Stay in the Raft!

by: Hope Olson
Elsa Eckhardt

“Forward two!” yells Carrie from the back of the raft. We paddle hard against the oncoming rapids of the Hudson River. The whitewater slaps us in the face with a harshness that we did not expect from such elegant waves. The flurried rapids pull us into the present moment, the surges of water whirlpooling us into a trance. “Forward two! Push yourselves!” calls Carrie, snapping us out of our hydraulic daydreams. We did not foresee such an intense adventure just hours ago when we heard the 6:15 a.m. wake-up call at our yurts.

We began our day canoeing across Lake Massawepie through the brisk, calm mist. This tranquil scene is very representative of our lifestyle at Arcadia, the little yurt village that we call home for the semester, which is tucked in the great Adirondack Park. Other than special desserts and unexpected packages from home, there are few surprises at Arcadia. Life at Arcadia is unlike the rapids of the Hudson. Over the past few weeks, our group of eight students has developed a keen sense of our daily surroundings and immediate place in the Adirondacks. There is an interconnectedness between night and day in our yurt village—we have adapted to a perpetual cycle of sleeping under the stars and waking up to bright rays of sun shining through the trees. In our rafts, however, the ferocity of the day, and life outside Arcadia, greets us with cold splashes and jostled turns in our squeaky, orange rafts.

After our morning paddle across the lake, we all hopped into our St. Lawrence University van and headed off to the Adirondac Rafting Company in North Creek, New York. The drive went quickly as we admired the morning light upon the mountains ahead and listened to alternative, local music. Upon our arrival, we were given wetsuits that suctioned to our skin, waterproof shirts, personal floatation devices, and nerdy helmets. We loaded onto colorfully painted school buses to drive down to the mouth of the Indian River where we would begin our whitewater adventure. We listened attentively to the instructions from the eccentric raft guides, paying close attention to the number one rule of not standing up in the river if we fell out of the raft, so as not to trap our limbs in the tree debris or the bones of past rafting participants on the bottom of the river. Most importantly, they told us, “Stay in the raft!” Feeling prepared for the day, our group of eight students and two assistant directors, Will and Kim, split into two separate rafts, thus shaping two different perspectives for the day, hereafter captured by our two different voices.

Elsa: I was lucky to be in the same raft as Carrie, a seasoned guide with experience in the West as well as the Northeast, who spent years working with an all-female rafting company. As an aspiring female employee in outdoor recreation myself, I felt empowered while listening to Carrie. She called out paddle strokes and commands with an assertive tone that demanded respect and provided a sense of trust for us students. She told us all about the northern forests through which we were rafting and spoke passionately about the state land that was to remain protected from private ownership and potential exploitation. As Carrie identified some of the surrounding trees, species such as sugar maple, American beech, and yellow birch rang a bell from our recent learning about the Adirondack hardwoods in our Natural History and Ecology class at Arcadia.

Carrie provided us with her expertise in both the natural world and rafting techniques. At one point there was a rapid called a “hydraulic wave” where the whitewater doubled back on itself to create a wall on which to surf our raft. Carrie called out paddling commands to position our raft a couple of feet before the wall, and on her cue—“Now!”—we launched our raft into the hydraulic. Our raft floated effortlessly over black water and we spun out of what felt like a black hole. What a rush!

Hope: As for my experience in the other raft, I felt fortunate to have Moe as my raft guide. She was friends with our assistant director Will, and their connection made for a light-hearted joking energy throughout the day. Moe is a native of a small town in New Jersey and has Canadian roots, giving her a tough but caring personality. This summer was Moe’s sixth year rafting on the Hudson, making her an informed guide as she has led four trips each week starting in April. With each rapid we ran, Moe informed us of the names—many of which date back to the era when loggers ruled the river. In the past, logging was a major industry in the Adirondacks and its timber was the region’s main export. Logs flooded the rivers as waterways such as the Hudson were used to transport trees to mill towns like Glens Falls, where the trees were sawed into lumber and transported to markets on river barges or railroads. Imagining the expansive, rapid river full of large logs put another historical aspect of the Adirondack Park into perspective for eight of its newest residents.

At the end of the day, we chatted with Moe before saying goodbye. We asked her for a piece of life advice gleaned from spending years on the river and out enjoying the wilderness. “Spend your days between tall trees, not tall buildings,” she told us. Although our quiet, thoughtful life at Arcadia and the rushing waters of the Hudson seem worlds apart, Moe’s words brought them together and reminded us why we are here, on the Adirondack Semester, spending our days between the trees.