The pen and the paddle frequently join forces in writing about river journeys, and the Hudson River offers a tempting palimpsest for authors inclined to wield both. Stroking through waters navigated by Susan Fox Rogers in My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir (reviewed in The Hudson Valley Review’sautumn 2012issue) and Peter Lourie in River of Mountains: A Canoe Journey Down the Hudson comes Mike Freeman with this recent work.
While the title Drifting suggests floating on a river, one soon realizes that the verb applies less to the passage of Freeman’s canoe down the Hudson than it does to the state of his life in middle age and, what’s more, to the condition of his—our—country early in the twenty-first century. Especially on a river that flows both ways, drifting is an apt metaphor for Freeman’s take on each of these topics, but his voyage is a far cry from the languorous trip the title suggests. Canoeing from Lake Henderson in the Adirondacks to Manhattan in two weeks requires real exertion, and Freeman tackles his ambitious range of subject matter with similar vigor.
His topics include a whitewater run of vexing contemporary issues: agriculture, race relations, gender roles, wars of choice, religion, environmentalism, and more. If one should wonder what gives an author license to take on such a huge swath of American social and political concerns during a mere canoe trip, remember that the Hudson is America’s River—or so many writers would have us believe. Freeman himself doesn’t quite buy it. Yet, calling the Hudson “an emblematic register of our past, present, and future,” he goes on to describe the many ways in which it has played a major role in American history and culture, and concludes: “The river, then, is a place to sift the American experience, and to do it by canoe was more luck than I could ask.”
Freeman needed a bit of luck. At forty, after ten years as a fisheries technician in the wilds of Alaska, he traveled to New England for a short visit in the land of his youth and met a woman with whom he “agreed to try and conceive.” Both thought it would take time, but “Not so. A week after returning to Yakutat, Alaska, I received the news, and back I went, to a place I no longer considered home, a month before Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008.” In a time of deep recession, with credentials ill-suited to work in the urban Northeast, at least not in well-paying jobs that would allow the mother-to-be to leave work to care for their child, Freeman was “now at home with a baby girl while my partner earned our bread. We only pretend we don’t care what people think. I was supposed to be working, and wasn’t.”
It’s thus not surprising that, when he begins his trip on Henderson Lake and finds evidence of past logging, Freeman’s thoughts turn to conceptions of manhood. Listing some of the “best parts—competition, restlessness, motion, physicality”—he explores to what extent the nineteenth century lumberjacks and river drivers fulfilled definitions of manliness. In the process Freeman colorfully illuminates the rugged history of Adirondacks logging and plumbs his own reactions to leaving behind the Alaskan bush and roaming of his youth to become a middle-aged, stay-at-home dad.
This is a formula that Freeman employs throughout Drifting. Landscapes, wildlife, monuments, environmental insults—even fresh farmstand fruit—cue accounts of local history, culture, economics, or ecology that morph into riffs on relevant social, moral, and political issues, which swell to encompass drama on the national scale, and finally swirl and dissipate in eddies of self-examination. Passing over the PCB hotspots near Fort Edward, he recounts the sordid story that led to designation of the Hudson as a Superfund site and duly aims a few arrows at General Electric. A few strokes later, he points out how Americans’ urge to consume, to possess comfort and a plethora of goods at the lowest price possible, is in part responsible for such degradation, and contemplates his own complicity in creating the mess.
To some, Freeman’s forays into so many current controversies may seem to be over-reaching. Camping across from Germantown, noting the presence of Palatines in the region, he calls them as “one of the hundred thousand splinters making up the American timber” and abruptly leaps from that metaphor into an extensive discussion of race in America and the history of slavery in the Hudson Valley. Disembarking in the city of Hudson and going for a run past farmstands in Columbia County, he courses into a discussion of sustainable agriculture in the region. In the Highlands, looking up at the walls of West Point, he wonders what the cadets think about wars of choice, and tries to understand what he calls “warfare’s spiritual pull.” Also in the Highlands, Freeman discerns creation as the Hudson River School artists saw it and then delves into the place of religion in the nation.
While Freeman ranges more widely than most, this sort of discourse is standard fare from authors returned from solo odysseys. From various tributaries of awareness flow descriptions of natural history, soul-searching about personal beliefs and choices past, present, and future, and ruminations on the state of the world. What sets this book apart from others of the genre is the way Freeman joins these streams in a twisting torrent of ideas akin to the Hudson rushing through its gorge above North Creek. It’s an often bumpy and challenging ride for the reader, one with quick changes of course and dousings of cold water to be endured, but also one that is lively and at times exhilarating. His chapter on GE and PCBs starts with lessons from the “aqueduct scene” in the Monty Python movie Life of Brian and segues to the Puritans’ stamp on our national consciousness. In their wildly different forms, both have something valid to say about responsibilities of government and ourselves in creating environmental problems and solving them.
In comparison to long passages about the state of the nation, Freeman—intentionally or not—devotes relatively few pages to the relationship that brought him back to the Northeast; this book is not a memoir. Thoughts about the relationship’s present and future bubble to the surface as he paddles, but his partner, Karen, does not come into focus; there are only scattered hints of her nature. His reflections on their life together are wary. “We never said it, but knew our greatest angst was mutual. Relationships are built on memories, experiences, not the need to have kids. Throughout her pregnancy, we both knew that if one of us died, the other would tremble at an uncertain future rather than mourn a shared, hard-earned past.” One wishes for more balance –abundant in weighing issues elsewhere in the book—to know more about the currents that pull them together.
Freeman’s freewheeling style sometimes takes him overboard, literally as well as figuratively. In a section about New York’s canal system, he writes: “DeWitt Clinton. Here’s your man. He did what George Washington couldn’t. Any bozo can run an army, but punching a waterway through the Appalachians, joining West to East...takes pluck.” Freeman quickly follows up with praise for Washington’s intelligence, and his foresight in seeing the need for a water route west, but the “bozo” comment seems gratuitous.
In the context of a conversation with Bill McKibben (“...mostly science, nosegays of facts for every occasion, the type that drives me nuts”) and John Elder (“an English prof, a poetry man, and therefore my kind of guy”) Freeman allows that “Together, these two make up the best of human thought,” and that without facts, “imagination has no seed.” That said, he describes himself as “a humanities guy. I hate facts.” While Freeman probably didn’t intend this attitude to extend to his book, a reader well-versed in Hudson River human and natural history will find a fair number of errors in both copy-editing (Lake Tear of the Clouds is “forty feet up Mount Marcy”) and research (the Clearwater is a sloop, not a schooner), but these are in the end minor distractions.
At the book’s close, Freeman writes: “I can’t say what the trip meant, or what the Hudson might mean to America’s past, present, or future, only that like any waterway, its banks are littered with rune.” His translations of these runes in Drifting are unfettered, weaving from one line of thought to another, promising grist for memorable conversations over beers following a float trip down the Hudson, and—more formally—one more rewarding textual testament to this iconic river’s power to inspire and enlighten.
Steve Stanne is coauthor of The Hudson: An Illustrated Guide to the Living River, and extension associate with the New York State Water Resources Institute at Cornell University.