The Great Hudson River Paddle 

by Jack Gilman/
photos by Mo Fridlich

Early this winter I was approached by Camilla Calhoun about the feasibility of doing a paddle trip down the Hudson River, from Albany to NY. I had done this trip 2 years ago with my good friend Elaine Mills and Camilla wanted to use our experiences to set up the Great Hudson River Paddle.

I told her that with 2 paddlers, it was an easy trip to make. There will always be places to stop for such a small group. I also told her that unless we got the participation of the towns and villages on the river, it would be impossible to get a large group down the river. In the months that passed, Camilla was able to reach (it seemed!) every person and organization that could help us. And the response was amazing. Our journey must have touched something in many people because we were able to get all the camping arrangements that we would need.

We started the trip from Albany on Friday, June 29th. I had cruised up the river on the Klang, our fine support vessel captained by Rip Heyman. Gov. Pataki was there with his entourage to kick off the event. He even got to paddle a canoe for the first few hundred yards, much to the despair of his "handlers." He had a great time. The state policeman who had the duty of providing on-water security in Chuck Newland's beautiful kayak was reluctant to get out of the boat. He wants to join us next year...The paddle south from Albany was a parade of kayaks and canoes. We had over 35 boats and the spirits were high. Our first stop was the town of New Baltimore.

I had been here before and was impressed by the rural beauty of the area. We had a nice rocky beach to pull up on and got the boats up safely. It seemed the whole town was there to greet us, and we went to Town Councilman John Wallner's home for a BBQ. The warmth of the reception was amazing. The next morning folks wandered down to the campsite with coffee, home baked muffins and lunch foods. We were all overwhelmed with their hospitality.

The next stop was Cohotate Preserve, south of Athens on the west side. We were planning to stay on the west side of the River until south of Kingston.  About a 1/2 mile north of Cohotate the river is quite shallow for about a 1/4 mile out from the west shore. I will always have the image of 10 or so kayakers paddling in their boats with Terry Garrafa walking alongside them. Very surreal but somehow quite appropriate for our group.

We got to the landing about 10 minutes before the thunderstorm. Good timing. Thanks to Bear and Liz the river goddess we had our catered dinner in the field station among the bird skulls and exam tables. We were invited to stay the night in the loft if we didn't want to pitch our tents. Since the weather predicted for the next day was horrible -- damaging winds, torrential rains and hail --  we had an emergency meeting and decided the best plan was to put in at 6 in the morning and try to get to our next destination before the storm hit. The decision was made with full cooperation of the group and we got up at 5:30 and were in the water at 6:30. Pretty amazing to see so many kayakers pull so hard as a group, but the fear of Mother Nature gave us some incentive.

Since we were on the water so early we had to paddle against the flood current, but were able to make good time. One of my concerns was whether or not we would be able to keep the group together. This would mean that the slowest paddler would set the pace, and all faster paddlers would have to hold themselves back and not grumble. Amazingly this worked well. We had no real slow paddlers and everyone was quite willing to forget their own pace and keep the group together. This really did help us knit together and feel part of a larger group, rather than a bunch of separate paddlers. 

Our next destination was the Saugerties Lighthouse. This has been restored and is serving both as a navigation light and a bed & breakfast. As usual, we got into Saugerties just before the thunderstorm went past us. We got the boats pulled up on the grass and found that we would have the whole lighthouse to stay in. We were sleeping on the floors, in hallways, and any available room. Charles the lighthouse keeper had set up a hospitality bar in the wooden shed and a number of us had drinks while enjoying the view of the river.

Just before going to bed I went out to check the boats, because of the strong north wind and a predicted high tide. When I got  to them, they were all floating in a foot of water and bouncing around in the breeze. They were all tied up, but I got a few volunteers and pulled all the boats up to dry land before we slept. Before we launched for Mills-Norrie park, our escort boat, the Klang, ferried us up the Esopus Creek to say hello to the Clearwater, which was getting maintenance at their home port dock. With the brisk north wind that followed the storms we joyously surfed down river to our next destination, Norrie Park. 

