PLATTSBURGH — An old idea to put a whitewater kayak park in downtown Plattsburgh is starting to make waves.
When Ryan Ward has a free moment, he reaches for his kayak. To watch him navigate the Saranac River’s sweeping current when the white-capped water is high is to witness gracefulness in an unlikely setting.
Yes, he makes it look easy.
But the ability to surf eddies and perform Eskimo rolls — a move that rights the kayaker after capsizing — comes with practice; something Ward commits himself to with unabashed fervor. In fact, the 22-year-old’s pursuit of the sport has been so relentless that he has paddled his way from beginner to assistant instructor in only one year.
And the Saranac River has been an integral part of his learning process.
“Last season, I was on the water five or six days a week,” Ward said. “We have an excellent whitewater kayak training ground right in our backyard.”
Ward is one of many local kayakers who support the idea of creating a whitewater kayak park from the South Catherine Street bridge to downtown Plattsburgh, and he thinks that support could also pour in from the community.
“I was kayaking the Saranac with some friends recently, and there were some kids on the shore watching us,” Ward said. “I paddled over and asked them if they would learn to kayak if they had the opportunity to do so, and they said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I’d say we have people show interest like that at least once a week.”
Steve Maynard, a world-class kayaker and head paddling instructor of Plattsburgh State’s expeditionary studies program, introduced Ward to kayaking, and to the Saranac. Maynard uses the river to teach his students, and thinks the city could use it to promote recreation and tourism as well.
The problem is, in its present state, the river’s water level is usually too low in mid-July and August to be run. The solution, Maynard said, is to pinch the river in a few places to facilitate a consistent flow, and then rearrange some rocks to create features.
“An assessment would have to be done, but when I saw them working on the General Electric plant, I thought some of that equipment could be used to move rocks around,” Maynard said. “This could be a good time to get a project like this finished quickly and cheaply.”
Feeling inspired, Maynard attended a city council meeting last spring and put the idea in front of the board, but interest from the common council, he said, was lacking.
“My heart just sank,” Maynard said. “They wouldn’t even consider it. I’m at the point now where I don’t know what else to do.”
Maynard might have recently brought the proposal to the attention of the city, but talk of a kayak park in Plattsburgh has ebbed and swelled since Larry Soroka, chair of the expeditionary studies program, concocted the idea about fifteen years ago.
“I meet people all the time while kayaking who tell me they are from other places, like Boston or Buffalo, and they come here to kayak,” Soroka said. “One day, it just clicked.”
The day it clicked, Soroka was in Saranac Lake, waiting for a friend in the parking lot of the town’s small whitewater kayak park. He watched as a woman pulled up in a station wagon to drop off three young boys, who got out and headed to the river to kayak.
“I thought about how those kids could be hanging out on some steps somewhere, doing whatever, but instead they’re getting exercise and enjoying the day,” Soroka said.
A seed was planted, and the more Soroka considered it, the better the idea seemed.
“If we (Plattsburgh) limit our thinking to the easy and obvious, we’ll be doomed to short-term growth,” Soroka said. “Instead, we can be thinking about recreation in general, about building a brand and a reputation that costs little to nothing to maintain once it’s in place.”
Soroka added that whitewater kayak parks have been springing up in U.S. cities for 20 years, and that they have been proven to add to local economies.
“We have people calling my office all the time asking about outdoor recreation in the area,” Soroka said. “People want to live, play and move to areas where there are recreational opportunities.”
In August 2001, a small non-profit organization in Rochester called Genesee Waterways Center took the plunge and opened the city’s Lock 32 kayak park.
Cindy Stachowski, the non-profit’s executive director, said the park has become a prominent part of the community and has given rise to festivals and competitions like Lockapalooza, an event that draws national athletes, who demonstrate their skills on the river.
“So far, I haven’t seen any negative impacts to having the kayak park,” Stachowski said. “The water in the Northeast is abundant and should be celebrated.”
But Lock 32 is more than a magnet for recreation—it is also utilized as a training ground for the area’s swift water rescue team.
Reliable whitewater is something Chris Bresett, team leader of Champlain Valley Search and Rescue, said could be an invaluable asset to his team, which trains monthly.
“We live in an area with a lot of major rivers, and, as we’ve learned recently, they can come up fast,” Bresett said. “A kayak park can give us access to conditions that are closer to what we actually deal with during a rescue. It would give us real-life training”
As an avid kayaker, Bresett has visited several kayak parks, including one in Alabama and a few in Colorado.
“A kayak park creates a safe place for people to learn to kayak,” Bresett said. “If we build one it will bring people, and money, to the area.”
Having a kayak park might draw people to Plattsburgh, but the actual cost of creating one locally is unknown.
Steve Peters, Plattsburgh’s superintendent of recreation, said a feasibility study would have to be done before the project could even be considered, but wouldn’t comment on whether the city would get behind the study.
“We are aware of the potential use of the river, but right now it’s only conceptual,” Peters said. “No one is committed to anything, it’s just being talked about.”
In the meantime, paddlers will have to settle for enjoying the river the way it is.
“If we do a preliminary assessment and find it isn’t feasible, then at least we know we can put the issue to rest,” Soroka said. “But if we find we can build it, it could become a meaningful piece of our future.”