Henry Hudson’s River Forward
The “Jay” Team’s Great Adventure, 2013
The term “river” as applied to the Hudson is misleading for those versed in the typical streams found along the Atlantic seaboard. The latter generally originate in the Appalachian Mountains and over eons have cut a path towards the coast where they create sandy peninsulas from the silty remnants of that once world class mountain chain. Those silty deposits, aided by the action of the ocean, form relatively shallow bodies of water we term bays.
Not so with Henry Hudson’s river even though it does find a water source in the Adirondacks. There was a reason Hudson passed up several other possibilities of a Northwest Passage choosing instead to sail his carrack all the way up to present day Albany covering most of the J-team’s 160 mile excursion. It was because he recognized that this body of water is in reality an inland sea and not a meandering river. What is locally referred to as the Lower Hudson, about 150 miles of river below the ‘falls’ at Troy now masked by the Federal Dam, is really a geological formation, a deep gash, created tectonically which has been backfilled by the Atlantic Ocean; technically it is most similar to a fiord. The ‘Upper” Hudson River which adds the freshwater component drains an area slightly larger than does the Delaware, slightly less than the Potomac, but only a third of that drained by the Susquehanna.
The Lower Hudson is a huge body of water, and inland sea, sometimes measuring miles wide long before reaching its destination. It has tides over the whole length beginning at the foot of the dam in Troy. The river reverses direction four times a day which mystified its original aboriginal witnesses. Those tidal shifts create treacherous currents when the gorge becomes constricted. From early in the 19th century light houses were erected to facilitate navigation. Commercial traffic, mainly in the form of barges remains a large part of the maritime activity.
A passenger railroad closely follows the east bank for almost the entire length. It is balanced on the west bank for many miles by an incredibly busy freight line. Sharing the banks with the railroads is an abundance of industry feeding its output into the transportation arteries. Periodically large bridges span the Hudson, the number limited undoubtedly, by the cost imposed by shear width!
There are areas of breathtaking beauty, especially in the highlands, and counterbalancing scenes of dreary humanity. Estates poised on ridges speak of great wealth; schools and religious institutions add to the architectural displays. Extravagant yachts throw up wakes larger than the barges. But behind it all, like the great city at its terminus, the Hudson is all business. It shares itself only on its own terms. It is not terribly friendly to the through kayaker and in places is downright nasty. For that reason, transiting the Lower Hudson is assured to be a ‘Great Adventure’!
Day 0, Saturday September 7 - Getting There Was a Good Bit of the Fun
Much of the planning that goes into a successful kayaking adventure can be the ‘coming and going’ and all that entails, especially for through journeys where start and end points are often a hundred-plus miles apart. Over the years Mrs. J2 has performed yeoman duty in this area and this trip would be no exception as she was the pick-up driver charged with recovering all remains at Liberty Park in Jersey City. In fairness towards her, however, the J-team sought another driver who would willingly do a 600 mile round trip to Waterford New York, the terminus of the Erie Canal and launch point for this sojourn. The break came with a negotiated proposition in which “Deb”, J1s sister, would make the round trip on the condition we would visit the Storm King Art Center along the way with a tour of the Frederick Edwin Church house near Catskill NY thrown in as a deal clincher. On the appointed day, the Js converged on a convenient meeting point near Reading PA, transferred boat and equipment to J1’s car, and began the art tour cum adventure transport to the Hudson Valley.
Storm King Art Center was worth the journey by itself. It is beautiful real-estate populated by monumental outdoor art work. J1’s favorite is a stone wall (as art) executed by a team of Irish stone wall builders. Full of meandering turns, at one point it dips below the surface of a pond only to emerge on the other side. To get around the grounds, bicycles may be rented for two hour intervals. We did so which added greatly to the fun.
An hour up the NY Thruway is the town of Catskill and across the river is Olana, Church’s estate. The house was interesting and the art that it contained was even more so. Dramatic scenes of the very areas through which we would be descending graced many walls. They appeared to be on the romantic side but in retrospect were quite accurate. Much of the Hudson valley IS dramatic.
Day 0 ended at a Holiday Inn Express above Albany where we made final preps then celebrated our trip, ostensibly in case we didn’t live to celebrate it at its conclusion. It was as though we somehow knew the challenges we would face but …. ….. we had no idea!
Day 1 Sunday September 8 – Time and Tide Wait for No Man
Distance – 30 miles
Day 1 on any other journey is selected simply on the basis of convenience. Not so when traveling the Hudson. Within an hour of our start we would reach Federal Dam in Troy New York. When we exited the lock chamber on the downstream side we would be in tidal water and remain so for the 155 mile balance of the journey. Since the changing tide causes the river to flow alternately in both directions, it behooves the paddler to capture a full six hours of ebbing tide, preferably in the morning when the wind tends tend to be most favorable. On September 7th high tide at Federal Dam was about 6:30 in the morning which would then make it high again slightly later on the pm side of the clock and by the next morning nearly an hour later. This retardation, of course, results from the combined effect of the moon’s movement and the rotation of the earth and is common over the planet. If that were the only factor, a later start every day would be necessary to ride the ebb. But another phenomena is associated with location on the river. High tide at the Statue of Liberty occurs much earlier than at Troy as the tidal ‘wave’ takes time to progress up the river. What J2 discovered in planning the trip was that the diurnal retardation of the of the morning high tide is offset by the earlier time for high tide as one progresses down the river. Fortuitously for the kayaker, daily movement down river of about 20 miles tends to keep the time for high tide constant. The net result is that throughout the transit if the Js were on the river between 6 & 7am they could enjoy 6 hours of ebb which translated into downriver flow. This serendipity repeats about every 2 weeks so when selecting a start date the choices are somewhat limited. Combine that with trying to avoid the adverse impact of tropical storm activity and you see that choosing that all important launch day becomes an art form!
Rising early and taking advantage of the ‘free’ breakfast (burp!) at the HI Express, the three travelers J1, J2, and Deb then made for the Waterford town park at the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal. To our horror, access was cordoned off by the local gendarmes. And elderly Captain in a sparkling police uniform informed us that the annual tugboat festival was still in progress, or at least the aftermath, and that the J-team would not be allowed to access the waterfront to launch. They were directed instead to a launch ramp in Troy directly opposite our intended launch site. This worked just fine, and soon the duo was locked and loaded, ready for adventure. Just prior to launch J1 broke out a surprise pair of ghoulish matched black, ‘skull and cross paddle’ tee shirts for a team publicity shot. J2 dutifully donned the ominous symbol for the necessary photo moment then returned to his white ‘tee’ for comfort and peace of mind! Last minute directions home were provided to Deb which she patiently endured, and then, finally, at 9am, the launch. Within minutes the duo was acclimated in their heavily loaded vessels feeling the pressure in muscles which had not gotten a sufficient work out for the last twelve months. A steady stream of pleasure boats poured by indicating that the Waterford flight, the staircase of five locks which brought the Erie Canal down to the Hudson, had just disgorged its contents. With luck they could catch the tail end of the parade as it entered lock #1at the Federal Dam 3 miles away. Indeed they did, but more because the lock was in the lift mode handling a large inland cruise boat causing the down river traffic to standby above the dam.
