The Gorge

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The Gorge

Regular price $4.99

suspense thriller · serial killer · eco-terrorism · survival · private investigator mystery
"A bracing confluence of adventure, murder, and breathtaking scenery." —Kirkus

Perfect for fans of Peter Heller’s The River and Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter.

It is not yet spring in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Whitewater rafting season has already begun, however. Streams filled with snowmelt are pouring into the Hudson Gorge, an almost inaccessible twelve-mile canyon. But someone who knows every foot of the backcountry is stalking those who are attempting to run the Gorge as the river reaches flood stage.

Richard Carlyle, a former raft guide and veteran criminologist working with state and local police, is desperately searching for the person who has murdered two people already. Tracking the killer to a remote cabin in the Gorge, Carlyle confronts an ecoterrorist with a grudge against anyone who dares to invade his territory.

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"Fans of backwoods suspense will find this thriller strikes the perfect balance of tense excitement and opportunities for testing their deductive skills." —BookLife

"...a fabulous read. I’d love to see more of Richard Carlyle and will be watching this author for more works of this caliber. The Gorge is most highly recommended." —Readers' Favorite

"Plenty of action and fascinating. A solid fictional narrative that will appeal to a variety of audiences, young and old alike." —City Book Reviews

"This is a brilliant read. Wonderful well written plot and story line that had me engaged from the start...Can't wait to read what the author brings out next. Recommend reading." —NetGalley Review

"The author, who is an experienced rafter, does an excellent job of capturing the beauty and danger of white water rafting near the headwaters of the Hudson." ★★★★★ Reader Review

"The plotting, the writing, and the dense, convincing depiction of the rafting scene in upstate New York are worthy of the premier mystery fiction writers. The suspense hooked me. Pleasure reading at its finest."  ★★★★★ Reader Review

"Ronald Berger’s debut is nothing short of excellent..."  ★★★★★ Reader Review


Ronald Berger has a PhD in British history from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and an MFA degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of The Most Necessary Luxuries: The Mercers' Company of Coventry, 1550-1680 (Penn State University Press, 1993).

He was a licensed whitewater raft guide on the Hudson River from 1992 to 1997. The Gorge is his first novel. He and his wife live in upstate New York.


Chapter 1: Saturday, March 28

When his truck reached the meadow high above the river, Richard Carlyle quickly began wrapping himself in gear that was supposed to protect him from the bitter cold. The North Country had seen thirty-nine days of below-zero readings this winter and fifty-six days of snow in four months--a hundred twenty inches so far. It was thirty-eight degrees outside. Carlyle would be lucky if the thermometer hit fifty by the time his raft got to the gorge. The sun, when it bothered to appear at all this time of year, rose over the peaks lining the gorge at ten in the morning, and was gone by three.

Carlyle put on a light base layer, a thick pile jacket, and a one-piece dry suit whose waterproof ankle and neck gaskets were meant to keep him dry and reasonably warm. Then he pulled on wool socks, thick river boots, waterproof gloves, and a Kevlar-lined helmet, which guides, when they wanted to impress their girlfriends, called a brain bucket. He clipped an emergency whistle and a six-inch knife to his equipment belt. Once he got to the river, Carlyle would attach a mesh bag holding seventy-five yards of high-tensile rope and five lashing straps to a D-ring next to his seat on the raft.

Carlyle picked up his gear bag, walked over to the top of the path leading to the basin, and watched the river rush down the spillway and into the canyon. During the spring runoff, the Hudson Gorge trip was one of the toughest whitewater runs in the northeast, five hours from beginning to end, almost all of it at the bottom of a cavernous gorge. They would have to pick their way through six or seven difficult rock gardens and a half dozen dangerous rapids. Any two or three of them could kill, given the right combination of bad luck or stupidity.

Alex Betts, who’d worked with Caryle nine years ago when they were both rookies, walked up to him. “I don’t get it,” Betts said. “From what I hear, you’ve got a cushy teaching job now, a fat retirement package, and a nice chunk of land outside Albany. Why come up here and freeze your ass off every spring?”

“What can I tell you?” Carlyle said. “I just miss your lovely company.”

“Cut the bullshit, Ric. This is a young guy’s business. If I was in your boots, I wouldn’t be caught dead on the river this time of year.”

“Marshall gives me sixty bucks and a steak dinner at the end of the day. Who can resist an offer like that?”

“Well, you better get down there now before he starts bitching at you.” Carlyle made his way down an icy path toward the put-in, where he found his former boss, Ryan Marshall, leaning against his boat. “Where’s the rookie I’m supposed to check out?” Carlyle said.

