The Adventures of a Southern Tier Marathon Kayaker

by Emily Marino, Executive Director of the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed.

On May 12 of 2021, I found myself headed out to Savona in southeast Steuben county to attend a fire pit and barbecue. I was all bundled up because it was a chilly night, even by upstate New York standards. It was after hours and I had a designated driver, so I was enjoying a glass of local Finger Lakes wine. My phone buzzed, and I realized the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed Facebook page had a private message. I opened it up, and got the following message:

“Hi! So, I am going to attempt to run the entire Chemung River tomorrow, solo. I just checked out the portage landing in Elmira, and it looks like a difficult landing at these water levels (I checked your website for the river levels). I know this is last minute but I was wondering if you know of anybody in town who might be able to give me a hand around 12:30pm tomorrow, just in case I have a hard time getting out of the water?”

I read this over twice, focusing in on “solo” and “entire Chemung River tomorrow”. I thought, “she must be mistaken… she can’t mean the ENTIRE CHEMUNG RIVER… perhaps she means the entire Chemung River section in Elmira. The entire Chemung River is 45-miles long! And what does she mean… solo??”

I quickly responded:

“Let me email my board and volunteers to see if anyone can help out, as I won’t be in Elmira tomorrow. But I also want to make sure you are safe. Can I ask, have you done this before? I hate to be a downer, but are you going to be completely alone? I am hoping you are well skilled as the water is fast and cold right now. We recommend that you stay out of the water until the air and water temperature combined is about 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, how are you planning to complete the entire 45-miles on the Chemung all in one day? Even the most skilled kayakers would find that tough… Do you have cold water gear? Sorry to be a pain, I just want you to be safe!”

Hoping I did not offend her, but happy I voiced my concern, I waited for her response:

“Thanks! And no worries, I appreciate the concern! Yes, I will be solo, I have someone running a “float plan” for me that I will be checking in with periodically. I have done various sections of the Chemung with Corning at 17.5 ft. river levels, which is what it looks like it will be tomorrow. I have also done some other marathon kayaking trips, and this current will give me some much needed assistance. I do have cold water gear, as I start my kayaking season in early April.”

Phew! That made me feel better! I proceeded to find her a person to help her get her kayak up and over the portage, to safely navigate the Chase-Hibbard Dam in Elmira. Due to the dangers of this Dam, our organization installed a portage that allows you to get out of the Chemung River, and walk your boat up and over the Dam on the Southside of the riverbanks in Elmira. We also installed “DANGER DAM AHEAD” signs on the Walnut Street Bridge, and people can see the “Don Hall Portage” sign to get up and off the river as they come closer to the Dam. This is the portage she was referring to, and we always want to help our community enjoy the River. So she was off on her adventure – all set for tomorrow, and I felt assured that she could handle herself on the River.

But this encounter intrigued me, and I knew I wanted to find out more about this interesting person (pictured here), so I invited her out to lunch! Come to find out, our kayaking adventurer is an Air Traffic Controller working at the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport. She moved up here from Baltimore a little over three year ago, and has paddled the Chemung River many times. She first fell in love with kayaking after visiting Pittsburgh, the land of many Rivers, and decided she wanted to do more paddling. So she put together a plan to paddle the entire North Branch Susquehanna River (146 miles)!

Her first practice kayak run happened to be our lovely Chemung River, which she identified as an ideal river to use as a trial for longer excursions, and completed The Chemung River in total during her the first practice in 2019. Her kayaking adventure equipment includes a Packraft (a small, portable inflatable boat designed to be light enough to be carried for extended distances – shown in the featured image of this blog), polyester wet clothes, splash jacket and pants, two-piece paddle, backpack, dry bag, provisions, maps, scouting materials, headlamp, glow sticks, and a cell phone. She has since completed sections of the Delaware, The North Branch Susquehanna, and of course… our Chemung River!

Last year, she spent a total of 50 days on the river, and during her trip in May on the Chemung River – she completed the entire 45-miles in 12 hours… ON THE DOT! Besides enjoying the “moving water, change of scenery, wildlife, and peace of the river”, she also spends time mapping out her journeys at every river bend. Sometimes she enjoys a solo venture, with friends meeting her at specific locations and being her “off boat” support, and sometimes she paddles with other kayaking adventurers looking to have a fun-filled exciting day! During our lunch, she also took the time to show me her “Winter project” – a Google Earth map of the Rivers with half-mile markers, and details on obstacles and riverbank facilities, with data identifying every little detail! When I asked how she gets from her destination point back to her launch site, she tells me she coordinates with “a friend, or I get an Uber to bring me back to my car.”

“Sometimes I just take the public transit with my collapsible kayak on my back. I have even done the Delaware Water Gap at night, with glowsticks and a head lamp under the full-moon. But I work with a lot of individuals to let them know where I will be and what I will be doing to stay safe. I am diligent in safety planning, this is crucial to my success! Safety First!”

I wouldn’t expect anything less from an air traffic controller, but I also wouldn’t expect such a flair of adventure in this kind and quiet woman living in our beautiful upstate New York area. Just another amazing local, who loves the river, and respects mother nature and everything she has to offer! I am so glad she reached out to us, and I hope to continue to support her kayaking adventures, and maybe learn a little bit from her maps and travels! Let’s keep paddling together, safely!

If you want to try kayaking, sign up for our Chemung River Kayak Rentals happening every other Saturday through October. We may not go as long of a distance as our kayaking marathoner, but we certainly have a fun-filled adventure! For more information, visit our website – www.chemungriverfriends.org.

Our local marathon kayaker, at the end of her Chemung River Trip in May!

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