Whitewater group wants to make waves

The wave under the George LaPan Highway bridge could be moved downstream with to create a bigger drop for freestyle kayaking. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

SARANAC LAKE — Local whitewater enthusiasts are looking hard at the Saranac River where it flows through the village and wondering if the waves under the George LaPan bridge could become something bigger.

At Monday night’s village board meeting, Scott McKim approached the board to ask the village to support the Saranac Lake Whitewater Park initiative with a resolution. McKim said “park” might be the wrong word, as their hope is to design a single feature: a drop in the river where freestyle kayakers can play and practice whitewater skills.

McKim’s partner in the venture, Tyler Merriam, said they’re not asking the village for money.

“We’d be pursuing independent funding,” said Merriam. “We want to have success on our own before we ask for grants.”

“We think it will go a long way toward making Saranac Lake a paddling mecca,” said McKim.

Jim Sausville used to teach kayaking on the Saranac River between the dam and the Dorsey Street bridge. Others credit him with setting up a kayaking course by moving some of the boulders in the stream. This new project would require more than manpower, however. McKim and Merriam met with Sausville one day at Origin Coffee and “we started to roll from there,” said McKim.

“We met with Jim and he gave us his paperwork and some people to contact, so we started to call people.” Momentum built from there, he said, as more people heard about it and supported the idea.

McKim is looking toward heavy equipment and a professional whitewater course design.

“It’s an expensive proposition, but there are places for funding,” Sausville said. “There are all sorts of different organizations that offer funding for outdoor recreation or lifestyle enhancement.”

“I’m really excited that some other paddlers have stepped up to do this,” he said. “The DEC and the village regulate the flow of the river. We can’t change that; we need to design the playspot to match the water we have.”

Another consideration is that the water can’t be backed up against the dam, which would affect the village’s hydropower generation.

A lot of the freestyle water parks are designed now, said Sausville. “Either boulders have been moved, or even in some places they’ve built concrete jetties.”

Sausville and Jason Smith used to teach beginner whitewater skills on the Saranac River in the 1990s.

“We built a slalom area, added gates,” said Sausville. “We set it up so it was a beginner-friendly area.”

“You don’t need raging whitewater to learn how if feels to have your boat move in and out of an eddy,” said Smith. “At the bottom of it, you could go in there and just learn basic moving skills.”

Kayaks have changed since the ’90s. Blunt-nosed kayaks built with surfboard materials came into vogue and freestyle kayaking caught on, in which the paddlers flip, turn and roll on fast-moving water.

Sausville said, “They used to do a lot more river running and slalom races. Now they want a play spot or a hole where they can drop onto the wave.”

In Saranac Lake, the channel changed, too. Some bridge abutments were removed, sediments have accumulated, and major high water events, like Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, shoved the boulders around.

“The main channel needs to have a free-flowing area where the speed builds up and drops down into a pool, it makes a wave,” said Sausville.

The river already has drops above and below the LaPan Highway bridge. McKim and Merriam are thinking the channel could be redesigned so that instead of two little drops, one bigger drop could be created about 100 feet downstream.

“We’re hoping to enhance fish habitat there as well,” said Merriam. “A whitewater course designer could come up with fishing enhancement, so you have all the stakeholders on board.”

Nearby St. Regis Outfitters recently revamped its boat launch into the river and enhanced water access with new, wide concrete steps. Although they are not involved in the whitewater park project, owner Dave Cilley said they are definitely supporting it.