East Branch becoming a boater's paradise

Above: The Pepacton Reservoir in August 2011, before it opened for public recreational paddling. Photo by S58y, via the Watershed Post Flickr pool.

Aaron Bennett is the consultant to the Enhanced Recreational Access Project for the upper East Branch of the Delaware. He's sharing his considerable waterway expertise with us on this story.

A few friends of mine have kayaked twenty-plus miles down the East Branch of the Delaware River from its source near Grand Gorge to Margaretville. It's no small task: the upper East Branch puts the phrase “navigable waterway” to the test.

The trip may involve many portages, and requires paying close attention to the stream gauges. If the stream flow is too high or too low, you’ve got to be prepared to postpone or cancel the trip at a moment’s notice. Where you have to carry your boat, gaining permission from landowners is also the right thing to do, and it requires some advanced scouting and research.

The terminus of this trip has always been the village of Margaretville. Lurking downstream, off limits until now, is the crown jewel of the unfiltered New York City water supply system: the Pepacton Reservoir. When full, it is a body of water so vast that its surface area is the size of the City of Kingston (9 square miles). Its water alone could supply the village of Delhi, with 3,000 inhabitants, for three years. As of Memorial Day weekend, anglers and bald eagles will now have to share this gem with others.

On May 25, for the first time in history, drifting down a portion of the East Branch and into the Pepacton Reservoir will now be possible legally. Should you choose to do it, and I hope many of you do, you’ve got to do your homework.

Before you go

Your first step is to do some serious planning. Check the weather conditions, plan your portages, and examine the stream levels. (For a real-time stream gauge of the East Branch at Roxbury, click here. For real-time stream flow data at East Branch at Margaretville, click here.)

If you plan on paddling in the Pepacton Reservoir, you’ll need a free access permit from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a steam-cleaning tag issued by any one of the nearby authorized vendors. (The DEP, which runs the reservoirs, lists designated steam cleaners and permit suppliers in its brochure.)

Where to put in

If you want to start paddling in the East Branch, there are a few businesses already set up to rent boats on the river. You’ll find Allen and Jo Hinkley of Roxbury Outdoor Adventures offering guided paddles departing from Roxbury, and Susan’s Pleasant Pheasant Farm renting kayaks and canoes in Halcottsville. In Arkville, Craig of Catskill Outback Adventures will be leading a 4-mile guided paddle along the East Branch, and will be renting steam-cleaned boats for paddling at the Margaretville Motel. (See a full list of businesses that offer steam cleaning and boat rental at the bottom of this story.)

If you bring your own boat, the majority of access points are from municipal lands and public roadways. Here are a few to look for on the East Branch Access Project’s map: Riverside Park in Roxbury (labelled h6 on the map), behind Freshtown in Margaretville (m5), NYS Route 30 just north of Margaretville (m4 and m3), and Briggs Road south of Roxbury (h7).

Click on the map above to see a larger version. For lots more maps of access points, see the East Branch Access Project's website.

Entering the Pepacton

Downstream of Margaretville, the East Branch wanders around over two miles before it widens into the marshy flats at the edge of the Pepacton Reservoir. A paddler enters NYC-owned property at the downstream edge of the village of Margaretville. That’s below the school if you are in a kayak, and after the wastewater treatment plant if you are in a car or on a bike.

You can’t get in or out just anywhere on the Pepacton itself. There are only three approved access points along its banks. The one that’s closest to Margaretville is the Arena launch/take-out site -- roughly 6.5-7 miles away. The other two -- Raynor Brook and Shavertown Bridge -- are further downstream, towards the dam. The DEP has published a map of the three launch sites, which you can see on the East Branch website. (For a map of all four DEP-owned reservoirs that will be open to boating this year, see the Catskills Region website.)

The future: The East Branch as a paddler’s paradise

The current East Branch access points are rather limited. And aside from our website, www.EastBranchAccess.com, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any access information upstream of Downsville, at the foot of the Pepacton Reservoir. This lack of readily-accessible information and road signage is quite troubling.

Over the coming months and years, more launch sites will be developed through a project spearheaded by the Water Discovery Center and the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce that will enhance recreational access on the river.

There is a real potential to create a multitude of designated access sites, particularly at the lands owned by the Water Discovery Center (db3). Other promising sites are the former access point in Margaretville at the skate park, and at the Meadows Golf Center below Arkville near where Catskill Outback will be renting boats. One might also be so bold as to suggest the expansion of the DEP fishing access sites along County Rte 3 (or on Route 28/30 – [m11]) south of Margaretville to accommodate a car-top launch. Through this process and with user input, good things are on the horizon.

A decade ago now, I came across a quote that has stuck with me. Originally it was meant to stress the relationship between land use and water quality, but I think it has some validity here too:

“A river is the report card for its watershed.”

Roxbury, Middletown, Margaretville, Andes, Fleischmanns, Halcott, Colchester: You folks are the watershed. Everything you choose to do (or not do) on the land affects the East Branch Delaware River. It is this artery of water that connects you to one another. The tributaries -- the Tremper Kill, the Dry and Mill Brooks, the Batavia and Platte Kills -- are the capillaries, extending high up into the more fragile hollows and cloves.

The main artery and these fragile and unpredictable capillaries have caused us great pain over the years, especially last August during the floods of Tropical Storm Irene. However, they also provide us with tremendous joy. And as the local economy turns to boating and similar pursuits, the quality of life should improve for not only residents, but for businesses, and ultimately for our communities as well.

The East Branch is the report card, remember that. Working collaboratively and investing in this recreational treasure is a lesson plan that will work. Recent studies and surveys across the Catskill region all indicate that this is what people want when they come here.

You and I must make sure that visitors know they are wanted here. If we make a commitment to granting and creating access, establishing parking, erecting signage, and providing information digitally, we are sure get a boatload of “A’s” on our report card. Our communities and our river will ace this test.

“Success” is often hard to prove. For me, it’s pretty simple. I expect my young boys, when they become teens, will take access to the East Branch for granted, never knowing that limited access was once a problem. Opening the Pepacton Reservoir is a great start. But remember, it is just a start. It took 50 years -- since the reservoir was built -- to get to this point. The future of boating on Catskills waterways is now in our hands.

Other businesses offering steam-cleaning and/or boat rentals near the Pepacton and East Branch of the Delaware River:  Pepacton Bait and Tackle (Arkville, 845-750-5061), Above Pepacton Waters (Margaretville, 845-586-1534), Pepacton Paddles (Margaretville, 845-586-2055), Al's Sport Store (Downsville, 607-363-7740), and Hogan's General Store (Andes, 845-676-3470).