Passing through the lock was a somewhat melancholy wrap on the past three adventures on the Erie Canal but otherwise quite benign. This lock is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers unlike on the canal where the State of New York does the honors. The lock tender asked the boaters for the name of their home port. “Pottstown Pennsylvania” was J2s laughing reply. No corresponding response from the inquirer giving hint to the probability that the Army should stick to dry land. That thesis was confirmed seven days later by gross misconduct by the same organization. Exiting the lock chamber placed the duo into tidal water with the ebb half expended. The goal was to escape the depressing urbanscape of Troy and marginally more scenic Albany and reach more ‘natural’ surroundings. The urban influence that we would not be able to escape, however, would be the water quality. During preparations to embark at Troy, J1 noted a sign which stated that a stick thrown in the water below Federal Dam would take 126 days to reach the sea because the net flow of the Hudson is relatively modest. It is only slightly greater than the Delaware and it’s less than the Potomac. At the same time that the through flow from the Upper Hudson is trying to push slowly towards the sea, tidal changes are moving the water back and forth past all the sewer outfalls creating multiple opportunities to pollute the same volume of water! The result is fluid with a gray hue and very limited visibility which, other than for a slight improvement through the High Lands, remains uninviting all the way to NYC where clear sea water from the incoming tides at last brings some relief. Polluted water and noisy cityscape may be annoying kayakers, but at least three bald eagles made no complaint as they graced the urban sky over Troy and Albany!
After a brief lunch stop at the town boat launch in Rensselaer, steady paddling finally gave the duo the visual relief they sought and by midafternoon they had clicked off 20 miles and arrived at the Schodack Island State Park, located on a manmade peninsula, the byproduct of past dredging activities. The park had a well-designed, small basin cut in to the bank with a quality access ramp. There were picnic tables which the Js used for taking a snack, but strangely, as pleasant as the facility was it had no trash receptacles or ‘port-a-potties’. J2 and wife had visited this facility a few weeks earlier while on a business trip cum data gathering mission and had asked the park’s administrator for an exception to the ‘no camping’ policy for the duo so they could spend their first night there. But despite appeals citing zero impact camping and the environmental blessings of kayak travel, the response was a firm refusal. The only compromise was tacit approval to use ‘out of sight’ unimproved areas of the park and hope for a nearsighted ranger! What this otherwise pleasant lady did not say, and probably did not know, was that banks of this entire spoils area, like almost all of the river bank along unpopulated areas not otherwise transformed by rip-rap protected railroad embankments, were lined with decaying wood and stone cribbing installed many decades before. The purpose of this herculean project had been to stabilize the silt banks and to force the tidal currents into the center of the river to keep the channel swept clean. The impact on the kayaker is that the access to the banks is impossible without high risk of an upset and damaged to boats, especially ‘hard’ hulls of fiberglass or carbon fiber. The J’s steeds were of the former. Having little in the way of options it was decided keep moving on down the river taking advantage of a following wind which, while gentle, was sufficient to overcome the effects of the now incoming tide which was not terribly strong at that point. In fact, the flow induced by the tidal change seemed milder in the upper reaches of the estuary, increasing in velocity with further progress down the river.
The day’s travel was terminated at Bronck Island (which wasn’t an island at all) where there were ‘approved’ campsites, the results of efforts by the Hudson Water Trails Association to open up primitive camping opportunities in cooperation with the generosity of the former property owner. It was satisfactory in that it offered level areas for pitching our tents and a nice area for J1 to prepare a magnificent Tuna and noodle repast; but on the other hand, it was full of poison ivy which, despite his best efforts, resulted in affliction for J2 for the balance of the trip.
The hard lesson for the day was learned at Schodack Island State Park, and perhaps weeks before. While locating overnighting opportunities had been easy along the hospitable Erie Canal, the Hudson valley was much more guarded, perhaps the byproduct noisome revelers in the past. While the “Hudson Water Trail Guide”, the primary planning tool used for this trip, had accurately but somewhat obtusely informed on this point, it was now confirmed. The result was the duo resolved to rely on their well-tuned stealth camping skills for the balance of the journey, depending on their kayaks, appearance of seniority status (grey hair) and strong commitment to mannerly camping to ease themselves through any tight situations. It worked; Bronk Island was the only ‘legal’ camp ground of the entire trip!
The bonus for the effort to gain legal camping status for night one was a 30 mile first day which surprisingly, was accomplished without grossly adverse physical side effects. The little bit of preparatory paddling had paid off for both Js. The trip had been scheduled for 8 days to fit it in to personal schedules. This required and average of 20 miles per day for the 160 mile journey. With 30 down the Js felt pretty self-confident. What they did not know was that circumstances awaited which would gobble up the mileage advantages accrued on the 20+ days!
Day 2 Monday September 9 – Gabrielle Comes Visiting
Distance 20 miles
A routine check of the weather on night 1 startled J2 the J-team’s meteorologist. The very favorable week forecast previously had suddenly changed for the worse. The next three days were going to have strong head winds followed by a day of thunderstorms and then at last, fresh breezes from the north. It had all the earmarks of tropical storm passage and when the National Hurricane Center site was accessed, sure enough Gabrielle was on her way. A small, fast moving storm, although about 1000 miles off the coast, it still left its mark on the Hudson Valley. Day 2 dawned quietly but a moderately strong head wind from the south soon asserted itself.
Breaking before sunup and getting underway to catch the ebbing tide set the pattern for the balance of the trip. Breakfast would be taken later to coincide with a needed break after paddling 5 to 10 miles to help assure that the day’s distance goal would be met. On this day the stop was at Stockport Middle Ground, an island near Gay’s Point, 6 miles into the day. The ‘island’, like many other features on the upper stretches of the Hudson estuary, is man made from dredging spoils deposited about 80 years ago providing the requisite time for the area to take on a natural, well wooded appearance. It actually contained camp sites with fire pits and areas suitable for pitching tents. Also in abundance were copious quantities of trash, much of it deposited in and around the fire pits which fingers slovenly campers as the perpetrators. The Erie Canal periphery tended to be well kept but throughout the balance of their Hudson sojourn, the Js rarely encountered anything even close to a “leave no trace” ethic. On the Susquehanna, home waters for the Js, the water trail associations schedule regular cleanup days to reverse the impact of outdoor slobs. The Hudson could use some similar cleansing.
During the morning repast, a lone kayak passed by with gear piled high on the foredeck, apparently another through paddler. We would befriend the young adventurer later in the day. Taking to the water again it was necessary to negotiate large beds of water chestnut, an invasive weed which is effectively impenetrable forcing time consuming detours. Fortunately after a couple more days, as water depth increased, this pest disappeared.
By midmorning the wind was a brisk 10 to 15 mph providing an excellent opportunity for aerobic exercise. Crowding the east bank of Middle Ground Flats provided some relief but it also removes the paddler from the channel where the greatest tidal flow is found. Approaching the town of Hudson at the downstream end of the flats, the lone paddler previously sighted was over taken with brief exchanges of pleasantries. Hudson appeared to be a boating center with plenty of vessels but no activity on this Monday morning. The river broadened, now unencumbered by the flats, but as a last reminder of the associated shoals there stood one of the handful of quaint Hudson River lighthouses, the “Hudson-Athens” light. The light is receiving good care from a dedicated group of enthusiasts and actually remains an operational aid to navigation.
