Saranac Lake Whitewater Project

Reviving the Saranac Lake River Walk area is a vital component of community revitalization in Saranac Lake. We are working to bring back the Whitewater Park to create education and recreation opportunities. 

Whitewater Park

A whitewater park is an area on a river in which the flow and gradient have been altered in order to create river “features” that lend themselves to canoeists, kayakers, or even stand up paddleboards being able to do tricks, race, and perform other recreational activities. These features can be holes, waves, or some combination of the two. Holes are created when water flows over a submerged and immobile object, thus causing the water to recirculate and flow back upstream (sometimes referred to as a hydraulic). Waves are similar to holes but have a smooth face of water that rushes up and down their peak, rather than a drop off into a hydraulic. Additionally, waves have less of a recirculating hydraulic flow than holes. Simply imagine the wake of a motor boat in only one location on a river, and you have a wave.  

Whitewater parks usually combine both waves and holes to create an interconnected system of features perfect for the adventure seeker.  In Saranac Lake we are trying to rebuild a single whitewater feature, most likely a wave. The nice thing about a single feature is that it allows for enjoyment by paddlers, tubers and boogieboarders alike.  Similar whitewater parks, surrounded by trails and recreational areas, have not only achieved their original objectives of providing a venue for local water sports enthusiasts, but have often exceeded expectations by becoming focal points for their communities and recreational destinations for outdoor tourism on a regional basis. 

Saranac Lake’s Whitewater Legacy

This is not the first time this section of the Saranac River has been used for whitewater recreation. In 1995 a group of local whitewater paddlers joined together to build what was to be known as the Hydro Point Park Project, which was comprised of the still-existent River Walk, as well as a beginner whitewater kayak/canoe practice area. This whitewater training area extended from the foot of Lake Flower Dam to an area across the river from the current Beaver Park, then called the Boy Scout Canoe Launch. The training area covered 500 feet of river and included 24 wooden slalom gates, similar to the gates used for the summer Olympics. During the construction of this training area, whitewater racing was quite popular, and slalom courses were popping up all over the country, even showing up in college pools.

To create the whitewater training area several jetties were installed using local stone and other natural materials. Most of the labor for construction came from volunteers, including members of a paddling club called Adirondack Paddlers, as well as students in the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program at North Country Community College. Combined with a new Riverwalk and surrounding landscaping, the whole area was a sight to behold! Others seemingly thought so as well because the training area received a lot of use from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.

In 1995, the year the whitewater training area was completed, the first annual Riverfest was held at Hydro Point Park. This three-day fundraising event for the Riverwalk attracted boaters from across the northeastern United States, many of whom were there specifically for whitewater activities. Popular kayaking brands such as Dagger and Perception offered free boat demos, and the Riverfest Slalom Race held at the whitewater training area saw dozens of participants!

Festivals weren’t the only activity to happen at Hydro Point Park. Whitewater canoe and kayak instructional courses were also a well-attended pastime. For over 10 years local youth were taught by paddling instructors Jim Sausville (the project director for the whitewater training area construction) and Jason Smith (the owner of Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters). Some of the best whitewater paddlers in the state learned from their courses and experienced top-level education in paddling. Jim and Jason are often known for their stories of learning how to roll a kayak and racing in the slalom course gates during their younger years.

 

Time to Rebuild

Whatever happened to the whitewater training area; where does it stand today? Due to flooding, a leadership turnover, and financial constraints this area fell into disrepair in the mid-2000s. A brief resurgence took place in the late 2000s when an Eagle Scout project led by local whitewater kayaker Luke Eckert spent a great deal of effort restoring some of the features and making the training area usable again. However, mother nature had her own plans, and the “500-year flood” of 2011 sealed the fate of the whitewater training area. It has sat in a state of disrepair ever since, despite several local groups, such as Paul Smith’s College and North Country School, still using it for educational purposes.

Fast forward to modern times. In 2016, local whitewater boater Scott McKim and board members of AdkAction met with Jim Sausville to discuss the possibility of rebuilding the whitewater park. The popularity of slalom racing has diminished in the last few decades, but demand for whitewater boating continues to grow. Playboating, or staying on one feature and practicing, continues to be one of the best ways to enjoy whitewater boating, as well as training for other whitewater activities. From speaking to several experts in the field, a single-feature whitewater park on the Saranac River was determined to be the most practical, universally-enjoyable, and permanent option. Since that meeting, there has been a lot of progress and loads of public support for the project. 

