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State attorney general investigating Hudson River rafting death

2012-10-04T23:34:00Z 2012-10-08T12:25:15Z State attorney general investigating Hudson River rafting deathDON LEHMAN—dlehman@poststar.com Glens Falls Post-Star
October 04, 2012 11:34 pm  • 

For anyone who wants to become a white water rafting guide in New York, the hands-on part of the process is pretty simple.

If a licensed guide will certify the candidate has made five rafting trips down the river on which he or she wants to guide, the state Department of Environmental Conservation deems that person a licensed guide who can take others down a raging river.

A written test must be taken, and water safety, first aid and CPR certifications are needed, but no state agency certifies a guide has the river experience required for the job.

The drowning death of an Ohio woman while white water rafting on the Hudson River last week, and prosecution of the allegedly intoxicated guide who led the trip, has put a spotlight on the state’s oversight of the rafting industry.

Outfitters are essentially allowed to police themselves, between the self-certification process for guides and the lack of a licensing process by the state.

The death has also highlighted the safety history of the company that owned the raft the Ohio woman was riding in, Hudson River Rafting Co., of North Creek. That company was barred from one river in the region in recent years after repeated complaints of rules violations, and it has been the subject of numerous complaints on the Hudson.

The outfitter’s owner, Patrick Cunningham, is also under indictment for allegedly endangering rafting customers in 2010.

The Post-Star has learned the state attorney general’s office began an investigation of Hudson River Rafting Co. this week. The office has subpoenaed records from those with whom the company has done business.

A spokeswoman for the attorney General’s office acknowledged the inquiry Thursday but said she could not elaborate.

“We are aware of it, and we are looking into it,” said Michelle Duffy, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.

The recent death has sullied the reputation of a proud community of rafting guides who point to their safety record on the Hudson, a river that offers some of the wildest Class 5 rapids in the east, but is the site of just a few injuries each year.

“I think a lot of the guys feel slighted because of this,” said Bob Rafferty, owner of Adirondac Rafting and president of Hudson River Professional Outfitters Association. “There are so many guys who take this seriously as a profession and take pride in their safety record.”

While the state’s guide standards are seen by some as lax, Rafferty said the outfitters are generally good at policing themselves and adhere to safety standards. Most have more stringent requirements for guides than just a state license, requiring months of experience before they allow a guide to take a raft of patrons down the Hudson alone. Guides also must have CPR certification and water safety instruction.

“Many of us go beyond what the state says,” Rafferty said. “We want a guy to work a whole season before they go on their own.”

Past problems

Cunningham and his company have run afoul of the law and rules of the river before, according to court records.

He is under indictment in Hamilton County Court for allegedly endangering passengers during two trips down the Indian and Hudson rivers in 2010.

There was an agreement that would have resulted in those charges being dismissed, but last month, he was accused of violating the deal by sending a raft on a portion of a trip without a guide in May. He is accused of exiting a raft during a trip and having passengers travel the final several miles unguided.

He is due Oct. 10 in Hamilton County Court.

Cunningham also found himself in Supreme Court several years ago after guides sought to have his company banned from a river because of rules violations.

In 2008, the river manager who controls rafting rights on the Sacandaga River stripped Hudson River Rafting Co. of its permit to operate on the river.

John Duncan, the Sacandaga River manager and owner of Sacandaga Outdoor Center, said he was concerned about unlicensed and underage guides being used, a lack of insurance and alcohol use by guides, among other issues.

“There were numerous instances of breaking quite a few rules or all of the rules,” he said Wednesday.

Cunningham responded by suing Duncan and getting a temporary injunction that allowed his company to continue rafting on the Sacandaga.

But in 2009, Brookfield Power Co., the company that owns the dam that controls water releases on the river, decided not to renew Hudson River Rafting Co.’s permit, so the outfitter hasn’t used the sanctioned river since.

“We tried to do the right thing and got sued and had to pay $10,000 in legal bills,” Duncan said.

Still, Cunningham has continued to advertise trips on the Sacandaga on his business’s website, and when customers book them, he instead has them taken to the Hudson.

Duncan said many in the rafting business have had concerns about Cunningham’s operation for years.

“This has been a long time coming, unfortunately,” he said.

Hudson River Rafting Co. is the only area white water rafting company not a member of Hudson River Professional Outfitters Association and does not access the Indian River (which feeds the Hudson) through the Indian Lake-sanctioned put in.

Instead, Cunningham purchased his own piece of property on the river and avoids fees for using the town launch.

Safety record

Last week’s death was the first of a white water rafter on the Hudson River since 1994. There were several deaths on the river in the early 1990s, which, outfitters said, occurred among passengers of a company from Pennsylvania that tried to make inroads on the Hudson but no longer does business locally.

Rafferty said an estimated 25,000 rafters go down the Hudson each season with very few injuries because the vast majority of outfitters are exceedingly safety conscious.

“This is certainly an anomaly. If you look at the record, it speaks for itself,” he said.

Rafferty said there is “no magic number of trips” before a guide is ready for solo trips on the Hudson, and many outfitters routinely turn away prospective guides who aren’t up to the task.

“We don’t take just anyone who walks through the door. We have people who we sometimes say, ‘This just isn’t right for you,’ ” he said.

Rafferty said he doesn’t see the need for more government regulation of the industry.

Duncan said he favors more stringent requirements for becoming a guide and more governmental oversight, similar to what the U.S. National Park Service does in supervising rafting in national parks.

“If you’re a bad actor, the Park Service is going to take you off,” he said. “I’ve seen people up here who have a guide license, and it’s their first time on the river, and you wonder how that happened.”

State forest rangers do monitor rafts on the Hudson and investigate complaints, but no state agency oversees the industry.

“This is not something the DEC has been asked to do or has current plans to undertake,” DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said.

Rafferty said the outfitters association is planning to meet in the coming weeks to discuss the recent death.

‘People loved him’

Cunningham has vigorously defended his safety record, saying he uses only licensed, well-trained guides.

He disputes the allegations in the indictment against him and said the guide who was charged after last week’s death, Rory K. Fay, 37, of North Creek, was experienced and competent.

Last week, Cunningham said Fay had taken at least 20 trips down the river, but Wednesday, he said the number was closer to 50. Fay was in his first season as a guide.

“I have letters of recommendation for him. People loved him,” Cunningham said.

He said Wednesday he still did not know the circumstances of last week’s death and had not talked to Fay, who was in Hamilton County Jail on a charge of criminally negligent homicide. But Cunningham said it was his understanding the woman who drowned, whom police identified as Tamara F. Blake, 53, of Columbus, Ohio, “didn’t swim well.”

(She wore a life vest, and State Police said they understood she could swim. Police have not commented on the circumstances of her death.)

Cunningham, who is considered the founding father of Adirondack white water rafting and started his business in the late 1970s, said last week his company had not had any prior fatal accidents, but he clarified he meant it had no fatalities on the Hudson. Two rafting patrons died on the Black River in the 1980s, he acknowledged.

However, he said his business has a good safety record over its 34 years.

He said only experience on the river makes a qualified guide.

“The way you learn to guide a boat is to guide a boat,” Cunningham said.

Copyright 2015 Glens Falls Post-Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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