Northern New York’s Secret Season

Rainbow Falls


Every year, hundreds of paddlers flock to the foothills of the Adirondacks to celebrate the last hurrah of whitewater at Beaverfest and Moosefest. The endless line of shuttle rigs parked along dirt access roads and motels packed with smelly boaters is a sight (and smell) to behold. But I’ll let you in on a little local’s secret: These “season enders” are really just the start. Once the leaves shrivel and drop from the trees, the slightest rain shower can raise the rivers exponentially higher than in the summer. There’s an entire secret season of New York whitewater. All it takes is a little bit of luck with the rain—and a lot of layers. Rumor has it, less than an hour from the put-in of the New York classics, there exists a handful of runnable rivers and creeks. You didn’t hear it from me though…

West Branch Oswegatchie (Class IV-V)
Fishing Access at the end of the Besha Road, Croghan, NY (44.004327, -75.257351)
Takeout: Fishing Access at Kilbourn Road Spur (43.981833, -75.293104)
Flows: ~2500+ cfs on the West Branch Oswegatchie Gauge Near Harrisville
Gauge Tip: This gauge is located below the confluence of the West and Main Branches of the Oswegatchie, and at times there’s more water coming from one branch than the other. Gauge readings offer a loose correlation only.

Fun slide on the West Branch of the Oswegatchie.

Five miles from the takeout of the Taylorville section of the Beaver, the West Branch of the Oswegatchie is one of the most overlooked sections of whitewater in New York. Horror stories abound about endless flatwater followed by huge rapids, and while it’s partly true, there is one big waterfall most people portage and a few stretches where the current seems to stop entirely, there are enough unique rapids sprinkled throughout to make it worth a look. The river starts flat and wide, but quickly narrows as it tumbles over a small man-made weir. A handful of small riffles follows, and aside from the occasional marker designating public fishing access, the river feels incredibly wild.

The first real rapid is a shallow slide with a few channels and some interesting holes. It’s only class III, but it provides a welcome warm-up for what lies ahead. The next set of rapids starts about 100 yards downstream and leads without pause over Besha Falls, a 25-footer that has broken at least two people’s backs. Take out above the lead-in and spend some time on the scout. If you plan to run Besha Falls, stay left and be aware of a hidden ledge in the center-right and right side of the falls. If you aren’t confident in your line and want to keep your spine intact, it’s relatively easy to portage down the river left side.

A fun slide to boof welcomes you immediately below the falls, followed by several class III rapids. Steep banks rise on either side as the river continues over several ledges and boulder gardens that only get better with higher flows. One of the best rapids on the river follows a brief spell of flatwater, funneling under a narrow footbridge and banking off a slanted bedrock wall.

Another extended stretch of marshy flatwater meanders before the final set of rapids. Marked by yet another narrow bridge over the river, a tricky slot drop leads into a big and incredibly bouncy slide called Kilbourn Falls. Trails on either side make it easy to run laps here, before making the half-mile walk out to the car. It’s possible to continue downstream for another four miles or so to Jerden Falls, but as of this writing, several strainers block the falls and the handful of class II rapids before the falls don’t really make it worth the charge.

Middle Branch Oswegatchie Section 4 (Class V)
Bryant Bridge Road (44.065191, -75.239890)
Takeout: Jerden Falls Road (44.098868, -75.282012)
Flows: ~2500+ cfs on the West Branch Oswegatchie Gauge Near Harrisville
Gauge Tip: This gauge is located below the confluence of the West and Main Branches of the Oswegatchie, and at times there is more water coming from one branch than the other. Gauge readings offer a loose correlation only.

Rainbow Falls, Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie.

Just a bit farther from the Beaver than the West Branch is the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie. It’s a far more commonly run stretch, and with good reason. Running every rapid on Sections 3 and 4 of the Middle Branch makes for one of the biggest days in New York whitewater. Cutting out a few long stretches of flatwater but saving all but one of the best drops, Section 4 is the more favored section.

