A pair of aspiring Northern Forest Canoe Trail through paddlers had their journey cut short on Saturday, June 14, after an accident on the Saranac River left their canoe severely damaged and caused them to call for a rescue using an emergency locator beacon.
Tim Hille, 47, and his 18-year-old son Ben, of Stowe, Massachusetts, were paddling the Saranac River when they ran into trouble. The pair was near where Stord Brook comes into the Saranac River below Tefft Pond Falls. They had left Old Forge just days earlier with the hopes of making it to Fort Kent, Maine, which is roughly 740 miles away.
According to a state Department of Environmental Conservation statement, the pair were scouting some rapids "and found that it fed into a unavoidable drop into a large swirling pool" just before they got into trouble.
Water levels were higher than normal for June because of heavy rains that fell in the days leading up to the accident. After scouting the rapids, the two lined their canoe upstream and began crossing the river. They were trying to get to the other side because the terrain there was more suitable for making a portage.
"Near midstream their Kevlar canoe was pushed into a large rock and the strong current trapped them there," according to the DEC statement. "Not wanting to swim to shore for fear of being swept down the river into the swirling pool, the father set off the SPOT locator beacon seeking to be rescued."
The DEC reported that its dispatch center in Ray Brook was contacted by the International Emergency Response Coordination Center regarding a locator beacon SOS activation for a person in need of assistance at 12:25 p.m.
Four DEC forest rangers, an assistant forest ranger, the Saranac Fire Department Swift Water Rescue Team and Saranac Fire Department Emergency Medical Service responded to the location, which was reported to be in a swift water section of the Saranac River in the Town of Black Brook, east of the Silver Lake Road.
Shortly before rescuers arrived, the two men decided to swim to the west shore, which they reached safely. Ten minutes after reaching shore a DEC Forest Ranger located the pair at 1:48 p.m., very close to where the coordinates indicated they would be. Upon reaching shore and being found, Hille turned off the locator beacon's rescue signal.
A forest ranger then took the pair to Silver Lake Road where they were evaluated by Saranac EMS personnel and then released.
"It is with very mixed emotions that I write this final post for our trip," wrote Tim Hille on his blog. "You may have been following our SPOT trail and have already seen that we crashed the boat in a section of rapids in Saranac NY. We are both fine, no major injuries, just bumps and bruises."
Forest ranger Rob Praczkajlo was one of the people who responded to the emergency call. He rafted down the river from Silver Lake road in a cataraft with one other ranger. He said the paddlers were on the rock for a while and were concerned about continuing across the river because of the potentially dangerous hole downstream from them.
Praczkajlo described the pair as skilled paddlers but noted that they were forced to portage a lot through this section of river, which contains a long stretch of rapids.
"That whole section of the river, it's a significant section," he said. "There's a lot of bad holes in there. It doesn't have a lot of gradient, but it's a constant Class III rapids the entire way once you get to the falls."
The Enterprise has also heard of several other incidents in that stretch, including an aspiring NFCT section paddler losing his boat and gear there several years ago. Praczkajlo said this is the first rescue that he's been called to there with the DEC, but recalled that a solo canoer nearly drowned there a few years back.
"About five years ago, there was a (paddler) that ended up getting recirculated in a hole, and the Saranac swiftwater rescue actually got him out of the river after his paddling partner pulled him out from the hole," he said.
That person was not an NFCT paddler, but the section is an especially challenging one for through paddlers because of the rapids, terrain and gear. Many through paddlers are in are fully loaded boats that aren't specifically designed for rapids because there is so much flatwater on the route. In this case, the paddlers were in a Kevlar canoe, which is a lightweight boat that is more fragile than plastic boats, which are traditionally used in whitewater. For these reasons, some through paddlers avoid this stretch of water.
"Because of the degree of difficulty and for safety reasons, many paddlers end up walking along Casey and Silver Lake Roads for most, if not all of this section of the Saranac River," states the Northern Forest Canoe Trail Through-Paddler's Companion by Katina Daanen.
NFCT Trail Director Walter Opuszynski said he explored this section of the river this spring to get up-to-date information on it. He said his organization is exploring the need for portages in the area and ways to help make the stretch as safe as possible for paddlers. He said the land around the stretch below Silver Lake Road is privately owned, and the organization is open to working with the landowners on things like portages and signs.
"I've heard of a couple of folks say they've swamped through there," he said. "Separator Rapids (downstream), I've also heard of a couple of incidents. Nothing to the extent of completely damaged boats or the need for rescue, but it's definitely a challenging stretch."
Opuszynski encourages paddlers to keep their own safety in mind when heading through this stretch of river by scouting the rapids, staying within their ability and portaging when necessary. Getting a shuttle with a local outfitter is also an option. He did note that the Hilles did a lot of preparation prior to their trip and hopes others follow suit.
"My recommendation is really just knowing your skill level and knowing when to avoid going through rapids," he said. "Have the ability to eddy out, get on the shoreline and make that determination."