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June 2013

Death on the River

A woman’s dream expedition. A drunken guide. A troubled rafting company. A tragic tale of the Hudson River Gorge

Everyone I’ve spoken to who knew Tamara Blake says the same things about her, from her daughter to her brother to her live-in partner of eight years, to the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where she stayed her last night in North Creek: One, the 53-year-old was the best person to meet, friendly and generous and kind. And two, all her life she wanted to go white-water rafting. Her daughter spoke at the February 2013 sentencing hearing of raft guide Rory Fay, the 37-year-old charged with her mother’s death. She stood in the back of the courtroom, crying through the words she prepared. “It was on her bucket list,” Tamara’s daughter, Angela Wetzel, said. “When my mother finally planned the trip I was worried. Because she was the most important thing in my whole entire life. I asked her not to go without me, ex­pressing my concerns for her safety, and she said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I have a guide.’”

Tamara Fredonna Blake grew up on a farm in a small community in southeastern Ohio, just a few miles from that broad and deep-running river for which the state is named.  Her brother David Blake was also at the sentencing, driving his family nine hours for a chance to speak directly to the convicted guide, and for the record, of how much he cared for his sister. “It was my job to look after her,” he said. “I was her chaperone when she went out, the one who fixed things for her. But I couldn’t help her when she needed me most, alone on that river.”

After the proceedings were over, in the freezing wind outside the Hamilton County Courthouse, he turned to me and said, “If you’re going to write about her, say she was a great swimmer. How my father taught us. He used to dunk us in water, dunk us both down so we learned how not to panic when we went under.”

Tamara—“Tammy,” as she was called—graduated from Meigs High School, in Pomeroy, Ohio, in 1977 and earned a bachelor’s of science degree at Franklin University, in Columbus, summa cum laude. She worked for the United States Postal Service as an IT specialist and lived on the far east side of Columbus in a flower-lined home she shared with her friend and partner Richard Clar. She began shopping for rafting companies a month before their planned vacation, searching online for the best one to guide them through the Hudson River Gorge, 17 miles of Class III and IV rapids, through some of the most remote and best preserved wilderness in the East. In the end she chose the Hudson River Rafting Company, the closest one to the bed-and-breakfast she and Richard—“Rick”—were staying at in North Creek. The website promised adventure: “Our professional river guides ensure a fun, safe and exciting trip.” It cost $90 per person, snack and wet suit included.

Rick didn’t want her to go. He’d pay for the entire vacation, he said, if she’d cancel the rafting part. They stayed that weekend at the Goose Pond Inn, a 19th-century Victorian on Main Street. The owner, Beverly Englert, held back tears as she recalled their visit. “I just gave her a big hug when they left and told her she’d have a great time.”

Beverly and her husband, Jim, have been running the inn for 26 years and each of the many rooms is crammed with North Country knickknacks and souvenirs and gifts from guests. In the back of the long foyer is a blackboard where guests write their thank-yous and farewells. When I was there Beverly pulled aside a basket covering the bottom corner of the board, exposing the words, “Thanks for a lovely stay, Rick and Tammy.”

“It’s been four months and I haven’t erased it,” Beverly said. “I think about her every day.”

Around 9:00 a.m. the morning of September 27, 2012, Tammy and Rick arrived at Hudson River Rafting Company’s base, Cunningham’s Ski Barn in North Creek, and paid the owner, Patrick Cunningham. They signed the requisite waiv­ers of liability, sat down and waited for their guide to show up. After half an hour Rory Fay appeared and began preparing the couple for their trip. He gave them helmets and wet suits, rubber boots and, last of all, properly fitting life vests. He led them out to the parking lot, to the 2000 Ford van with the raft tied to its top. Inside were the paddles and the maroon duffel that held the raft’s emergency equipment: a throw bag, first-aid kit and raft-repair kit. Rory also brought his backpack, which held his personal equipment: a black sweatshirt, gum and two Gatorade bottles full of vodka.

Rory drove Tammy and Rick to the takeout, a 10-minute trip up Route 28. In his statement to state police after the ac­cident he said that he didn’t usually drive because he didn’t like how the van handled. Rick didn’t seem to like how the van handled either. After the accident he told police, “I noticed on many occasions that the vehicle was weaving on the roadway and also noticed that he was driving to the right of the white line. I even thought to myself that I should buckle up my life jacket now because of how bad he was driving.”

Perhaps there was another reason Rory Fay did not like to drive the van—he did not have a driver’s license, hadn’t since a DWI conviction 11 years before. He pulled over at the trip’s takeout point just over the town line in Indian Lake, where the company’s river manager, Mark La­brecque, was waiting. Rory moved out of the driver’s seat and Mark took over.

Hudson River Rafting Company had only the one boat going out that September day and the river manager’s only job was to leave his personal car at the takeout and join Rory, Rick and Tammy in the van to the company’s put-in on the Indian River, see the raft in safely, drive the van back to the takeout 17 miles downriver, then leave it for the guide to load up when finished. It’s not clear how many times Mark Labrecque had done this for Rory in 2012—Rory’s first season as a guide—or if he knew that Rory was unlicensed, if that’s why he took over driving. Mark did not have a driver’s license either—not since a DWI conviction in 2005.