Making progress against the head wind was now requiring full throttle from the arms as the river broadened considerably and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge loomed ahead. While the remnant of tidal current still favored progress, the countercurrent between wind and tide was raising up large waves providing an unwelcome opportunity to hone bracing skills which would be critical later in the week. Having crossed this bridge only days before while detouring to the Fredrick Church house, adjacent Rodgers Island had been plainly visible presenting the possibility of a shortcut on river left. Up close, however, it was plain that the inviting channel was choked with water chestnut so there would be no respite for the rapidly wearying paddlers. The approach to, and passage under the bridge ran the fuel tanks dry and the duo opted to break for lunch at Dutchman’s Landing, a pleasant park maintained by the Town of Catskill. It even contained a snack bar and since this amenity offered the possibility for refilling the water supply, J2 inquired about that possibility expecting a warm invitation to come into the kitchen and refill the 3/4 gallon orange juice containers which serve as excellent portable water tanks. Instead of warmth, there was the tone of response that grew in familiarity with proximity to NYC, a look of mild annoyance and a perfunctory “Try the hose out back.”. Fortunately this uninviting supply was rendered unnecessary when a water fountain was sighted nearby. The Js carry about eight gallons of water figuring consumption at a gallon per person per day so it advisable not to pass up re-watering opportunities. On their first trip, the end-to-end transit of the Susquehanna River, the Js used micro-filters and iodine treatment to render the river water safe to drink but since that time have carried their water supply.
With 16 miles already completed for the day, it was possible to grab a nap prior to proceeding. Then, as preparations were being made to re-launch, J1 called J2’s attention to the bridge. There, proceeding towards the park in true ‘tortoise verses hare’ fashion, was the lone paddler. As he pulled up it was obvious he was spent despite his now evident youthful advantage. His name was Lyle and he hailed from Saratoga NY and was on his maiden through-kayak adventure on the Hudson. His plan had been to reach NYC before calling his girlfriend to provide a ride home. The Js were overcome with admiration for his youthful spirit, albeit, recognizing that he was overwhelmingly ill prepared for success. He reminded them (but for his youth, they were pushing 60 at the time) of their own inaugural and very naive 444 mile assault on the Susquehanna 11 years prior, right down to the garden variety boat, gear piled on deck, and even an unused fishing rod. Lyle was now resolved, quite wisely, to call it a trip 112 miles short of his goal. Not that he couldn’t have toughed it out over the following week or two despite his inexperience, but he recognized that he lacked one key ingredient for success that the Js have had on all their trips …. a partner. More than any think else, a partner provides a psychological ying yang to counter the occasional desire to throw in the towel. Lyle connected with his ride home and the Js heaped encouragement on him to not give up on his dream as they took to the water to continue their own.
Hoping for 25 miles to increase their bad weather mileage bank by another 5 miles despite the head wind and now opposing tide, the best this aging duo could accomplish was another 4 miles for a total of 20 leaving the 11 mile surplus earned the day before unchanged. Now
desperate for rest, a small day use only community park occupying a blunt river left peninsula was targeted for stealth camping. This pleasant spot, complete with boat ramp, was a rare protrusion of land pushing past the Amtrak, river edge steel ribbon and rip rap barrier which now dominated the east bank. Gaining victory over this transportation barrier involved a grade crossing which requires the ear slitting toooooot ….. toooooot ….. toot …tooOOOOT from every passing streamliner which occurred at intervals never exceeding a half hour. Perhaps that was the main reason no camping is allowed, because sleeping is theoretically impossible! But the town fathers of Germantown NY were forgiving and after an MRE dinner and spectacular sunset over the distant Catskills, the team turned in for a frequently interrupted though not impossible night’s sleep.
Day 3 Tuesday September 10 – Head to Head
Distance 14 miles
The multiple Amtrak wake up calls throughout the night facilitated progressive weather observations in the form of listening to the wind before again falling into blissful unconsciousness and the results were not at all heartening. Instead of the typical calming after sunset, the afternoon’s head wind continued and in the wee hours audibly increased. In the morning twilight the results were clear. The Hudson was in an uproar and as the morning progressed along with the south bound ebb tide, the conflict of water verses wind grew to impressive proportions. The only thing that prevented it from getting worse was that somewhere around three feet the powerful wind won the day by shearing of the wave tops resulting in frothy whitecaps. With the need to maintain a 20 mile per day average, the duo had no choice but face the onslaught head on. Even launching from the bank was tricky as the wind tried to have its way with the boats but eventually stubbornness won over persistence and the day’s paddle had begun. Thankful for skirts as the waves, and now rain, constantly washed their decks, the Js were satisfied that some progress was being made due to the strength of the tidal flow. Passing a section of the river named “The Maelstrom” after the giant whirlpool off the Scandinavian coast made famous by Jules Vern in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, not the least of tide induced disturbance was noted. If there is any, it was masked that day by the confusion on the surface. After a couple of hours their ‘day 3’ strength was already fading and needed a respite. The most promising haven was the Esopus creek with the town of Saugerties lining its banks. There was a price to be paid, however, as the creek lay to river right and the Js were taking refuge on the left. Crossing the river brought them to channel center in the “Malden on Hudson” Reach and at that point the Js were applying max skill to stay vertical and make inches of progress. Comfort came in the form of the Saugerties lighthouse standing in the distance at the mouth of Esopus creek a couple of miles away. Progress was slow but the whole time the duo was honing skills which would serve them well in a couple of days.
After almost another hour of hard paddling the point was rounded and immediately there was relief. The scenes along the creek were of a laid back boating community. One gets the distinct impression that the east bank, served by the railroad connection to NYC may be the spiffier of the locales, at least when the railroad yields up a little water front, which is not too often. The Js made a landing at a particularly comfortable looking marina and were soon greeted by the proprietor, “Buck”, whose name and appearance matched his surroundings. He was gracious to a fault in his own dry way when asked for permission to use a picnic table for breakfast prep and to share some water. Later, when a thunderstorm broke out he extended the hospitality to use of the porch of the ancient warehouse which served as the marina’s workshop and office. While waiting out the storm many tales of river life were exchanged between host and guests. During one conversation Buck stated with conviction that the local boaters considered kayaks “speed bumps”. Later events would attest to the fact that this low opinion extended all the way to the Big Apple.
With only 7 miles clocked for the day, the Jay’s purposed to reach Kingston that night to take advantage of potential amenities noted in the trail guide. Their optimism was based on the premise that after the thunderstorm passed things seemed calmer. But when Buck surveyed the river, a mile distant, through his binoculars, he just shook his head. It was soon apparent what that meant. Back into the fray, the J-team simply clawed their way down river at half their normal pace at best. Finally when the tide had shifted and opposing current reached full strength, the river won and respite was sought a mile below the Kingston Bridge but a few miles short of goal. Pulling in at Charles Rider Park (day use only, of course) there was absolutely no recourse but to stealth camp. This time, however, it would be a little more in your face as the boat ramp was manned to collect fees (from which paddlers are excluded).
Now stealth strategy comes into play;
That fact of the matter is, based on J2’s past experience as a Township Supervisor in a town having a river park, NO CAMPING rules are necessary because there is a world of I diots and vagrants and “mechanized” campers out there who screw it up for legitimate folks trying to honestly enjoy their surroundings in an environmentally friendly, courteous way. Not able to draw a clean enough line between good and bad, the rule has to be NO CAMPING. But locals are smart enough to understand that and wink.
1. First rule is, if it is a public facility with posted rules, DO NOT ASK!!! A hired hand has no option but to state the rules, especially at a State or County facility.
