Above: "West Branch's Finest" in Delhi, NY by Ian Conkling. Submitted to the 2013 Catskills Great Outdoor Experience Photo Contest.
Boating in the Catskills: Where to go
Water is everywhere in the Catskill mountains, even their name: The 'kill' in 'Catskills' is a Dutch word for 'creek.' There's plenty of open water to go around for kayakers, canoers, sailors and rowers -- especially now that several of New York City's vast reservoirs have been opened to recreational boating, a recent development in the past few years.
Another aspect of Catskills great outdoors that's improving: Our bald eagle population. If you spend time on our rivers and creeks, you're likely to have a close encounter with one of these fish-eating eagles, who have been brought back from the verge of extirpation over the past few decades and are now a common sight near Catskills waterways.
Catskills creeks have a tendency to be broad and shallow, and water levels can vary a lot depending on recent rainfall and reservoir releases. When preparing to go boating on running water, check out the water level, or ask a local boat rental company, to make sure there's enough water to keep you from running aground.
Be careful on the water: Heavy rain upstream can transform a creek overnight. In June of 2013, after a series of heavy rainstorms, a 21-year-old Delhi man drowned while kayaking on the West Branch, on a stretch of water that is usually fairly placid. Look out for downed trees and roots, and be sure to wear a life preserver, no matter how fast the water is flowing.
West Branch of the Delaware River
Compared to most Catskills creeks, the West Branch is fairly deep and slow-moving. Kayakers and canoers will be at home on either the wild upper stretch, above the Cannonsville, or the more managed section below the reservoir. The 10-mile paddle from Delhi to Hamden, above the Cannonsville, is a leisurely float through Delaware County farm country.
East Branch of the Delaware River
The East Branch has two sections, divided by the 15-mile-long Pepacton Reservoir. Above the reservoir, you can put in at Riverside Park in Roxbury, or behind the Freshtown in Margaretville, and paddle all the way to the Pepacton. At the other end of the reservoir, below the dam, is also good boating territory: A 6-mile paddle from Downsville to Shinhopple takes about 3 or 4 hours, and if you rent a boat from Al's Sport Store in Downsville, you can park your car at the pull-out and they'll drive you to the launch point.
The Esopus in Shandaken, before it flows into the Ashokan Reservoir, is one of the Catskills' wilder rivers: It's a world-class trout stream and a Class II/III whitewater with moderate rapids. During the summer and early fall, New York City makes occasional scheduled water releases from the Schoharie Reservoir into the Upper Esopus, raising the water level and ensuring a thrilling ride for kayakers. Boaters will have to share the river with a fair number of anglers and tubers, but it's a fun paddle with a good pull-out spot near downtown Phoenicia.
The lower part of the Esopus Creek, where it emerges from the Ashokan Reservoir and runs east to the Hudson River, is calmer and flatter than its up-river counterpart. And muddier, too: New York City uses the Lower Esopus as an outlet to drain turbid water out of the Ashokan, to the consternation of many Ulster County river-dwellers. Still, it's a beautiful spot for a tranquil paddle. Put in at the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve in Saugerties, or the beach on Partition Street. Craving a long paddle? Try a trip down the Hudson River from the mouth of the Esopus, at Tina Chorvas Park in Saugerties, down to Kingston's Rondout waterfront, a good 10 miles one way.
Several state parks in the Catskills feature large lakes with kayaks, canoes or rowboats available for rent on-site. Try North/South Lake in Haines Falls, Mongaup Pond in Livingston Manor, or Kenneth L. Wilson Park in Mt. Tremper.
New York City Reservoirs
Four of the six New York City reservoirs -- Pepacton, Schoharie, Cannonsville and Neversink -- are open to canoes, kayaks, rowboats and small sailboats. All boats must be steam-cleaned to prevent the spread of invasive species, and boaters must have an access permit from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). In May of 2013, the DEP announced that they would begin allowing rental companies to store boats at the reservoirs; by the time you read this, you may be able to pick up a boat at the water's edge.
Where to rent canoes or kayaks in the Catskills:
A general outdoor equipment store just off Route 28, Kenco rents kayaks by the day or the weekend.
1000 Hurley Mountain Road, Kingston
Susan's Pleasant Pheasant Farm
Rent a kayak or canoe from this little Halcottsville outfitter and spend an afternoon spotting herons and kingfishers on picture-perfect Lake Wawaka, or strike out for the headwaters of the East Branch or the Pepacton Reservoir.
1 Bragg Hollow Road, Halcottsville
Pepacton Bait and Tackle
Offers full- or half-day rentals of kayaks, canoes and fishing boats on the Pepacton Reservoir, or you can get your own boat steam-cleaned to go out on the reservoir.
43005 Route 28, Arkville
Kayak, canoe and tube rental on the West Branch of the Delaware River. Free river maps included.
Delaware & North Street, Walton
Town Tinker Tube Rental
This longtime Phoenicia fixture is best known for its tube trips down the whitewater Upper Esopus, but they rent inflatable kayaks too. Call ahead to see what the river's doing: After heavy rains and on reservoir release days, the Esopus is a wild ride.
10 Bridge Street, Phoenicia
Riverview Marine Services
Rent a powerboat on the Hudson River, or opt for the more low-key approach and take a kayak or a canoe up Catskill Creek.
103 Main Street, Catskill
Al's Sport Store
Downsville's off the beaten path of civilization, but conveniently located near a few of the Catskills' greatest treasures: The East and West Branches of the Delaware, the Upper Delaware, and the Pepacton and Cannonsville Reservoirs. Rent a canoe or kayak from Al's, and they'll arrange transportation to the river for a one-way paddle that ends at your car.
6964 River Road, Downsville
Bradley Boat Rentals
The Neversink Reservoir is the smallest of the city's great Catskills reservoirs -- but at 34.9 billion gallons, that's a lot of paddling. This nearby canoe and kayak rental shop will get you on your way.
220 Lindholm Road, Bradley
For more on exploring the Catskills great outdoors, see the rest of the Watershed Post's 2013 Catskills Outdoor Guide, available online here or in print at visitor-friendly locations around the Catskills.