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.
Day 2: Monday
The tide began to recede at 3:00 AM and is way out at, leaving several hundred feet of mud flats between us and the river. We were hoping to start early, but it was looking unlikely that we could launch the canoe before the tide began coming in. The skies were overcast.
Steve, our ad hoc spiritual leader, slept peacefully under the sky, untroubled by the logistics of launching the Bear or the difficulties of wind and tide that lay ahead. Steve had a distinguished and principled career as a judicial watchdog until his organization became politicized. He began a second career as a social justice attorney representing the disadvantaged. He met his wife in the Peace Corps and his children have followed his lifelong example of selflessness. Years earlier, Steve introduced long canoe trips to a local youth organization as a volunteer and got to know the Hudson River better than many river pilots. He was always supremely confident that the Lord would look after those traveling on the river for adventure and renewal. He was so relaxed and confident this morning that we had to wake him up.
I prepared a sketch of the Manhattan skyline in my journal with drunken pilings and crooked dock supports in the foreground. At 7:00, we fixed instant coffee and apple-cinnamon oatmeal for breakfast. We broke camp and created a protective launch ramp for the Bear by arranging logs and old tires between dry ground and the water. Once afloat, we packed the Bear with our gear and finally the crew. The last member to come aboard (that would be me) would need to wade through the ooze some distance so that the stern would float free. No one wanted to dwell on what was in that ooze. The smell said it all.
We covered a mile north in our first half hour before the northwest wind came up again. We paddled in the lee of several piers in order to escape the brunt of the wind. We met a crab fisherman near the Crab House Restaurant and he was incredulous that we were paddling to Albany. We passed alongside the abandoned 1905 double-ended DL&W steam ferry Binghamton, the tugboats Kerry K. and Brooklyn and we made rest stops at two Edgewater marinas. The water at the second marina stunk but we were desperate at that point and drank it holding our noses.
We rallied for a final push toward the George Washington Bridge. As we approached the bridge, the wind and waves intensified, making it difficult to keep the bow from falling off course. Dan worked his heart out up in front, clawing his paddle left and right as needed while the rest of us powered forward. As we passed the tall Gothic tower of Riverside Chapel, Steve told us that his grandfather served as its pastor for some years. We passed Grant’s Tomb and as we approached the bridge, the wind and waves seemed to be funneled into a threatening maelstrom. We had no choice but to continue; turning would have resulted in broaching and capsizing at this point. We passed beneath the bridge at 10:30 against terrible waves. The wind was now 25 mph. The west shore here is reinforced by a continuous stone bulkhead with no place to land. Steve again reminded us that the Lord would provide. Immediately after affirming this, a break in the bulkhead appeared, revealing a sandy beach just long enough to contain our canoe. We dove in, grateful to get off the river with all of our gear intact. It was 11:00 AM. We found a clearing here and made the decision to stay off the river until conditions improved. We named this place “Beneficent Beach.”
The wind never stopped and the skies threatened well into the afternoon. The tide rose and we had to move some logs and adjust our lines to keep the canoe safe. We met a few people who were interested in our journey and happy to tell us about the Palisades and local history. We were told that the bad weather and erratic tides were part of the circulation associated with hurricane Dennis. Joe set up a fly to protect our gear in the event of rain and it gradually dawned on all of us that we were not going to be able to go anywhere for the remainder of the day. We discreetly set up our tents in a cluster next to the fly and spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring. Steve and Dan hiked to the top of the massive cliffs. I prepared a sketch of the George Washington Bridge.
We began dinner at 6:00 by using our most perishable foods first. We served an appetizer of tomatoes and cheddar cheese and a main course of macaroni and cheese mixed with hot dogs and what remained of our cream cheese. We garnished our plates with dill pickles. After cleaning up, we replenished our fresh water at a nearby park pavilion and returned to tell campfire stories about extreme adventures, spiritual mysteries and cheating death. All of our stories were sprinkled with complaints about our sore arms and rear ends. The tide was going out and the Bear was safe for the time being. The wind remained wild, but the rain didn’t materialize.
At 9:30, we put extra lines on our tents and the camp fly, established an anchor watch and turned-in for the evening. The wind moderated somewhat and a few skunks visited. High tide came at 1:00 AM. Steve and I took turns keeping an eye on the canoe which was jostled around a little bit but safe. After an hour or so, she settled on the sand and we went back to sleep. The moderating wind gave us a little hope for smoother progress in the upcoming day.
The trip will continue next Friday!
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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