2. Be prepared to be generous and appreciative if a use fee is solicited … be drippy nice!
3. Next, drag the kayaks up to the desired picnic table/ camping area and begin preparing a meal, a legitimate day use. Take lots of time. If there is an attendant present you are locked in a waiting game hoping he goes home for dinner before the park ‘closes’ and turns on the ball game.
4. Be an excellent ‘zero impact’ camper. This is the mandatory, no nonsense, absolute rule for ALL through kayakers under ALL circumstances!!! In this case make a show of it to build confidence in any potential rule enforcers that all will be well in the morning.
5. Flaunt your seniority (gray hair) and fatigue. Again you are equipping a potential enforcer with excuses why he ‘turned his head’ to this theoretical infraction.
6. Finally, no matter who is present, as dusk sets in, set up you tents near your kayaks and quickly get in them. Now the die is cast. The story is out there. A couple of well mannered, elderly and very fatigued through kayakers simply need a spot to sleep for the night. Who could refuse that!?
In this case the attendant was an elderly looking man himself and as the sun was setting several friends joined him with folding chairs and had a pleasant time of conversation lasting until after the Js had retired. While he kept an eye on the duo, nothing was said.
Day 4 Wednesday September 11 – A Day to Remember
Distance 28 miles
There’s an expression; “New York is for Lovers”. During one overnight on the Erie Canal the reality of that slogan was as blatantly obvious as it was nefarious. Nighttime at Charles Rider Park was a close second with cars pulling up and parking in the wee hours. Since some parked close to the kayaks, the interest of the Js was occasionally aroused. The more inconvenient effect, however, was it cut into bath time. The boat ramp was well lighted and underwater traction was good. With a bar of soap and towel it was possible for a kayaker caked in sweat from a couple of days of heavy up wind paddling to exchange that stench for a less nauseating patina of well diluted New York sewage. There was a need for a modicum of privacy however, and the comings and goings on this lover’s lane added an element of risk. J2 made the first successful run around midnight and J1 a couple of hours later. Returning to the sleeping bag ‘sweet’ smelling gave an extra measure of rest to the balance of night time hours.
Up and launched before sun up (an essential tactic in stealth camping) the tide was caught just as it was changing and a good start was made. The wind was still up from the south but had diminished considerably so good progress was the prospect for the day. Passing Kingston the duo regretted that time (tide) could not be spared to visit the Hudson River Maritime Museum. It was thought that they would also miss the replica of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon carrack but fortuitously it had moved down river and would be seen two days later. One sight which was available to view now was the Rondout Lighthouse the most modern on the river. It was constructed in 1913 but retained the charm of the older lights.
Before breakfast another lighthouse was encountered, the Esopus Meadows light. All of these ‘inland sea’ light houses were similar in that they incorporated substantial living quarters in the design. It fires the imagination to think of life lived in this kind of isolation, particularly in the winter months and during severe storms. The keepers were probably a hardy breed.
The goal for the day had been set to reach Poughkeepsie but at the present progress it would be reached shortly after noontime. Breakfast was first, however, and it was taken on the up river end of Esopus Island, perhaps the most scenic campsite on the river. Camping could probably be a great pleasure on a down river sojourn if schedule could be conveniently neglected. For a paddler with a flexible schedule doing the river in short pieces over an extended period of time, the many attractive sites the Js had to pass up could be enjoyed.
Fortified by one of J1’s hearty oatmeal breakfasts, the day’s paddling was resumed and by noon Poughkeepsie was reached. The duo landed on river right at a nondescript boat ramp adjacent to what appeared to be a bar and restaurant which shows much better at night. Towering above is an abandoned railroad bridge which has been transformed into an aerial promenade well populated by walkers and bike riders. One wonders how long the aging structure will remain safe for such a use.
The Js noticed that an American flag at mid-span was at half-mast and wondered what they had missed in the way of news when it suddenly dawned on them that today was 9-11 and that 12 years before the Hudson was marked with tragedy. It was a sobering thought. Framed by the massive structural columns supporting the pedestrian traffic was the much more graceful Mid-Hudson Bridge a mile downstream which, as its name implies, approximately marks the midpoint of the Lower Hudson signaling to the Js that their journey was half complete.
Working to river left seeking more favorable protection from the strengthening head wind, the Js now also faced a mounting up river flow. The situation was that although they had made their initial mileage goal for the day, there was no obvious possibility for camping with both banks now occupied by busy railroads. Adding to this was the Js penchant for more miles. They thought that more mileage might mean an early finish, but they also knew it would be smart to recapture some of the margin lost the prior day as the forecast for the following day was for heavy thunderstorms. Conclusion; …continue paddling.
Below the suspension bridge the Poughkeepsie Canoe Club occupied the last bit of Poughkeepsie real estate before Amtrak reclaimed the east bank. The ‘canoes’ of history had now morfed into much larger craft although a rack of colorful kayaks gave evidence that their paddling ethic had not completely disappeared. A small point of land created an inviting cove for the Js to cool off after the 20+ miles clocked since leaving the park that morning. Getting wet is integral to paddling anyhow, so they beached their boats and took to the river maintaining their modesty which also rinsed some of the sweat from their clothes!
While bathing, J1, a true river rat, noticed that immediately adjacent to the bank, eddies were creating a slow but steady down river flow. It was an important discovery and served them well during the balance of the afternoon. In one experiment, J2 paddled a direct path between two points approximately a mile apart while J1 hugged the bank, a much longer track. At the end, J1 had gained almost a quarter of a mile. Hugging the bank also afforded some protection from the headwind so this tactic was employed for the balance of the afternoon up to the point of the Clinton Point Stone Quarry.
The near bucolic progress along the shady bank was abruptly interrupted by a manmade peninsula of barges tied up side by side, parallel to and extending out from the bank. This stationary flotilla was jutting out into the river at a location already narrowed into a pinch point by Clinton Point. At first simply seen as an obstacle to paddle around, the duo turned right and innocently skirting the sterns of the barges which provided a shelter against the head wind. As expected, when the last of barge was passed, the head wind resumed as did the velocity of the incoming tide, but now both were felt much more strongly, in fact to the point that head way was slowed to a crawl, perhaps about 1mph, and that with max effort. Still no problem, simply muscle past the obstruction and get back to normal. Approaching the bow of the barge being passed, the situation began to change rapidly. There was another peninsula of barges a short distance from the first, and slightly shorter. The combination was resulting in confused currents and flukey shifts of the head wind. The net result was a perfect storm of danger. Waves were erupting erratically seriously challenging kayak stability while at the same time a strong eddy created by this new stack of barges was trying to sweep the kayaks under the sloping prows of the barges just passed. A spill at this point would have meant certain death by drowning as the strong current would have swept any surface object, including kayak and paddler, under the barges. J1, closest to the hazard and first to recognize the peril shouted, “Watch out, I’m moving over!” as he turned towards J2 who had been alongside him. With little margin in forward motion and now the strong and deadly eddy to deal with, and having already expended cardiovascular reserves getting to this point, both Js had to dig deeper and at the same time their paddling had to be error free. Very slowly the first death trap was left behind but again, after another barge length, a third peninsula of barges, then a fourth and finally a fifth, each with its boiling waves, sucking eddy and hungry prows ready to make a final accounting for one slip or for fading strength. By the time the hazard was behind them, the Js were physically spent but euphoric that they had survived. Every one of the J-team adventures to date has had tight moments but in each case there was sufficient safety margin despite the risk. Not so in this one, not at all.
