Duckies: Small rafts permit solo whitewater trips

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This Aug. 24, 2013 photo provided by the Adirondack Explorer shows Becky Pelton of North Creek Rafting guiding her raft of clients through the last rapids of the Hudson River Gorge in Minerva, N.Y. Nate Pelton's North Creek Rafting Co. was the only outfitter offering ducky trips this season through the Hudson River Gorge. You ride atop duckies, back and feet braced against inflated thwarts, flanked by gunwale tubes almost a foot high. (AP Photo/Adirondack Explorer, Phil Brown)

MINERVA, N.Y. (AP) — The small boat dropped into the trough beneath the 3-foot wave, then tilted up toward the white-capped crest, which broke over it, drenching me. The force of the upper Hudson River then propelled it downriver and straight into the next wave.

The nearly 13-foot solo raft, similar to an inflatable kayak, carries paddlers only inches above the pounding rapids.

Called a ducky, it's nearly unsinkable, and doesn't require the skill of a true whitewater kayaker or canoeist. But it's the same intimate, wild view. If you get turned sideways, hit a rock or get sucked into a hole, it can dump you out in an Adirondack second.

"Just keep it straight and enjoy the ride," whitewater guide Joe Sanantonio shouted from the big raft he was steering filled with seven paddlers.

Whitewater enthusiasts can find guided ducky outings in many parts of the country, often on lesser rapids than the big rafts run.

Nate Pelton's North Creek Rafting Co. was the only outfitter offering ducky trips this season through the Hudson River Gorge.

You ride atop duckies, back and feet braced against inflated thwarts, flanked by gunwale tubes almost a foot high. The waves often splash over, then drain through self-bailing holes in the hull.

The twin-bladed kayak paddle helps you stay pointed downstream and avoid the rounded boulders that rise from the water like hippos. Other rocks lie barely submerged. You have to read the currents quickly and carefully to avoid them. Riding so low, you can stick a hand into the cool, clear water any time you like.

On the Nantahala River near Bryson City, N.C., about one-third of Paddle Inn Rafting's customers take their custom single, double and triple duckies, said Ardis Thomas, who still guides at 75 and whose son Mark owns the company.

"I much prefer guiding ducks," Ardis said. "You can train people to eddy in and peel out. You're doing the same things they do with canoes and kayaks, except it's a lot safer because you're in a rubber inflatable. ... If it hits you in the head it's not a big deal."

With Pelton, the toughest stretch on that Saturday in late August was the Blue Ledge Narrows, Class IV whitewater (on the difficulty scale that ranges from Class I riffles to impassable Class VI). That's where the big wave felt like it would flip the ducky. It didn't, and the next quarter-mile pounded like manic ocean surf, with breakers only seconds apart and a clean, faintly metallic smell instead of brine.

The standard 17-mile whitewater trip in the central Adirondacks — 3 miles down the Indian River and then 14 through the Hudson River Gorge — attracts thousands of rafters every year from early spring through Columbus Day. The duckies are more exotic and less common.

Pelton guided us from one of his own.

"The ducky was great," he said afterward. "Freedom."

He generally requires anyone interested in a ducky to first try the bigger raft. "If they think they still want to do it after going down with a raft and seeing what it is, then I'm cool with it. Usually they can weed themselves out," he said.

His company sent four big rafts down the Hudson that day, among dozens carrying groups of noisy, laughing customers.

Phil Brown, a longtime flat-water canoeist who'd paddled some Class I and II whitewater before, tried a ducky along with me.

"It was fantastic," he said. "The waves were a little bigger than I expected. It was a little intimidating at first, but once I got used to it, you know, realized how stable the ducky is, I really enjoyed it and actually looked forward to the big waves. ... A lot of boulders, and cool holes, and going around the boulders ... Totally wild. I mean the water's wild and the scenery's wild."

Brown thought the ducky was within the ability of most people with a little paddling experience. He hung up a few times on submerged rocks but managed to work his way off each one.

I fell out twice near the start, in Class III rapids. I'd begun to feel confident over the next several miles, especially after getting hung up on rocks a few times and being spun backwards by the current, sliding loose, then paddling hard to face downstream again.

But in the Hudson's Harris Rift, the front of the ducky got sucked slightly down into a hole and I fell into the river again. Again, I kept one hand on the paddle, one on the boat, and managed to belly flop back up into it.

The water was above 70 degrees. Many rafters swam on purpose wearing life vests. Many climbed and leaped off Elephant Rock into the Hudson.

Everyone was pushed by extra water from a regularly scheduled dam release into the Indian River, paddling south through canyons of cedars and other trees in forests that grew down to the riverbank.

The outing began in the morning, after participants got helmets, life vests, wetsuits and safety advice, and signed liability waivers. It ended midafternoon. The ducky trip is usually a little more expensive: $150 per person at North Creek, compared with $80 for the bigger raft.

In North Carolina, Paddle Inn charges just $25 on Sundays for the nearly nine-mile solo ducky trip down the Nantahala, Thomas said. It's $40 for a guided trip.

Bob Rafferty at Adirondac Rafting Co. said he doesn't offer duckies on the Hudson because it's difficult to gauge how customers will do. He'd done it for a whitewater trip by the New York Islanders, young professional athletes.

"Some did fine," he said. "And some did a lot of swimming."