Seeking the Hudson River Greenway

| 07 Mar 2012 | 09:43

“He learned incessantly from the river. Above all, it taught him how to listen, to listen with a silent heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinion.”

- Herman Hesse, Siddhartha There is supposed to be a daisy chain of campsites along the Hudson River that reaches from the Adirondacks to Manhattan. It is the kayaker’s equivalent of the Appalachian Trail, or so I’d heard. But of the many sights I’ve seen on local waters – including a juvenile whale in the Gowanus Canal – I had yet to see a legal campsite or any sort of trail marker. Was the Hudson River Greenway a good idea that ran out of money, or was it out there somewhere, invisible to the uninitiated? It was time to find out.

I tracked down the most recent guide book. “The Hudson River Water Trail Guide,” last updated in 2003, would be my bible for the next four days. I filled a few gallon jugs with water and into three dry bags packed food, camping gear, a copy of Siddhartha, a hand-crank radio, cell phone and camera. My kayak strapped onto the roof of the car, I got a ride to a waterfront park in Kingston and pulled on my dry suit.

So began my 50-mile solo trek downstream. - Becca Tucker

Click for a larger view. Day one: Kingston to Esopus (10.8 miles)

Up here, the river is timeless. The tide of waterfront condos hasn’t made it this far north yet. If it weren’t for the tugboat pushing a supertanker, I could almost imagine myself an Indian squaw.

A hyperactive Indian squaw. I can’t stop snapping pictures. Yellow tulips, picnic benches, a red brick beach. Even oil tanks and abandoned cement factories cast romantic shadows in the early evening sun. Every other minute, I quit paddling, un-Velcro my gloves, unroll my dry bag and pull out my camera, getting turned sideways by the current in the process. Just as I get into range of Rondout Lighthouse, the first scenic highlight that you, reader, might legitimately care to see, my camera battery dies. I back paddle and swivel in my seat in a frantic attempt to squeeze out one more picture before the current sweeps me past. Nope. This de-evolution will not be photographed.

At least now I can sit back and – oh, right, figure out where I’m going to sleep. Scenic Hudson’s 96-acre Esopus Meadows Preserve has a reassuring road post sign indicating mileage to waterfront cities like Troy and Newburgh. It’s reassuring because it implies that if you were to consider paddling 80 miles to Manhattan, that wouldn’t make you insane. But it might make you criminal: even here, camping is not allowed.

I camp anyway. I forego a fire, eat cold leftovers, and pretend I don’t feel just a little lonely. I don’t have to pretend for long. One by one, voices pipe up. The freight train’s triple-toned wail, a motorboat’s thrum, a man’s voice across the river, crickets chirping Morse code, a helicopter, a siren.

Day two: Esopus to Wappinger Creek (19.8 miles)

I spent 29 years being ‘not a morning person.’ I’m now a convert.

4:45am: The water is glass. A goose honks. A lunar hangnail fades into a yellow sky. A striper jumps. 7am: Trembling ribbons of light undulate on the bank, leaping downriver like a school of bait fish. Two bald eagles fly from a low cliff, squawking at me. (Okay, I’m no bird expert, but I looked them up in my guide book and I’m 95 percent sure they were bald eagles.) 8am: An aircraft’s contrail hovers low in the sky, a rainbow inside it. 11am: I pull onto a tiny beach just south of the Mid-Hudson Bridge to pass the time while the river inhales.

If you ever can’t shake the feeling that life is flying you by, kayak 20 miles in a day. By dusk, my eyeballs feel desiccated behind my sunglasses. I engage the abs and hustle across the shipping channel to the eastern shore, where my guide book tells me of a provisional campsite up Wappinger Creek. After a Metro North train clatters by, I ask a fisherman whether there’s any such thing. “Nada,” he says.

He’s right. There is no camping allowed here anymore. But where the creek ends there is a hiking trail, the Wappinger Greenway, blazed with markers. It will do. “Nada” is better than civilization, in my opinion. The woods offer firewood and a peaceful place to sleep.

At 2am, I’m not so sure how much I like nada anymore. A dog-like prowler – Coyote? Wolf? Monte Python-esque rabbit? – is out and about, doubtless on the hunt for flesh.

I crank my hand-crank radio, hoping the noise will scare him off. I scroll through static until I get a clear voice. “In the city that never sleeps, they’re getting even less sleep than usual,” it says. “Osama Bin Laden is dead.”

Huh. Those revelers are only 60 miles away. They seem much farther.

Day three: Wappinger Creek to Beacon (7.7 miles)

I oversleep. Here it is, practically daylight, and here I am, camped illegally. Hustling to break camp, I stuff a fiber bar in my mouth and glance up. The world has been colored in with a pink highlighter: a hot magenta sunrise in the sky and a hot magenta sunrise in the creek. Thirty seconds later, it’s over. The sky is pale blue. For all I know, this happens here every morning, and every other morning of my life I missed it.

I have big plans on this short day to cross the river to explore Moodna Creek, then re-cross to my intended campsite, Denning Point, a peninsula that overlooks the iconic Bannerman Castle. But it’s raining, the river’s bucking, and my arms are trembling with fatigue. Fatigue. I haven’t factored that in, but the river is expressing itself via a strong northerly wind, and I have no choice but to listen. I’ve learned by now that like Walmart customers, the river is always right.

I slash my itinerary and spend an indulgent morning at an overgrown brickyard just north of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, to the chagrin of the resident heron. I wonder whether the Metro North passengers can see me snoozing by the fire as they whiz past, and if they can, whether they’d like to trade places. I wouldn’t.

Day four: Beacon to Bear Mt. Bridge (13.1 miles)

I slumber nine hours, the untroubled sleep of the (possibly) non-criminal. (When my guide book was published in 2003, at least, Denning Point was a designated Greenway campsite.) I feel reinvigorated, which is fortunate, because now I have only 45 minutes to cross the river and make progress on my 13 mile day before the tide turns. West of Bannerman Island, the river develops an attitude, kicking up nasty one-two waves; the first sends my bow into the middle of the second. It’s so rough that seagulls attempting to fish keep getting their wings drenched.

It’s time to kick it into monster gear. I lean forward and feel new muscles engage under my armpits, where pectoral fins would be on a fish. I feel like I could go forever.

Hell, why not? The tide has turned, but I keep paddling in search of the perfect resting spot. I peek under a railroad bridge, expecting to see an outflow where dirty water enters the river after it rains. Au contraire. It’s like the closet into Narnia.

This is Storm King Cove. Sheltered to the north by a massive cliff face, accessible only by kayak or canoe, it may be the river’s best kept secret. I haven’t had a beer in four days and I don’t particularly want one. I just want to live right here, on a shelf halfway up the cliff, where hawks take off without flapping a wing, watching a tugboat tug by.

But I have promises to keep; specifically, a photographer to meet at 5pm. Blissed out after six hours in Shangri-la, I book it past West Point, getting a wave from a well built cadet in a blue polo shirt. Bear Mountain Bridge appears before I expect it.

I pull off at a beach and finish my book. I talk to fishermen. I’m dawdling. I don’t want the trip to end – ever. The wind and tide have carried off my ego. I have never felt so peaceful.