By Tim Goodfellow
"Welcome to Western New York." That is what the link to the National Weather Service web-site on my Favorites menu reads. For anyone who has spent much time looking at the Western New York NWS site, particularly those who have been transplanted out here from the Pacific Northwest, one thing becomes obvious quickly-it just doesn't rain a lot out here. Now, don't get me wrong, we get a lot of precipitation, it just tends to be in the form of snow, ice, sleet, hail, that sort of thing. But good old-fashioned rain that goes on for days and days just don't happen much out here. Not a good sign for a homesick paddler from Oregon...
Yet, this May, I found that there is still one certain way to guarantee rain no matter what part of the country you are in. Just plan a major event outdoors. The college where I live did just that, for the first time ever, they planned graduation outside. Then, wouldn't you know it, it rained. It didn't just rain, it was a good ol' PNW rain, and it rained for days, and rained and rained and rained. This could only mean one thing; it was time to dust off the boat. Right on cue I got a call from the river. It said come out and play. So I checked levels, got on the phone and the trip was set.
Cattaraugus Creek was running high, just under 6 feet, which meant the South Branch of Cattaraugus, a fun class III-IV play run through a couple of beautiful canyons with one 15 foot waterfall, would be good. Our group of four, two kayakers, myself and another Tim, and two rafters, Ben and Ben (We affectionately called them R2-B2) arrived at the put in bright and early. Tim and I left the Bens to get the raft pumped up and rigged while we ran shuttle. I should mention that it was snowing/sleeting/raining most of the time that we were doing all this. Our shuttle took longer than expected because of a tree blocking the road, but we eventually found a way around this and got everything all set. We got back, much to the delight of two very cold Bens, and headed down to the water. The river was that nice brown "high water" color, and while 6 feet is still well shy of flood there was the occasional flotsam and jetsam floating down. As we were getting into the river, one of the Bens asked me if this would rival the rivers back West. I smiled at him and said, "we'll see," not wanting to get stuck in the endless debate about who has the best whitewater.
The first couple miles of the river were rather flat, though the current moved us along quickly until we reached our first big drop. We all got out and scouted a fun looking class IV ledge. There was a straightforward line through it with a kind of bad hole on the right, a bad hole on the left and a small slot in between. We scouted and scouted and scouted some more then I decided I was done scouting and probed it. Much like we had anticipated I punched right through and eddied out below.
R2-B2 was up next. One of the great things about rafts is that there is just so much surface area and so much air that once they get stuck in a hole they like to stay there for a while. R2-B2 started off right on line but got blown about three feet too far left. One of the great parts of watching a raft caught in a hole is seeing the looks on the paddlers' faces before they fall out. Naturally, Ben fell out first, or rather, as he described it, the raft got sucked underwater and came up next to him. Then a few moments later, Ben met the same fate. Tim and I briefly enjoyed the carnage and then started the rescue. Tim got one of the Bens with a rope while I chased the other via kayak. The Ben I was chasing got himself into the raft, but by the time he was able to get a spare paddle out, we were a good 200-300 yards down stream on the opposite side of the river as the other Ben. This might not have been a problem except for the fact that we were now in a gorge.
Never one to give up, Ben (without the raft) scrambled up a loose shale wall and wandered through the woods until he could get down. This happened to be right across from where Ben, a rescued paddle and I were eddied out. So Tim, soon in the eddy with us, clipped a couple throw ropes to his rescue belt and got ready to ferry across the river. As he was making his way up the eddy to ferry over we noticed that it looked like some debris was coming down river. Sure enough, seconds later a nice big tree came floating on through the water, just minding its own business.
We figured this too would pass and, when it did, got the line, the raft and Ben across the river to Ben. We were set to continue on. The next couple miles consisted of (hundreds of) fantastic class III play waves until the falls.
I knew we were getting close to the falls when I saw Tim, the only one familiar with the river, flying out of his boat, throw bag in hand, on the left shore waving and whistling. He beckoned us to eddy out in something that might have at one point vaguely resembled an eddy, but let's not get technical here. Fortunately for kayakers (except those of us with an innate ability to flip on the eddy lines of must make eddies above falls) getting into pseudo-eddies isn't too difficult. One of the not-so-great things about rafts is that they don't glide into pseudo-eddies very gracefully. But Tim had a plan. As soon as the raft was close enough he would toss them a rope and they would clip it to their raft and they would gently swing into the pseudo-eddy. One of the great things about kayaking with rafters is watching physics in action.
