When The Summer Local publishing team propositioned me to write a review column on the Zoar Valley Rafting Company (ZVR), I could hardly refuse. As an avid outdoor adventurist, how could I say “no” to the opportunity to whitewater raft on the might Cattaraugus through Zoar Valley? An adventure of this nature, right in my own backyard!
The proposition also included that I bring a wingman to soak up the experience with me; therefore, I undoubtedly chose my fearless boyfriend, Mike Rogers. We scheduled our voyage for Sunday, April 14, with the hopes of having quite a bit of snowmelt along with the potential for warmer temperatures. We called ZVR owner Jim Redline a few days before the trip. Jim exclaimed, “We can’t control the water level or the temperatures, but what I can tell you is that this will be one of - if not the best - weekends to raft this year!”
I was excited.
Asking when the best time of the year is to go rafting is a loaded question. “For us, everything is weather dependent,” answered Jim. “You just never know! We can only speak in generalities, but we like to say the earlier in the season you go, the better. When you go early, the water is a little bit higher from snow runoff and rain, but of course, the water will be a bit colder. Going later in the year yields warmer water temperatures, but lower water levels.”
The season at ZVR normally begins during the third weekend in March, and goes as long as Mother Nature provides the conditions for.
When April 14 rolled around, the outdoor temperature was about 30 degrees, and the water temperature was about 50 degrees.
“At first, I was a little apprehensive because I’ve never rafted before. But once I got on the water and the first rapid hit us and flooded the boat, I was addicted to the thrill,” Mike told me.
ARRIVAL AND PREPARATION
When we arrived at ZVR Headquarters in Gowanda, NY, the street in front was flooded with individuals ready to raft. We hurried inside the building, where we were welcomed and greeted by Jim, and fit into our wetsuits and booties. “There were so many people, and everyone there had the same excitement and anxiety to get on the water. It was pretty cool,” Mike said.
After our fitting, we signed our waiver and picked out our paddles. The “wall of life jackets” was impressive; there had to have been over 100 to choose from mounted on the wall. We meandered out front, and met up with some other paddlers. Soon thereafter, Jim came out and directed us all to the big blue Raftin’ Bus. (I later found out that the Raftin’ Bus was added to the ZVR fleet about six years ago, and came from ZVR’s sister location, Adventure Calls, in Letchworth State Park.
The bus was packed, maxed out at 50 people; it was interesting to see the demographic of the paddlers. “The best part about rafting with ZVR is that we can make rafting fun and safe for people ages 8 through 58,” said Jim.
SECTIONS OF THE RIVER
There are three sections of the Cattaraugus that can be rafted. The “main” or “middle” section is $50 to raft, ranges from 9-10 miles, and lasts for about 3.5 to 4.5 hours, all of which depends on the take-out point, water levels and amount of paddling. This trip provides the best scenery, and naturally has more rapids through the gorge because it is a longer trip. According to the ZVC website, “The challenging and often unpredictable rapids of the Zoar range from gentle riffles to Class III ‘Bouncers’. At higher water levels several Class IV’s may appear and you could be treated to 5 miles of almost continuous white water action.” However, Jim pointed out that ZVR is not in the business of putting the customer in harm’s way, and they only raft this section when they believe it to be safe.
The “lower” section, which is also known as the Gowanda-to-Versailles section, is $40 to raft and is approximately 5.5 miles long. This is the section that we rafted on this day, and is a great trip for beginners. “The lower section is very safe for all paddlers. It consists mainly of class I and II rapids, with the potential for class III rapids, dependent on water levels.”
Lastly, the “upper” section, also $40 to raft, is approximately 6 miles long. “This is a very relaxing ride. It has minor class I rapids and offers great opportunities to spot bald eagles. I saw six at one time soaring overhead,” Jim said.
With all trips on the Cattaraugus at ZVR, safety items are included in the price, which includes a life jacket, your paddle and helmet. It is optional to rent other items for your trip, like a wetsuit and booties.
The big blue bus finally arrived at our put-in, which was a large bank loaded with about 12 rafts. We quickly met up with another young couple, Melissa and Josh, and decided to jump in the same boat together. Our guide told us that the passengers in the two front seats of the boat were going to get the wettest, so Melissa and I made the executive decision to put our boyfriends up front. It worked out perfectly for us - we still got wet from hitting the bigger rapids - just not quite as soaked as they did!
Before any of us boarded our boats, we had a wonderful safety talk from long-time guide Ken Ahlstrom. (Ken has been guiding for 31 years, as long as the company has been open. Jim remembers when he and Ken were canoeing the river one day back in the mid 80’s and they said to one another, “Wouldn’t it be something if we started to do this in rafts?”) He taught us how to sit in our boats, how to paddle, how to pull a passenger out of the water correctly if they fell in and how to avoid dangerous river hazards.
For our rafting trip, Steve Johnson was our guide - a fun and social gentleman that offered a wealth of knowledge about the company and the river. “I’ve been guiding with ZVR now for about seven years, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said while we were on the river.
We all really enjoyed his company and guidance in our boat. We listened to history about the valley while gazing up at different rock formations and cliffs, and learned about different types of rapids and maneuvers. I enjoyed it most when he tackled every rapid head on, making our trip as exciting and exhilarating as he could. “Steve is a great guy to have in your boat,” said Jim, “as are all of our guides.”
ZVR has about 12 guides who are all licensed and certified with the state of New York. “Our guides come from a wide variety of backgrounds,” Jim explained. “Some are college students, some are retirees and some have a full-time job, but one thing we all have in common is a passion for the river.”
About halfway through our trip, we came across a beautiful waterfall - a great place to stop and take photos. All of our rafts came ashore, and we relaxed for about ten minutes. (However, I was itching to get back in the boat and continue on with the excitement.)
Our trip was exhilarating and we were lucky - the water levels were very high, so the river was moving, and we didn’t have to paddle much. We just got to sit back and enjoy the wild ride! My wingman also had a blast. “I’m so thankful for this experience. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone every now and then by doing something that you wouldn’t normally do. After this experience, I’m definitely looking forward to our next river adventure,” he told me.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND ON JIM REDLINE
Jim’s conversation with Ken the day they were canoeing together back in the ‘80’s became a reality for him soon thereafter. He decided to make an initial investment of $4,000 in 1983, which gave him the ability to purchase five rafts, 30 wetsuits, 30 life jackets and 30 paddles. He bought a trailer to transport all of the goods from put-in to take-out points, and bit-by-bit, continued to accumulate more gear.
One year later in 1984, Jim became employed with Niagara Mohawk, and found himself outfitting rafting excursions two months out of the year. Ken became his head of operations, which included guiding, scheduling and river operations. Thirty-pne years later, Ken is still Jim’s right-hand man.
Several years after his initial investment, Jim merged Zoar Valley Rafting with local and friend, Kevin Kretchmer’s rafting outfitter, Adventure Calls. Today, Jim runs the Zoar Valley operation, and Kevin runs the Adventure Calls operation at Letchworth State Park and the Salmon River.
“We can give you a great adventure while practicing the safest procedures at the same time. We can’t control the water level and weather, but we pride ourselves in safety - from family groups to adventurous outdoor groups - we promise to show everyone a great time,” said Jim. “All of our guides are top-notch folks who know what they’re doing, and love what they’re doing.”
Looking for your next adventure? This Cattaraugus County gem is waiting to take you for a ride! Zoar Valley Rafting Company, is located at 11 South Water Street in Gowanda, NY. They can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
, or reached by phone at 1-800-724-0696 or 716-679-RAFT. Check them out on the web at www.zoarvalleyrafting.com