FAQ

The Saranac Lake Whitewater Park Project (Project) is an initiative pioneered by a few local paddlers and engaged citizens who see an opportunity to leverage the unique paddling culture of Saranac Lake and add to the vitality of the village’s downtown area. This whitewater park will modify a section of the Saranac River in the area of the Route 3 La Pan bridge to enhance its natural features to provide whitewater opportunities accessible to boats of all kinds, including canoes, kayaks, inner tubes, rafts, SUPs, and other watercraft. We propose to build a single river-wide standing wave that can be played in and around at various river levels throughout the year. We intend to optimize the existing swift current at this location to promote natural rehabilitation of the streambed and restore the shoreline for fish and wild habitat and safe access.

We are a small and committed group of local citizens who care deeply about our town and the functionality of our downtown area. We are paddlers, fishermen, and environmentally-conscious locals who want to implement sustainable locally-branded development into the revitalization of our village’s downtown. AdkAction.org is hosting the project underneath their organizational umbrella and helping with all their usual high level of capacity, skill, knowledge, and guidance.

Whitewater parks are simple, typically low-impact, paddling areas that have benefits on many levels. As demonstrated in the United States, Canada, and Europe, whitewater parks add recreational value (e.g., boating and fishing) and create a focus point at the river allowing for increased economic opportunities. Whitewater parks have become very popular in river towns where they act as magnets and draw boaters, anglers, and tourists alike to the river. The Saranac River courses through the heart of the village and is largely hidden being tucked between buildings, parking lots and off the main street. As the River Walk is revitalized, creation of the whitewater park will compliment the economic growth and aesthetic enhancement of downtown Saranac Lake.

The section of the Saranac River where the whitewater park is proposed is currently in a noticeably different and degraded condition compared to the natural river that ran through the area prior to the early 1800s. The dam on Lake Flower was built in 1827 and since then the section of river within the village has been altered and reshaped to accommodate downtown development. Currently, lengths of the river bank are lined with large unnatural boulders that channelize the flow and the natural riparian area has been modified and reduced, diminishing the function of the vegetated buffer adjacent to the river. Creation of the whitewater park will restore natural elements such as eddies and pools in this section of river to provide fish habitat. Rehabilitation of the shoreline will repair the riparian area adjacent to the stream while providing safe access for fishing and boating.

Since the Project’s inception in 2015, we have raised money from various sources, including private donations, some local grants, and through the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. While we have enough funds to launch the initial stages of the Project, we will continue to raise funds until the Project is complete.

It is a common misconception that the goal of this project is to create a whitewater park only for advanced paddlers. Our plan is to create a holistic project that includes recreation opportunities for paddlers, boaters, etc. plus stream and habitat restoration that would enhance the river benefitting fish and wildlife. Kayaking, canoeing, rafting, and even river surfing, will be some of the many new recreational components of the Project. The Project also aims to improve fishing, restore the river banks to a healthy and sustainable condition, and create safe opportunities for boaters, anglers and the public to recreate in and on the Saranac River. In addition to the social and environmental benefits to the region as a result of the Project, the public and private funding will support the local economy. Visitors and users of the whitewater park will also contribute to the local economy by eating at local restaurants, buying gear at local outfitters, etc.

Prior to hiring a design firm and investing a ton of volunteer hours and effort into this project we completed a Feasibility Study that aimed to consider if a whitewater park would be viable in this location, from an environmental, social, health, and cultural perspective. You can review our feasibility study here.

The Project design process will be driven toward the necessary permitting requirements. The regulatory process requirements will be followed to ensure proper consideration of the natural health of the river area, make sure best management practices are followed, and to consider long-term viability of the area. We have proactively reached out to the various local, state, and federal regulatory agencies that will be part of the permitting process, and we will file appropriate permit applications once design is adequate for their consideration. Work will not begin on the Project until the permitting process is complete.

We do not want to rush through a project that later has issues that were not considered during the earlier stages of design and implementation. We hope to have a design set around the fall of 2021 and work through permitting during the winter and spring of 2021-22, with construction hopefully to follow summer of 2022 or 2023.

Hydroelectric power generation from the Lake Flower dam will not be affected. Stakeholders have expressed concern that the construction of the Project would affect the level of the water downstream of dam, thereby affecting the capacity of the dam to generate hydroelectric power, which is currently bought by the Village of Saranac Lake. Avoiding impacts on the dam and its ability to generate hydroelectric power has been a primary consideration in the design of theProject and the Project has been designed to avoid these impacts in all phases.

