Hackensack River Canoe & Kayak Club

paddling for over a third of a century

Ramapo River
by John Roebig

Saturday, April 3, 2004

The early spring is the best time to paddle down the Ramapo River. Later in the year, the river dries up and you end up dragging your boat from one boulder field to the next. However, early spring runoff also makes this river a difficult and sometimes dangerous river to negotiate. Since it was only my second year of paddling, I was somewhat apprehensive about going. I had heard the reports from previous years that about ½ of the boats ended up in the river. Some of my anxiety was relieved when the stretch of river at the put-in appeared pretty calm. We all pushed off and I was glad to finally be out on the river. The weather was calm, about 50 degrees, and red maples were already budding out.

Harris and Betty lead the way with Ed pulling sweep. I spotted that the river was making a sharp turn to the left immediately after a drop in the river and some serious whitewater. The current flowed rapidly to the right going directly under some large trees. I told Bob “you lead the way; I will do what you do”. In order to see how it should be done, I followed close behind him. Bob hit the rapids and in avoiding the first tree capsized. My boat was already aiming right for Bobs kayak and this large sycamore tree coming out at about a 30 degree angle from the water. My first impulse was to put my hands up in an effort to slow myself down. This of course pulled the boat right out from under me and I found myself in the water. I was pushed up against the next low lying tree pretty hard and struggled to get on the top side of the tree. The current seemed to have tremendous force and was pulling my body under. Images of people being pulled under “strainers” flashed before my eyes. I notice some tangled brush still attached to the banks. I grabbed them and pulled hard to overcome the force of the river pulling on my hiking shoes and cotton socks.

I finally managed to pull myself out from the river onto the bank. Harris caught my boat floating downstream. I was amazed that all my gear, including the two cameras, the GPS, the spare paddles and the maps were still with the boat and stayed dry.

I was wet, cold and my first thought was to walk back to the cars and give up on the kayak trip all together. Ed encouraged me to just keep walking downstream along the bank so he could get my boat back to me. Bob also managed to get in his boat and the whole group continued downstream. I warmed up and started enjoying the river and paddling.

The upper stretch of the river was surprisingly undeveloped with some small indications of floodplain encroachments. A few scattered older homes were built near the shore and a few culverts were directing road runoff into the river. Most of the vegetation was relatively natural with large size sycamores and red maples with red-stemmed dogwoods along the banks.

The river continued to move rapidly as the spring runoff had the river close to the top of the banks. This stretch goes through the Ramapo Park and appears very natural with almost no visible development. You could imagine this river going through a pristine wilderness, not what you would expect in northern New Jersey.

We passed Macmillan brook and the banks were very thickly vegetated with alder, red-stemmed dogwood on the ground layer. Scattered along the banks were occasional patches of beautiful river birches with light gray and pinkish paper-like bark. Some large islands required some quick maneuvering. At one point a huge sycamore was completely across the river. Harris spotted it early and signaled the crew that we needed to portage over these islands. We ate lunch on the downstream side and those of us who were wet changed to dry clothes.

The lower stretch of the river got wider with noticeable homes being built on both sides of the floodplain. The banks were less natural and have been reinforced with rip-rap and other hardened banks to accommodate the higher velocities during floods.

At about 2:30 we got to the take-out location and returned to the cars. The trip took just about 5 hours and all in all was a great trip and a good learning experience. Some of the things I learned included:

  • Do not follow someone too close if you think there is a chance of dumping.
  • In the rapids follow the V in the current to avoid hitting the rocks.
  • If the current is pushing you to the outside bank with protruding trees, go with the current and right before the tree, paddle out into the center of the stream.
  • If you are close to an overhanging tree, do not try to grab it to slow yourself down. Your boat will be pulled out from under you. Instead try to duck under the tree and recover on the downstream side.
  • Wear “farmer johns” or dry suits and keep your feet warm with mid-calf neoprene this time of year.
  • Secure your stuff to the boat in dry containers and put dry clothes in one of those containers.
  • Don’t wear cotton socks.