SUP ACROSS THE HUDSON RIVER
By Jack E. Boucher [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A few weeks ago I paddled across the Mighty Hudson River from Highland Landing to Poughkeepsie Train Station Park and lived to tell the tale. This season has been a delight for me as I have experienced all mannner of water and conditions and that day was perfectly lovely for a late afternoon adventure.
I became a Hudson River boarder because most of the water in this beautiful landscape that I love, the Hudson River Valley is badly polluted and unsafe to swim in. When I learned this it came as a shock to me but a little online research showed that it is true. If you don't believe it (like I didn't) here is a link to a scientific organization, I now volunteer, for that collects the data. Riverkeeper.org
My plan, when I got my paddleboard, had been to play in the nearby Wallkill River, since I live and work near various put ins. However, the Wallkill in particular is a proven cess pit. A friend had alerted me to this best kept of dirty little secrets about the Hudson River Valley before I ever entered its unsafe waters and I am glad she did. Once I did the research I realized my closest place for public boarding access, in reliably clean water, was the Hudson itself.
The good news here is that the Hudson River, starting at Highland Landing, is a lovely, interesting place to paddle. The river is about a mile wide, so there is a lot of water. Even when it is busy with motorboats, jet skis and day cruise ships on a Saturday afternoon, it is rarely crowded and the wakes make for interesting challenges. There is also wind, current and tide to deal with. These elements put a lot of people off, but to me they make the paddling interesting. They are strong enough to keep me alert and manageable enough to help me feel competent and relaxed.
I have also heard numerous stories from random scaremongers about whirlpools, sharks and of course pollution, but none of these things have been present on my voyages. I have seen a blue crab scuttling along the bottom of the river in the shallows. Commuter trains pass regularly on the east shore and the west bank has its freighters. There is something comforting about the rumble of the steel wheels over the tracks carrying across the water. The variety of vegetation, rocky outcrops and various buildings along the shore are perfect for creating reference points for navigation and meditation.
Early in the season, when I first tried paddling on the Hudson, I knew I wanted to cross to the eastern shore, but it would have meant being a half mile from land and perhaps facing what would be the strongest river currents along the way, so I did not rush across. Rather, I headed North, against the current and the tide so my progress was not fast even with the wind at my back. I knew if I exhausted myself the movement of the water would take me back to where I had started from and this appealed to my cautious nature. After a couple of excursions like that I had a chance to revisit a spot I had paddled in last year. Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the home of the Gathering of the Vibes music festival.
|Getting in touch with my inner nature at the Gathering of the Vibes!
One thing a lot of festival goers don't spend much time thinking about at Vibes, while they are partying and listening to rock jams, funk and bluegrass, is that the park is right on the Long Island Sound and a big Ferry comes by every hour or so bringing dozens of cars and many more passengers back and forth between Bridgeport and Long Island. There is a seawall right in the middle of our beach separating Bridgeport Harbor from the Sound. On the Northern harbor side the water is calmer with less wind and waves than out on the sound. Last year when I paddled there, a half mile crossing of the harbor was a big adventure, timing my trip to avoid the Ferry traffic and needing to stop halfway across to rest a bit before continuing to Pleasure Beach (I kid you not) on the other side. This year with more stamina and skill I was able to dash across the harbor in 20 minutes or so, even fighting 10 mph winds and some current from the sound and I could have kept going except I like stopping at the beach, talking to the life guards and random bathers and getting a refill on my water. After 10 minutes there, I continued by paddling in a big circle in the harbor, seeing up close, distant ship wrecks, docks and industrial facilities that I never thought I could reach by boarding, but there I was.