In this corner we had 180 lb. male and in the other corner we had 60 lb. raft + 200 lbs. of water + 20 lbs. of gear + 400 lbs. of people. I put my money on the raft. I managed to wiggle out of my boat just in time to grab onto Tim and help to keep him from getting pulled into the river. Fortunately the raft floated around the corner a bit and the rope bent over the edge of the bank giving him a nice belay-soon the raft was in the eddy.
We walked up to look at the falls and a couple things were obvious. One, there was a very bad hole on the right. It was the sort of thing that was beyond debate. Even so, every kayaker wants to know how bad the hole really is. So we found a suitable stick and gave it the test. Ben gave a good throw and it went over the right side of the falls and proceeded to get worked. And worked. And worked. Then we got tired of watching it get worked and looked for a line over the falls. The second obvious thing was that there was a line. The thing that wasn't so obvious was if it was a good one. So we pondered. And pondered. And pondered. And then a big log came floating down and managed to follow our line. It dropped off the lip and disappeared. So we waited. After about 20 seconds the log decided to reappear and wash past the boil line. At that point we decided to walk knowing that the waterfall would still be here the next time we came through. We lined our boats down a short cliff and got on the water again, our stick was still getting worked in the right side.
After the falls things went more smoothly for the most part. The river resumed its class III nature and the next six or so miles were a surfing paradise. Before moving out to NY I wasn't much of a play boater, but shale bedrock is a good reason to start learning. It's wide and flat and simply makes for great waves, everywhere. And I learned some things about Oregon surfing vs. New York surfing on that stretch. In Oregon, you are done surfing when you blow off the wave. In New York, at least on Cattaraugus, blowing off the wave isn't a big deal because you are so far from the crest of the wave that you really have to try to get blown off. Even if you do, the next wave is either equally good or better. In Oregon, you have to be considerate of the people waiting in the eddy. In New York, the best way to time your surfs is to surf until you see a large piece of wood coming over the crest of the wave in front of you.
We surfed our way down the South Branch and onto the main branch of Cattaraugus, which doubled the flow to over 5000 cfs. After about an hour and a half of surfing beautiful waves and dodging large pieces of timber, we came to the last rapid of consequence known out here as "Tannery" or simply, "Last Rapid." At some level, this rapid has a couple of very large holes and takes on a III+-IV character. So we figured with 3 out of 4 of us new to the river a scout was in order. Once again we were left with a pseudo-eddy to get out of the river. However, at this point Tim had learned from physics lesson #1 and went ahead and set up a belay around a tree to bring the raft in. I came in right behind him and provided the "back-up." (read: I stood on a two foot wide piece of flat, slippery shale with my 35' of little throw rope that might be able to hold body weight at this point in its life) So down came the raft and (for the third time of the day) Tim landed a perfect throw. The boys in R2-B2 clipped the rope, which I should mention was a static rope, to a D-ring and, right on cue, the rope went taut and the raft kept going down stream, minus one D-ring that was clipped to a static line securely anchored to a tree on the side of the river.
Needless to say, my "back-up" was futile. I managed to get a perfect throw, the rope went taut, and then I remembered physics lesson #1 and let go of the rope. In the process I slowed them down just enough that they were able to get caught in a nice medium size hole and surf for a bit before they entered the rapid proper. Did I already mention that one great parts of watching a raft caught in a hole is seeing the looks on the paddlers' faces? Fortunately both Bens held on and rode out triumphantly.
Thinking our fearless rafters might soon be swimming (shoot, my biases are showing), Tim and I hopped in our boats, hoped for the best, and gave chase, with Tim hollering at me not to surf any of the waves (I know, safety first). Tannery is a great rapid, unless you are trying to find someone in it. It's about 300 yards long and your view alternates between the face of the wave in front of you and views akin to those from the peaks of cascade volcanoes. I think that the highest point east of the Rockies is on one of the peaks of the waves in Tannery. At one point I was less concerned with finding our potential swimmers than with trying to get my poor Medieval up to the top of one large steep wave. Finally, after 300 yards of passing up would-be surf waves (we never did see any big holes) we spotted the fearless crew of R2-B2, still in their raft. The raft was relatively intact too, with 75% of its tubes still holding air. 100 more yards and we reached the take out. Fortunately there was an eddy there and R2-B2 managed to hobble on into it with their three good tubes, a fitting end to a great day. Big water, good waves, good carnage-I now feel welcomed to Western New York.
Now if I could just find a boulder garden out here..