Paddling the Chemung River and Other Little Miracles

My daughter and I planned to paddle some of the Chemung River, just north of Elmira, but the morning was drizzly and gray. She’s a gutsy little girl who just turned 10, and she agreed that passing showers shouldn’t deter us. But when the forecast called for thunder boomers, I left my loaded pack-basket by the door and canceled. We spent an hour in gloomy reverie until I couldn’t take it any longer. “Aw heck,” I said, “let’s just go and take our chances!” In minutes we were out the door driving the hour down I-86 from Prattsburgh.

For our canoe shuttle, we met Brian Campbell, proprietor of On The River Canoe Outfitters at Fitches Bridge off Rt. 352. Soon we were standing in the Chemung River at Miniers Field Landing with hundreds of black tadpoles dancing around our muddy toes. We loaded in.Our first little miracle happened then. As we began to paddle leisurely downstream, with me giving the cursory paddle stroke technique reminders (draw left, C-stroke, J-Stroke, and break) the clouds parted. Sunlight burst against clear sepia waters under brilliant blue sky. The river gods welcomed us.

Paddling a river is different than paddling on one of the Finger Lakes. A river is a journey of constant discovery – anticipating the next bend, the best route, and what lies ahead. Less than a mile downstream in a wide berth of slow flowing water below the impressive palisades, two bald eagles soared back and forth low over the river. One of them caught a fish right in front of us and flapped back up to a tree snag for lunch.

Seven years ago, Jim Pfiffer, a resident of Elmira, was also canoeing along the Chemung River when he was fortunate enough to catch an array of colors on the flowing water’s surface at sunset. He took a picture. When he developed the image, however, he was disturbed to find that garbage distorted an entire corner of his shot. Pfiffer decided to put together some volunteers to clean the riverbanks. The group has managed to haul a lot of garbage from the river (more than 10 tons to date) in a water system that supplies 68 percent of the local municipality’s drinking water. Pfiffer knew the garbage would just keep coming if things didn’t change.

As if by fate, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) announced a grant to do a study on the perception of the Chemung River. Pfiffer got involved. In 2007, CCE obtained a follow-up grant to create a master plan on the use, protection and future development of the Chemung River, thus creating the Chemung River Council.

“The master plan was full of great ideas to help get people connected to the river with trails, a whitewater sluice at the dam for kayakers, picnic areas, boating derbies, concerts and eco-education,” said Pfiffer. “Unfortunately, there weren’t any funds to make it happen.”

But Pfiffer was too hooked on the river to let the plan stall. He found financial support from Chemung County, the municipalities of Elmira, Big Flats, Southport, Chemung, and Casella Waste Systems and their private donations. It helped to fund a nonprofit organization to implement the master plan through 2013. In 2008, Pfiffer quit his journalism career of 27 years and became the director of The Friends of the Chemung River Watershed. Since then, the goals of the original Chemung River Council master plan have been roiling ahead like a river after ice breakup.

“We’re more than just the Chemung River,” Pfiffer tells me. “Because the Chemung River eventually feeds the Susquehanna and then the Chesapeake Bay, tributaries like the Cohocton, the Canisteo, Cowanesque and Tioga, as well as the surrounding hills and valleys, are all part of the watershed.” The river’s system now includes boat and fishing access areas with kiosks explaining the unique history and qualities of each site. River and tributary hosts help maintain and check each area. After talking with Pfiffer about the river, I knew I had to experience some of it for myself.

Paddling along the river with my daughter, a steep gully-ridged hillside of evergreens and ash passed on our right, and the rural banks of silver maple and willow slipped by on our left. Numerous islands diverted the river’s flow, causing several tributary braids of riffle-rapids along the way. It was exciting to read little v-notch white caps for holes and boulders while shouting and laughing, “Draw left! Draw right! Now paddle hard!” to my daughter up front. At one point we spooked a white tail deer that splashed wildly across a river shallow. We spotted geese and coots, a great blue heron and kingfisher as well.

We talked and sang and drank lemonade to wash down our Nuttella sandwiches. Sometimes I just paddled, and Maeya peered silently over the bow. She asked when was the first time I took her paddling. I told her she was 1 year old and had stood herself up holding the runners of the bow. I watched her as she tried to imagine what it must have been like back then, crouching low against the front of the canoe. Time, like a river, is such a fast flowing thing.

Our two-and-a-half-hour trip eventually brought us toward more habituated banks, but not until the last one-half mile or so. As if taking a river journey through time, we paddled from pristine areas with not a sign of human activity anywhere, to slowly finding camps scattered here and there, and finally to year-round homes as Fitches Bridge finally came into view.

With tired arms and satisfied spirits, Brian Campbell’s wife called to us, “Did you have fun? Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked. “I’ll be right over to get the boat!”

The treasures of the day were many, and I was thankful for people like Jim Pffiffer, who cared enough to get involved, and the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed. I felt blessed by the fair weather, and seeing so much wildlife along our journey. There are many memories I hope my children will hold in their hearts when they grow up. For my daughter I hope someday she will recall with me that sweet day on a wild Finger Lakes’ river when we almost didn’t go, but ended up with the rewards of sunshine, wildlife and tired arms; both of us totally breathless with the river’s charm.


story and photos by Angela Cannon-Crothers