After 2 hours out I made it back to the Vibes beach where I had started feeling remarkably proud of myself for being so much better at this than I was last year. The next day I showed up on the beach early, before the wind had come up and while most of my friends were still asleep. I paddled out into the harbor and through the break in the sea wall, into Long Island Sound, with no destination in mind but more exploration. At some point I noticed a distant lighthouse just beyond the public beach which abuts the park beach. I decided to make for it, though again, it seemed impossibly far. Here is where I met my true nature. Finding the rhythm of my strokes and the undulation of the sea soothing and encouraging. The beauty of the sparkling surface all around me. The safety of being half a mile or more from any other people in every direction. My sureness that if I just continue to make one stroke after another the place that seemed way too far would soon come into reach. There were some moments when I nearly turned back. I suppose I had reached the halfway point and the Lighthouse was not growing in size as I paddled toward it. I had no watch and hadn't eaten breakfast. I did not know how long I had been out and I was getting hungry. It was a good bet I would find no snacks waiting for me near the lighthouse. But as I cataloged my discomfort and my fear of not accomplishing my task, I also kept drawing closer to the far off spot I had set out toward, since I hadn't stopped to ponder all this but rather, kept paddling despite my uncertainty.
And soon I could tell from the growing size of my far off goal that if I just stuck with it I would get there, most likely with enough energy to stroke my way back to where I had started. And so it was that I got within a short walk of the Lighthouse. The way was a rocky jumble, however and would have taken me half an hour or more to pick my way to the out crop that supported the enticing structure. An extra hour of walking might mean missing breakfast with my mates so I chose not to take that tedious yet glorious stroll. Rather I sat on the rocks watching a distant woman playing with her dog on the beach for a few minutes and after a short rest headed back to the sound to rejoin my group satisfied that I had gone further than I could have imagined just a year prior.
So, when i got home from the festival, I was ready to cross the Hudson River. I had paddled much further in less than ideal circumstances, I would wear my waterproof watch and leave plenty of time for the unexpected. I would look both ways and avoid getting in front of any ships big or small and I would find out what there was, if anything, to fear out there.
The climax here is thankfully, anti-climactic, unless a lovely few hours on the water thrills you, like it does me. It was a quick sprint across the river from my put in at Highland Landing to a spot off the shore on the the other side. At one point as I paddled South toward Waryas Park and the public boat Launch near the Ice House Restaurant, I felt disoriented. It was as if the paddleboard was foundering. I paddled and seemingly made no progress. Fortunately, I knew this sensation from canoeing as a teen. When you move at the same rate as the current and don't look ashore, it feels like you are not moving at all. If the River was moving at the speed of light I suppose I would have stopped aging in that moment and perhaps I did. It is an odd feeling to be exerting and knowing something should be happening and yet seeing no sign of it. I took a deep breath and scanned the shoreline where my soutward progression, while not swift, was at least evident. So much for the dangers of the current.
I met some interesting locals in the park and we had a chat about swimming and sharks and chemical pollution in the Hudson, only one of which was actually present and that would be the bathers. I had a rest and some water and headed back out into my chosen, gently flowing milieu. This time rather than sprint across however, I headed diagonally, maximizing my time in the center of the channel. I felt strong and competent on my little board surrounded by half a mile of water side to side and miles of it north and south. I have camped hard by Lake Tear of the Clouds, which is the northernmost feeder into the Hudson and played in the Sea at Rockaway Beach near where the Hudson joins the ocean. So for me, being here in the middle of this sparkling, mildly churning pathway, warmed my the sun, cooled by the breeze and rhythmically paddling, bobbing as I go, feels like coming home. And that my friends was my big adventure.
Endnote about water safety!
In talking to folks this Summer about SUPping in the Hudson, one thing has become clear, most people haven't got the first clue about water safety. I would no more head across the Hudson on a board without a life vest than I would go outside for a ten mile hike on a 10 degree night naked and without a flashlight. It would be madness. Funny thing about that though is, I have found, that unless I mention my life jacket, people assume I am out there without one.
It has been my great good fortune to grow up on waterfronts and have my Senior Life Saving Cerificate (expired) and my Small Craft Certificate (also expired) so water safety is second nature to me even now.
I know of two people who died this summer in the Hudson. One, evidently at the hands of an angry lover who sabotaged his kayak and one who was perhaps intoxicated or just horsing around too much. In the articles I read there is no mention of them wearing flotations only details of dredging for their bodies to clue one in that they sunk rather than wore a life vest. If you go out on any body of water without protection from drowning you take your life in your hands and sometimes lose. Don't do it and stop anyone you can from doing it as well.