Muddy Paddle's Bateau: Day 6
Editor’s Note: In 1996, our intrepid writer, Muddy Paddle, built a historic wooden bateau and took it and a group of kids down the Hudson River. Accompanied by a war canoe and a modern sailboat, the three vessels had many adventures along the way. Check back each Friday for the next installment.
Thursday. Beacon to Verplank.
Amidst islands and mountains.
It was a warm and misty morning. The mist seemed to amplify the sound of the Amtrak and Metro North trains braking at the station and starting up on their runs into and out of the City. Everyone was glad to go outdoors and breathe fresh air after a night of smelling the composting toilet. We cooked a hot breakfast outdoors on our new camp stove. I noticed that someone had installed a voluptuous figurehead on the bateau’s bow. Apparently, a Barbie doll washed up on the shore overnight and was repurposed as nautical decoration on the Sturgeon’s stem. I’m pretty sure that it was the work of Muddy Jr.
As promised, we dug out the toilet and filled it with fresh cedar chips. We cleaned up the clubhouse and placed the sloop model back on the table. The tide was a little earlier than anticipated so we got started at 8:30 AM.
From the north, Pollepel Island appears almost like a cork in the neck of a bottle at the northern entrance to the Hudson Highlands. It is the gateway to the flawed and gusty winds of the Worragut, or “wind gate” that passes beneath Storm King Mountain. The island was long thought to be inhabited by dark spirits. Sailors would tip their hats here when entering the Highlands in the hopes of making safe passages. Nevertheless, terrible accidents occurred along this stretch of the river, including a sloop capsizing in 1824, drowning 35, and the beheading of the man at the tiller of another sloop after his neck became entangled in the main sheet while jibing. I managed to make sure that the crew was thoroughly spooked in advance of our approach to this foreboding passage through the mountains.
In 1777, Pollepel Island was considered central to the American defense of the Hudson River. A string of Chevaux de Frise, rock-filled cribs with iron-tipped spikes, were laid on the river bottom from the Island to Plum Point in order to obstruct British warships. The spikes failed and the British passed these defenses to burn Kingston and Livingston estate of Clermont later in the year. Many of the de-fanged cribs remain on the river bottom here, a testament to the struggle to defend the Hudson. More than a century later, arms merchant Francis Bannerman relocated his business to the island and built a castle-like armory and residence here between 1901 and 1918. Many now refer to Pollepel Island as Bannerman’s Island. Several fires and an explosion gutted the armory, leaving it a picturesque but ominous ruin.
We reached the island about an hour after our departure from Beacon. The wooden boats were beached in a shallow cove on its east side. The canoe went back to get everyone off the sailboat which had to anchor in deeper water.
The island and its turreted ruins were completely neglected and undeveloped when we landed and everything was covered with grapevines and poison ivy. One had to pick a route into the ruins of the arsenal very carefully to avoid the worst of it. We made our way to the castle keep as a group and we went inside the “Moat Lodge,” a subterranean chamber near the gated entrance to arsenal. This room had survived the fires and explosion that gutted the armory and it still retained its plaster walls and Baroque fireplace and mantel. It was pretty thrilling for the kids on this trip. We found recently used candles on the mantel and indecipherable but finely formed letters and symbols inscribed at the top of the walls. Some of the kids wondered aloud if this place was currently in use for satanic rituals or witchcraft.
We went back into the sunlight and explored the rest of the armory and the site of Bannerman’s house. Half an hour or so after our arrival, I gathered everyone up to head back to the boats. A bunch of the kids insisted on going back to the Moat Lodge for a final look. As the rest of us began picking our way back to the landing, I heard blood curdling screaming from underground and turned to see terrified kids scrambling out of the hole. They screamed, cried and bushwhacked right through the poison ivy; often tripping, but following an absolutely straight line for the boats. I thought that perhaps they had found a yellow jacket nest. I was mistaken. One straggler told me that witches were hidden on the island and observing us. They had placed masks on the mantle to re-consecrate the Moat Lodge after our initial visit. I went back to investigate. Sure enough, I found seven grotesque papier-mâché death masks on the mantle. They were definitely not there when we first visited the chamber. The other boys were crying to get away from the island right away. Muddy Paddle Jr. unusually quiet. His many artistic projects in our household included making papier-mâché masks for Halloween. I looked at him briefly but said absolutely nothing. Naturally, the mocking masks stayed behind. The prank was never revealed.
