The Adirondacks and the St. Lawrence River are top-notch destinations for people looking to fish and boat in the summertime. The Black River, which winds through Lewis and Jefferson counties, doesn’t enjoy that reputation.
Towns along the river want to change that, but they have a big job ahead of them. For a century the river has been used for industry, not tourism. Now, the river is the process of a transformation.
If you want to look at the Black River on a map, say on your computer, you’re going to have to zoom out. The river is 125 miles long. It starts in the forest south of Old Forge, and then meanders through the Tug Hill before emptying out in Lake Ontario. In some places, like in Watertown, the river is fast. In others, it winds through the woods. But in the middle stretch, between Lyons Falls and Carthage, it’s just right. Wide and slow, the perfect place for a paddle.
Everett Vanderbeck, a 7th grader at Remsen Central School, just finished his first kayak ride of the year, with the Black River Outdoor Education Club.
“I flipped in the water and it was really cold. So they choose to get a double for me and Mr. Riley and we almost flipped again but we saved ourselves. We were actually able to have fun with it," Vanderbeck said.
Nick Heintz led today’s school trip. He says the Black River is ripe for discovery.
“It seems to be a great place to paddle. Just this morning we saw a big bald eagle fly overhead. Everyone loves seeing that sort of stuff,” Heintz said.
The problem is it’s not the easiest river for a boater to enjoy.
Vanderbeck’s family doesn’t live very far from the river, but they’re not on it much. There just aren’t good places to put in.
“We actually do have kayaks but we don’t do it a lot. Now we know where to launch the kayaks,” Vanderbeck said.
This boat ramp at Burdick’s Crossing in the town of Greig was built last year. Communities are trying to pivot out of the Black River’s industrial past.
Back in the 1890s, Steamboats carried potatoes, gravel and lumber from local sawmills down this river. Engineers manipulated the water in any way they could.
Jennifer Harvill, with the Tug Hill Land Commission, says they built dams and jetties to slow the current and make the river deeper.
“And the structures they built to try and make the river more navigable, there are more like four foot wide sections with timber piles driven into the bed of the river. And they are held fast like railroad ties across the top of these things with an iron pin," Harvill said.
Most of this stuff is still here a century later. Harvill says in some areas, these iron pins are jutting out.
“The timbers themselves are hazardous and then to come up across some that still have pins of them, it’s terrible. If you were trying to kayak or you were on a motor boat.”
Getting the cribs out is a slow and risky process. Communities along the river have been working on ways to make the Black River friendly to paddlers and fishermen for more than a decade. A lot of these hazards are now mapped. The water quality is better and the Black River now has a website. It says the Black River is headed for another heyday, this time as a recreational paradise.
Harvill and Nichelle Billhardt with the Lewis County Soil and Water department take me on a canoe ride just north of Grieg.
We row passed wooden pilings sticking out of the water where a railroad bridge used to be. We pass by stones jutting out of river bank. That’s what left from an old swing bridge.
Then we see another reminder of the river’s industrial past.
“The remnants of a dam are here still and even though a lot of it has deteriorated you have a really shallow spot here making it really hazardous to boaters,” Harvill said.
That means we have to turn our canoe around. We’ve only been on the water for twenty minutes.
Billhardt says without markers it’s impossible for boaters or swimmers to know what’s under the water.
“Our water is clean it’s just because of the tannin in the leaves in the river you can’t see through the water column very much. Especially if it’s something like a rock, usually you can’t see it,” Billhardt said.
Right now the town of Martinsburg is leading the charge to make the river safer and more accessible. So far, the town has received more than 300 thousand dollars in grants for small piecemeal projects along the river. The hope is they all add up to a Black River that more paddlers can enjoy.