Guide Dick Grainger has rafted on some of the most famous rivers in America. The Colorado. The Arkansas. The Gauley. The Cheat. The Hudson.
None compare to the Class VI rapids the Tonawanda, Erie County, resident experienced running the Niagara River gorge in the early 1970s. In 1975, three people drowned, making rafting on the Niagara illegal to this day.
"I was a passenger on the first raft that went down with commercial passengers," said Grainger, 71. "It made the Grand Canyon pale in comparison."
Grainger has been a raft guide for 27 years for Adventure Calls Outfitters, taking people safely down the Genesee River in Letchworth State Park, Cattaraugus Creek in Zoar Valley and the Salmon River in Pulaski.
"I have no fear of the water but I have tremendous respect for it," says Grainger, who has water skied, scuba dived and raced sailboats and hydroplanes in his lifetime.
He likes the coziness of the six-man rafts used at Letchworth and he encourages anyone in reasonably good shape with a sense of adventure to give the sport a try.
"You get much more camaraderie in a small boat," Grainger said. "You get to know everyone and their personalities by the end of the trip."
Here's how to get started:
History: Rafts are one of man's oldest styles of watercraft but they've come a long ways from logs tethered with rope. Today's rafts are made of durable, multi-layered rubber or vinyl that inflate with air. They can comfortably seat one person to more than a dozen.
Whitewater: Rafting down rapids for recreation has been widely popular since the 1970s. Rivers are given a rating so that beginners can safely advance to more challenging water. The International Scale of River Difficulty runs from Class I (very easy) to Class VI (extremely dangerous). New York's top rivers (Black, Hudson, Moose) can reach Class IV and V in spring.
Guide services: Reputable rafting companies provide quality equipment and trained guides. It's the guide's job to steer the raft and maximize the force of each set of rapids while getting the raft safely through without capsizing.
Safety: Passengers should never be under the illusion that whitewater rafting is like a water park ride. Dangers are inherent to a river, from hydraulics — water motion that can stop and swamp a raft — to fallen trees and waterfalls.
What to wear: In spring when the water is still cold, wear wool, fleece or synthetics underneath a wet suit. Footwear can include old sneakers, water shoes or secure sport sandals.
Physical demands: Be prepared for some physical exertion. Those with disabilities can raft with advance arrangements.
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