For those interested in Section 3, simply continue upstream from the put in of Section 4 until you reach the next bridge over the river. A handful of slides and ledge drops (warning: all with big holes), a stout double drop (that’s usually portaged), and some Class III boogie break up the flatwater that leads to the marquee drop: Rainbow Falls. In my opinion, the chunky 45-footer and its lead-in are worth the flatwater sludge and portage.

Section 4 begins deceptively calm. Don’t let yourself fall into complacency. A quarter-mile downstream from the put-in is Trashcan Falls. So named for its generally trashy nature, the river drops about 15 feet in a confusing tumult of ledges and shallow landings. Many people opt to portage, or “Take Out The Trash” sneaking down a steep and bony slide to the left of the island. Trashcan is followed by more flatwater.

Rounding the next sharp bend, paddlers will find an excellent boof under a cable bridge on river left. The hole here is very sticky, but the move is straightforward. The Toothferry is next, a steep slide into a massive hole with a narrow outlet on river right. A rock lurks somewhere in the recirculating eddy on the left and has claimed at least one tooth in the past. Don’t underestimate the boogie in the next few bends of the river, many of the shallow slides have big holes and thin lines around or through them.

The next horizon is reminiscent of Fowlersville Falls on the Moose, but narrower. And taller. Definitely taller. Panther Falls is one of the biggest and easiest slides you can find in New York. Scout from the lip on river right and make sure you have a solid landmark to guide you as you take the plunge. I like to use the bubble line/seam that drops right down the center. Don’t worry, you’ll see it when you get there. By now, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that more flatwater awaits at the bottom of this massive drop.

Sluice Falls

A nearly 180-degree turn and a dull roar is the only warning of the most intimidating drop on the Oswegatchie—Sluice Falls. Take out above the first mini-ledge and scout from the right; it will help you line up for the drop if you decide to run it and the last chance eddy is deceptively tough to catch. At Sluice, the entire river funnels through a wedge-shaped crack about four feet wide, all the while dropping close to 15 feet. Then it does it again 25 yards downstream. The top half of Sluice is portaged as often as it’s run, but the less consequential second half is often harder to pass up. A few boogie rapids and a long stretch of flatwater round out the run.

South Branch of the Grass (Class V)
Tooley Pond Road (Rainbow Falls Pull Off) (44.307360, -74.994179)
Takeout: Lake George Road bridge (44.337416, -75.045815)
~2500+ cfs on the West Branch Oswegatchie Gauge Near Harrisville
Gauge Tip: This gauge is located below the confluence of the West and Main Branches of the Oswegatchie, and at times there is more water coming from one branch than the other. Gauge readings offer a loose correlation only.

Large Marge on the Grass.

If you finished the Oswegatchie and you’re still looking for more, drive the extra half hour to the tiny hamlet of Degrasse and the waterfalls on the South Branch of the Grass. This run starts out with a short hike into Large Marge, an intimidating and unforgiving cascade that drops about 40 feet in a rough cascade. Hit the sweet spot, though, and you’ll enjoy a surprisingly smooth ride down a steep tongue and into a big hit in the hole at the bottom. Scout your line carefully; the entry can be trickier than it looks.

Just downstream, follow the left channel through a short but sweet mini-gorge. Continuous class II will sweep you into a much harder and longer mini-gorge, with several holes to dodge. It’s imperative to stay left of the pyramid-shaped boulder at the end. The bus-sized rock is severely undercut. Class II continues without pause around the next bend, where paddlers will finally be able to catch their breath in a moving pool. A few more riffles lead to Flat Rock Falls, a chunky slide ending in a ferocious hole. If the water is low, you may have to find a line down the center and deal with the consequences, but at medium to high levels, a sneak opens up on the far left that avoids the worst of things.

Adrenaline Falls

The river mellows to moving flatwater for the next mile, but the scenery is excellent. The break also gives your adrenal glands time to recover before Adrenaline Falls. A long Class III lead-in can be broken up with a couple eddies on the right. Scout early to pick out a landmark for the main event, a short slide into a powerful hole. It usually goes better than you might expect. Usually. Another short stint of flatwater leads to an unnamed series of ledge holes and, shortly after, another big horizon line. Twin Falls is another intimidating but easy waterfall, dropping about 40 feet in three big bounces. A fun boulder rapid waits at the end of the short pool.

