We give the Mountain pulpit to Jared Hogle, River Steward with American Whitewater.
I never thought I would become a River Steward. Six years ago I wasn't even a whitewater kayaker. Rivers didn't mean much to me, then. But these past five years have found me fighting for what is arguably one of the most scenic and beautiful rivers in the Northeast: the Ausable, with its headwaters in the Adirondacks. A mild whitewater stream in most sections, the Ausable runs through the Ausable Chasm, a narrow gorge about two miles long with walls on both sides that soar (or plummet, depending on your perspective) from 40 to 100 feet. The Chasm is located near Lake Champlain, northeast of the Adirondack High Peaks. It's here that the river drops sharply into Class III and IV rapids that run all summer long. For its consistent whitewater independent of dam releases, the appeal to Northeastern whitewater boaters is obvious. But the Chasm is also staggeringly beautiful. The Ausable Chasm company has been providing guided sightseeing tours on this section of river since 1870.
But as long as the Ausable Chasm has been a tourist attraction, it has been closed to public recreation. The New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) hasn't allowed recreational boaters to portage around their hydro facility in the Chasm, effectively shutting down the rapids even though federal law requires dam owners allow such public access. In 2004, the group American Whitewater saw a chance to gain access and seized the moment. Every 40 years, dam owners must renew their contract with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). During this renewal process, FERC granted American Whitewater a chance to prove that boaters could safely paddle the Chasm. A study was held, which consisted of allowing boaters to test the safety of the river by paddling it. It naturally went off seamlessly. The case for year-round public access was made.
You might assume that as an American Whitewater River Steward I must by now be a Class V-plus boater—chucking myself off the sickest drops and punching through the stickiest of holes—and that perhaps I was the first to paddle the Chasm on that study day in 2004. Not even close. When I started my stewardship, I was still learning my combat roll and challenging myself in Class II rapids. But I had a desire to see the rapids opened for other paddlers. Still today, I am only an average boater, but my passion for public waterways is Class V.
Before I could even begin to contemplate paddling the Chasm, I felt that I must take action. Some friends and I started writing letters. It snowballed. We, in turn, rallied more than 100 boaters and local businesses to submit letters to the secretary of FERC. Spurred on by the small success, I started a campaign to get the word out through local televisions and radio. This was the beginning of my role as an American Whitewater River Steward.
And the payoff? In the spring of this year, the Ausable Chasm will be open to paddlers. The struggle for the Chasm has been a testament to the power of acting locally to affect change. But for the national goals of American Whitewater, the process of opening the Chasm has been yet another targeted endeavor well fought.
A fight that paid off for Northeastern boaters and local businesses: On average, a river that has a consistent flow can bring $300,000 to $1 million in recreation dollars to a community each year.
As a River Steward I've learned that individual actions matter. But more importantly I've bought into the core mission of American Whitewater, which is "to conserve and restore America's whitewater resources and to enhance opportunities to enjoy them safely." The passion I have for increasing paddling advocacy and for supporting my community will not end with the opening of the Ausable Chasm.
Please visit americanwhitewater.org for more information. From the Spring 2010 issue. Subscribe today, get the magazine at the iTunes store, or find Mountain at Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Gander Mountain, and other natural foods and outdoor stores.