That summer the New York State forest ranger for the area, Bruce Lomnitzer, had increased his presence at the put-in, inspecting guide licenses and safety equipment. On June 2 he issued tickets to both Rory Fay and Mark Labrecque for failure to display their guide licenses. He also wrote Mark a summons for unlicensed operation of a vehicle. On the morning of September 27, however, the two men weren’t concerned about getting another citation from Ranger Lomnitzer—he was out on disability with a broken shoulder from kayaking the Indian.

Tammy, Rick, Rory and Mark reached the put-in after 10:00, untied the raft and carried it down the steep slope to the river. The Hudson River Rafting Company uses its own put-in on Pat Cunningham’s private property, a short trip upriver from the main put-in where the other 10 outfitters launch. The main put-in is more accessible, with plenty of parking, a gentler slope to the river and a wide easy eddy to paddle from. But that land belongs to the town of Indian Lake, which every year charges for its use, selling “slots” on the river to each of the outfitters—slots that since 2008 Pat Cunningham has refused to buy.

Cunningham’s company rides the river for free. His only concern is that another paying outfitter is on the river at the same time as his to ensure the town of Indian Lake opens the floodgates of Lake Abanakee, releasing the bubble of water that makes summer and fall rafting possible. If Rory Fay’s was the only boat heading out that day the dam may never have opened and Tamara Blake might have gone home to Ohio, complaining to her daughter how disappointed she was. But like so many other triggers to this trag­edy, so many different paths Tammy’s raft might have taken, there were two other paying outfitters riding the bubble that day, North Creek Rafting Company and Whitewater Challengers.

The town of Indian Lake began scheduling summer dam releases in 1997, opening the rafting business to a flood of new customers. That same year the Hudson River Professional Oufitters Association—a group of 11 rafting companies—drafted 14 guidelines, a set of shared standards for safety and responsibility. All outfitters in the association agreed to the quality and type of equipment they would carry, to use only New York licensed guides and provide an extensive safety talk before every trip.

When Pat Cunningham left the Hudson River Professional Oufitters Association in 2008 he didn’t stop following basic standards of safety, many of which are required by state law. But he did lose the shared responsibility promised in the final guideline, the one rule the association describes as more important than any other: “should any one of us have a problem on the river, we realize that Outfitter support, cooperation and assistance is to our mutual best advantage, in effect, we all safety boat for each other, which is our ultimate best defense from tragedy.”

By the time Rory Fay loaded his passengers and paddled out of his eddy and into the Indian, the other two rafts had launched, one after the other, and were navigating the rapids far ahead. Of all the strikes that went against Tamara Blake that day, perhaps none hit harder than the picture of that solitary yellow raft pushing out from Cunningham’s private put-in, last on the river, alone as it headed into the current.

In Rick Clar’s statement to police, he said Rory Fay was shouting instructions as soon as they left the shore, to paddle forward, backward, rest or stop. It’s unknown exactly where the raft spun around and hit the rock that toppled Tammy and Rory out of the boat, but it must have been early on, possibly in the first set of rapids, known as the Indian Head, a mile and a half of unrelenting Class III water, one of the longest stretches on that river.

Rick described the chaotic scene: “I saw Tammy and she was on her back with her nose and feet pointed up as we were instructed; her feet were pointed downstream and she appeared to be going pretty fast.”

Rory clung to the side of the raft, telling Rick to grab his vest, to pull him in. “Rick was unable to get me back in the boat,” Rory said, “and I had to let go of the raft because I was hit against about a dozen rocks and I was taking on a lot of water. I thought I was going to die.”

Rory Fay swam for his life. He reached the shore and began hiking downstream, searching for his passengers, already out of sight. Rick did what rafters are briefed to do in an emergency: buckle down in the boat and hold on. Some minutes later, when the current slowed, he was able to paddle the boat to the side and pull it ashore. He climbed up to the Chain Lakes Road, walking in the downstream direction, calling Tammy’s name. He reached the Gooley Club gate and flagged down a couple in a red pickup, who drove him to the state police barracks in Indian Lake. That’s when the search began for Tammy, which lasted until late afternoon. “I’m lost,” Rick said after hearing she’d been found. “My heart is broke.”

Rory Fay hiked at least half a mile downstream, through thick brush and steep rock, until he found the empty raft pulled onto the bank. Believing that both Tammy and Rick had left it there, he headed up to the road, the long walk back. By the time he reached the put-in the police were waiting for him. His toxicology report showed a blood-alcohol level of .30, the kind of number you might see in a hospital emergency room, in patients brought in for acute alcohol poisoning.

Rory’s uncle, Dr. Robert Fay, spoke to me about the tortuous currents that brought his nephew to the river that day. Dr. Fay is a pediatrician who retired from the Albany area to a camp in Garnet Lake. In fall 2011 he found Rory washed up in a Queensbury motel with 160 empty cans of beer. Dr. Fay helped get Rory into a rehab center, and after his release said Rory could stay in his house in Garnet Lake. “He was with me for eight months,” Dr. Fay said, “and in that time he never had a drop. I encouraged him to apply for his guide license. I saw how hard he studied to get it.”

