The Ramapo River has gotten a bad rap!
by Ira Grindlinger
May 1, 2005
The lower section of the Ramapo, from Mahwah to Oakland, is mostly a gentle Class I stream that meanders for eight to nine miles in the shadows of the Ramapo Hills. Roughly one third of this run is relatively wild and undeveloped, including the stretch that goes through Ramapo County Reservation. Another third passes by palatial estates and horse farms, while the last third goes through areas in Oakland with more development. The scenery ranges from fair to superb; the bird life along the river is generally very good. Two years ago we even had a migrating Loon in breeding plumage in a “round pond” near the north end of the Reservation.
Aside from two short portages around a couple of low-head dams, there are three somewhat trickier spots that have given this section an undeserved bad reputation. All three spots can generally be negotiated safely at normal water levels. Indeed, with proper guidance, they can be good learning opportunities for the less experienced paddler. The key is to communicate what is coming up and how to paddle it. For example, the first tricky spot occurs just a couple hundred yards below the put-in. A gravel bed in the middle of the river shunts all the water across the river in a strong cross-current directly into the right bank, where there is also a down hanging tree. For sure, this is a spot where less experienced paddlers--and even some experienced paddlers--can get in trouble, especially if they are not prepared for it. We generally have the lead boat paddle right up onto the gravel bar, followed by the less experienced paddlers. From this vantage point they can get a good look at the river dynamics of the area, watch as experienced paddlers negotiate the current, and then decide whether they want to (a) paddle it themselves, or (b) line their boats down the channel, or (c) portage over the gravel bar.
Besides the three specific tricky spots, another hazard that deserves respectful attention is strainers; but they are no different on the Ramapo than any other small river. Likewise, blow-downs require constant vigilance as these can change with each heavy rain. Indeed, the last two or three years have brought extra challenges from blow-downs blocking all or part of the river in two different sections--a large tree blocking the upper stretch just around the bend from the gravel bar (still blocked this year), and a smaller tree blocking the right channel of an S-bend in Oakland near the end of the run (gone this year). Again, the key is knowing what’s coming up. If the leader has scouted the run, or has at least spoken with others who have paddled the section not long before the trip, problems can be anticipated and thus avoided. And these also can be good learning opportunities. Everyone who paddles rivers should know what to do when a blow-down is encountered--including avoiding getting in trouble, and then getting past the obstacle--whether that means going over, under, around, or through the obstruction (whichever is most appropriate for each particular situation).
In the seven years I have been leading trips on the Lower Ramapo (four years for the Sierra Club, and the last three years for the Sierra Club and HRCKC jointly) we’ve had only one trip where anyone capsized--and that was because one couple grossly overestimated and overstated their paddling abilities. So now we have everyone warm up by doing some ferries in the current right at the put-in; this allows us to personally assess the paddling skills of paddlers we do not know, and--if needed--spend a little time working on paddling technique before heading downriver.
On May 1 we had a small, cozy group of three boats--two tandem canoes plus one solo kayaker. The day started out overcast and dreary, but soon after we put in, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, and by the time we stopped for lunch along the banks of Scarlet Oak Pond in Ramapo Reservation, the sun was smiling fully upon us. No one dumped. We paddled, we laughed, we helped each other on the portages; we shared munchies, river stories, and good camaraderie; and at times we simply floated silently, appreciating and enjoying Mother Nature in all her glory. Numerous Wood Ducks greeted us with their squealing hoots as they took to the air at our approach. There were moments when we seemed to be under siege by Barn Swallows as they swooped down and all around us snagging aquatic insects of an emerging hatch. We had good looks at Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and Red-tailed Hawk. We heard the songs of Phoebe, Warbling Vireo, Carolina Wren, and Black-and-White Warbler, among others. And there was also the little Sandpiper leading us downriver in stages away from its nest. When our trip was over, we all celebrated the day’s “adventure” with ice cream at the local Dairy Queen in Oakland. We had a wonderful day. Please join us next year.