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.
Unpromising weather. We left the marina in Connelly. It was sprinkling, cold and there was a strong northeast wind so we did not unfurl the sail but instead lashed it to the thwarts. We shoved off into the Rondout around 9:30 paddling directly into the wind. Steve Trueman, a collector of old tugboats, hailed us from the 1930s tug K. Whittlesey and offered us shelter and coffee but we unwisely declined, being in a hurry to take advantage of the incoming flood tide.
As we passed a scrap yard, it became clear that the wind was roaring right down the river from the north. The wind continued to rise as we paddled the exposed stretch of the creek toward the lighthouse. The river beyond the lighthouse was dark and disturbed, rolling with the steep and dirty waves that are created when the wind opposes the current. We estimated that the wind was blowing at about 20 mph. The incoming tide was rushing into the Rondout and we had to power the last 100 yards to reach temporary protection in the lee of the lighthouse before bodily forcing the Bear out into the river. We were immediately slammed by three and four foot waves which threatened to dash us on the rocks reinforcing the south breakwater. Try as hard as he might, Steve in the bow could not dig hard enough to bring our bow into the wind. I was equally unable to lever the stern downstream and Joe and Dan in the middle were unable to assist either of us from their position. After half a minute of intense effort, Steve just stopped paddling. I was astounded and speechless. There was no explanation. He simply stopped. We were sure we were about to broach. I figured that when the Bear filled, we would abandon her, swim for the breakwater and wait for help to arrive. Amazingly, however, the bow of the canoe unexpectedly rotated downstream and after a few seconds of hesitation, the three of us spun around in our seats (facing astern) and began paddling upstream with all of our might for shelter in the bay a short distance to our north. We later surmised that the unplanned spin that allowed us to gain control was the result of the bow of our canoe being too light. With two of us in the stern and the heavy chests and waterproof bags well behind the mast, the canoe was much steadier proceeding stern first. We shipped plenty of water smashing through the big waves and progress was excruciatingly slow, but we eventually rounded Kingston Point and entered calmer water. It was clear that we were not going to be able to make much more progress so we aimed the Bear for the beach north and west of the point and landed wet and exhausted. To get out of the relentless wind, we left the canoe on the beach and cowered behind a low plank wall near the beach parking lot. We were completely defeated.
After a long pause and the resumption of normal heart rates and mental functions, we looked back over the wall toward the beached Bear and the bay beyond. The sky was clearing and the sun was coming out. A large freighter was bearing directly toward us before making the turn east to clear Kingston Point. Moments later, it dawned upon us that the ship’s wake could set the canoe afloat. But by the time we saw the curling wake approach, it was too late. We sprinted toward the canoe as she was lifted up at a crazy angle and then dashed on the beach parallel to the receding wake. A second wave rolled her over, dumping all of our gear into the churning water. The big yellow dry bags floated, but one of our food chests opened up spilling out cook stove and utensils. We ran out into the water, hurled everything we could find far up the beach and then drained the sand and water slurry out of the Bear and carried her far up the beach. We hung our wet gear up in a tree. Joe set up the stove behind the low wall and began boiling water for hot cocoa. We were feeling pretty low about our inauspicious start and we all knew that we were going to have to wait for the wind to moderate before setting off again.
Steve and I set off to visit Steve Trueman and his collection of old tugboats. We had to fight our way around a fence and lots of heavy brush to get to his boats. Steve, who had offered us coffee little more than an hour earlier, was gone. His dog remained and did not mind our poking around among the tugboats and the covered barge. We returned the way we came, drank hot cocoa and ate some bologna sandwiches. Thus fortified, we decided to make a second attempt to paddle north in hopes of making a few miles before the tide set against us. We packed up and adjusted our baggage so that there was more weight in the bow.
Launching into the surf with our fully loaded canoe was no mean feat, but we timed our launch perfectly and shipped only a few cold gallons of water when we broke through the first wave. After getting away from the beach, we hugged the west shore along the abandoned Hutton brickworks in order to break as much of the wind as possible. During the stronger gusts, we paddled just to stay in place and not lose ground. We eventually made it to the dock at Ulster Park where we tied up and took a break. There was a grassy lawn and a porta john here and we agreed that this would be an acceptable camping location if we couldn’t get further north. The sun was shining but low in the sky and a cold wind continued from the north, dead against us. We steeled ourselves for more paddling, hoping to get at least as far as the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, but the tide was waning and we needed to find a landing and campsite before dark.
A little more than half a mile north of the bridge, we found a small cove with a landing and made our decision to stay. After getting the canoe well above the high water mark, we scouted the area to determine if we could camp here without being disturbed. Nearby we found the hulk of an abandoned 1940s transit bus identified by painted letters as “Bob’s Bus.” The bus still retained its decorative chrome but had lost its wheels, engine and seats and was now full of lawn mowers and recreational equipment. A second cove near the bus was filled with the bones of abandoned brick barges. We found a fiberglass runabout filled with rotting leaves and fallen branches. Another boat was riding at a mooring north of our cove. A nineteenth century road with stone retaining walls switched back and forth and ascended a bluff towards several houses overlooking the river.
Joe and I were definitely uncomfortable here, but Steve reminded us that it was late and the tide was gone leaving us no options. We unpacked and pitched Joe’s big tent in the gathering dusk. Steve had absolutely no concerns but Joe and I sure hoped no one would find us here before dawn. We prepared macaroni and cheese with hot dogs for dinner served with apple slices and cheddar cheese. After dinner it got cold. The tide went all the way out. We built a driftwood fire on the beach for warmth. A dog began barking on the ridge above us, and we could see the lights of the houses at the top. We crawled into our sleeping bags before 9:00 PM. It was a very cold night. High tide arrived at 2:00 AM and I checked to make sure that the Bear was far enough up the beach. I offered my winter coat to Joe to warm him up.
Don't forget to join us again next Friday for Day 8 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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