According to his uncle, Rory apprenticed for six trips before getting his license. “He was proud of what he did,” Dr. Fay said. “He showed me a thank-you letter he’d received from a camp group he guided. He wrote them back.” That summer he moved out of the house in Garnet Lake and into the Cunningham-owned “guides’ house” on Route 28, a hundred yards from Cunningham’s base. The house appears now as it did then—overgrown and broken, a neglected relic of better times.

“I went in there last summer and saw the beer cans,” Dr. Fay said. “I knew he was drinking again.” He told me that in August Rory had a seizure in the parking lot at North Creek’s Stewart’s, from alcohol withdrawal, and was taken to the hospital. A couple of weeks later Rory put his arm through a window and returned to the hospital. “I drove him back,” the doctor said to me. “I hope you write about the disease he had, how terrible it is.”

On February 1, 2013, Rory was sentenced to a year in jail for driv­ing while intoxicated and six months for negligent homicide, the terms to be served concurrently, which means he could be free this fall. The district attorney, Marsha Purdue, stated that giving the longer term for DWI allowed her to pursue the maximum probation of five years. Rory Fay will be carefully monitored, she said, and if he drinks any alcohol in that time he could face four years in prison.

She also pointed to the “issues of proof” in the case and the difficulties in prosecuting a river guide for running into a rock and dropping a passenger into the current, which sometimes happens in the soberest of moments. Just two weeks before Rory’s sentencing, Pat Cunningham sat in the same courtroom. He was tried and acquitted on two counts of reckless endangerment—charges going back to 2010, when he sent one trip of summer campers down the river without a guide, and later overbooked another trip, sending the extras—a father and daughter from Georgia with no white-water experience be­tween them—out on inflatable kayaks called “duckies.” They quickly capsized and had to be rescued by another raft, which, overloaded, also flipped, the entire party hiking three miles out. That case was first documented in this magazine in “Risky Business” (June 2011), by Mary Thill.

Did Pat Cunningham know his rookie guide was drowning himself a hundred yards up the road or that his river manager was driving his equipment all summer without a license? What happened to Hudson River Rafting Company? It once boasted some of the best guides in the business, many of whom went on to start their own outfitters: Pete Burns, of Beaver Brook Outfitters; Bob Rafferty, of Adirondac Rafting Company; Nate Pelton, of North Creek Rafting Company. A guide who used to work for Cunningham de­scribed what it was like 30 years ago, when Hudson River Rafting Company was the largest on the river. “Some Saturdays we’d run 40 boats down the river, run them in waves of 10, over 300 customers that had to be suited up and paired with rafts and guides. That’s what a good river manager can do for you.”

Three weeks after Tammy Blake’s death the New York State Attorney General suspended Pat Cunningham’s Hudson River operations, pending an investigation of possible unsafe practices. Pat Cunningham didn’t want to talk to me about the tragedy, citing the current litigations, but he still reminisced about the empire he built, “around the horn of the park,” at one time running seven ski shops and three white-water rafting operations. He’s a North Country legend, with a story big enough for any stage: champion ski racer, Olympic hopeful, one of the first men to kayak the Hudson Gorge. Cunningham’s family included a Great Camp caretaker and hotelier on one side and, on the other, owners of a North Creek general store, in the days of the great log drives, when death on the river was the subject of ballads sung in the camps and taverns.

 

The coroner’s report stated that Tammy Blake died of asphyxiation from drowning, but no one will ever know exactly where—in the Indian Head, the Gooley Steps, in Guide’s Wave or Kenny’s Hole. Her body was recovered near the confluence where the Indian joins the Hudson, her back on the bare rocks, the bubble long passed, her face looking up at that great blue Adirondack sky.

This spring the melt-off will wash those rocks clean, and the yards of the outfitters will once again teem with candy-colored boats hoisted onto blue and purple buses and young guides fitting vests onto groups of scouts and firemen and couples from New Zea­land. I’ve been down the river many times, in spring rains and summer heat, and in a winter blizzard at seven and a half feet. I’ve been sending my kids since they were 10.

The outfitters I’ve talked to, many of whom I call friends, are worried the news of this tragedy will set back all the work they’ve done making white-water rafting on the Hudson safer than ever. According to Bob Rafferty, president of the Hudson River Professional Oufitters Association, “Between 1997 and 2012, 305,000 customers have gone down that river without a single serious accident.”

In all the sad and fateful turns that brought together the players in this tragedy, it’s impossible to say which one killed Tammy Blake. But take a ride on the river and you’ll see why she wanted to come, to be carried aloft through nature’s prettiest creations and to feel its wild fury under your seat.

Joe Connelly is the author of Bringing Out the Dead, the 1999 film version of which was directed by Martin Scor­sese. Read an excerpt from Connelly’s latest book, The Awful Grace, in this magazine’s February 2013 issue. Connelly lives in North Creek.

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