Marshall pointed. “Art Sanders, next to the white pine, tall kid with the big grin. Best rookie I’ve had in years.”

“I’ll do my report and let DEC decide if it wants to give him a license.”

“Carlyle, don’t bust my balls.”

“Is this his final check run?”

“He starts his career on Wednesday. Once you’ve cleared him.”

“You sure you don’t me to wait till all this ice disappears from the river?”

“Nah. He’s good-to-go now.”

Carlyle walked over and introduced himself to Sanders. “You ready to become a licensed boatman?”

“Mr. Carlyle. Ryan told me all about you.”

“Don’t believe a word.”

“He said you swam an injured guy out of the gorge in ’94.”

“I was young and stupid. Wouldn’t even try it now.”

“Mind my asking why you left?”

“I got a gig with benefits. Examining rookies is just a sick hobby, I guess.”

“Marshall says you’re a professor.”

“Don’t tell anybody, for Christ’s sake. They’d never let me forget it.”

“What do you study?”

“Criminals and deviants. People like Betts.”

They walked toward six guys in their twenties standing around Sanders’s large green raft. “This the kind you’re talking about?” Sanders said.

“They’d qualify for a medium-security facility. Go do your talk. I’ll just stand here and watch.”

Sanders picked up his six-foot guide paddle and faced his crew of clients. “Settle down now. I’ve got safety information that’ll keep you alive today.”

“Sure, chief. Just fire away,” one of them said.

Sanders ignored the comment. “Rafting can be dangerous. That’s why my boss hires guides straight out of rehab. And in case you didn’t notice, winter’s still hanging around.”

It had been snowing since dawn. A dense coating of frost covered the rafts. The dirt surrounding Carlyle’s boots was a mixture of mud, stones, and freezing water. Clouds covered the sun, and a bitter wind promised no end of misery.

“Sit three on a side,” Sanders said, “feet tucked under those fat tubes in front of you. I need two big guys in front. People who won’t puke at the first rapid they see.”

“Come on, we’re not idiots,” the loudmouth said.

“You can prove it when we get to the gorge.”

Sanders was at least six-two and must have weighed something north of two thirty. In addition to the standard gear every guide carried—river knife, rope, and lashing straps—Sanders had brought two flares, four carabineers, three feet of climbers’ webbing, and one canister of yellow dye. He looked like a castle with arms.

“If you should fall out of the raft, I’ll throw you a rope. Grab it right away. We don’t want you in the water for more than a minute.”

“What happens if we can’t reach it?” another client said.

“Then you assume the safe swimmer position—on your back, feet together, legs pointed downstream. But remember this; never stand up in moving water. The river will drive your feet under a rock, bend you over, and force your head below the surface. Then it’ll drown you.”

Sanders’s crew just stared at him.

“If I can’t pull you out,” Sanders said, “swim for shore, but don’t walk away from the river. You’re miles from the nearest road. Stay right where you are. Now tighten those chinstraps. Brain buckets don’t work if they’re not on your head.”

Carlyle glanced upstream. He knew that the wall of water surging through the sluice gate at the Abanakee dam and down the spillway would soon wake up this crew.

As Sanders’s raft slid into the basin just upstream of the Indian, he said, “All ahead, easy.” The raft crawled across the calm water. “Now, give me two quick ones.” It leapt forward. “Stop. Back on the right, forward on the left.” The raft spun on its axis. “Now reverse it. Keep it going, keep it going. Okay, now stop.”

Sitting next to Sanders, Carlyle said, “Don’t tire them out. Just make sure they pay attention to your voice.”

Sanders told his crew that for the first forty-five minutes of the trip, they would be on the Indian. Then the Hudson, after dropping south through the terrain like a scar, would come barreling in on their left. The combined rivers would plow eastward before cascading into a six-mile gorge.

“The nearest road is three miles away. Those mountains you see right ahead of us? They’re with us the whole way down. Once we reach the canyon, the only way out is by this river.”

When Ryan Marshall raised his paddle, Sanders yelled, “Here we go! There’s no turning back now.”

The full snowmelt wasn’t expected until mid-April, but the river had already been transformed. Water the consistency of a daiquiri was surging down the Indian, just a sample of what waited for them in the gorge later that morning.

White-tipped waves quickly surrounded the boat as it rushed down the Indian. “Mixmaster’s just ahead of us,” Sanders said. “It’ll swallow this raft if we get too close.”

