The setting sun transforms the river vista as rays of pinks and yellow wind through billowing cumulus clouds. Orange streaks brighten the horizon, and all that’s missing is a gilt frame to permanently capture this quintessential Hudson River scene.
Water lapping against the rocks at Norrie Point creates a rhythmic beat, the cadence increasing as barges chug past and cigarette boats chase their wake. At times the water’s lull creates an eerie, quiet void, supplemented only by the buzz of conversation in the background.
Soon, mosquitoes will force people into the sanctuary of their hot, steamy, yet bugless tents. But for a few magical hours, we 30 people will revel in the peace we earned. After a day of kayaking 17 miles, crossing the shipping channel of the Hudson, and swimming in the shadows of the Esopus Lighthouse, our muscles are tired. Upon arriving at Norrie-Mills State Park in Staatsburg, showers do more than clean bodies—they refresh spirits. Our unified contentment comes from a day of successfully pushing physical limits; of the sun baking into our skin despite the SPF 45 sunscreen we all use; of sharing a huge communal feast of lasagna, salad, homemade venison sausage, and apple cobbler.
Folding chairs are brought in and playing cards are shuffled on picnic tables. People who were strangers a few days earlier share intimacies usually reserved for therapists as distant friends catch up on events from the past year. Some poke and prod their kayaks, fold and unfold various maps, and make the small talk that bridges the challenges of group dynamics.
Behind it all, the Hudson River is both the backdrop and the focus.
This is day five of a 10-day kayak trip from Albany to Manhattan, and the people camped out on this patch of green lawn on the edge of the river are slowly falling into routines.
It’s a rhythm and adventure that’s been repeated for the past six summers, as the Great Hudson River Paddle has become a signature summertime event.
A million miles away
Like the river itself, this outing has evolved. The trip’s early years—when it was the dream of a few wacky paddlers—ignored tide pulls, sleeping arrangements, and hygiene requirements. In 2001, the group went down the Hudson because kayaker Camilla Calhoun suggested it and, well, because it was there.
“My initial reaction was, ‘We’ll get involved because we don’t want anybody to get hurt,’” said coordinator Scott Keller, a trails and special projects coordinator for the Hudson River Valley Greenway, the state agency charged with spearheading preservation and development along the river. “It wasn’t until 2003 that I really realized what we had and how valuable it was for our program. Now it’s our signature event to promote the Greenway Water Trail on the Hudson.”
As additional state agencies and outside sponsors became more involved, logistics were addressed. The current annual trip includes guides, catered meals, and hot showers. Participants come from as close by as Albany and as far away as California, and range in age from 20 to 70. The outing may be too cushy for die-hard outdoorsy-types, and with an average speed that covers four miles an hour, it may be too slow for avid kayakers. But it opens up America’s First River in an intimate and beautiful manner to all participants.
As the miles pass, it becomes evident this majestic waterway, with its banks that evolve from rural refuges to urban population centers, is as diverse as the people on each paddle.
“Different people bring different skill sets,” says Keller, who has seen both novice and experienced kayakers revel in the trip. “They’ve all gotten a really good look at what it’s like to live along the Hudson Valley.”
For Pat Slaven, the opportunity to experience the Hudson was something that plagued her when she moved to Yonkers 12 years ago and couldn’t find a way to get on the river. A guided tour boat from Kingston offered the best access at the time, but when she learned of the GHRP a few years back, she jumped right on board.
“It’s this marvelous adventure and it’s right here in my backyard,” says the senior project leader at Consumer Reports. She’s since become an avid kayaker, and has been on two full paddle trips and several shorter outings. “I’m never [more than] two hours away from my home and [it feels like] I’m a million miles away.”
Where eagles thrive
Last July, in a misty daybreak near Albany, my boat finally hit water and that magical feeling of no turning back and not knowing what lay ahead overcame me. I was floating, both literally and figuratively.