The Hudson River Whitewater Derby

Adirondack Journal

Spring in the Adirondacks brings melting snow and rain, causing rivers to swell and rush through the mountains, providing perfect conditions for whitewater enthusiasts.

In 1958, the Johnsburg Fish and Game Club organized the First Annual Hudson River Whitewater Derby, which became a nationally known competition. It began as a one-day, eight-mile race with 44 competitors on a course that ran the Hudson River from North Creek to Riparius, New York. The following year it grew to a two-day event with the addition of the popular slalom courses.

Whitewater slalom competitions involve navigating a decked canoe or kayak through hanging gates, testing the boaters’ ability to steer through a “wild river full of natural obstacles safely.” (Adirondack Life, May/June 1979)

The Hudson River Whitewater Derby quickly grew in popularity; by 1960 there were 126 contestants and 15,000 spectators. Dr. Homer Dodge was the master of ceremonies and at 72 years old, the oldest participant that year. On the tenth anniversary of the derby, the event drew competitors from around the United States and as far away as Kenya. The most notable participant was U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy, who borrowed a boat and entered the competition.

The boat Robert Kennedy used is now in the Adirondack Museum’s collection. It is a 13’2″ fiberglass kayak, built by Bart Hauthaway for David Binger, who loaned it to Kennedy. The boat is unique because it is one of the earliest all-fiberglass kayaks. Prior to the mid-1960s builders found it difficult to join the hull of the boat to the deck, so they made them of cloth. Hauthaway was able to solve this problem and fasten a fiberglass deck to the hull with pop rivets.

Dr. Homer Dodge became a legend of the event; by 1974 at 86 years old, he had participated in fourteen consecutive derbies. He was known as “the dean of American canoeing” in the 1960s and 1970s. Dodge was born in Ogdensburg, N.Y. in 1887. Prior to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Dodge was the only person on record to have conquered the Long Sault Rapids in an open canoe. His boat was built by Grumman, the most popular aluminum canoe manufacturer of the time. (Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks, Hallie Bond)

The Whitewater Derby contributed to the development of new businesses surrounding the event. One entrepreneur was John Berry, an avid whitewater racer who started out during the early days of the sport in the mid-1950s. Berry was part of the first group to canoe the Grand Canyon and a three-time national champion in whitewater slalom. In the mid-1970s Berry purchased former stagecoach sheds at the terminus of the D. & H. Railroad at Riparius, where he built boats and started a whitewater school. (Adirondack Life, May/June 1979) The Adirondack Museum has Berry’s fiberglass Berrigan model C-2 whitewater racing canoe in its collection.

While the Hudson River Whitewater Derby is held in the spring when the river is usually at its highest and fastest, there are still rapids throughout the year. Whitewater rafting is a popular river sport that continues throughout the summer and fall. Water is released from the Indian River Dam at Indian Lake, N.Y. to ensure good rafting conditions later in the season or when the river level is low. A number of companies have developed in the immediate area to guide rafters down the river.

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