Five hundred yards downstream from the put-in, the boat sidestepped two big waves, plunged over a granite ledge, and headed straight for Mixmaster, a twenty-by-twenty whirlpool lying at the top of Staircase Rapids. Sanders would have been taught to skirt the edge of Mixmaster and pray that his crews didn’t panic when they saw what lay in front of them.

The hydraulic could neither be avoided nor finessed. Sanders would have to steer them toward the lip of a wave coming off a boulder and surf the edge of the hole, inches from the thrashing of their lives. Carlyle liked the kid and hoped he’d do well.


Sanders handled his fear of the river by getting into a zone, a cocoon of white noise, as he neared each difficult set of rapids. It was the only way he could cope with the realization of what would happen if he made a mistake.

Knowing that his crew might freak out when they spotted Mixmaster, Sanders leaned out and over the back of his boat and shoved his guide paddle into the Indian to give him better control of the raft.

He looked up for a second and saw they were three feet too far to the left. He could have asked his crew to help him, but they were focused on their fear and paddling clumsily. So he did the only thing he could. He leaned back and extended his arms another six inches over the stern of his boat, letting the current swallow his hands.

He was completely vulnerable now, the top half of his body outside the raft. His left foot, wedged under a six-inch wide piece of webbing, was the only thing securing him to the boat. But in five or six seconds, if everything went as planned, they would be past their first test of the day.

Then, just when he thought he was out of danger, Sanders toppled backward into the Indian, his body doing a cartwheel just before he hit the river.

His ordeal began the moment he tumbled into the enormous hydraulic below Mixmaster. The river scraped his body along the bottom and up toward the boil line on the far side of the hydraulic. Then the recirc wave threw him, like a child in a Kansas tornado, back to the base of the rock. Sanders got recirculated three times in twelve seconds. He was strong and well-trained, grabbed a breath each time he hit light and air, and didn’t panic.

Remembering the lessons he learned in rough surf during Seal training at Coronado beach, on his fourth pass through the hydraulic, Sanders lunged for the bottom, under the boil line, and then up to the surface.

Turning on his back to see what lay downstream, he waited for someone to haul him in. But once the Indian had him, it never gave him a chance for redemption. It flushed him downstream another fifty yards, scraping his body across rocks and gravel. Then the current hauled him across a submerged tree, opening a three-inch gash over his left eye and dislocating his right shoulder.

When Sanders thought the Indian could damage him no more, it tossed him toward a boulder, one whose underside had been scraped clean by the spring snowmelt. Then the remainder of his good luck, which had carried him from a shooting war in the Middle East to this unspoiled wilderness, ran out.

As he neared that boulder, Sanders, exhausted and disoriented, attempted to stand up. The river immediately wedged his right foot under the rock as fifteen hundred cubic feet of water a second began working at the back of his thigh like a pit bull on a poodle. Then the Indian grabbed his other leg and pinned that one, too.

Although they appear as disobedient as adolescents, whitewater rivers obey the laws of fluid dynamics: they do their worst damage along the bottom. Sanders was fighting for his life from the moment the Indian fused his feet to that undercut rock.

When he attempted to stand up, the current, enveloping his back like a heavy white concrete blanket, forced him beneath the surface again.

When Sanders could hold his breath no longer, he made one more attempt to grab some air. A burst of ice-cold, frothy water immediately flooded his lungs and his larynx, rebelling against this assault, shut down.

The young guide didn’t panic, but when his lungs gave out, he began gasping for air. Placing his hands on the slimy green rock in front of him, he attempted, one final time, to extract his legs from their prison. As his oxygen-starved brain began to shut down, a thin film of darkness spread across his eyes and he began to lose consciousness. Deprived of oxygen, Sanders suffered a seizure. His skin began to turn pale, his body went limp, and within seconds his eyes became fixed and dilated.


Because Carlyle understood what would happen if the crew didn’t get to Sanders immediately, he leapt into rescue mode. Grabbing his own guide paddle, he steered the raft into an eddy as the other boats pulled in around him.

Carlyle told Hernandez, “Quick. Get a rope across to the other side and ten yards above him. Betts, go upstream and stop any other boats from coming through here. And tell Nash to run back and contact an EMT crew.”

Using hand signals and whistles to coordinate their movements, Hernandez and Keith Nash attempted to lower a dragline to Sanders. They managed to loop the rope between his waist and the boulder six or seven times in four minutes, but they couldn’t pull him off the rock. It was like trying to rope a butterfly.

While the crew worked to free the trapped guide, a woman from Marshall’s boat rushed toward Carlyle. “How can you just stand there?” she screamed.

“Step back please,” Carlyle said without turning to face her.

“Why are you just watching this?”

“Marshall, get her away from me.”