The trip down from Saugerties to our lunch break at Kingston Point was beautiful, with clear skies and an accommodating river. I had never seen this shore from so close and it was charming, with comfortable houses and wooded shorelines. Our lunch break at the point was a good rest and we then set out for our final destination for the day. A few miles south of Kingston is the Esopus Meadows lighthouse, where we planned to do our only crossing of the trip. The river on the west side is really shallow for the first 1/2 mile, and we made it across this "meadow" and pulled across at the lighthouse. The crossing was quite inelegant, with boats getting stretched out a bit. Not textbook, but we all made it across safely. Having no river traffic really did help. One observation that was surprising was the lack of traffic all week. Maybe the weather forecasts or the price of gas kept the boats off the river. We did have a few VERY LARGE freighters pass us. Their wakes were surprisingly mild, as opposed to a large cabin cruiser. It's fun to share a narrow part of the river with such a huge boat. They were carrying cement and bulk goods and one had some GE turbines they were exporting. The usual gaggle of tugs and barges were on the river too.

Mills Norrie Park was our next overnight stop. We were allowed to camp at the gazebo at the north end of the park. It is a very well kept area with a fireplace protected by a large roof. The landing here was challenging, but our boat-toting skills by this point had us  efficiently getting all the boats out of the water and lined up on land. We found that the best way to handle heavily loaded boats was to have 4 guys land first, and get the rest of the boats out after.  With 4 people carrying, we could easily handle even the heaviest boat.

After we set up camp and had a pizza dinner, a bunch of us sat around the fire and we all shared with the group our stories about who we were and how we found ourselves on this trip. Rip Heyman's (skipper of the Klang) tales of his experiences on the Yangtze River in China were fascinating. This was another opportunity we had to bond a little bit tighter together. The night was quite cool and we all had a good night's sleep before our next leg to Wappinger Creek.

At Norrie we were joined by some more paddlers who were doing just a few days. We had this situation all trip long; all the newbies were welcomed warmly by all of us grizzled veterans and there were no distinctions made whether you were a through paddler or just with us for a day or two. Since we had a busy day planned, we had to get on the water and down to Poughkeepsie for our scheduled events. The trip down past Hyde Park was fun, but with a slight flood and a south wind in our faces we had to work a bit harder than normal. About a mile or so north of Poughkeepsie the Klang was slowly motoring along us playing some wild Egyptian music that they had onboard. Everyone got into the rhythm of the music and were swaying and gyrating. A few of the Klang folks were dancing on deck too. It was great! Made the hard work a lot more enjoyable.

Poughkeepsie was a joyous landing, with a large group there to welcome us. We had interviews from the local papers, and a few displays from Clearwater and Scenic Hudson. We had to get back on the water after that and push on to Wappinger Creek. We were a bit behind schedule, but got to the creek just as the sun was setting with a full moon to the east. Beautiful. 
The trip up the creek in the dusk light was enchanting. We were met at the takeout by Bob Sabo, who was to be our resident photojournalist for the rest of the trip. Chris Iverson was our host at Reese Park in Wappinger Falls, and had a sumptuous Native American feast prepared for us. We all sat around the campfire eating and sharing our experiences. Sleep was easy with a symphony of bullfrogs to serenade us.

Another day, another chance to break camp and load the boats and get back into the water. Breaking and setting each day can become a chore, but with new stretches of river to conquer it never became bothersome.  After a lunch break at Beacon, we entered the northern gate of the Hudson Highlands. We met Jim Logan and Thom Johnson of the Bannerman's Castle Trust for a hard-hat tour of the island. For those who had never visited before it was a high point of the trip. Back in the boats we paddled between Breakneck Ridge and Storm King to our landing at the North Gate Restaurant in Cold Spring where a feast awaited us. We had the whole north lawn of the restaurant to camp on, with magnificent views of Storm King and Little Stony Point to the north. That night  we had the fireworks at West Point to entertain us.
The dawn the next morning had low clouds hanging over the mountains, with a little pink creeping into them as the sun rose. A bit of magic that the Highlands are famous for. We then walked up to Hudson Valley Outfitter's shop on Main Street to have breakfast with Pete Seeger. We were fortunate to have him speak with us and share our breakfast. He told stories of the river and wished us well on our trip. We then loaded up the boats and proceeded to Foundry Cove Landing, where Fran Dunwell of the NY DEC talked to us about the Hudson Highlands. Fran has written an excellent book about the area and is quite the expert on its history.

