INDIAN LAKE - For many, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Gov. Andrew Cuomo called it a training run for today's main event.
More than 150 people took to the rapids of the Indian River Sunday afternoon in the inaugural Adirondack Challenge, a 3-mile whitewater paddling race that featured state and local elected officials from across New York, including many first-time paddlers and newcomers to the Adirondacks. The event was part of a three-day festival that wraps up today with a much-hyped face-off on the river between Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"This was the warm-up for the (race with the) mayor," a soaking wet Cuomo told reporters Sunday at the confluence of the Indian and Hudson rivers, which served as the race's finish line. "I'm ready now. We actually perfected our technique coming down the river. So the mayor's going to have his hands full."
Paddlers in Essex County’s raft compete in Sunday’s Adirondack Challenge. From left are county attorney Dan Manning, Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee, (behind Ferebee) Lake Placid village Mayor Craig Randall, North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi, guide Bill (last name unknown), Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery Corey and Jay Supervisor Randy Douglas.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
While there was plenty of trash-talking and ribbing going on before, during and after Sunday's races, it was all in good fun and all for a good cause, Cuomo said later.
"There was a serious purpose to it, obviously, and that was about getting the word out about the Adirondacks and increasing tourism," he said during an awards ceremony at Gore Mountain Ski Center in North Creek.
Organizers and participants dubbed Sunday's races a success. Local officials said the event didn't draw anywhere near as many people to Indian Lake as the 3,000 they had been told to expect, which they said was disappointing. However, they said those who did come had fun, and they still felt the event was worth the effort.
The day began with 10- and 15-mile flatwater paddling races on Indian Lake that drew a field of just under 100 participants and about 50 spectators. Participants in the featured 15-mile pro race paddled down the lake 5 miles in their four-person canoes, went up the Jessup River, turned around and returned to the boat launch.
The first team to cross the finish line and claim $2,500 in prize money was Shane MacDowell of South Portland, Maine, Matt Rudnitsky of Webster, and Jennifer and Judy Ann Park of Quebec in a time of 1 hour, 51 minutes and 56 seconds.
Race organizer Brian McDonnell, of Mac's Canoe Livery in Lake Clear, said he was happy with the turnout for the first-time event, considering few of the racers had paddled Indian Lake before. He said the number of state and local agencies involved in putting on this event made coordinating it a challenge, but he thinks it achieved the goal of promoting the Adirondacks and provided an economic boost to the area.
"A lot of our folks ate in restaurants (Saturday) night," McDonnell said. "More than half of them camped at Lewey Lake campground. Some of them stayed in hotels and motels. A lot of folks are going to stick around for the day. The idea of economic impact, just with this event, is happening.
"And the greater visibility of Indian Lake and the (newly acquired) Finch lands, and the promotion of that, it can only benefit the paddling community. I think people are going to discover Lake Pleasant. I think they're going to discover Indian Lake. Up until this race, I had never paddled on this lake, and it's a gorgeous lake. Do I think more paddlers will come here? Yes, I do."
State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens took in the flatwater race from a pontoon boat with McDonnell.
"This puts a spotlight on the Adirondacks," Martens said. "It's remarkable that the interior of the Park is not more popular than it is. Lots of places like Lake George, Lake Placid seem to get all the traffic. It's great to pull people into the interior of the Park."
The elected and appointed officials participating in the whitewater race, and more than two dozen news media from across the state, gathered at Indian Lake Central School around 11 a.m. to get their race bibs, sign waivers and listen to safety briefings from local rafting outfitters.
There was also plenty of joking around.
"I've been training nonstop. I've been paddling for weeks getting ready for this," said village of Saranac Lake Trustee Barbara Rice. "Actually, I haven't paddled a bit for this. But I have been walking my dog and staying fit. It's really a mental thing. It's about believing you can win."
Asked if there was any pressure to let the governor win, Franklin County Clerk Kip Cassavaugh quipped, "We were told not to embarrass him. It went that far."
"Especially when they saw our team," Rice said. "They came to us and said, 'Keep it kind of calm.' Especially since we have (Saranac Lake) Mayor (Clyde) Rabideau with us. He's not very competitive at all."
"Seriously though, it's a fantastic promotional event," Cassavaugh said. "Look at all the vehicles in the parking lot. It would be on the level of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival almost if it builds the way we're talking."
The teams were ferried by school buses to the put-in on Chain Lakes Road. Along the way they passed two groups of protesters who held up signs and chanted, calling for repeal of the Cuomo-backed SAFE Act gun control legislation.
