Whitewater Kayaking… Here?

The region is host to a surprising number of adventure paddlers.

While most Finger Lakes visitors and residents are unhappy when it rains, Jamie Walters reaches with a smile for his computer. The Cornell University doctoral candidate jumps online and checks in with the local paddling community. As the rain falls, e-mails fly across listservs about water levels, paddling conditions, and rides to put-ins on local paddling streams. Jamie slides into his wetsuit, grabs his kayak and paddle, and within an hour he is paddling Fall Creek or one of a dozen other area streams. “When it rains, ya gotta go for it!” says Walters, describing the growing whitewater paddling scene in the Finger Lakes region.

When it comes to paddling in the region, it is usually the lakes, and sea kayak touring or flat water canoeing, that first come to mind. Or perhaps rowing, competitively or just for fun. However for a growing number of adventure junkies, Finger Lakes paddling involves whitewater paddling – playing in specialized kayaks or canoes on the many local streams.

Two distinctive characteristics make paddling in the Finger Lakes a special occurrence: the gorges and their sheer rock walls, and the ledges. The gorges need little introduction to anyone who lives or visits the Finger Lakes. The clefts cut through soft sedimentary shales and mudstones are just as spectacular to paddle as they are to hike. “The gorges are not only incredibly scenic, they also make for challenging paddling as there aren’t a lot of eddies – the places where we can stop or rest,” says Beth Karp, an avid paddler and a junior majoring in music at Cornell.

The other distinctive characteristic, the ledges or shelves in the sedimentary bedrock, are also readily apparent to hikers. However, for the paddlers, they are more than just interesting features, they make for mostly exciting and sometimes hazardous paddling. The ledges form a kind of underwater staircase creating standing waves to play on and surf.  According to Karp, “They are a lot of fun to run, with all kinds of drops, although some dangers as well.” Walters further explains, “Some ledges can be dangerous because they form powerful hydraulics – recirculating currents – which can trap a boat or a paddler who ‘swims.’ Most of them, most of the time, offer a heck of a lot of excitement and fun, you just have to have some experience and be careful.”

Fall Creek is a Favorite

One of the favorite streams of Finger Lakes paddlers is Fall Creek. Originating in the hills around Cortland, on the eastern edge of the Finger Lakes region, Fall Creek flows southwest to empty into the southern end of Cayuga Lake. The lower reaches of the creek, through Cornell University’s Plantations, are particularly popular places to paddle. Each April the area is host to the Fall Creek Race, part of a series of races held throughout the mid-Atlantic states. During high water, Fall Creek offers standing waves and short falls that attract paddlers from all over the region.

The rivers and streams of the Finger Lakes have created numerous and well known gorges, including awe-inspiring falls, but they are generally small watercourses with limited flow. Fall Creek is no different; it takes the spring snowmelt or a good rain to raise the water to optimal paddling levels. According to Walters, “The ephemeral nature of Finger Lakes paddling is both exciting and frustrating. It is exciting because the paddling is variable, it’s always changing. When conditions are right, you only have to drive five minutes for some great paddling. It is frustrating because generally you can’t plan ahead to go paddling, you have to wait for a thaw or rain.”
The Keuka Outlet Beckons

There is one area stream where paddling can be predictable, very predictable: the Keuka Outlet. Keuka Outlet drops 270 feet over a short five miles, sending Keuka Lake’s water west over to Seneca Lake. It is a unique stream in several ways. The outlet means that Keuka is the only Finger Lake to directly drain into another of the Finger Lakes. More significantly for paddlers, Keuka Outlet is the only significant-sized local stream that is dam released. This means that paddlers can plan a paddling outing. Finally, the stream offers topography that is literally designed for paddlers.

The dam releases and stream flow design are the result of five years of hard work by Art Miller, a retired Kodak executive. Previous to Miller’s leadership there were infrequent and unannounced releases, and the streambed was cluttered with debris from 200 years of mill use and industrialization. Miller worked with the Village of Penn Yan, Friends of the Outlet, and scores of volunteers to clean the stream, design natural features to improve the paddling experience, and coordinate releases. Says Miller, “We now have up to 40 releases a year, with all the dates announced so that folks know when they can come paddle on the outlet.”

A safety briefing and dam release schedule for the outlet can be found at www.rit.edu/~acj1346/kayak/release_
schedule.shtml. The site also has photos of the outlet and some of its features.

Keuka Outlet is fast becoming a destination for paddlers from Rochester, Buffalo and all over the Finger Lakes. It is also becoming well known on the race circuit, particularly for slalom racing. Up to 200 spectators come out to watch the NE Slalom Series races. The NE Junior Olympic qualifying races will be held at the outlet the weekend of May 21 through 22, 2005.

Other Paddling Opportunities
Of course there is more to Finger Lakes whitewater paddling than just Fall Creek and the Keuka Outlet. Jamie Walters loves the “multitude of little creeks and gorges to explore. There is an endless treasure trove; we’re always scouting the local streams after a rain.” Or as Beth Karp enthusiastically puts it, the many “creeking opportunities!”  Some of Walters and Karp’s other favorites include Letchworth, Six Mile and Taughannock. “I particularly enjoy paddling Taughannock because you can run it blind; you don’t have to get out of the boat to scout,” says Karp.

For those who have never paddled whitewater and want to give it a try Karp suggests caution. “Moving water can be very dangerous in ways you might not expect. Both flooded and shallow waterways engender a number of potential hazards.” It is especially during high water that people get excited about floating the usually small Finger Lakes streams. More than one beginner paddler has needed rescue on local waterways. Walters strongly suggests getting lessons before attempting any whitewater, “Quality instruction not only teaches the necessary skills, it teaches good judgement.” Two good sources of instruction in the region include Cascade Falls Kayak Adventures out of Rochester (www.rit.edu/~acj1346/kayak/ instruction.shtml) and Cornell Outdoor Education out of Ithaca (www.coe.cornell.edu).

For beginning paddlers, after getting instruction and perfecting a good roll, Karp and Walters suggest starting with the upper Keuka Outlet or Letchworth. “Those are both fairly mellow and straightforward stretches of water – beautiful too,” says Walters.

There is more to paddling in the Finger Lakes region than on its 11 stunning lakes. There is a host of beautiful and accessible streams waiting to be explored. Paddling under the sheer rock walls of Finger Lakes’ gorges and playing on the drops created by the many ledges of the area’s streams, make for unique and exciting paddling adventures.  It is a different and very personal way to connect with the Finger Lakes environment. As Barry Lopez has said, “To stick your hands into the river is to feel the cords that bind the earth together into one piece.”


by Todd Miner, Cornell Outdoor Education
Dr. Todd Miner is the Lindseth Executive Director of Cornell Outdoor Education, the largest, most comprehensive collegiate outdoor education program in the nation.