Reflecting on the hazard after the fact, the Js could imagine an even worse situation if the barges were encountered while travelling with the strong current, yielding almost no time to recognize and avoid the hazard. The only safe way around this hazard is to move to the west bank a mile before Clinton Point and stay there until it is a mile behind.
Exhausted and needing a break, another ‘swimming hole’ was located and a relaxing dip cleansed sweaty bodies and eased PTSD. After refreshment, another two miles of bodily effort was demanded to reach the mouth of Wappinger Creek and then paddle a mile up the creek to what sounded like a semi-permissible overnight in pleasant surroundings. While Clinton Point had started the Js on theorizing about the physical effects of pinch points in the river, the blunt peninsula ahead, on which New Hamburg is partially situated, would turn those thoughts into doctrine. New Hamburg is clearly another Hudson River boating community. It lies just short of the mouth of Wappinger Creek so must be passed by the south bound paddler. Constricted even more than at Clinton Point, the tidal velocity posed a final strength challenge for the day. But wiser now, the Js navigated well clear of any hazards.
Shock was registered at the sighting of the mouth of Wappinger Creek. It seemed completely obstructed by the lowest bridge imaginable. The tide was nearly full at this late afternoon hour and a closer look at the fine print on the chart revealed “Vert Cl 1 ft” and indeed, if it was any more than 12 inches, it wasn’t much. Stymied, the duo stopped short of the impossible looking obstacle when suddenly a small, outboard powered rubber boat was seen approaching from the other side with its single occupant sitting straight up. Assuming they were about to observe a disaster, interest peaked, but within less than a minute the boat emerged riverside with it occupant still in the prone position. J2 haled the stunt artist asking about passage under the bridge and if the clearance got even lower. The congenial young man replied, “Nope! If you can get under there now you can get out anytime.” By this time J1 had already moved into position and J2 quickly pulled up a little further down river then both executed something akin to ‘kayak limbo’ holding the first girder so as not to upset and then moving girder by girder, hand over hand, to the other side; and of course as luck would have it, both were ‘run over’ by an Amtrak express a couple of feet above their heads. They emerged laughing with the little strength left. The paddle up Wappinger Creek was pleasant but fatigue clouded the pleasure
sensors. The approach to what was to be that night’s stop generated disappointment. It was chocked with Water Chestnut, the ramp was a crumbled pile of broken concrete, the only Job-Johnny was at a nearby construction site and the small grass plot was devoid of any amenities other than a proper sign designating it as owned by the town of Wappinger Falls. The J’s still entertain the thought that somehow they suffered a near miss on the actual camp site although a visual search before committing themselves had revealed nothing. But as they say, “Beggars can’t be choosers” so they landed and erected tents in plain view of several neighbors, had a quick dinner and in the remaining daylight crawled into their tents to begin sleeping off the effects of 28 very hard miles.
Day 5 Thursday September 12 – Tunneling on the Hudson
Distance 12 miles
While not fancy, Wappinger Falls provided a good night’s sleep and as a bonus, the job-johnny at the construction site was well maintained. The 5am wakeup call did not bear fruit however due to a nearby electric storm which the Js weathered beneath the small roof over the park signage. Individual storm cells are easy to track, if not visually, then listening to the thunder and sensing the wind. This one was passing to the south and as the lightning to thunder interval broadened consistently to greater than 5 seconds, launch was executed. A brisk paddle brought the duo to the Amtrak bridge which, due to the receding tide, now had ample head room. Spirits were light, so a momentary pause was made for a photo with a train rushing overhead. Water supplies were low so stops were executed at a couple of the small marinas along the east bank but all were closed for business and had secured the water to their dockside hoses. By 8am, the outgoing tide and steady paddling brought the duo to Beacon, a pleasant town opposing the larger Newburgh on river left.
A waterfront park was spotted and a stop was made to find water and hopefully an electrical outlet for charging camera-phones. J2 had equipped the team with a solar panel for this adventure which did the job for the first three days but then had mysteriously ceased to function the night before forcing them back to begging electrons. After returning home, he discovered that the malfunction was simply a plug connecting the battery pack to the panel which had worked loose. An embarrassing bit of poor troubleshooting for this engineer! When functioning properly the panel sits innocuously on the rear deck throughout the day charging a battery pack which in the evening provides an ample source for recharging the team’s electronics. Slick! The other piece of technology which was a game changer was J2’s iPhone 5 encased in a totally water proof case, itself encircled by a bright orange foam ‘life-ring’ (products of LifeProof.) The combination could literally be thrown into the water and then easily retrieved without harm. And of course the ‘phone’ itself was an excellent camera, compass, weather radio, GPS, note pad and, lest we forget, communications device. When this stuff works, which it does with greater reliability each year, its great. BUT, it does need recharging and the outlets in the park had all been shut off. Paul, a pleasant municipal employee advised us that just beyond the next point was a kayak club which he was certain could accommodate our electrical needs. He was right. A short paddle brought us to an extremely well maintained facility, sort of an open boat house, which provided security for kayaks when not in use. Not only did the facility have active electrical outlets but it also had a roof which provided protection from thunderstorm number two for the day. As this threat abated the duo launched and proceeded towards the Hudson Highlands, perhaps the premier beauty spot on the river. From the paddler’s perspective the entrance to this area is marked by Storm King Mountain and ‘guarded’ by Bannerman Castle, the ruins of which dominate a small island on river left. Both the castle and Highlands have full and interesting histories which the readers is urged to research. At the moment, however, history was far from the minds of the duo as storm number three closed in rapidly. Stuck on the water with rain beginning to fall heavily (mild inconvenience) and lightning crackling on the adjacent hills (abject terror) they were hugging river left when suddenly appeared
two large openings to
apparent tunnels. Both were blocked from deep entry by vertical pipe grating but provided ample space for two kayaks to wait out a storm. While such a shelter is hardly ideal protection against lightning, it sufficed due to the surrounding towering hills which drew the storm’s furry. The duo was not the first to find shelter here, graffiti indicated that “KUMA & MOOSE” had been there a year earlier!
As skies once again cleared and the tunnels were exited, the explanation became immediately obvious when an architecturally pleasant, abandoned pumping station loomed overhead. Something to the effect of “Catskill Water Supply to NYC” was inscribed over the entrance. A mile plus down river was exceptionally beautiful, albeit very trashy, “Little Stony Point” occupied by a park apparently operated by a local municipality. The town fathers had located a variety of trash receptacles including provisions for recycle near the beach so the Js engaged some time in clean up but hardly made a dent. A portion of the debris appeared to have been deposited by the river also. It was a sad sight but one that could be corrected quickly with a Boy Scout community project. (J2, a long time scoutmaster, has a passion for Scouting’s obligation to take a leadership role in keeping the outdoors clean). While the guide book cautioned that the community enforced the no camping regulation due to “rowdy teenage power boaters”, none of those offenders were in evidence on this stormy autumn weekday so the Js, fearing a continued onslaught of thunderstorms, assumed grace from the community leaders and set up their tents to await the promised change in weather to occur the next morning. The late afternoon was extremely pleasant. The gradual sandy river bottom was perfect for swimming and washing. And along with a spectacular view of Storm King Mountain, there was a constant parade of barges, sightseeing boats, and yachts out on the river, often struggling with the strong tidal currents. Both shorelines provided great train watching, streamliners on the east, and on the west, long freights pulled by two, three, or even four locomotives. There were also occasional visitors, all pleasant. One gentleman was a paddle boarder haling originally from London, UK. He was accompanied by a very friendly dog “Rouge”
J1 went over the top with dinner that night and the two turned in early to avoid the rain from yet another storm. This time as the bright lightning flashes and rumbling thunder lulled them to sleep, they both later confessed thinking, “I should replace these aluminum tent poles with ones made out of fiberglass!”