At the put-in, the roughly 25 teams were assigned to rafts and guides representing the 10 rafting companies that make up the Hudson River Professional Outfitters Association. There were teams of state agency commissioners, tourism officials, labor industry representatives, SUNY officials, county leaders from as far away as Essex and Suffolk counties, and Senate and Assembly teams.
Cuomo was in raft No. 1 along with his daughters Cara and Michaela and some of his top aides, including Larry Schartz and Alphonso David. The teams left at one-minute intervals and paddled through the river's class 3 rapids for roughly 20 minutes before reaching the finish line.
"We had a great time," said Jim McKenna, head of the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. He paddled in the North Country Regional Economic Development Council raft. "There was a team behind us, but we kept them at bay."
"We were just glad to still be in our boats at the end," said Regional Council Co-Chair and Clarkson University President Tony Collins.
Cuomo, who had first mentioned the idea of the Adirondack Challenge in his State of the State speech earlier this year, shook hands with the competitors as they got out of their rafts.
"See all these smiles," he told reporters. "That's worth something in and of itself. And I want to expose this part of the state of New York. Tourism is a big part of the economy, and this has great potential as a tourism opportunity."
Cuomo spoke to the Enterprise one-on-one for several minutes as the teams walked back up to where the buses were parked. He admitted that the invite-only event was basically a publicity stunt.
"Yeah, that's what it is," Cuomo said. "But that's what we needed. We needed to get people to see it and enjoy it. It's the exposure through the media. You're not going to get thousands of people to drive up on one day to a rafting race. But you can have a race that exposes the area to 50 million tourists in New York City. We have to just get part of that market north."
"That's why, in some ways, Mayor Bloomberg is so perfect for this because he's the quintessential downstate person. He travels all over the world. If he comes to the Adirondacks and says, 'Boy, that was great,' we'll get press in the downstate market."
Cuomo's chief of staff, Josh Vlasto, said the event cost the state $150,000 to $175,000.
"That's out of a $60 million tourism budget," he said. "Think about the attention and exposure, the bang for your buck. It's not even close to the value you're going to get from the free publicity."
Back in the hamlet of Indian Lake, cars were parked on both sides of the street near the entrance to Byron Park, where there was a Taste New York food festival, live music, canoes and guideboats on display, fly-fishing demonstrations and games for kids.
Although things looked busy, town Clerk Julie Clawson said only about 800 people had come through the gates by late afternoon. Most were year-round or seasonal residents of the Indian Lake area, although some tourists showed up, she said.
"I wouldn't even say we hit 1,000," Clawson said. "We were told 2,000 to 4,000. We're disappointed. We went through a whole lot for this."
Clawson said there should have been more and earlier advertising.
"So much was kept quiet," she said. "We had a lot of people - out-of-town people - come through who didn't even know this was happening today."
Tim Pine, owner of Pine's Country Store, said he was happy with the amount of traffic in town.
"I guess I didn't know what to expect, so anything was good," he said. "Seeing everybody down here (at the park), it's awesome. If it helps bring people to the town that haven't been here before and they say, 'Wow, we should come back again,' it's done its job."
Some locals told the Enterprise they were upset with the last-minute decision to move the awards ceremony for the whitewater race to Gore Mountain. It had been planned for Byron Park. State officials said they made the change because they needed a larger venue to serve food for the race's participants.
Speaking in the Gore Mountain base lodge, Cuomo thanked the local, county and state officials who helped to put on the Adirondack Challenge.
"We truly appreciate all the time, all the energy, all the effort," he said. "This was a fantastic day on every level. It couldn't have been planned any better. It couldn't have been executed any better."
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, thanked Cuomo for bringing the event to the Adirondacks, calling him the region's "number-one fan.
"No governor has paid more attention to the Adirondacks and the North Country," Little said. "He's been with us side by side through all kinds of issues and he really understands the need for help to turn the Adirondacks' economy around."
Awards were handed out during the ceremony. Results of the race were also announced. The governor's boat edged out the state Senate and Assembly teams, making it through the stretch of river in 18 minutes, 56 seconds, compared to the Senate's 19:58 and the Assembly's 20:26.
Asked if it was a strange coincidence that the governor's team won, local outfitters who've paddled with Cuomo said they didn't doubt the results and said he'd assembled a team of strong paddlers. However, one member of the Assembly team told the Enterprise it was doubtful the Senate team finished with a faster time than they did, as they had caught up to the Senate raft by the end of the race, erasing the one-minute lead.
Asked if there will be another Adirondack Challenge next year, Cuomo said he's open to it.
"It was very much driven by the local community," he said. "We'll talk after this. If they want to do it again, I'll do it again. I think there's something to doing it more than once and building up a following."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.