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About 20,000 years ago glaciers filled the valleys and topped the mountains and began the slow process of moving southward. “Ice is not a bulldozer—it’s a conveyer belt,” Kelly says. A dam of churned debris was created somewhere near modern-day Staten Island. The ice began to melt backward and about 12,000 years ago a huge glacial lake formed, stretching from Manhattan to Glens Falls.
“That failed and drained, in a series of steps,” Kelly says. “It didn’t all go at once. The current river valley was formed in the floor of that glacial lake.”
Tidal forces, which range from five feet in Manhattan to two feet in Albany, affect the river’s depth. Salt water intrudes as far north as Newburgh. It is actually possible to fish in this area and, depending on tides, capture both freshwater and saltwater fish from the same location.
The flow of history
As we paddled, the eight guides, representing a mixture of Boy Scout readiness, river-savviness, and clear compassion, herded us into a diamond-shaped group for safety. They talked about Frederick Church and the Hudson River School as we passed the Olana site; pointed out the now abandoned and decaying factories that once produced the bricks that built lower Manhattan; and spoke about the world leaders who took in the Hudson views from FDR’s mansion in Hyde Park.
Our nights were filled with a variety of guest speakers, such as the ones who discussed the river’s geology and the storyteller who offered tales of Rip Van Winkle’s adventures; our mornings included stretching and debriefings.
As the trip progressed, personalities started to mesh and—in a few cases—clash. Camp settled into snoring and nonsnoring sections. The outside world’s influence, with its Iraq war and North Korean nuclear threat, faded from our consciousness. The calm of being on a river trip enveloped the group and our giddy separation from our workaday lives loosened us up. Adults roughhoused on the docks, playing “king of the hill” with youthful abandon. Bug spray and sunscreen became our perfume and we strategized our approach to an upcoming water pistol fight with true seriousness.
Midway through the trip, retired US Army Col. James Johnson joined us for a few days, recounting the river’s role in the American Revolution. The vivid realization of what had transpired on this exact river long before we were here was humbling. With West Point in the background, we gathered on Constitution Island and could imagine the tons of iron being hauled down for the cross-river chaining that blocked British boats. At Stony Point, we were greeted with a cannon salute that reverberated off the shorelines. We landed and toured the fort where Revolutionary soldiers had raided the British encampment. Their stealthy approach by land in the dark of night, rather than a much-anticipated water attack, resulted in a needed victory for the struggling American army in 1779.
And the battles didn’t stop in the 1700s.
In the Highlands, one guide passionately recounted the fight that began in the 1960s to halt Con Edison’s plans to build a power plant on Storm King Mountain. It took 17 years to get the final court verdict, but this landmark ruling validated the environmental movement’s legal-defense strategy and decreed that the rights of people and the environment must be considered in development efforts. This area, just south of Beacon and north of Cold Spring, boasts some of the steepest and most beautiful canyon formations along the Hudson.
The fact that mallards, osprey, and red-winged blackbirds were often seen throughout our journey is testament to the river’s ever-improving health. However, a handful of communities such as Coxsackie still have streets that face away from the Hudson, reflecting the decades-long era when the river was used as a dump. At this stop, we saw the cast-off bricks, cement, and other detritus that can make the shoreline hazardous for boaters and swimmers.
Yet many areas are embracing a river renaissance as the water that flows past them becomes cleaner and more inviting. Kingston, Newburgh, and Poughkeepsie are striving to utilize their waterfronts for business and housing opportunities, engaging the communities of the river’s postindustrial cities in a conversation about what the next phase of development will look like along the river.
“Things are way better than they were,” says Jack Gilman, who has been paddling on and swimming in the Hudson River since 1982. “The Hudson flushes out all its problems,” he says, citing the ongoing joke paddlers ironically share in regards to the communities who've traditionally used the river as a solution to sewage problems. Because the waste is ultimately diluted and washed to sea, it had been an acceptable practice for years, but stricter environmental laws now limit and restrict the practice. He is the only guide who has been on every day of every trip for the GHRP and still can’t name just one favorite spot. “I’m on the water and I feel like I’m just playing. The scale and size of the river—it’s compelling. It draws you to it.” Gilman works as a graphic artist and builds his own kayaks. He met his significant other, Maggie Atkins, on the trip in 2003.