When a river drops over 950 feet in three quarters of a mile, it stops looking like a river and starts looking more like a cliff with water pouring over it. And when two of the best kayakers in the world see the tumult of water plunging down the mountainside, they start looking for ways to paddle it. Steve Fisher and Pat Keller saw the Opalescent River and its Hanging Spear Gorge in upstate New York and never looked back.
Watch their expedition unfold in "Hanging Spear: Headwaters of The Hudson" in the video player above.
The Hanging Spear Gorge represents all that is difficult in New York whitewater exploration. It is remote. The gorge is located in the center of New York state's 300-square-mile High Peaks Wilderness. Though hiking trails traverse the ridgelines and rim the many alpine lakes, the mountains rise ominously around the gorge. Visitors to this place are dwarfed by the 5,000-plus-foot peaks as they leave all signs of civilization miles behind them, save for the occasional bridge or lean-to.
Flows are fickle. Though the Opalescent shares a source with and is, in fact, a tributary to the mighty Hudson River, the watershed above the Hanging Spear Gorge is minuscule. The perfect combination of rain and snowmelt must align to provide enough water for paddlers to float over the endless horizon lines, but not so much that they are pushed beyond them before scouting their route. The difficulty in predicting flows has thwarted trips before, and forced Fisher and Keller to make their approach in early spring, while the trail is still covered in snow.
Navigation of the gorge may very well require every bit as much knowledge and skill in rock climbing as it does paddling.
This expedition requires total commitment. The heart of the river is lined with steep bedrock that pinches in, leaving almost no room to scramble over the boulders at river level. Navigation of the gorge may very well require every bit as much knowledge and skill in rock climbing as it does paddling. With no way to know for sure, the athletes must enter the gorge prepared for the river to close off any form of retreat.
But Fisher and Keller represent all that is capable in whitewater exploration.
They are experienced.
Between them, they have over 40 years of paddling under their belts, much of which has been spent on some of the most difficult expeditions around the globe. Fisher completed trips to both the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet and the Inga Rapids on the Congo River. Keller was a member of the Mosley Creek expedition in BC, and is the only person to successfully descend Tennessee's 100-foot Ozone Falls.
They have done their homework.
Since Keller first saw photos of Hanging Spear Falls, he has been dreaming of ways to reach it. Steve flew a powered paraglider over the gorge, and closely monitored flows over a two-week period before committing the team to the trip. Most importantly, they have consulted local paddler Matt Young, one of the few kayakers who have explored the upper reaches of the Opalescent. He offered all the information he knew to the team in hopes of their success.
They work as a team.
Both Fisher and Keller know the cost of a mistake in the treacherous gorge, and they trust each other with their lives. They can communicate non-verbally and their diverse skill sets balance each other out. Safety is their priority, and they will support each decision the other makes.
During the trip, Fisher both stars in and directs "Hanging Spear: Headwaters of The Hudson" while Keller pulls out all the stops in his display of paddling expertise.
A short period of ideal weather breaks the cloudy skies, and the team springs to action. They make quick work of the well-maintained trails between the tallest of the High Peaks, and begin paddling across the lake chain toward the Flowed Lands after a brief lunch.
As they look ahead, the river drops out of sight and is replaced by treetops. Whatever is coming next is steep, and very tall.
Arriving at the mouth of the Upper Opalescent in the early afternoon, Fisher and Keller begin a steep and snowy climb toward the highest source of the Hudson. Only a few minutes up the trail they discover a large, multi-tiered slide, with no sign of the gradient easing off upstream.
With renewed vigor, the duo continues upstream until they reach a large, un-runnable waterfall. The fading daylight urges them to return their focus toward reaching the lean-to they plan to stay in and prepare for the Hanging Spear Gorge. But not before having a little fun... They launch shortly below the un-runnable falls and careen downstream to the Flowed Lands lean-to, where they will settle in for the night.
In the morning, Keller and Fisher begin their descent of the steepest mile of whitewater in New York state. For the first several minutes the river resembles any other, but after a handful of relatively easy rapids, the bottom appears to drop out. As they look ahead, the river drops out of sight and is replaced by treetops. Whatever is coming next is steep, and very tall.
They clamber out of their boats and begin scouting a route downstream, making sure there is a place to stop between the large drops and waterfalls. Before long, they are fully committed to the gorge, with no escape except up the vertical cliffs lining the banks, or continuing downstream. They diligently scout each rapid, sometimes lowering boats to the base of un-runnable waterfalls with ropes, sometimes meticulously picking their way down steep, boulder-choked drops.
Throughout the day, the water levels have risen with the melting snow. The rapids are becoming more difficult by the second, but in turn, each additional second makes the final 70-plus-foot drop more approachable. Keller and Fisher have timed it perfectly. As they make their final scout, the water level reaches its peak, creating the perfect flow for their descent.
Keller goes first, with a near-perfect line. Fisher is next, paddling over the edge with confidence and entering the water at the base of the falls smoothly. But when he rolls up, it is clear his shoulder has been injured on impact.
He struggles to shore, and he and Keller return to the lean-to just upstream to recover for the night. Although he is injured, Fisher considers the mission a success. The following morning, he hikes five miles to the trailhead while Keller paddles the previously descended Lower Opalescent to the confluence with the Hudson River.
And then planning begins for their next adventure…