Twenty years ago, four friends with an abiding love of the Hudson River and its history stepped away from their families and their work to travel up the river in a homemade strip-planked canoe to experience the river on its most intimate terms. The team set off from Liberty State Park in New Jersey and completed the adventure nine days later just below Albany where one of the paddlers lived. They began with no itinerary and no pre-arranged lodging or shore support. There were no cell phones. The journey deepened their appreciation for the river and its many moods, the people who live and work beside the river and the importance of friendship in sustaining our lives.
Please join us vicariously on this excellent adventure. We'll be posting every Friday for the next several weeks, so stay tuned! Follow the adventure here.
I woke up to heavy dew at 4:30 AM, cleaned up and began packing. The others rose from their fitful rest at 5:00. We were anxious to catch the flood tide. We fixed some oatmeal, broke camp and were paddling north before sunrise. We hailed the canal cruise ship Niagara Princess and rounded Danskammer Point, named by early Dutch travelers who are said to have witnessed council fires and native dancing on the promontory. Moments later, we witnessed the sun rise above the concrete silos and steel conveyors of the stone crusher on the east shore. Shifting tugs were already arranging barges at the plant and the sun’s long rays were described in sharp focus by the omnipresent clouds of dust. The crusher plant here and the power plant at Danskammer Point are two of the most obnoxious blights on the river between the Highlands and Catskill.
We reached the Pirate Canoe Club a mile south of Poughkeepsie at 7:45 AM just as the current turned against us. After tying up, we walked to the clubhouse and asked the members at the bar if we could stay until the tide turned. They graciously welcomed us and put on a fresh pot of coffee. They served the coffee with donuts and we watched Good Morning America and the Weather Channel on the TV set over the bar. Hurricane Dennis was still stalled off Cape Hatteras.
Our hosts were proud to tell us about the origins of their club. It was established along Poughkeepsie’s central waterfront but was forced to relocate as a result of urban renewal. The new clubhouse was perched on a rock jutting out into the river. The docks were connected to the clubhouse by a series of wooden gangways and stairs and there was an overturned canoe inscribed with the club’s name hanging near the entrance road coming into the club. Although founded as a canoe club, powered craft prevailed along the docks. The club had an old crane for seasonally placing and removing dock sections. Membership was inexpensive by any standard. The drinks here were cheap too. Dan, Steve and Joe decided to walk into town and I stayed behind to organize our gear and to draw and write. A north breeze began to blow and with it, the humidity began to dissipate. An older club member came by in his kayak and visited with me for a while and I asked him about camping on Esopus Island. He thought it would be fine and told me that there was a landing place on the southeast side where we could draw our canoe up onto the island. My partners returned at 11:00 with fresh vegetables for supper and a book for Dan. Joe was elated to have fresh ingredients for tonight’s supper. We had lunch on the hill and caught the beginning of the flood tide at 2:00. Soon, we passed beneath the Wizard of Oz-like Poughkeepsie suspension bridge and the long abandoned railroad bridge keeping close to shore in order to get the most out of the favorable current.
We came abreast of the Culinary Institute of America and bantered with two students enjoying the river. They bragged that they could cook better than any of us and offered to prove it by preparing some fish for dinner if we could only catch some. We hadn’t brought any fishing gear and sadly couldn’t take them up on this offer. We continued north through the Lange Rack and past Crum Elbow and the Hyde Park train station.
Esopus Island was visible straight ahead. We found the landing place on the southeast side amidst dwarfed cedar trees and climbed out at 4:30. After scouting the island we decided to camp here. We unloaded the canoe and then took her out light to explore the island’s shoreline all the way around. Our circumnavigation complete, we set up our camp and more thoroughly explored the island. We found evidence of the island’s history; flint flakes discarded near the river during the process of making tools and weapons, the remnants of a low stone wall perhaps intended to contain sheep, stone foundations for an early aid to navigation and fragments of the sidewheel steamer Point Comfort which failed to see the island and ran up on it early in 1919. There was also plenty of poison ivy and lots of red ants. The island’s vegetation was severely dried out as a result of a hot dry summer and the thin soil covering the island. Many leaves had fallen and those which hadn’t were brown. It was very reminiscent of an Indian summer in October.
We were well north of the leading edge of the salt line and took this opportunity to thoroughly bathe in the river. Once clean, we began dinner. Dan and I sketched the scene in our journals. Dinner was served at sunset and included a massive fresh vegetable salad with radicchio, noodles with spaghetti sauce and fried Spam. We cleaned up at 9:00 and sat around the campfire for a while listening to the din of birds and crickets and sharing our thoughts about the trip. A turkey vulture circled overhead. We reflected upon the subtle unfolding of the river and its surroundings and distant views experienced by travelers in both directions. Joe aptly described our adventure as “a kaleidoscope of marvelous experiences that seemed to glide from one to another.”
Some big birds tramped around our camp with heavy feet at night. In the morning, we found what appeared to be a pterodactyl egg on the bluff east of our campsite. It dawned upon us that we had built our camp at the intersection of a busy network of blue heron paths.
Don't forget to join us again next Friday for Day 6 of the trip!
Muddy Paddle’s love of the Hudson River goes back to childhood when he brought dead fish home, boarded foreign freighters to learn how they operated and wandered along the river shore in search of the river’s history. He has traveled the river often, aboard tugboats, sailing vessels large and small and canoes. The account of this trip was kept in a small illustrated journal kept dry within a sealed plastic bag. The illustrations accompanying this account were prepared by the author.
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