Day 6 Friday September 13 – Friday the 13th Turns Out OK
Distance 30 miles
Neither of the Js are superstitious and at 5am they gave no thought to the juxtaposition of day and date. The launch into the dim predawn was routine and they quickly felt the boost from the tide and a strong northerly tailwind which had arisen as Gabrielle disappeared into the frigid North Atlantic. Almost immediately, the near perfect conditions were compromised when J2 found he could only marginally control his heading. No matter what he did, the boat wanted to turn into the wind. Lowering the skeg is the textbook response to this aberrant performance but it appeared to already be in the ‘down’ position. Chalking it up to a need to shift load, he worked at techniques to ease the situation until a break could be taken. As dawn progressed the north side of the West Point campus came into view, while still too dark for effective photography, a large “BEAT AIRFORCE” message was seen on the field house roof, probably to make it visible from the air to the opposing team. It was just 7am and a cannon was fired, to begin the cadet’s day.
The river narrows considerably at West Point and makes sharp, 90 degree turn. For south bound travelers the turn is to the right so J2 decided to take the turn wide on river left to view any early morning up river traffic. J1 was making for the sharp rocky point when suddenly J2 spotted a north bound barge close in to the point preparing to negotiate the abrupt ‘ninety’. A couple of shouts were all that was necessary for J1 to make a quick course adjustment. Team work is a critical component in this kind of kayaking.
The rising sun highlighted the more familiar east side of the campus with morning light just as the Js rounded the bend, enabling good photo opportunities. There was a lot of activity including cadets out for their morning run. Even for J2, a diehard navy man, it was an impressive sight!
Now with day light, it was possible to land on a sandy beach on river left. The multiple signs declaring the area restricted were a mild concern but the lack of control was a bigger one. While J1 kept a close eye out for anything that might call for a “Repel Boarders” exercise, J2 shifted loads. Back on the river there appeared to be some relief but that may have been because the change in direction of the river was provided some shelter from the north wind.
Soon the Bear Mountain Bridge was visible in the distance marking one of the beauty spots on the river. When erected, the bridge was the first vehicular span across the Hudson connecting NYC to Albany. Its proposal met with public outcry that it would despoil the natural beauty of Bear Mountain!
Soon after Bear Mountain the river again turns as it passes Peekskill on river left. As the bend is rounded Indian Point Nuclear Plant appears and the landscape begins to flatten out. It was nearing mid-morning, time for a breakfast break so we pulled up to a beach at the very industrial Verplank Point.
We had just clicked off 14 ½ miles passing through the Hudson Highlands so we had earned our oatmeal. One piece of trash along the beach was a somewhat damaged but serviceable plastic chair which J2 unashamedly made good use of. Well fortified, the duo launched into a freshening north wind and began a crossing to river right where they would remain all the way to the Statue of Liberty. During the crossing J2’s control problems got worse and he insisted that a stop at Stony Point be made for more adjustments. By now he was not only sure that J1 thought this directional stability issue was psychosomatic, but he was beginning to think so himself. Back on the river and headed for Haverstraw Bay a mystery unfolded that could be called, “The case of the missing chart!” The weather was beautiful, the tide remained favorable, and the numbers on the buoys were difficult to read. J2 was devoting himself full time to keeping his bow downwind to take advantage of the strong quartering breeze and J2, by far the better sightseer of the two, was taking in all things new. One of those new things was the replica of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon apparently serving this day in a youth education capacity. Then suddenly, out of the blue, the sightseer demands that a certain buoy be identified and a debate ensued which was ended when J2 spotted the Tappan Zee Bridge implying that the duo had paddled from chart 19 to 21 without a thought of checking their location on 20. J1 accused J2, the navigator, of dereliction of duty which received an initial protest but finally a shrug for a response. The debate wouldn’t have gone anywhere useful.
Having unconsciously blown past Haverstraw Bay and Croton Point, the dividing point with Tappan Zee, a landing at the upper end of Nyack Beach State Park was made to take a break and assess where to terminate the day’s travels. A respectable 24 ½ miles had already been put in their wake with only 32 more remaining to journey’s end. It was only 2 o’clock and with the tail wind, the length of Tappan Zee could be traversed in 2 hours. J1 put the question to J2, “Should we move on? It’s only 2 o’clock.” It was a bad way to begin a decision making process. The topic needed serious discussion. At their present location the prospects for stealth camping were excellent. The tail wind was predicted with certainty again for the next day and the firm plans were now to spend Saturday night at the foot of the Palisades regardless of where the previous night was spent. And then there was the (alleged) problem with J2s boat. On the other hand transiting Tappan Zee would put 6 more miles in the bank (of little value at this point) but the opportunities to camp at the southern end were questionable at best. Put on the spot, J2 anticipated the expected answer and gave it to which there was immediate concurrence. Continue! … based solely on the great progress so far and the strong tail wind which despite the difficulties was having a favorable impact. … It was a monumentally BAD decision containing a strong element of the Js’ best/worst quality. They place a high value on mileage and they can achieve it. When necessary, it’s a powerful asset, when not … it’s a hindrance to rational thought. It has been friend and foe throughout their kayak adventuring career.
The die was cast and off they sped across Tappan Zee. In mid-Zee (Dutch for Sea) a racing kayaker out for exercise in a spiffy Epic kayak was encountered and pleasantries were exchanged. Approaching the Tappan Zee Bridge, the little bit of construction activity observable from above Nyack blossomed into a major cross-river project (apparently a new bridge) with multiple cranes, barges, work platforms, crew boats and a couple of peculiar looking pusher type tugboats with towering wheelhouses to enhance visibility. One of these long necked, flat prowed creations took aim at the Js and sped towards them. There was no question that if driver persisted they were about to become ground fish food. The dou did the only thing they could think of and paddled as hard as possible to get out of the way but the helmsman simply changed course to continue the assault. With about 25 yards to go the tug was literally slammed into reverse and stopped causing the towering wheelhouse to pitch forward. At that moment the driver spoke on an installed bull horn, “Hey yous guys, stay away from them barges, yous could get hurt. And watch out for them woik boats, it’s busy out here”. The Js acknowledged the warning and J2 continued his progress. J1, however, had lost his water bottle overboard in the fray and turned to retrieve it, … but not before the attack tug had driven over it; fortunately it survived.
The Tappan Zee Bridge which crosses the three mile width of the Hudson at this point consists of elevated causeway for much of its length ascending to a high cantilevered truss over the channel. That undoubtedly saved cost and at the same time drove the sail boaters crazy.