“Why don’t you go out there?” she said.

“If I do that, I’ll lose control of this rescue.”

“For Christ’s sake, do something.”

“We’re doing everything we can. Now move away and let us save him.”

Unable to free Sanders’s legs, Hernandez found a kayaker who managed to attach a line to a small D-ring on the back of Sanders’s life vest. Three minutes later they all dragged him from the rock, hauled him to shore, and began CPR and chest compressions.

Lugging their equipment and a stretcher along a muddy path parallel to the Indian, it took an EMT crew half an hour to reach Sanders, begin life support, and carry him back to a chopper waiting near the put-in. Before it lifted off, a paramedic walked up to Carlyle and the other guides. “We’ll do what we can. But his vitals don’t look that good.”

After Marshall rushed off to the Glens Falls Hospital, Carlyle told their clients, “I’ve seen people survive something like this. The cold water may have protected him.” Then he herded them toward the put-in and onto a bus that would take them back to their cars.

Unable to talk about the accident they’d just witnessed, the guides loaded the boats and gear onto a trailer, drove to the South Mountain Lodge, and shut themselves inside the crew room.

Marshall got back at six that evening. “They worked on him for an hour. He was intubated and warmed up. They had lines running in everywhere, but it was no use.”

“But an EMT told me he had a pulse,” Hernandez said.

“His heart was convulsing, not contracting,” Marshall said. “The trauma docs pulled a pint of water from his lungs. The death certificate read ‘flush drowning.’” He walked over to his desk and sat down.

“He’s dead?” Betts said.

“A nurse said it was a long shot,” Marshall said. “He was just submerged too long.”

Carlyle said, “Has someone notified his parents?”

“Both dead. They were electrocuted in ‘95 when a storm dropped power lines on their camper.”

“He have any other family?” Nash asked.

Marshall closed his eyes for a long moment. “A wife and two young girls.”

After everyone else had cleared out, Marshall turned to Carlyle. “Let’s go outside. I need to talk to you.”

They left the lodge and walked out onto the bridge spanning the Hudson. Chunks of ice, some the size of small cabins, had turned the river into a chaotic maze. Four-foot waves crashed against rocks scattered across the streambed, and the current pouring downstream obliterated everything in its path. The bridge, a concrete and steel structure supported by four thick pillars, resembled an aircraft carrier wallowing in the ocean.

“How the hell could he fall out of his boat on the Indian?” Marshall said.

“Everything was going fine,” Carlyle said. “We slid across the wave coming off Mixmaster, just like we were supposed to. Then the raft slammed into a rock. When I turned around, he was gone.”

“Have you ever seen anything like that?”

“No one comes out of a boat that quickly.” Carlyle stared down at the Hudson. “He ever make a mistake like that before?”

“Never. He figured out Guide’s Hole the first time he saw it. By the end of last season, he was driving boats down the Indian.”

“Where are the rafts now?”

“Hernandez said he would take them off the trailer before he left for the night.”

“Let’s go take a look.”

Carlyle and Marshall left the bridge and walked over to a small shed, where Hernandez was stowing equipment.

“You mind showing us Sanders’s boat?” Carlyle said.

“What the hell for?” Hernandez said.

“Just do us a favor.”

Hernandez reached into the trailer, peeled back two rafts, and found the one Sanders had used.

Carlyle reached for the foot strap, but Hernandez beat him to it and pulled it up. Only one end was attached to the raft. “The piece of shit came apart. We ought to sue the damn company.”

“I knew the kid hadn’t made a mistake,” Marshall said.

“Better leave it,” Carlyle said. “A lawyer will want to see the boat.”

Carlyle and Marshall walked back toward the lodge.

“You still going ahead with your trip on Wednesday?” Carlyle said.

“DEC says I’m good to go so long as I never have another accident like this one.”

“How you going to do that?”

“They told me to find someone qualified to supervise my entire operation. I said you’d do it.”

“No way. I only agreed to come up here today to check out Sanders.”

“You were right next to him. Why didn’t you do something?”

“Are you serious? You know how hard I tried to save that kid.”

“Don’t you feel any responsibility for what happened?”

“I can’t just leave my students this time of year.”

“I’ve got eleven people on my payroll,” Marshall said. “If we shut down, they all go on unemployment.”

“Nothing doing.”

“Are you really going to walk away from us like that?”

Carlyle stopped when he got to the front steps of the lodge. “I’ve got one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“You let me handle everything on Wednesday. I mean everything.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Just to make sure no one gets hurt like this again.”

“Fine,” Marshall said. “Then you can go back to that desk job of yours.”

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