WATERTOWN — John D. McLean remembers the days when dozens of kayakers would navigate the Black River every weekend to ride a wave that had year-round staying power.

Even during the driest of months, kayakers flocked to a section of the river’s fast-moving waters known as the Route 3 Wave.

But then Mother Nature pushed a large rock literally into its way, blocking the natural wave. And interest in kayaking on the Black River faded.

Until now.

Mr. McLean, a former professional kayaker who grew up on the river, approached the city about a year ago to talk about restoring interest in kayaking on the river.

“There’s no other place like it,” he said an hour before heading for a Friday afternoon of fun kayaking on the river.

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John McLean of Saranac Lake kayaks in the Black River in Watertown Friday. He is hoping the city will invest in the river and popular kayaking spots. Alec Johnson/Watertown Daily Times

City officials listened.

They’re looking once again to ride the wave of the Black River and the kayaking opportunities it could offer.

Two weeks ago, city planning department officials took a tour of the Route 3 Wave site and other sections of the Black River that could be developed for kayaking and other recreational activities, said Senior Planner Jennifer Voss.

“We’re just in preliminary stages of looking at what we can do and as far as we can go with it,” she said.

The city officials were joined by former U.S. Olympian Scott Shipley, a Colorado-based engineer who helped design some of the world’s most demanding whitewater design projects.

Mr. Shipley, who participated in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics and holds four world titles, will complete a feasibility study to determine what it would take to turn the Black River into a mecca for kayakers once again.

He’ll also come up with how much it would cost to restore the Route 3 Wave for kayaking and recreational purposes.

On many weekends during the summer, Mr. McLean is among a small group of kayakers who can still be found surfing along Hole Bros., a set of rapids near Newell Street.

Mr. McLean spent much of his youth kayaking on the river and knows it like the back of his hand. His father, Dan McLean, managed Hudson Rafting Company’s Watertown shop.

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John McLean of Saranac Lake launches his kayak into the Black River in Watertown Friday. Alec Johnson/Watertown Daily Times

He still competes as a kayaker in the Emperor’s Cup, a series of kayak events over several months in different communities. He won it last year.

Unlike many whitewater hot spots, though, the Black River’s flow is constant all year round, Mr. McLean said. Even during the driest parts of the year, the river has sufficient waters for paddling.

“It’s an amazing, beautiful river,” he said.

But Michael A. Lumbis, the city’s planning and community director, envisions modifying the river for both families to enjoy and world class kayakers to compete on.

“It could be enhanced to make it better,” he said.

Besides the Route 3 Wave, the former Olympian will look at the recreational opportunities for the two sides of Sewall’s Island and, of course, the Hole Bros. rapids.

City Manager Rick Finn has identified the Black River and its possible recreational activities as a tourist destination and opportunities to spur economic development.

It’s included in the city’s strategic plan that Mr. Finn and City Council members are putting together as a blueprint for the future.

Ms. Voss believes the river has been under utilized, while some people only see it as a danger.

“There’s so much potential for the Black River,” she said. “We have to change our mind set. That it’s an asset, a resource.”

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A man battles waves in the Black River on Friday outside Maggie's on the River in Watertown. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

During the first wave of kayaking interest 20 years ago, the city had high hopes of luring tourists to the river.

In 2006, the Black River hosted a North American freestyle kayaking World Cup event that attracted competitors from more than 25 countries.

That year, high water levels forced the competition from the Route 3 Wave to Hole Bros., where it was held for two more years before the city’s kayak craze dried up.

The city can get it back though, Mr. McLean insisted.

In 2008, spring flooding pushed a boulder into the Route 3 Wave section, altering the hydraulics that attracted kayakers to it.

A land surveyor by profession, he doesn’t think it would take a lot of money to get the Route 3 Wave back on course.

Using straps, cables and other simple devices, all it would take is moving between six and a dozen rocks to open up the wave once again, he said.

“It’s a no brainer,” he said.

Enthusiasts of the sport now pass through Watertown on their way to Canada and those from the north head to places like Tennessee.

Mr. McLean would like to see that pattern change and that they’d catch the wave — once again — on the Black River.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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