Two hundred and twenty-five miles north of Times Square the Hudson River sparkles. A canoeist who drinks from it will live to see another day, and he has a lot to live for—the river is a joy. So is the annual Hudson River White Water Derby, held the first weekend of May, this year for the 20th time. At least 500 canoers and kayakers—men, women and children—will take part. In two days, one for slalom, one for downriver events, more than 25,000 people will watch from shore, and it is hard to say who has more fun, participants or spectators. As one of the latter said last year, "I don't know of anyone who roots for a winner. You root for the race itself."
It begins on Saturday with the novice and giant slalom races, 15 and 20 gates respectively. The giant is the good one to watch. The river narrows at Gate 16, the rapids become more treacherous and a crowd of perhaps 2,000 crams onto a small, brush-covered bar at the river's edge. The front lines, heavy with Nikons and Canons, perch on rocks in the water or plunge in, wearing boots. Competition for the best spot is stiff, and the clanking together of long lenses can be heard above the purling of the Hudson. Thirty feet away is Gate 17, which must be entered backward; those who miss it are like salmon at a falls, straining, getting nowhere and falling back to give way to others. "Go! Go! Go!" the crowd chants. It is easy to relax after Gate 17, but not wise. Last year, the stern paddler of a two-man canoe raised his arms in exultation and fell overboard. His partner kept paddling and finished second, unaware that he was alone until the laughs and cheers finally made him turn around.
The slalom course is entirely within the town of North River, population 250, normally a quiet hamlet of piney scents and musical brooks. The main drag, Route 28, runs along the slalom course, and this weekend its shoulder will be a wall of campers and vans. The smell of barbecue will fill the air, as will the discordant notes of horns and the clattering of beer cans. Before and after their races the kayakers go about in the dark, waterproof spray skirts that seal them into their cockpits, and late in the day they look like trolls, homely, skirted trolls scurrying around on pale legs whorled with hair and goose-bumped with cold. The town of North River gets a year to recover from all this, and needs it.
Obviously, the first Saturday night of May is the biggest of the year in White Water Derby country. In North Creek, five miles downstream, the Basil and Wicks bar sells 5,000 extra bottles of beer, and a roast beef supper at the United Methodist Church enriches the congregation by $1,000 or more. Scores of natives spend half the night at the Ski Bowl on Gore Mountain, watching the Derby entrants camping for the weekend. "It's one of our favorite things," says a longtime Derby committee member.
On Sunday morning the 7½-mile downriver race begins. The kayakers gather after breakfast, at the North Creek Delaware and Hudson railroad station, where in 1901 Vice-President Teddy Roosevelt pulled up in a horse-drawn carriage to board the train after President McKinley was shot. T.R. had been camping in the nearby wilderness, and the wilderness is still there.
There are no roads along this stretch of river, but there are three major sets of rapids. A sense of expectation and adventure comes over the paddler as he starts downstream. It is easy to imagine that one is a French trapper in 18th-century Quebec. But daydreams can be dangerous; sudden submersion in 40° water provides instant passage back to the 20th century. Fortunately, the starts are staggered, and there is always someone around to help rescue a man overboard. To do so is a rule of the Derby, and in 19 years no one has drowned.
It is a democratic race: everyone stands a chance of tipping over. The odds are best—or worst—for those in the 200 or so open, two-man canoes, the Derby's largest class, and this river roulette is the Derby's particular delight to those ashore. The D&H tracks parallel the course, and soon after starting time a happy crowd of 10 or 12 thousand starts trudging up them. Most spectators walk one or two miles to set down their picnic baskets beside Spruce Mountain Rapids, a mile-long pile of barely submerged rocks, the last and most dangerous rapids on the course.
The kayaks are the first to come by, as much under the rapids as in them. They cannot ship water, so they survive. The covered canoes do almost as well. But then, bobbing and bailing their way downstream, come the open canoeists. They look like people in the throes of a roller-coaster ride. There is no remedying mistakes. The wrong eddy, too close to a rock, and whoomph, they bounce down through the rapids, the canoe with clinging arms and legs like some giant cockroach under a running faucet.
Near the end of Spruce Mountain Rapids, 20 feet from shore, there is a perilous, submerged rock, and the canoeists seem strangely drawn to it. The crowd is densest here, and it surges forward as a canoe draws near. The photographers squint. Whoomph, whoomph, over the canoe goes. The long lenses reach out. There is a sound like a plague of click beetles. One photographer was asked last May, "Do you really want to see them go over?" He smiled sheepishly and said. "I don't know what I want to see." Another photographer, who himself had run both the slalom and the downriver, said, "I've had it both ways, and I know what he wants."
The winner of the downriver is usually a kayak; last year's best time was 46:52. One two-man canoe, after tipping over five times, finished in 2:15:46. On the bulletin board at the finish line, along with the many DNFs (Did Not Finishes), one FOF (Finished On Foot) was listed. A two-man aluminum canoe had wrapped itself like a horseshoe around a rock. The wife of the bowman was coming up behind on a raft, and he was determined he would scramble ashore before she arived. "It would have been kind of embarrassing," he said.
But he wasn't that serious about it. No one really cares who wins, loses or wrecks.