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.
Making the Decision
Time to get back to the river.
We gathered on my screened porch on a sultry evening to talk about our previous river adventures and soon we convinced ourselves to paddle the river once again. Instead of a major youth trip with all of the attendant planning, food, gear and boys of all ages and parents, we imagined a simpler, self-contained trip with one boat and no pre-planned overnight campsites.
Of all of the available boats, we chose to use a 26-foot strip planked canoe named Bear. Built about 10 years earlier in a church basement, the Bear was large enough to take four or five adults and enough gear and food for a week. It had a simple mast and square sail for use when winds were favorable, that is running or sailing on a broad reach. The canoe had a relatively flat but slightly misshapen bottom, high freeboard, flat gunwales and an amber wood color inside and out. The deformation of the hull resulted from the collapse of the sides as the builders struggled to remove the boat from the dust laden church fellowship hall. Hydraulic jacks were required to once again give form to the canoe. Once thwarts were installed, she held her form for the most part. Remarkably, this canoe was an excellent rough water boat and a good sailor although her bottom would flex in an unsettling way over deep troughs.
We decided to approach the journey differently this time. We chose to begin in Jersey City and use flood tides and expected southerly winds to carry us up the river. That way, when tired at the end of the journey, we would be home instead of trying to arrange to get the boat and gear home from some difficult site in metropolitan New York, most likely during a rush hour or some typical urban calamity.
One month later on a humid and overcast fall day, we met at the old barn to get the Bear out of storage with help from the barn owner and several others. The canoe was in good shape after resting for three years. However, when we unfurled the canvas sail, two of us got facefuls of raccoon and mouse crap. After brushing it out, holes appeared. There was no time for sewing, so the sail was expertly mended with generous applications of duct tape. We inverted and hoisted the Bear onto the steel rack on Steve’s small rusted-out pick-up truck and fastened red rags to the awkwardly overhanging bow and stern. The weather forecast was unsettling. A cold front followed by northwest winds was expected to sweep through on day one, and three tropical storms are lined up in the Atlantic. We returned to our homes to pack our individual gear in bright yellow dry bags.
Sunday (day of departure)
We gathered on the river at Steve’s House in Cedar Hill for bagels and coffee before driving to Jersey City in the truck and Dan’s father’s car. We arrived at Liberty State Park in approximately two hours and after driving around the perimeter of the park we found the boat launch. It was sunny and humid. We carried the Bear into the slip and stepped the mast, lashing it securely to the forward thwart. We loaded the boat with dry bags containing personal gear, tents, food and water. By now, curious onlookers had gathered and we took a few moments to tell them we were headed for Albany. They shook their heads in disbelief.
New York Harbor and Manhattan
At 12:45, we said goodbye to our drivers, Roger and Dave, and began paddling directly toward Bedloe’s Island and the Statue of Liberty. A light west breeze could be felt, so we raised our newly mended sail and threaded a course between the Statue and Ellis Island. Did you know that the Statue of Liberty once served as an official lighthouse? We passed several ferries carrying tourists to the monuments before rounding Ellis Island and turning north into the mouth of the Hudson River. The wind began strengthening and shifting to the northwest setting up choppy waves as we sailed up the river. We were able to cant our sail and sail on a reach as the wind rose to 10-20 mph. Power cruisers began churning up big wakes and each time we had to turn the canoe to meet them head on, losing momentum. One wave soaked Dan in the bow and me in the stern, carrying away my water bottle. The leading edge of the spar carrying our square sail proved hazardous to Joe and Dan in the bow. Steve’s Giants hat blew off and smacked me in the chest. We lost a paddle and had to backtrack.
A small keel sloop from a nearby sail training outfit joined us briefly and we were actually able to pull ahead of her. A very handsome French ketch sailed by on her way to the basin at 79th Street. We began to drift leeward toward the Manhattan waterfront and the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Wind and tide turned against us in the vicinity of West 30th Street and after struggling against them and making little progress, we pulled for the marina at Chelsea Piers at 3:30 for a much needed break. Here, we washed the salt spray off our faces, bailed out the bottom of the canoe and replenished our fresh water.
