A River of Many MoodsMay 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
On April 2, Monica Li, who paddled the entire Chemung River solo in twelve hours last May, was on the river again. This time she was paddling sixteen miles from Corning to just before Elmira. The air temperature was forty-two degrees, but the sun was out. Much better than the sleet and flurries the day before. At Painted Post, where the Cohocton and Tioga Rivers merge and create the Chemung, thirty-two-year-old Monica inflated her packraft and snapped her paddle together. “The whole point is to be as light as possible,” she explains. It enables her to adventure independently, though she sometimes gets a friend or an Uber to help her with the shuttling. And she always leaves a detailed float plan with a friend.
It’s hard to keep a paddler in the northeast off the rivers once the ice has melted—and there’s no reason to. The Chemung River is forty-five miles of gentle current—perfect for people who want to get on the water but don’t want to deal with rapids. There are some wave trains (a line of waves) that can give you a good splash yet won’t tip you over. If it’s still cold, you might want to avoid them unless you have a bailer. If you don’t have paddling experience and proper cold weather gear, don’t go till the water warms, usually by late May. The river level generally stays good throughout the summer.
The first stretch of Monica’s paddle is one bridge after another. From this vantage, the river’s centrality to Corning is undeniable. Like shoelaces, the bridges snug the two sides together. Ahead on the right, the Little Joe Tower juts white and blue behind the geometrical trusses of the Bridge Street bridge. Soon the angular roof of the Corning Incorporated World Headquarters lets her know she’s in the heart of the Gaffer District. People walk their dogs on the Corning Riverfront Trail to the left. After she passes under the walking bridge, the right bank becomes a concrete wall. On warmer days, noise from Centennial Park would drift down. Then she floats under the Brisco Bridge, past geese and ducks, past the high school, and follows the river as it bends through East Corning, picking up speed and leaving buildings behind.
The Friends of the Chemung River Watershed, established in 2008, has been working since then to improve the river’s image in the community. Led then by Jim Pfiffer, members realized that one reason the river had been ignored was that residents feared it. During Hurricane Agnes in 1972, the Chemung crested at almost forty-one feet—above Corning’s flood protection levees. At 5 a.m. on June 23, a five-foot tidal wave hurtled down the river, adding to the devastation. The city rebuilt triumphantly, but its relationship with the river was left in shambles. Corning, however, had been built on the river for a reason. Its ability to transport agricultural and industrial goods had served the city well. Though there’s less need of that now, the Chemung still has a lot to offer.
At first, the Friends focused on formalizing boat launches, building ramps and pavilions, and creating a portage at Elmira’s dam. Not wanting to become a drain on the first responders, the Friends donated emergency rescue equipment, including boats and life jackets. The plan was to get the public to see the river as an asset. Emily Marino, who became the Friends executive director after Jim left in 2020, says they’ve been pretty successful. While the Chemung Basin River Trail is not fully formalized, the group is working with other agencies and a National Park Service grant to create a full-fledged blueway (water trail). This summer will be the second that Endless Mountain Outfitters offers Friends-arranged kayak trips (emo444.com, (570) 746-9140). Last year eight trips ran with about twelve people each trip. “Most hadn’t been on this river, and some had never been on any river,” Emily says. This season kicks off on Saturday, June 4, and Sunday, June 5, with the Agnes Flood Memorial Paddle. The weekend includes a free concert on Sunday with the Cantata Singers performing original local works from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Elmira Grove Street boat launch. Other guided trips include the shuttle, the option to rent kayaks or BYOBoat, and fun destinations such as Four Fights Distilling in Corning and Diversion Brewing in Chemung.
Find a schedule of 2022 trips on the Friends website, chemungriverfriends.org, as well as a map of launch sites, safety information, links to current water levels, and other information helpful to those who may want to plan their own river adventure. Monica, who is a Friends board member, uses her excursions to compile even more data for a website she’s creating about regional rivers.
The second half of Monica’s trip is quiet except for common mergansers, rousing themselves indignantly when she paddles near. After passing Bottcher’s Landing, Harris Hill and the National Soaring Museum come into view high to the left, complete with gliders riding the currents above. On the right is the long cliff of the Palisades, its wildness protected by several nature reserves. On a low branch off to the right, a bald eagle watches Monica go by just before she reaches Fitch’s Bridge access. There she wipes her boat dry, deflates, then heads to Market Street for dinner and a beer. A perfect end to a perfect paddle.
You can also find information on the Chemung River at gofingerlakes.org. Friends of the Chemung River Watershed is located at 111 North Main Street in Elmira. Reach them at (607) 846-2242.