We are fishermen ourselves and recognize fishing as an integral part of the local culture and care deeply about the overall biological health of the Saranac River and its watershed. The location where the whitewater park will be installed has been affected by adjacent development and previous in-stream modifications. Rehabilitation of the streambed and shoreline are important elements of the Project that would provide fish and wild habitat and enhance fishing at this location. The shoreline improvements will also improve safe and easy access for fishing.

Yes, fish will be able to pass upstream through the whitewater feature very easily because it will not block flow or prevent fish passage. The feature will consist of a single fast-moving section of water with an upstream breaking wave at certain water levels, allowing fish to travel up and down – there will be no physical barrier to fish passage. The Lake Flower dam approximately 100 yards upstream of the whitewater feature will remain a fish passage barrier.

The Project will not affect any adjacent or nearby property owners, as the river level will not be altered by the whitewater feature.

Yes, navigation on the river will not be affected and the connectivity will remain intact as paddlers will still be able to paddle on Lake Flower, portage/carry around the dam, and put-in back into the Saranac River downstream of the dam. As such routes like the Northern Forest Canoe Trail will NOT be affected by the whitewater park.

Parking and site access are important considerations, and early on we decided that if there was not sufficient parking and access, that we would not move forward with the Project. Upon review of available parking and the initial project design, we believe there is plenty of parking to accommodate the whitewater park in conjunction with other uses even at peak use time of year. The municipal lot behind the Police Station, the Dorsey Street parking lot behind Main Street, parking along Dorsey Street, and parking spots on Lake Street and Main Street can all be utilized to access the river corridor in the whitewater park area.

  • Paddlers and users of the whitewater park will NOT need to register before paddling. The feature will be treated just like other local whitewaters (Permanent Rapids, for example) and parks (Skate Park in town, for example) where it is open to anyone and no oversight will be provided. We strongly recommend only competent paddlers play on the whitewater feature and that all users know and understand the inherent risks associated with moving water, cold water immersion, and boating in general. While we recommend only experienced paddlers “play” (surf, ferry across, yo-yo’s up and down the current, etc.) on the feature, running the rapid will be open to all levels of boaters to include tubers, rafters, SUPs, touring/trekking canoes and kayaks, etc.
  • No liability waivers will be needed to use the whitewater park. It will be treated just like other local parks are (skateboard park, for example) where it is open to all for use at their own risk. The wave feature created in the whitewater park will not be dangerous enough to allow only expert paddlers. While there are inherent risks with any water-based activity, the whitewater park will not require any oversight to use it nor will there be any onsite management.

There is an inherent danger with any “risk sport” that users accept but whitewater recreation is statistically safer than skiing, mountain biking, roller blading and many other outdoor sports according to American Whitewater. Risk is also mitigated through user knowledge, skill level and proper equipment. In-channel users will have to meet state laws for personal flotation devices, and helmets, cold water protection and other safety measures will be recommended. We recognize the need for a comprehensive public education campaign to make sure users understand their limits and respect the power of a naturally flowing river.

The design of the river very much considers user interfaces such as boat access points and the concentrated hydraulics are all designed to flush and not have the “keeper hole” which all of the existing dams have. Shoreline access is also being designed to allow for safe self-rescue, as needed. In the areas where shoreline access is not available, all of the features are designed for clear floating passage and no capsizing hydraulics. The larger hydraulics are located where shoreline access is open and available, on the west side of the channel.

Education about safe paddling is important and having a whitewater park will provide instructional opportunities if an entity so chooses to do so. We feel enjoyment of the whitewater feature cannot fully occur without learning how to read whitewater, navigate a craft through it, and understand the risks associated with the swift water paddling. While it is not the main focus of this project, we do plan to be available to participate in local education efforts about whitewater paddling, which could be achieved through the local canoe outfitters in town, the 2 colleges in the area, and via local youth groups, to possibly include k-12 schools. We feel the paddling culture is a big part of our community and would like to leverage this project to help foster that branding and local sense of place.

We will be posting periodic updates on our AdkAction Project Page. and as time allows on our Facebook page (below and at  https://www.facebook.com/saranaclakewhitewaterpark).

Follow the Progress

Visit the Saranac Lake Whitewater Park Facebook page to connect with the Whitewater Project Team and check in on the park’s progress:

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