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My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir

Susan Fox Rogers, visiting associate professor of Writing at Bard College, strikes out on her own with her first book, a well-structured memoir. She captures many fascinating aspects of the Hudson River Valley, including its natural and environmental history, industry, famous individuals, early explorers, and native tribes. With Rogers as a guide, the reader follows her gaze, adopting her unique perspective as she ruminates about the local histories of towns along whose shores she paddles. The narrator tells us: “Being on the water does magical things—purifies and heals, washes and cools, enlivens and frightens.” As she voyages forth in her kayak, she also confronts the loss of her parents, whose voices reverberate throughout the narrative. In this search for solace, she is not afraid to face the emotional force of mourning. Throughout, she is sustained by the river. This is a noteworthy account, equally impressive as her brave and gripping journey by kayak from North Tivoli Bay to  Manhattan. Propelled by a sense of discovery, the reader is launched onto the Hudson River, the central pervading presence. With this adventurous memoir, we experience the narrator’s great array of firsthand reflections, thereby gaining an intimate acquaintance with all she perceives.  

A “reach” is a section of the river, and the author affectionately calls hers in Tivoli  “Rogers Reach.” Toward the outset, she shares an intimate glimpse: “The life of a river  I wanted to know would be found in exploring abandoned icehouses or cement factories that stand on the banks. Learning the river would mean seeing the sturgeon that course its depths, the snapping turtles and crabs lodged in the mud, and the osprey that plunge dramatically into the water as they hunt for food. If I wanted to know the river, I had to venture out.”  

From the vantage point of her kayak, Rogers observes an abundance of wildlife and constructs surprisingly endearing portraits of often taken-for-granted species, such as the snapping turtle and sturgeon. Staying keenly alert to weather patterns, she spies migrating Canada geese and monarch butterflies. She demonstrates environmental sensitivity and refined sharp eyes while sharing her appreciation for “wisteria and lilac in irresistible bloom,” reeds and cattails, great blue heron, beaver, mute swans and osprey, Bald eagles, and spatterdock. She also shares information on lesser-known species: “there were heath hens, now extinct, and mountain lions, the last one shot in the 1850s.” Though not preachy, Rogers is an environmentally conscious observer who develops a caring ethos, choosing to include information about the Storm King Case and pollution, including PCBs.  

For instance, Rogers offers an especially intriguing description of the snapping turtle: “there is something so prehistoric, so monstrous, in the fleshy, clawed feet and almost-flat carapace that I find the turtle fascinating, even beautiful.” Then, she cleverly builds a bridge between environmental degradation and her mother’s illness: “Hudson River turtle soup holds 230 ppm of PCBs. Did my mother ever make turtle soup? Where did her cancer come from?”  

Her account of the sturgeon is also particularly impressive, as Rogers explains the scientific basis for a revelation: “Sturgeon are a relict species, that is, they haven’t changed since the Mesozoic era, some 65-230 million years ago. So I was, in fact, touching something with a genetic code more ancient than the dinosaurs.” Continuing her illustration, she asks: “What did touching a sturgeon feel like? Smooth, like leather. Slick, like time. Solid, like love anddeath.” Weighing 120 pounds and boasting a “toothless oval underslung mouth,” sturgeon, she reminds us, were once referred to as “Albany beef.” Such engaging scenes are reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

After the loss of her parents, Rogers’ observations serve an essential function. Part paean to fauna, she celebrates: “there was nothing as glorious as the turtle or the eagles, nothing as affirming as the pair of ducks or the nesting cormorants, nothing as simple and as beautiful as each paddle stroke, nothing as sure as the movement of the river.” Impressively, she is able to express profound emotion without overwrought prose. Certain lines become appropriately poetic, as when she writes: “The thrum of dawn was on.” Her language is aptly descriptive but not overly indulgent or flowery, and she constructs precise imagery. Like her father, she holds an “allegiance to truth,” thereby constructing realistic rather than romanticized or idealized depictions. One senses an unmasked human being with a fine intelligence coming off the page.  