At 4:00 PM we tried once again to make some progress. We tried to sail off of the northwest wind but without leeboards it was futile. We took down the sail and doggedly paddled north. We came upon up to a long rusty car float with spuds that was being used as a makeshift pier. The old lightship Frying Pan, recently raised from the bottom of Chesapeake Bay was tied up to it and at its outboard end was a rusty 1931 fireboat named John J. Harvey. There was a group of dirty but determined guys making repairs at the fantail (they later succeeded in making the fireboat operational; a year or so later, these same guys and their fireboat helped to evacuate lower Manhattan and pump water to the burning wreckage of the World Trade Center). We said hello and continued inching our way north. At 5:00 PM, exhausted and discouraged, we pulled out of the open river and into the lee of the aircraft carrier Intrepid, near 42nd Street, just to get out of the wind. It should have been slack tide but the current was still strong and southerly. We figured that we still had five miles to go to reach the George Washington Bridge and six more after that to reach a good campsite. This goal was becoming increasingly unlikely. Not to mention that we needed a rest.
During our interlude below the Intrepid, we watched three cruise ships back into the river, turn with the assistance of tugs and head for sea. We drank lots of water and told a few stories, including a few of Steve’s Peace Corps tales. His description of the parasitic guinea worm and the way it eats its way through human flesh to release eggs did not improve morale.
At 5:30 PM we covered our dry bags with the dirty canvas sail and decided to paddle for New Jersey in hopes of getting under the lee of the headlands leading to Fort Lee. It was fortuitous timing. Moments after departing on our westward heading, NYPD arrived in force at the Intrepid, apparently in search of a small boat load of refugees or terrorists. With blue lights flashing, they were everywhere; in squad cars on the pier, in patrol boats in the slip and individually climbing down beneath pilings. In fact the only place they failed to look was west toward the open river. We finally realized that the only place they couldn’t look was toward the setting sun and so we were able to escape by staying exactly between the setting sun and the Intrepid as we made our way to somewhere in New Jersey.
We pulled into the Port Imperial Marina for a rest since the wind and tide remained adverse. After drinking lots of water and realizing that the flood tide was not going to arrive in time to help, we began paddling north again in search for a place to spend the night. The New Jersey shoreline here was bleak and industrial and our progress was excruciatingly slow. We began losing daylight. Ever the optimist, Steve tells us that “the Lord always provides” and that “He loves canoeists.” He suggested that we consider the 79th Street basin in Manhattan, but I expressed concern about security. As night descended, we discovered an abandoned and undeveloped railroad pier with brush and grass, roughly west of 79th Street. The shoreline was littered with junk and the outer end of the pier was separated from a construction site and high-rise residential towers by a big earthen berm. We landed, investigated the site and agreed with Steve that the Lord had indeed provided for us. Hence we named this place “Providence Pier.” We drew the Bear well above the wrack line and set up camp in a clearing. Joe began dinner. Dan and I climbed up the berm to see what was in the immediate vicinity and noted an auto lube shop and a nearby hospital. It did not seem likely that we would be seen or disturbed. Meanwhile, we enjoyed the spectacular lights of Manhattan.
Dinner was served at 9:30 PM and consisted of an appetizer of cheese and tomatoes and a main course of macaroni, spaghetti sauce and hot dog chunks. A full moon came up and the wind rose to 30 mph. We had a magnificent view of the brightly lit Manhattan skyline. Steve chose to sleep under the stars but the rest of us climbed into pup tents. A family of skunks visited, but was content to sniff Steve and turn in for the night. The rising wind was an ominous sign for the next leg of the trip.
Don't forget to join us again next Friday for Day 2 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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3/28/2020 09:35:50 pm
I loved reading this journal entry. It helps that I'm familiar with the river and have sailed these waters on the Sloop Clearwater. Muddy Paddle's journal entries and sketches stirred lots of memories from my days working at the Fireboat House on Manhattan's east side. Looking forward to your next post!
3/29/2020 07:12:19 am
I remember the old firehouse at the end of the pier too. The firemen affectionately called the crooked building the "Tilten Hilton." It was a landmark of the old waterfront and the firemen there were among the kindest and funniest in the city. I very much regret its loss.
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