By Theresa Keegan
The Hudson River is the heart of New York, although far too often its historical and environmental wonders fade into the background as people traverse its bridges on their way elsewhere, ignoring the estuary below them.
However, for each of the past six summers, a ten-day guided kayak tour from Albany to Manhattan has been exposing a diverse group of thirty people to America’s First River.
That moniker dates back to the pivotal role the estuary played in America’s formation, and the Great Hudson River Paddle allows participants to vividly learn about the history that has transpired here.
Organized by the Hudson River Valley Greenway and the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area with help from the Hudson River Watertrail Association, this comprehensive journey is a delightful mix of outdoor adventure and camaraderie that also addresses environmental and historical issues.
When Henry Hudson first sailed the river in 1609 he passed land that had been occupied almost 4,000 years. But when the Dutch started to move to the Hudson River Valley in 1624, they enjoyed fifty years of fur trapping and logging, creating an environment comfortable enough that, fifty years later, the British believed it worthy enough to take over. The Hudson River Valley was critical during the American Revolution and the waterway was, and continues to be, a necessary and well-used, transportation corridor.
Nowadays, the Hudson River is also enjoying a renaissance as a destination and recreational treasure. Water pollution is being eradicated, and a water trail stretching from Albany to Manhattan is encouraging people to enjoy the river as shoreline parks and boat launches make access easier.
It is along this 146-mile route that the Great Hudson River Paddle travels. From its start in downtown Albany, the feel of being removed from civilization is compounded as bald eagles soar overhead and line the banks, even as huge barges glide past.
The birds are the offspring of an experiment that was innovative in 1976, when scientists first intervened with an endangered species. Hoping to thwart the extinction of bald eagles on the Hudson, they replaced eggs compromised by DD T exposure with plaster eggs. At hatching time, a set of live chicks were introduced into the nest of the last pair of eagles on the river. At the same time, other eagle chicks were placed in abandoned nests. Though initially cared for by humans, they ultimately survived on their own. The experiment succeeded.
Today over 40 pairs of eagles reside along the river, often nesting under bridges and other remote areas, and the intervention practices have been repeated throughout the world.
It is just one of the many diverse roles the Hudson has played in the historyof the environmental movement.
Further downriver, the group paddles past Olana, home of the painter Fredric Church, a leader in the famed Hudson River School. It is easy to understand how the translucent light inspired an entire art movement. Sunsets illuminate the sky over the river and the clouds become ethereal. Sometimes the Hudson is so smooth it actually reflects the grays and greens on the surrounding riverbank. Often, the post-dawn light creates a mirage, as the shore and the water blend together. Daybreak on the river brings in the horizon; the trees emerge, and slowly the surrounding hillsides come into focus.
These images, captured by many painters, become the daily scenery on the paddle.
The group also travels past defunct factories and glorious mansions, a dichotomy that is a small revelation into what has transpired on the waterway.
Midway through the trip, history buffs are truly thrilled as the group enters the historic Highlands area.
Last summer, U.S. Army Colonel Jim Johnson (Ret.) joined the group. Standing on the shores of Constitution Island, looking westward toward West Point, he offered a moving rendition of the area’s role in the Revolution. Pointing northward, he explained how the foundry produced the chain that was pulled across the Hudson at this site to thwart British ships. He talked about the strategy that secured this bend of the river and the trials and tribulations as General George Washington led his troops to ultimate victory.
As the group passed Stony Point Battlefield, a “welcome” shot from the cannon reverberated through the cove. Upon landing—and being “greeted” by a British soldier, complete with musket—paddlers were told the exciting and daring role of American soldiers as the battlefield, museum, and lighthouse were toured.
Entering a historic site by waterway is an enhanced experience, giving a new perspective to those who depended so much on the Hudson. The river again becomes the important element it was before cars and trains changed our transit patterns.
As the group had paddled past Storm King Mountain, a guide had recounted the local fight to halt a Con Edison plant from being built. The ensuing court battle took seventeen years, but ultimately it led to the environmental movement’s legal defense strategy. Now people’s rights as well as the neighboring environment must be considered in development efforts.
It was yet another critical role the Hudson played in our country’s history. Throughout the trip, the writings of Washington Irving were recounted, as well as the smaller tales of local families and businesses that make the area home.
During the Great Hudson River Paddle, the journey, not the destination, is crucial. Its moderate pace and opportunity for paddlers to join in for just a day trip or a few nights allows a variety of people to learn of the river’s wonders. Participants come from as close as Albany and Manhattan and as far away as California. Guides vary in their skills, being experienced river runners and kayakers, as well as historical experts.
In 2006, for the first time, weather required the trip to disband before reaching Manhattan. Lightening storms made the journey unsafe, and in Croton Point, paddlers reluctantly bid each other farewell. This year the trip will begin earlier in July, and its very fine reputation should be continued.
The event began in 2000, a very rudimentary trip with a group of experienced river aficionados who wanted to make the journey. Ignoring tides and making do with whatever sleeping arrangements they could find, they still appreciated the Hudson’s wonder and glory. Like the water trail it celebrates, the great Hudson River Paddle has since become much more organized and accessible.
A land-support team carries participants’ bags, as well as provides all breakfast and dinners on the ten-day journey. Meals are catered, warm, and delicious. On a few pre-arranged nights, the group ventures into towns to enjoy the local restaurants. Snacks and nutrition are stressed, port-a-potties are clean, and, for the ultimate luxury on any outdoor journey, hot showers are available every night. The outstanding support team certainly makes it an easier trip.
The day trips are also an option for people who do not own their own equipment. Local outfitters along the way support the spirit of the trip by providing everything a person needs to join the adventure for a day, or overnight.
On land, festivals allow people not on the trip to still gain a greater understanding of the river.
It’s obvious the challenges facing the Hudson are great. Former Governor George Pataki had promised to make the estuary swimmable by 2009, the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s exploratory journey. There are areas of hope, but areas of concern remain. Exclusive development plans continue to hinder public access and cash-strapped municipalities are ignoring aging, inadequate sewage systems.
As the region plans to commemorate Hudson’s journey, it is not only a time to look back, but also forward to comprehend how the Hudson shapes, and defines, who we are. Whether you’ve kayaked along it, or simply seen it from a car traveling over a bridge, the Hudson reflects more than just the lovely foliage that lines it shores. It reflects our heritage and our values.
Information and Registration information for the Seventh Annual Great Hudson River Paddle can be obtained by visiting www.hudsongreenway.state.ny.us/ghrp/ or contact Scott Keller at 518-473-3835 or by writing to P.O. Box 47, Clarksville, NY 12041. Individual and overnight portions of the trip are still available. For information on the Watertrail Association, visit www.hrwa.org.