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From the June 2008 Conservationist


Photo: Sue Shafer

Navigating New York

Paddling through history on New York's waterways

By Karin Verschoor

New York has more than 50,000 miles of rivers and streams, and more than 7,500 ponds, lakes and reservoirs that provide an endless variety of waterways to investigate. Some are as close as your own backyard. Exploring New York's waterways is nothing new. New York has a long history of paddlers who used its diverse waterways for transporting a variety of people and goods.

The first users were Native Americans, who could take their maneuverable bark canoes almost anywhere. They had well-established routes for travel and trade, and many portage points became named landmarks. Unlike European explorers and colonists who would later follow these routes, Native Americans were willing to make long portages to avoid bad rapids, or to cross over to another river network. Their boats were light enough to be carried by one or two people over a narrow portage trail. They had a mile-long portage near today's city of Rome that crossed the drainage divide between the Mohawk River and the rivers that led to the Great Lakes. This portage was later to become a vital strategic point for the colo­nists during the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution.

Colonists in the eighteenth century brought European boat-building traditions with them and built heavy oak-framed boats that had to be hauled across portages by a team of oxen. Known as bat­teaux, these boats carried cargo and passengers and were usually 30 feet long and weighed hundreds of pounds. They were not only dif­ficult to portage, but also needed deeper water than a bark canoe.

One important waterway used by early inhabitants was Wood Creek. A small, meandering, tree-choked stream in the Rome Sand Plains (see August 2006 Conservationist), this creek was the only way to get from the Mohawk River to Oneida Lake and the Great Lakes beyond. Fallen trees, snags and sandbars made maneuvering boats around the many bends extremely difficult. An ax was as necessary as a paddle because trees constantly fell in from the ever-eroding sandy banks. In fact, Wood Creek is considered the primary reason for building the first Erie Canal. The creek was such a horrible route that constructing a canal to bypass it became a priority.

Hundreds of miles of canals were built in New York as more settlers came in the eighteenth and nine­teenth centuries. Ranging in size from small local connector routes, to the immense engineering marvel of the Erie Canal, these man-made canals were connected to natural rivers and streams to produce an intricate network of navigable waterways that linked the entire state. Until the advent of railroads, these waterways were vital corri­dors in smaller water bodies. Today, there is little commercial water transport and the great network of navigable streams and canals is largely abandoned.

During their heyday, waterways provided the main way to transport goods across the state. In the 1800s they were the cheapest and fastest routes for vast amounts of lumber. Some logs were floated from small mountain streams all the way down to the Hudson where they joined huge rafts of logs headed for Albany's Lumber District. Others were floated to local sawmills. Old pictures of the logging industry depict thousands of logs floating downstream, sometimes driven over rapids and waterfalls. Logs were shepherded by river drivers working from shore and from boats, maneuvering stuck logs with their log pike poles. It was extremely dangerous work.

Another major use of waterways was for power, and countless dams were constructed to capture water power for water-driven mills. Many of New York's big mill towns were located near natural waterfalls and rapids, but in areas without convenient waterfalls, dams could provide a substitute.

Today, New York's waterways are primarily used for recreation. Like Native American paddlers, modern paddlers use lightweight boats that are easily carried, and can float in very shallow water. But the waterways of today are a patchwork of natural and man-made fea­tures that are beginning to blend together, overtaken by time and spreading forests. Dams and canals have changed the physical navigability of many waterways, particularly dams with periodic water releases.

A challenge facing today's paddler is that some waters have use restrictions with regards to private property, liability and appropriate land use. While paddlers can still go almost anywhere in the state, they need to be aware that although a waterway may be physically navigable, it may not be legally navigable (see sidebar). To avoid potential conflicts, it is best to launch your canoe or kayak at one of the state's hundreds of official boat launch sites. There is a listing of sites on DEC's website, http://www.dec.ny.gov/.

Whether you're a beginner or expert paddler, New York has a water for you. The state is blessed with an abundance of canoeable streams. Many streams for­merly used for transportation have become far wilder in the decades since their original use was discontinued. Some of these streams run by urban areas, but now they are almost unknown, flowing through wooded ravines, a quiet haven away from nearby highways. So grab a paddle and go explore.

Karin Verschoor works for DEC's Division of Lands and Forests in Albany.