by Matt Young
I first met Dennis when I was young teenager, working at Wild Waters Outdoor Center on the banks of the Hudson River at The Glen near Warrensburg, New York. To me, he was a legend. He looked like a kayaker, he talked like a kayaker, and I think what most people will remember him by, he smelled like a kayaker. To this day I think his paddling gear is by far the smelliest of anyone’s I have ever been exposed to. I grew up as a paddler in the Northeast hearing of his legendary adventures on John’s Brook and elsewhere. I got to know Dennis through his sporadic appearances at Wild Waters, bumping into him at river festivals, and the occasional surf session at the Glen Wave. Sadly, I never got to paddle with Dennis on one of his legendary adventures. He passed away while paddling in New Zealend in 2007
In 2005 Dennis and Tony Malikowski hiked their inflatable kayaks from the Upper Works Trailhead to the Lean-To at the Flowed Lands, camped, put their boats in a little ways below Hanging Spear Falls, and became the first to paddle in the Opalescent Gorge. Dennis’s tale of their descent was just as entertaining as the rest of his stories, and sparked quite a bit of controversy on the Northeast Paddler’s Message Board.
Over the next 6 years I didn’t really give the Opalescent much thought until I invited Chritstian Woodard to live at my house in Lake Placid. Within days of his arrival in Placid he hiked in to the Opalescent Gorge to see what was in there for himself. he returned excited, and determined to bring a kayak with him next time.
Two weeks later we hiked the 4.5 miles in with a big group only for Bill and I to mistakenly wallow in the woods for a few hours with our boats, and find the river much too high to make a safe descent of the gorge. We shouldered our boats on the 2-mile trail around, and put in below the gorge for the casual float back to Tahawus Road. The 6 of us felt a little like failures, mostly relieved to be done with a long hard day, and determined to return under better conditions.
A year later, a year smarter, and having a better feel for what the water is like in the gorge Bill Frazer and Myself returned with Morgan Boyles for round two. We made quick work of the 4.5 mile hike, paddled across the Flowed Lands and found a very safe flow for us to make a descent of the gorge (maybe a little too safe). We skipped the wallowing this year, walked right to Hanging Spear Falls, lowered our boats, and put-in right at the base of the falls. After the short but committing bed-rock section the river got a little more open, became really steep, and assumed a boulder garden style of whitewater that remained for the entire length of the gorge. At the end of the intense 2 mile stretch the river flattens out quickly making for a long, pleasant, and visually stunning float back to the Tahawus Road.
I thought a lot about Dennis on our float out. He was many things to many people, but to me his best trait was his ability as a storyteller. I feel like his guidebooks were compilations of stories that helped people find new rivers to paddle. If you were lucky enough to hang out with him in person you’d get to hear the really good ones. I seem to remember something about him swimming into an eddy with a bloated deer carcas while solo boating on the Oswegatchie.
At times Dennis’s stories were quite controversial. Some people didn’t seem to appreciate the entertainment value of what he had to say. Dennis didn’t have fancy camera equipment to document his adventures, he had words. He painted vivid pictures through his hilarious, and often outlandish stories. This is an art that we have lost touch with as digital media has become so easily accessed, produced, and shared. We used to sit around at a take-out or a campfire and tell stories. Now we sit around and look at a tiny digital camera screen. Paddling the Opalescent Gorge gave me a chance to reconnect with my memory of Dennis, and the wonderful things he contributed to the whitewater community of Northern New York State.
Thank you Dennis…
This article was originally published on May 08, 2012, by Matt Young, in his “The Northway” blog.