Every other pier on the causeway portion has a large sign announcing that it is a restricted area (for obvious post 9-11 reasons) but no clear definition for what that meant. Underneath the roadway the wind, which by now had increased far past ‘helpful tailwind’ status and was in the category of ‘broach ‘em and roll ‘em’ became very confused. At the same time the waves were disrupted by the piers adding further to the boil. Fortunately J2 had perfected his anti-broaching paddling all day and survived with only a wet skirt. After the duo cleared the bridge, and after a full day of pain inflicting ‘two strokes forward, one stroke back’, the ever so dull engineer thought, “Well, even though the control says it’s down, maybe that skeg really isn’t down, or maybe it fell out altogether” … BRILLIANT!!! A quick request to J1 to perform an inspection (which can’t be performed on a beached kayak when the skeg is raised) determined that for whatever reason, there was NO skeg protruding beneath hid boat. J2 had paddled almost 30 miles in a strong tailwind with no skeg! With about a mile to go to the planned landing in Piermont there was both relief and anxiety. The problem with the control was now understood … but what is the status of the skeg? Was this a game altering equipment failure?
Soon a landing was made on a rapidly disappearing crescent of sand adjacent to the embryonic new waterfront ‘green’ in Piermont, a village that appeared to be benefiting from Manhattan wealth. Flipping J2’s boat on its side revealed that the skeg, thankfully, was nestled in its slot and had not departed. The repair kit was broken out and the Leatherman with needle nose pliers was used to deploy the skeg with no resistance at all so investigation shifted to the cable control. Immediately the problem was obvious, the cable sheath had broken loose from its anchor point, probably the direct result inadvertently applying excessive force on the cable when stowing camping gear in the stern. The fix was simple and quick using two small tie wraps. J2 was back in control!
Meanwhile J1 was entertaining the thought of stealth camping center stage in Piermont prompting J2 to comment that the cops would be on us like flies on dog poop! But he persisted and marched off get permission. Thank goodness he did for although he was summarily rejected on all counts after pleading his case to the local police, Tallman Park superintendent, and proprietor of a local canoe rental shop; he gained a key piece of information that would enable stealth camping in the park anyhow. The catch however, was that the target overnight spot was on the downriver side of the mile long Piermont pier extending perpendicularly into the Zee (river) and the Zee was now boiling as it hurled its late afternoon fury of strong north wind induced waves, fully matured over their six mile reach, against the stout sea wall of the pier. That obstruction turned the fury back on itself producing a remarkable melee of erupting water. “No problem’” opined J2, “we’ve handled the likes of this before.” … Later accused of lying, he laughed it off as nearsightedness.
Since there was no option, the duo launched into the onslaught and began by gaining a little upstream margin, perhaps a hundred yards from the pier and then maintaining the margin by crabbing slightly into the wind. Meanwhile the waves simply had their way with the kayaks; their heights exceeded three feet (when crests obscure the horizon), probably four foot and greater, especially as reflected waves met the oncoming ones. At one point J2 recalled such a meeting of two particularly large specimens directly under his keel and perfectly aligned fore and aft. The resultant uplift allowed him to enjoy a commanding, albeit brief, view of Tappan Zee. The day’s 30 mile paddling fatigue completely evaporated and the immediate focus on staying upright and making some progress blanked out all other thought. It became an exhilarating competition against nature’s fury with no thought of defeat or consequences. Paddle strokes & braces, shifting balance, knees braced and feet firmly planted against the pegs, man and boat were one. Progress was slow but determined. The Js were winning! At pier end a tricky turn downwind had to be executed but after that a broad eddy did the rest sweeping the Js safely into the calm water on the leeward side. Exuberant high fives were executed as the adrenalin high had not yet faded. Later the realization of danger would sink in but in the moment the sweeping euphoria was a powerful fix.
It was now late. The sun was at the tree tops and a camp site still had to be found by first finding the mouth of the “second creek” (Crum Kill) entering the Piermont Marsh which stretches about two miles downstream below Piermont with a width of about ¼ mile. The marsh appears to be the combined result of the stagnation induced by the pier constructed in 1839 by the Erie railroad, and the runoff born by the Sparkill Creek which cuts through the palisade formation and enters the Hudson immediately below the pier. Perhaps once covered with native grasses, it is now dominated by an invasive species of phragmites typical of many other east coast brackish water marshes. With J1 in the lead, the mouth was found and a relaxing paddle up the creek ensued. The hoped for pleasant accommodation, however, was a disappointment. The creek turned south and paralleled the steeply sloped shoreline but with about 30 feet of marsh separating navigable water from dry land.
The most likely spot was identified and the boats were pulled through the few inches of water provided by high tide by grasping and tugging on handfuls of phragmites
until further progress was halted by rotting tree limbs lying near the bank. To make matters worse, nay, much worse, the steep bank was covered with low-lying greenbrier. J1 worked his way free of his boat only to have to stand knee deep in muck. He applied the side cutter of his own Leatherman to clear a path up the bank. Next was the task of unloading camping gear which was done by J2 tossing gear to J1. In the process the slippery plastic bag containing J1’s sleeping bag escaped J2’s grip early and fell short into the scummy water. In his effort to rescue the parcel before the water invaded its contents, J1 slipped and fell backwards into the offending slime and the only other thing breaking his fall was greenbrier. Very nasty!
The sun had set by the time tents were erected and because profound paddling fatigue had numbed their appetites, each placed an MRE packet in his tent as a hedge against later hunger and then crawled in, muddy and without dinner. Sleep came almost instantly.
Day 7 Saturday September 14 – The Great Escape & on to Base Camp
Distance 7 miles
Where did the river go!? It was the question that rocketed through the minds of both Js as dawn brightened enough to reveal that the boats were high and dry in the muck. The tide was in, or should have been, but the level was so low that the surface of Crum Kill was not even visible from the shore line. Apparently the continuing force of the powerful north wind had opposed the flooding tide sufficiently to prevent its advance up the river. At first the Js took a wait and see response expecting the tide to eventually show up but after an hour there was no increase at all. Were the mariners marooned? Would the exposed muck swallow them if they tried to access their boats? It was J1 who game up with step one of the great escape. The area was full of fallen branches. He began to gather them and throw them down around the boats forming a mat. It worked beautifully and soon the process of packing the boats commenced. Once that had been accomplished, however, the situation remained relatively unchanged; two boats, no water. The next inspiration came from J2 who speculated that if he could reach the bank of phragmites and advance a path through it by pushing the plants over to form a base to walk on, it may support his weight and prevent sinking into the muck. That too worked and now Crum Kill could be accessed, at least to look at. The water level was well below the level of the phragmites path which would make entry into boats treacherous; but the Js had no other option but to try to make it work. Adding more sticks to the matting to ease access to the phragmites bank, and broadening the path across the bank, permitted J1’s boat to be dragged across the downed phragmites and slipped into the water. Next J2’s boat was positioned but not launched. The final step was to enter the boats. A notch was found in the bank and a number of limbs were tossed into it permitting J1 to approach his boat at near water level while J2 firmly held the boat against the bank with the bow and stern painters. With some effort J1 completed the entry and once again was a kayaker. J2 launched his boat and with J1 leveraging it against the bank with his paddle, J2 also made a successful transition from camper to kayaker.
While the effort to escape had been time consuming, only a handful of miles were needed this day to get positioned for the final ‘assault’ on Miss. Liberty on Sunday. J1 led the departure out Crum Kill and at its mouth the strong north wind again became a reality boosting the pair on their way. Before long the Palisades were in evidence and soon after that the George Washington Bridge (GWB) was sighted in the distance. At that point any camping spot identified among the boulders at the foot of the Palisades Park’s magnificent cliffs would be acceptable since the statue was now within 20 miles. While the closer they camped to the GWB the shorter the paddle would be the next day, there was no information regarding the availability of sites so the Js opted for the first likely spot found. As it turned out the next day, there appeared to be many camping opportunities along the Palisades right up to the GWB. Camping near the bridge would allow the possibility of an arrival at the statue before the morning ferryboat rush.
