). The Raquette is an acrobat, tumbling abruptly from the Adirondack uplands onto the St. Lawrence Valley floor. The Adirondacks describe a dome, drained by rivers in every direction – the Hudson, Moose, Oswegatchie, Grass (or Grasse, depending on your preference), Deer, Chazy, Ausable and many more. Each one is different. Each has its own aspect, its own attitude, its own language. Pick a river you like, and see if you can discern its unique features.
    I grew up a short walk from where one of these rivers met a lake, as it had for millennia and will for many more. As a boy I would try to pin my eyes to a single patch of Saranac River water as it slid toward Lake Champlain, and wonder where it had come from, and how long it had taken to reach me, and what happened to it as it was swallowed before my eyes into the expanse of the lake. Someone, perhaps one of my parents, patiently explained that it flowed down from Saranac Lake, on the fringe of my childhood world of reference.
    Later, when I learned in school of the hydrologic cycle, I realized my patch of water would evaporate and be carried by the jet stream around the world, and condense into a cloud and fall upon the Adirondacks and drain into Saranac Lake, and so could pass by me again someday. And when I came to comprehend that we live out our own cycles, I saw that we are all the same, as all water is the same, and that we are one with water.
    It was during one of these youthful philosophical musings that I fell into the Little Ausable River and for a few moments did in, a very elemental way, become one with it. My mother’s family operated a sawmill in the hamlet of Peru, a few miles south of Plattsburgh, and we visited our relatives there often. They’d dammed the small, peaceful stream to create a storage pond for their logs, and its muddy shores were a magnet for a little boy to go looking for frogs, treasures of all sorts, and general mischief. It was during one of these escapades on a soft summer evening that I lost my balance on the slippery shore, and the next thing I knew was thrashing about in a bubbly stew of green water, pickerel weed, soggy slabs of pine bark and gooey muck, while somewhere a chorus of bullfrogs croaked in hilarity. They may have been entertained, but my mother was not pleased.
    That small dam was like dozens of others on north country rivers that descend from the mountains. Since the first European settlers arrived, they have been the making of towns and villages, the inspiration for mills, the creators of electricity. The Raquette, for example, is known by the slightly off-color phrase “the most dammed river in New York State,” so little of it is free-flowing anymore. It’s ironic that rivers were thought of as commercial highways – the log drives on the Upper Hudson were legendary throughout North America until that method of moving raw material faded away in the mid-twentieth century – but arresting the momentum that made them travel corridors was also an economic engine.
    Some dams, though, were never built. Two proposals in the 1950s to build dams on the Moose River in Herkimer County were defeated by the state’s voters, who got to decide on them because they would have been on Adirondack Forest Preserve land, alteration of which requires a publicly approved amendment to the state constitution. These dams might have helped control flooding downstream on the Black, of which the Moose is a tributary, but they also would have ruined some of the finest trout fishing in North America. A decade before the dawn of the environmental movement, a natural resource and its champions won out over pressure from influential business and political kingpins.
    And that brings us to another use of rivers: recreation. Nothing is more satisfying for many people than a summer’s day of boating on the St. Lawrence. But for general fitness, it’s hard to beat an invigorating paddle on one of its tributary rivers. Just don’t flip your wife out of a canoe into the St. Regis River while trying to show off a nifty paddling maneuver, as I once did. That was in the spring, and we learned quickly – or rather, I was quickly instructed on – how cold Adirondack rivers can be, even well past Memorial Day. Here’s some advice: Do not take north country rivers for granted.
    But you don’t have to fall into a river to become acquainted with it. One of these ever-warmer evenings, go and sit by one. Stare at it for a few minutes, and you will realize they do indeed have a lot in common with us.