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April 2013

Operation Opalescent

A quest to ride the park's steepest water

opalescentBy the seventh mile of hiking, I was ready to pitch my cast-iron skillet into the river. When we left the Upper Works trailhead with white-water kayaks strapped on like backpacks, a skillet seemed like a necessity. But we hadn’t planned on walking so far.

We intended to walk our boats less than five miles to the Flowed Lands and paddle into the Opalescent River—the highest navigable source of the Hudson. If everything went right we would be the second group on record to kayak from there to the Hudson confluence at Tahawus.

At first glance, the Opalescent looks both too small and too steep for a boat of any sort. You can rock-hop across it in the summer without getting your feet wet. From the dam at Flowed Lands, the Hanging Spear Gorge falls 700 feet in less than a mile—almost twice as steep as High Falls on the Ausable.

Lake Tear of the Clouds drains the slopes of Mount Marcy, Mount Skylight and Gray Peak, and its outflow becomes the Opalescent. As the symbolic beginning of the Hudson, paddling its upper reaches has been a grail of Adi­rondack creek boating for decades. In 2005, Dennis Squires and Tony Mali­kowski paddled Hanging Spear Gorge in inflatable kayaks. Squires, who wrote two volumes of New York Exposed: The Whitewater State, called it “the most awesome whitewater run in New York State,” and “the best damn thing I ever did.… I’m going again.”

But Squires never made it back. Less than two years after running the Opal­escent, Squires drowned while kayaking in New Zealand. It wasn’t until recently that anyone repeated his 2005 descent (Matt Young, Bill Frazer and Morgan Boyles paddled it in spring 2012), and the Opalescent’s highest reach is still up for a first descent.

Four of us met near Newcomb at Up­per Works parking area on March 13, 2011, in the heavy rain. Because the Opalescent is such a small river, we decided to run it during a spring storm, on a bubble of runoff and snowmelt. Two inches of rain were in the forecast. The High Peaks were still snowy, and the water table was high. We packed camping gear into our white-water kayaks and rigged them with shoulder straps for the hike.

Rain streamed in runnels beneath the snow. The trail was crusted in packed ice and hidden with a low-hanging mist. Our nine-foot kayaks made unwieldy backpacks, and we bent at the waist like old men to keep the boats out of the trees.

We reached Flowed Lands in the early evening to see fog rolling down from Mount Colden and Algonquin Peak. The valley floor filled with vapor. Around our campsite the humus was saturated to ankle-deep, frigid muck. We had worried that the river might be too low; now I started to worry about too much water. I walked down to Flowed Lands and twisted a stick into the mud at the shore as a gauge. It was raining when I fell asleep, and still raining when we woke up to scare away a curious bear. The gauge stick was eight inches underwater in the morning. Mats of bog detached from the opposite shore with wet, sucking noises and floated toward the gorge. Flowed Lands is an impounded stretch of the Opalescent, but with the rain and snow­melt it was starting to flow again.

Adirondack Iron & Steel Company flooded the Flowed Lands in the 19th century, diverting the Opalescent’s wa­ter into Calamity Brook and down to its blast furnaces at Upper and Lower Works. Most of the buildings have been removed, but the mine office still stands near the Upper Works trailhead with the 1850s blast furnace a few miles downstream. The National Lead mine at Tahawus has been closed some 30 years, after producing first iron, and later, 40 million tons of titanium.

It’s been more than a century since the ironworks maintained the Flowed Lands dam, and the Department of Environmental Conservation lowered it for safety reasons in the 1970s. Though once a lake, Flowed Lands is now merely a stillwater in the Opalescent’s downhill run. The river’s full volume courses over wrenched rebar and rubble at the southern end of Flowed Lands, following its ancient riverbed to the Hudson.

Downstream of the dam, the river plummets through a waterfall sluiceway, culminating with Hanging Spear Falls. At normal water levels it is a thin band of spray plunging 55 feet to meet a deep green pool. But when we arrived with our kayaks, Hanging Spear was a roaring hydrant. The river gathered in a mess of froth at the lip and pulsed viscously downstream. Instead of pausing in a calm pool the river rolled right into the first rapids of the next gorge.

Despite Squires’s promising reviews, few groups have attempted the river. Plenty of exciting white water flows through the High Peaks region, most with easy car access and online water level gauges. Paddling the Opalescent is a lot of hard work for an uncertain outcome; of the other groups who have hiked in since the first descent, many have found the river too low and hiked back out.

Looking down at our intended put-in, the river was decidedly too high. All of the portage trails were lost under riotous water. Instead of individual rapids separated by pools, the flooded gorge ran in a continuous series of corrugated waves breaking against the granite walls. The only eddies were more like slow spots in the riverwide current. We brewed a pot of coffee, took photos and agreed that we’d return for the lower gorge another day.

We perched at the rim of the hollowed rock cirque and sipped hot coffee. As the rain lightened, the Santanoni Range stood out downstream like a smudge in the clouds. The gorge walls leaned in glistening panels toward Hanging Spear. Across the river a steep ridge of spruce and birch divided the Opalescent from Calamity Brook.

We shouldered our boats again and walked two miles to the bottom of the gorge that we had hoped to paddle. Somewhere in these final miles, I seriously considered lofting the cast-iron skillet into the water. We brewed another pot of coffee and suited up to paddle to the Hudson confluence.

After 1,500 feet of elevation change, carrying 70-pound kayaks, we missed the substance of the white-water run. But there were still 16 miles of river before the Hudson confluence, just below Sanford Lake. It wasn’t hair-raising Class V, but it was just as rare. And because of the floodwaters we expected to move quickly.

I floated into the middle of the river, thankful to have the boat off my back. Cold air poured down the Opalescent corridor from 800 feet uphill. Downstream, the river broadened and took a sweeping turn. Without precipitous gradient to drill the river straight down through granite, it meandered around gravel bars and mossy banks.

We covered miles of easy white water, pushing through downed trees and thick alders. Occasionally we passed a bridge abutment, the debris of an aluminum rowboat, or glimpsed the railroad from the boom days of the Ta­hawus titanium mine.

We reached the railroad bridge by late afternoon, where I got out and walked two miles of track to the former mine pit, dragging my boat on the rails. The mist had thickened and hung as visible droplets in the air. Tall, rusty scales and cranes loomed along the rails over the squat forms of half-track dozers.

I dragged my kayak to the gated entrance of the mine. The mist gathered into a downpour and thunder echoed over Tahawus.

“We’ll be back,” I said. “Next year.”

I strapped the boat to the car and drove home along the Upper Hudson, watching the flooded river ripple and seam on its way to the sea.

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