The campsite selected was ideal and the early stop for the day allowed for an afternoon of relaxation. Despite the area being a boulder field, two perfect tent sites were discovered and J1, after erecting his tent within a natural circle of large rocks, spent a good part of the afternoon sleeping off the previous day’s stresses. J2 caught up on journaling and did a little exploring finding the dried carcass of a small sturgeon on a nearby rock, the first specimen of that fish, native to Hudson waters, that he had ever seen. In general, fauna appeared relatively sparse during the trip, especially when compared to the Susquehanna, the river with which the Js are most familiar. After the sighting of the three ‘urban’ eagles on day one, only a few were subsequently spotted. Occasional osprey and heron sightings occurred, fish broached on rare occasions but there was little other action on the surface, and along the banks no deer were spotted. One beaver slapped the water on Wappinger Creek, but little else. Often the river didn’t look very fauna friendly. Between urban areas, corps of engineers efforts, industrial sites, spoils areas, marinas & piers, and railroad embankments, natural shoreline was scarce and in parts of the river shallows were overtaken with invasive water chestnut which depletes the oxygen beneath it. Bottom line on fauna is, the Hudson estuary is not lifeless but neither does it seem very ‘fertile’, at least to the kayak observer.
Spending time at the foot of the Palisades was not without one mild concern, while the cliffs have been in place for 200 million years, the rubble at the bottom has not, and as recently as last year, 10,000 tons of cliff came crashing down traveling all the way to the river a few hundred yards from the Js camp site. In fact, during the night, J2 was awakened by the sound of a large boulder careening down off the cliff and bouncing across the boulder field with earth shaking thuds!
The wind was fading in strength throughout the day and surprisingly pleasant to see were parties of kayakers making their way along the shoreline. Kayaking is gaining popularity all over including the Hudson Valley; even the busy metropolitan areas were no exception. It was heartening to see!
This day of rest ended with the shadow of the Palisades slowly climbing the hills on the opposing side of the river until it became twilight, and then night, and the Jays rested well in anticipation of an aggressive paddle to their goal in the morning.
Day 8, Sunday September 15th – The Final Assault
We awoke to Day 8 and to a lively breeze out of the west. It was pushing right over the rim of the towering cliff of the Palisades and tumbling down to the river below. Near the shore line the air moved chaotically, but move off shore a couple of hundred yards and you found constant pressure abeam driving you out towards the channel. We launched at 6am in predawn twilight, recognizing that we had to travel 20 miles and arrive at Miss Liberty’s feet (if she has any below those flowing robes) by 12 noon because that was low tide; any later would mean paddling against the incoming tide in New York harbor which we surmised would be nigh on impossible.
As the sun showed promise of again rising over the eastern horizon, the Palisades became bathed in its morning redness. It was a breathtaking sight which, combined with the freshness of the breeze and a good night’s sleep, was exhilarating. J2 reached for his iPhone to capture this beauty only to be disappointed that the battery had now fully discharged. J1’s iPad had met an untimely end, and now with only his waterproof camera left, it was purposed to try to find a spot where we could recharge even though the delay meant extra paddling effort. Within a couple of miles a New Jersey State marina was spotted river right, part of Palisades Park, and we rapidly pulled over. To our relief the outlets in the pavilion of the adjoining small park were energized and all electronics were soon sucking the nourishing electrons. Though the facility had seen better days, J1 marveled at the craftsmanship evident in what was probably a WPA project. This marina/park would make an excellent stop for meal prep and break with its well kept amenities. Overnighting would be nice but probably a stretch given the nature of the facility,
With phone-cameras recharged and now 45 minutes behind schedule, serious paddling was resumed. The approach to the George Washington Bridge was exasperatingly slow but eventually we were under the span and being bathed in traffic noise so intense that we could no longer communicate.
As we left that famous span in our wakes, we noticed that communication did not improve. Vehicle noise was replaced by the annoying drone and ‘copping’ of numerous helicopters in various traffic patterns but all centered over the river when heading south. At one point the count was six. Their origins were military, law enforcement, and probably sightseeing as it was approaching noon, and being Sunday, prime time for tourism.
New York harbor was a busy place but most of the serious traffic was ferries. J2 counted as many as five in motion around them traveling a variety of routes. Recalling the ponderous double ended craft of his youth, he was surprised by these more aggressive unidirectional vessels which darted about leaving a continuous stream of wakes which occasionally interacted to create large waves. Favoring the Jersey bank helped, unless passing a terminal of which there were two or three. It then became a crapshoot to pass quickly behind the sterns which were disgorging water as they kept themselves firmly in their slip only to suddenly, after exchanging their passengers, reverse towards whatever was behind and then execute a water churning turn not required by their ancestors. Hoping for a moment’s notice from the obligatory whistle signal, the calculated risk paid dividends and all terminals were safely bypassed.
While the ferries may have churned over us in ignorance of our presence had we not maneuvered to avoid them, it was a very different story with regard to the maritime trash truck operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. This lumbering beast prowled the harbor with its chain link tongue hanging out to scoop up offending trash before it polluted the Jersey beaches. But there was more to do today than just trash pickup. Apparently it was open season on kayakers! The lethargic brute began bearing directly down on the duo. If they paddled right, it turned to port, and if a left turn, the response was to starboard. It was deliberate and continued until, with a last minute turn, the game was terminated. After a mid-channel reversal and repositioning, the mighty Corp of Engineers recommenced their kayak assault using the same clumsy tactics. This time, as the game ending nautical pirouette was executed, two hands came on deck to observe the fun. Their countenances matched their brainless activity. Well, at least there was consistency up and down the river with the opinion of the mariners in Saugerties harbor, expressed by “Buck”, that kayaks are speed bumps!
Uptown was great, cruising by the legendary Empire State and Chrysler buildings; Grant’s Tomb and Riverside Church too. But passing Lower Manhattan was emotional. 9-11was in full remembrance when we passed Poughkeepsie four days earlier with flags at half-mast on every bridge. One World Trade Center is an attractive replacement for the twin towers but at that moment served more as a reminder of that dreadful event than a symbol of recovery.
The perspective on the whole NYC skyline from the surface level of the kayaker was stirring. There is a grace that is not evident from other viewpoints. Next and to the right was Ellis Island, still closed to the public due to the ravages of Sandy.
Miss Liberty was now gaining full prominence and the urge to pull up close was shared by at least three nearby ferry boats, all seemingly vying for a spot at the Liberty Island pier. For a brief moment there was a feeling of accomplishment mixed with national pride as the green patinaed lady towered above us. The warm fuzzies, however, rapidly gave way to a realization of vulnerability in the wake tossed waters surrounded by large impassionate hulls. It all spoke a clear message … “You don’t belong here. Get out of the way before you become shark bait!” Both Js got the message and after snapping the requisite victory photos, they turned tail, cleared the “Restricted Area” buoys, and passed by the good lady’s derriere not pausing for a glance.
J1 & J2
Crossing the few hundred yards to Liberty Park in Jersey City, our pickup point, afforded a calmer view of the Verrazano narrows and bridge. The opening was engorged with container ships, tankers and barges waiting for the tide to change. It was an impressive last sight for the paddlers, reminding them that this inland sea called the Hudson River is, in the final analysis, all about business. The Js were there for pleasure, and indeed, they didn’t belong.