We continued south past Storm King Mountain and reached Cold Spring at noon. It was shaping up to be a hot afternoon. Several tour boats including the historic Commander passed by us and expressed interest in our flotilla. We pulled past West Point itself at 12:30, ate lunch in the boats and continued south against a light breeze. We saw Dunderberg Mountain, the mythic lair of the goblin controlling the Highlands, rising high above an island on the west shore. At 2:30, we found a small beach at the island where we all went ashore for a much needed rest. Iona Island is infused with enough myths and urban legends to give even the most rational among us some foreboding. For 50 years and through both World Wars the remote island served as a naval munitions depot. Its remote location helped to insure against widespread casualties and destruction in the event of an explosion. At the time of our arrival, it had been abandoned to a herd of deer. The older kids asked to camp here overnight, so we rearranged crew assignments in the boats and left them with the war canoe, drinking water and a camp stove. The island is now a protected habitat and no longer open to visitors or campers.
The bateau and the sailboat departed, pulled into the Horse Race, rounded Jones Point and faced a stiff wind and chop from the south. Making progress across Haverstraw Bay became wet and excruciating for the rowers in the bateau, particularly without the muscle of the older boys. Mischief is ever-present in the lee of the Dunderberg and so it was that the sailboat’s tiller broke off here, nearly leading to a capsize. The boat abruptly rounded-up and was hit by a steep wave soaking the kids in the bow. The crew hauled down the sails, started the motor and figured out how to steer with a paddle. We struggled to cross Haverstraw Bay to reach Verplank where we had made arrangements to camp at a boatyard that had hosted us on previous trips. We finally arrived at 4:00 PM and the rowers left the bateau unpacked while they collapsed on the grass in the shade of a rusty old crane.
We had pasta for dinner at Verplank, told stories around a citronella candle and turned in early. The primitive campers on Iona Island explored the grasslands and climbed the flat-topped monolith at the south end. Dinner consisted of soup and cicadas. After gathering a quart of exhausted cicadas, the kids plucked their wings off and sautéed them in a skillet with wild onions. They tasted like almonds and had the texture of popcorn.
On a previous trip, a large, inscribed iron ring was discovered at the top of the monolith. When it was disturbed by the boys and taken to the campsite, a frightful thunderstorm descended, with rapid lightning and furious winds. The storm knocked down and rolled up several tents and capsized the war canoe. When it was over, the question of returning the ring to ensure safe passage was earnestly discussed. It was returned and the mercurial Dunderberg goblin was appeased. This and other stories were told until late into the evening. Nothing was done to offend the spirit of the mountain this time and the campers passed the evening restlessly but without incident.
Muddy Paddle grew up near several small muddy streams that lead to the Hudson River near Albany. He developed an affinity for small wooden boats as he explored the river's backwaters with oars and paddles. Muddy aspired to build a wooden boat for long trips but lacked the requisite skills, tools and space to tackle most types. However, building a bateau of the type used in the eighteenth century appeared to him to be a feasible backyard carpentry project. With the help and advice of several friends and teenagers, he built a sturdy and seaworthy open boat for rowing and sailing.
The next installment of Muddy Paddle's Bateau will return next Friday! To read other adventures by Muddy Paddle, see: Muddle Paddle on the Erie Canal, Muddy Paddle: Able Seaman, about Muddy Paddle's adventures on the replica Half Moon, Muddy Paddle's Excellent Adventure on the Hudson, about his first canoe trip down the Hudson River.
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