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.
Dan, our bow man, was the one who slept most soundly of all. Last night, it had been his job to keep us pointed in the right direction. The rest of us were blinded by the lantern and could only apply forward motion to the canoe. He worked harder than all of us in wrestling the bow left and right and he literally collapsed when we finally got off the river. Dan had recently graduated from college and became our poet laureate. For him, this trip was the equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey in spirit if not length. It was a test of commitment and a test of resourcefulness and loyalty to the team. Dan often reflected on meaning of our adventure and spoke often of the deep value of living in the moment. He found parallels to our experiences in the works of other poets and authors and was ever grateful to be sharing the journey with us.
We were up at dawn and prepared hot cocoa and oatmeal. Our host came over at 7:00 and we had a chance to catch up with him. It turned out that we had just missed the tall ships that visited here last week. One of them, a small bark, stayed at this yard. We chose to wait for the tide to change before departing and this gave us a little time to work out our kinks. I prepared a few sketches of the random deposition of old cranes, pile drivers, winches, gears, worn out boats and tilting pilothouses. We thanked our host profusely and shoved off at 9:30.
The Hudson Highlands
There was no wind at first and we were still sore from yesterday’s extreme struggle in Haverstraw Bay. We rounded Indian Point, entered Peekskill Bay and set our course for Dunderberg Mountain at the southern gateway to the Highlands. A tug was pushing a petroleum barge south and we adjusted our course to give the tow plenty of room. When we resumed, an easterly wind picked up and we set our sail for an assist to Iona Island.
Myths have attached themselves to Iona Island and Steve experienced some of its powers on previous canoe trips. The island is largely covered by grass and scrub and includes long brick munitions sheds from its previous use as a naval depot and some rock formations, the most notable being a chimney rock at the south end. The island is connected to the west shore by a causeway but this is inaccessible to the public. There is a considerable deer herd on the island and the grass is thick with ticks. Perimeter roads and street lights are maintained for little apparent reason leading to urban legends that the island is home to strategic missile silos. Supernatural occurrences on previous trips, evidence of satanic rituals on the chimney rock and severe storms seemingly rising up out of the island have imbued this place with sinister associations among our small community of paddlers. One wonders if Native Americans or the Dutch experienced similar apprehensions. We are content to leave the island completely alone on this trip and grateful to avoid one of its storms.
We passed beneath the Bear Mountain Bridge at noon and struck our sail rig so that we could pass beneath a railroad trestle and enter the Popolopen Creek. The creek served as a landing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the remains of two schooners were gradually disintegrating here along with the ruins of an eighteenth century mill. During the Revolution, the commanding headlands immediately north and south of the mouth of this creek were fortified in the American initiative to block British passage through the Highlands. Nevertheless, forts Montgomery and Clinton were overrun. The chain boom at Fort Montgomery was breached by the British warships and the American vessels were abandoned. Although earthworks and foundations remain at the fort sites, there is no visible evidence of this history from our canoe; only the two railroads on the east and west shores. The engineers blow their horns for us as we salute oncoming trains by pumping our paddles.
After re-entering the river, we paddled for Sugar Loaf Mountain. West Point became visible, but a direct approach was blocked by Con Hook, a low spit of land jutting out from the west shore. After rounding this obstruction, we paddled beneath the ramparts of West Point. Surprisingly, we found sunbathers at the water’s edge beneath a rock face incised with the deeply carved letters spelling “YORKTOWN.” The roof of one of the Academy buildings was painted with the message “BEAT AIR FORCE.” The ruins of Fort Constitution could still be seen on the east side of the river at the point where a second and more famous chain boom protected the river above here from British attack.