Our next stop would be Croton Point Park, but this section of the trip would put us through Haverstraw Bay, the widest part of the river at 3.5 miles. We stopped first at the Atlantic Kayak Tour's facility in Annesville Creek, above Peekskill for lunch, then set off along the shore to our campsite. We had planned to stay at the Hudson River Watertrail camp near Teller's Point. All the way down we had calm conditions and a favorable current, but just as we approached the northern point at Croton there was thunder and with the first lightning flash we bee-lined to the beach at the north end. The first storm missed us, but about 20 minutes later we were hammered by a torrential rain with winds that had to be around 50 mph. We  were in the lee of a large knoll, so we were sheltered from the force of the storm and could watch the rain rolling in sideways and the willows bending with the gusts. It turned out to be a great decision to stop there, with a large grassy area and gazebo with a roof and fireplaces to stay. It was definitely less buggy up there than it would have been at the HRWA campsite. 

We met up with two of the Whitehall crews that were part of the Floating The Apple fleet. Sandy Spencer was the lead for this group. The boats were very pretty and it was a joy to see them on the river with all the paddlers pulling together.  Now it was time to set out for my home port, the City of Yonkers. We had a fresh wind out of the north to push us along and we made good time getting to Kingsland Point Park for our lunch break. Unfortunately the wind disappeared after we went under the Tappan Zee Bridge, but with the ebb we had no trouble paddling down to Yonkers. There was a large contingent from Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club and the Beczak Center waiting to welcome us for the night. A few paddlers went out to hear the jazz concert at the City Pier, and later some went to watch the movie that was playing there as part of their Friday Night Concert and Movie series. We had a great campsite on the water, with views of the Palisades across from us.

Leaving the next morning was sort of sad, knowing that it was the last day we had together on the Hudson. But there was no time to dwell on it, as a strong north wind kept us focused on our paddling. Plus we had a full fleet accompanying us, which included the Riverkeeper boat, the John J. Harvey fireboat, the sloop Laissez Faire, our support boat, the Klang, and a group of eight women in the YPRC war canoe, led by Nancy Kalafus and Eileen O'Connor. Just below the George Washington bridge the waters got a bit turbulent, and with a strong south wind the war canoe had a bit of trouble and capsized sending all the paddlers into the water. We rigged a line from the Laissez Faire and towed them close to shore where we towed them in the rest of the way with a kayak. We got the boat out of the water and up onto the bank where the cell phones were taken out and the rescue planned. All went well as the boat and its paddlers got back to Yonkers without incident. 

The trip then resumed, and we started to meet paddlers greeting us from the 79th Street Boat Basin all the way down to the Downtown Boathouse. It was very nice to have all these paddlers meet us, many were close friends and it made the group feel very welcome. Just short of the Boathouse, we grouped up all the through paddlers and made an triumphant arrival at the DTBH dock. We got our boats out of the water for the last time, did a lot of hugging and enjoyed the DTBH hospitality with a BBQ.

Camilla at this time grabbed a microphone and presented all the paddlers with a hand-painted commemorative brick with the Great Hudson River Paddle lettered on it. It was sort of sad breaking up the group, but the glow of satisfaction that we all had after doing the trip from Albany made up for that. We then unloaded our boats and had our friends and relatives drive us back to our homes and our rejoining of civilization. I guess we all felt the same about this: Life on the River is way better than on land! It was a great trip and we are all looking forward to doing this next year.


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