The memoir achieves variation with nods to Hudson Valley industry; some of her jaunts contemplate ice harvesting, tugboats, and brickyards. While recounting her swim across the Hudson, she notes matter-of-factly: “Oil spills that coat the river or sewage pipes that break are not uncommon events.” During this suspenseful and dramatic episode, a barge closely approaches her: “I’m not sure why I didn’t see the Virginia C. as I crossed the river from Beacon to Plum Point.” This leads to a striking simile: “The vision of the barge on the horizon made me feel like a butterfly in a stiff wind trying to dodge an oncoming car.” Rogers does not shy from the fact that this is “a working river,” with tugs transporting “oil, junked cars, a huge range of building supplies.” Due to her newfound realization of the extensive pollution in the Hudson, she volunteers to clean up the river, and remarks: “hauled spent tires out of North Tivoli Bay, as well as a range of other stuff people toss overboard—dolls, coolers, Styrofoam, plastic jugs.”

Furthermore, the narrative recalls early explorers, famous inhabitants, and contemporary, often quirky river dwellers whose lives take shape along the Hudson. At times, she presents deeper considerations of the region’s landmarks, interjecting precious tidbits of local history. One historical figure who strongly stands out is Dorothy Day. Landing near Rose Hill in the aftermath of her mother’s death, Rogers recounts Day’s mission, concluding: “Solace for our suffering, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, could be found in community.” In an interesting fashion, she notes of Rose Hill: “That one house could move from sheltering the wealthy to orphans to Catholic radicals, and now an artist, is a story that, with variation, can be told throughout the valley.” As her paddle cuts through waves, she imaginatively conveys the perspective of Robert Juet, the Half Moon’s first mate, admitting: “When I read Juet’s journal, I want in on this voyage, to feel the miracle of seeing this land in such a pure state.”  

Importantly, Rogers does not leave out the deep history of the indigenous peoples of the region. She reminds readers of important place names; for example, she explains that the Algonquian name Coxsackie translates to “owl hoot.” One of the most compelling scenes occurs when Rogers, along with Mary Burns, explores Magdalen Island. With the investigative acumen of Nancy Drew, she asks Mary, “What are all the little pink flags?” only to learn that they indicate “looter pits,” holes dug by people in search of Native American relics, “where someone had taken arrowheads, pottery, the story of a people.” Rogers explains she recovered “burned fish bone, nutshells, and seeds.” For readers whose interest is piqued and would like to learn more about the history over which Rogers lingers, she provides a “Books Consulted” section with over 40 selections.  

Spending such a great deal of time on the river allows Rogers rewarding reflections and she maintains a sense of magical discovery. She confesses: “the river had seeped into my life so fast, so naturally. When I spoke about my kayak outings, I caught myself saying ‘I love the Hudson River.’ And I wondered if it was possible to love a river.” These powerful realizations help her to cope with the loss of her parents and are essential to her healing. Through this journey, the reader implicitly realizes the cathartic nature of the writing process as well as the restorative benefits of creating close connections with place. In this respect, My Reach is reminiscent of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge. Both texts transform grief into renewal through intense bonds—Williams with Great Salt Lake and Rogers with the Hudson. As Rogers’ memoir eloquently memorializes her parents, the beneficent powers of the river become even more apparent.  

This is a rewarding and highly engaging memoir that Hudson Valley readers will no doubt want to share with their loved ones. Rogers’ main messages remain relevant: she reminds us of the therapeutic value of near-at-hand nature, the importance of companionship, and that we must all continue forth courageously. As her mother emphatically told her, “You have to commit to life.” She similarly affirms, “I was, as I had hoped, paddling toward light.” The memoir ultimately transmits a healing ritual, in which kayaking becomes almost ceremonial. At its core, Rogers’ text is held together by a building sense of solid rejuvenation and unending possibility.

 

-- Stephen Mercier, Marist College

 

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