The 1917 wooden tour boat Commander approached us and her tour director engaged us in a brief conversation on the PA before wishing us well and departing. Storm King Mountain loomed over us to the west. The mountain is scarred by a road ledge cut out of live rock and shoulders burnt by a forest fire touched off by unexploded ordnance from the days when shells were fired into it from the proving grounds across the river at Cold Spring. Breakneck Mountain stood to our right, gnarled and disfigured by huge creases, veins and fractures. Steve observed that with a little imagination, one can see anguished and tortured faces all over its western face. Englishman John Maude made a similar observation from his sloop in 1800 and named this “Face Mountain” in the journal he published in 1826. It is unlikely that he was the first to see the faces.
At 3:00 PM, we completed our passage through the Highlands. We made a brief stop at Pollepel Island, the site of Bannerman’s Arsenal and lodge. The castle keep, a baroque concoction of brick and concrete was built between 1905 and 1918 and stood five stories high. Although burned out long ago, it retained its open and turreted walls, outlines of a moat, docks, and castellated drawbridges and was festooned with grapevines and a healthy crop of poison ivy. In addition to the unstable walls, additional hazards were said to have included concealed pits, unexploded ordnance, rattlesnakes and ticks. The island guards the northern entrance to the Highlands and is associated with a long tradition of superstition dating back to the Dutch colony if not earlier.
Recently installed no trespassing signs with dire threats convinced us to continue our journey even though all of us had explored the island on previous canoe trips. We were followed by a thick cloud of blood sucking flies for more than a mile up the river. Steve struck out viscously after being bled by one and broke his paddle.
Although high tide ended, the current along the east shore of the river still flowed north. We also had a slight south breeze at our backs so we set our sail. We passed several possible campsites along the east shore including Deming Point, a large abandoned brickyard north of Beacon and Pete Seeger’s sloop club with the pine tree coming out of the roof. On the opposite shore, a few landmarks could be seen at Newburgh, but the scene was dominated by new construction and swaths of vacant land where the historic center of the town stood before so-called urban renewal. We passed beneath the two ugly I-84 spans carrying traffic across the river and eastward toward Connecticut and lamented the loss of the ferry they replaced and the views that they marred. We reached the Chelsea Yacht Club at 5:30, just as the ebb tide began to work against us. Bill, one of the club’s officers, welcomed us but sent us to the showers immediately. When we were fit to be in polite company again, he invited us to dine on crabs and camp on the club’s lawn overnight.
The Chelsea Yacht Club began in the first years of the twentieth century as an ice boat club. The New York Central Railroad sold the club a thin piece of made land west of its tracks and a clubhouse and boat shed were built. The social hall was loaded with burgees, models and interesting river souvenirs. A massive willow tree stood on the shore next an old iron capstan salvaged from a sloop or schooner. Many sailboats were at moorings here and the dinghies needed to reach them were stored neatly in racks along the train tracks.
As we watched the sailboats swing to the changing tide at slightly different angles depending upon their distance from shore, Bill explained that the ebb tide is first experienced nearest the shoreline; at the center of the river, momentum carries the flood tide current upstream for a period of time beyond high tide. He confirmed our observation that the tides were behaving a little differently over the past several days. He attributed this to a full moon and the influence of Hurricane Dennis.
Bill and his friends retrieved their crab traps and boiled up a mess of fresh blue crabs in our honor. The crabs thrive in the brackish water at the bottom of the bay and are baited with chicken scraps. We supplemented the impromptu feast with pasta, spaghetti sauce and fried spam. After watching a gorgeous sunset and cleaning up, we thanked our hosts, pitched our tents and turned in for the night. The generosity of river people seems unlimited.
Whoever said that passenger trains are dead in America? I challenge that person to spend a night in a tent at Chelsea! Our tents were less than 50 feet from the tracks. The trains shook the earth and sounded as if they were about to run all of us down. Amtrak, Metro North, they were all the same. They lit up the night in their paths and hurtled past with blaring air horns which changed pitch the moment they rushed away. The long West Shore freight trains with their laboring locomotives made almost as much noise even though they were almost a mile across the water. Dan had nightmares of awakening on the tracks just in time to be run over by speeding expresses.
Don't forget to join us again next Friday for Day 5 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.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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