It took another seven years for the case to work its way through three separate courts, before it was finally resolved.
The New York Court of Appeals eventually affirmed a paddler's right to navigate free flowing rivers regardless of any man-made or natural obstacles if the rivers are "navigable in fact," a legal term applied to rivers open to the public.
According to an extremely comprehensive pamphlet published by the AFTPA, entitled Public Navigation Rights in New York State, "a particular stream is navigable-in-fact ...if water levels are high enough to support navigation for a reasonable length of time under natural conditions." It continues to note that "For a waterway to be open to public use, it just has to be navigable-in-fact. It doesn't have to be declared navigable-in-fact by a court."
The Court of Appeals ruling also restated the centuries old, common-law right of the public to move freely on New York waters. The law predates the establishment of the state in 1777. "Waterways subject to the public right of navigation can be navigated for any commercial or recreational purpose, and attempts by landowners to interfere with the public's right to freely navigate violates the state's trust interest in the waterway. "
While the law allows paddlers to get out of their boat to scout rapids and carry around any natural or man-made obstacles, it does not permit travelers "to camp, picnic or engage in other activities that don't further progress along a stream."
There's the hitch. While there are a number of viable rivers and streams in the Adirondacks that could be declared navigable-in-fact; journeys through some of these routes could not be completed in a single day. And if paddlers were forced by slow travel to camp on private land, they could be charged with trespassing.
In 1995, while working on a PBS documentary on the subject with Jack Skinner of WCFE/Plattsburgh, we spoke with Dr. Fletcher McDowell. Dr. McDowell's family owns Nehasane Lake, a beautiful backcountry lake on the old Webb estate.