Flatwater and one more boulder rapid lead to the bridge at Sinclair Falls. Sinclair gets run occasionally, but the terrifying hole at the bottom generally deters people.

Black River (Hole Brothers) Park & Play (Class III+)
Newell Street (43.980939, -75.916493)
Flows: 15,000-17,000+ cfs

Moving back into familiar territory, most people know the Black River offers some of the best and most consistent playboating in New York, especially at Hole Brothers. But until recently the river was more or less ignored when it crested over 10,000 cfs. As it turns out, Hole Brothers transforms into two separate massive waves, the smaller of which has surprisingly good eddy service. Known as Little and Big Brother, the two features start to come in around 15,000 cfs and get bigger and better with more water. Little Brother is the perfect party wave, stretching close to 50 feet wide, and Big Brother offers a powerful pit of Stakeout proportions.

Bovine Falls Park & Huck (Class V)
Brownville Bridge (44.000225, -75.981406)
Flows: HIGH

Tony Gianfagna in the thick of Bovine Falls.

Just a few miles downstream from Hole Brothers, a tiny tributary can turn into one of the most coveted big drops in New York. Bovine Falls plummets 40 feet into the Black River Canyon near the raft run’s takeout, but it’s incredibly flashy, often coming in and out of runnable flows on the same day. The falls was named after one of the local guides noticed the carcass of an unfortunate cow trapped in a thick bush at the lip of the falls.

The falls has only been run by a handful of paddlers, mostly because of its flashy nature, but it also has a few notable setbacks. One, the edge of the falls is located on private property, and although there haven’t been any issues with the landowner, local law enforcement has yet to decide on an official stance regarding its ownership. Either way, it’s important to get a good look at the lip of the drop, especially at lower flows. And two, the falls require some level of preemptive maintenance. Thick brush grows in the normally dry streambed year after year. If you happen to be in the area when multiple inches of rainfall is forecasted, play it safe and don’t follow in the hooves of the bovine.

Inman Gulf (Class II-III, IV+)
Barnes Corners, NY (43.818328, -75.817087)
Takeout: Rodman, NY (43.852444, -75.935010)
Flows: ~2,500 cfs on Sandy Creek Near Adams Gauge
Gauge Tip: This gauge is located below the confluence of the Sandy and Gulf Stream, and at times there is more water coming from one stream than the other. Gauge readings offer a loose correlation only.

Inman Gulf is off in the middle of nowhere on Tug Hill, but if Class III (with one Class IV+ section) and incredible scenery is your thing, it’s a must do. Inman Gulf is another run requiring high water, but when it’s in, it features eight miles of non-stop whitewater, with another four miles of intermittent Class II. During its 12-mile course, there are only three or four places with any sign of human existence.

The run starts winding its way into a narrow shale gorge immediately below the put-in, with dark gray walls rising vertically out of the river. The walls grow and the river twists sinuously around corner after corner, with wave trains throughout. About half a mile in, the ledges start. This section would be quite beefy with high water, especially since the holes at the bottom of each ledge are boxed in by the canyon walls. After the second ledge, an abrupt turn leads to a multi-stage horizon. This is the hardest and largest drop, a 12-foot waterfall with a shallow landing in the middle and a nasty pocket on the right. Scout from the right. Portaging would be tough, but not impossible.

From here, the river mellows to continuous Class II-III, with the occasional logjam complicating things. Throughout, the scenery seems to get better around every bend. A massive waterfall pouring in on river right is an especially remarkable image, made even better by the small surf wave that faces the falls. The gorge is over 300 feet deep in some places, and floating along the bottom provides a perspective unlike any other. There’s just enough whitewater and surfable waves to keep things interesting, and the long run can be done in a half day if you keep things moving. A final pinch in the river makes one last Class III rapid a few hundred yards above the takeout, ending things on a high note.

There is so much more to explore in New York than the dam release classics, and the season often extends well into early December, as long as you have enough layers and a good set of pogies. But remember, it’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone.