NORTH CREEK, N.Y. (NEWS10) – On Wednesday night, Deborah Cunningham paid a visit to Johnsburg Central School District, to receive an honor on behalf of her late husband. She was joined by members of her family, school superintendent Mike Markwica, and students and faculty from the Johnsburg and North Creek area – a collection of lives who have likely all been touched in some way by the legacy of Pat Cunningham.
“We always say that a dollar spent in rafting equals seven dollars spent in the community – on restaurants, hotels, the grocery store, the pharmacy, whatever,” said Deborah Cunningham on Wednesday. “I think that’s his legacy. It’s in the jobs he created.”
Pat Cunningham was one of 13 names inducted into Johnsburg’s school hall of fame on Wednesday – five new for 2022, and eight more from the last two years, who did not get a ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A native of the mountainous Adirondack community, the legacy that Cunningham leaves behind laid the foundation for rafting to become one of North Creek’s most bustling forms of business – giving the town a summertime counterpart to Gore Mountain’s winter skiing.
Raised in North Creek, it was on the mountains – not the water – that Cunningham first found success. He was an avid skier from 17 and through college. When he enlisted in the U.S. Army, the skill came with him, and he raced on the Army ski team. He even tried out for the Olympics – proven by an Olympic committee letter that his wife still has in her possession – but had to bow out of tryouts due to an injury. His return home marked the turning point that would lead him from the Adirondack Park’s winter slopes to its roaring rivers.
“I think he got the message from home that it was time to go to work,” said Deborah – who prefers skiing and horseback riding. “He took over his father’s ski shop, expanding it from one shop to five. And then, in 1978, he started whitewater rafting.”
After taking over Cunningham’s Ski Barn and founding the Hudson River Rafting Company, Pat quickly started seeing as many as 350 rafters come through on a Saturday, employing dozens of North Creek and Johnsburg locals. Many of those neighbors would go on to start their own businesses.
Fast forward 55 years, and Cunningham’s legacy has taken the form of numerous companies that let visitors take to the Hudson River on rafts. Cunningham’s own Hudson River Rafting Company has been succeeded by the Hudson Rafting Company, operated by his son, Tyler – who also keeps Cunningham’s Ski Barn running.
The Cunningham family businesses are joined by others, like Square Eddy Expeditions and North Creek Rafting Company, that have solidified the sport as one of the main reasons to come to town. Cunningham worked, too, in surrounding communities, like Whiteface Mountain, Lake Placid, Tupper Lake, Watertown and Saratoga Springs, just to name a few.
“And he had someone working in all of these places,” Deborah recalled. “He kept hundreds of people employed, some for decades.”
As Deborah Cunningham prepared to head to the school on Wednesday evening in place of her husband, the importance of the event was on what the children at Johnsburg Central School can learn from a story like Pat’s. It’s a story about working hard in a way that forever leaves an impact on the town you call home.
“Pat was a very giving person. He gave a lot, and he didn’t always take other people’s advice – he would always do what he wanted to do. So it’s nice to see him recognized in his own area – more than him being recognized in a big city.”
As part of the induction, Deborah Cunningham was interviewed by Johnsburg student Levi Niel. The student crafted a bio of Pat Cunningham’s life from his wife’s words. At the end of the day, Deborah sees the same strength in that exercise as she does in Wednesday night’s ceremony. It’s the power of teaching students about the history alive in their own hometowns – and, in this case, on the rivers that run through them.