By Tim Mathis
It’s true what you might have heard, that you can check an Oru as luggage on a flight. It’s also true that, if you have to, you can drag it along with you on a light rail, throw it in the back of a taxi, hike it around Boston, and squeeze it through the narrow 19th century stairwell to a tiny studio apartment where you’re staying with three other people before tossing it in the luggage compartment of a Greyhound. I know, because that’s how my wife, Angel, and I moved a couple of kayaks and all of our essential gear from our apartment in Seattle to Albany, NY, where we put in on the Lower Hudson in an attempt to paddle 150 miles to New York City.
Our goal was to squeeze an epic outdoor adventure into a couple weeks of visits to friends and family in Boston and New York City, and our Orus were the strategy.
A River Full of Memories
This was our first real visit to the area, so our expectations for the East Coast were shaped mostly by some of our favorite movies and TV shows: Ghostbusters, the Sopranos, Sex in the City… While I was admittedly disappointed by the paucity of Slimer sightings, what we actually got from 10 days on the Hudson was a really remarkable cultural experience that reminded us, in spirit, of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, which we hiked a few years back.
The Hudson from Albany south was a steady stream of quaint river towns with famous names like Sleepy Hollow and West Point, Vanderbilt Mansions, ruins of ice houses (where they used to store chopped up hunks of frozen river for use over summer), historic lighthouses, and islands scattered with the bricks produced to build New York City.
And despite my expectation that the East Coast would just be a bunch of swarthy guys yelling “Shaddup ya bum!” repeatedly, folks were consistently friendly and intrigued by what we were doing, offering local advice on which bushes were best for hiding kayaks during overnight breaks, and which restaurants’ dress codes would be most welcoming of water shoes and PFDs.
The trip was social by design. Angel is the founder of an outdoor adventure business called Boldly Went, so along the way she organized a storytelling gathering for locals at maybe the most classically American restaurant on the river: the Athens Riverside Diner, where we literally paddled up for the event. A lot of great people attended, but it was particularly interesting to meet a local author named Darryl McGrath who wrote a book called Flight Paths about the recovery of Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon populations in New York.
From Superfund to Superfun
I bring up Darryl’s conservation story because her aforementioned bald eagles are emblematic of the developing environmental miracle that is the modern Hudson. In the ‘70’s, there was only one nesting pair in the entire state (and they were sterile), but on our trip we saw eagles almost daily. At one point, the Hudson was so contaminated by industrial waste that its entire lower stretch was a designated superfund site. Massive government cleanup efforts have dramatically improved the health of the ecosystem since then, so the river we experienced felt clean and beautiful for the vast majority of our paddle.
We saw few other paddlers, and less recreational boaters in general than we expected considering the river’s proximity to one of the largest cities in the world. It made us think that a lot of people haven’t realized yet that the Hudson has once again become a fantastic place to play outside. It’s a beautiful river, and while history has demonstrated the reasons it needs to be protected, as an outsider it’s easy to see its potential as long as it is.
Significant portions of the Lower Hudson pass through state land, and despite the proximity of civilization, the river feels, in large part, wild. There were some big ships that passed us, but the only scary encounters we had were with Mother Nature: riding waves on a particularly hairy crossing during high winds south of Poughkeepsie, and worrying about flash floods during a lightning storm when we were camped overnight at the base of a cliff.
Failure is a Pretty Decent Option
And it was in fact Mother Nature who kicked us off of the river two days early and about 30 miles short of the Harlem River when high winds, thunderstorms and persistent heavy rain made enjoyable paddling impossible. From the beginning of the trip, we knew bailing would be logistically simple - trains run the entire length of the river and, as relatively novice paddlers, we were prepared to use them shamelessly.
So, instead of a glorious paddle into the Battery in NYC, with the Statue of Liberty in full view, we exited the river at an idyllic park in Croton-on-Hudson, and the end of our trip looked like the beginning: folding up our boats and gear, throwing them on our backs, and navigating trains, taxis, and city streets to get ourselves to our friend’s small apartment in Jersey City. There we stashed our boats and spent three days replenishing spent calories with New York’s best hot dogs, pizza, and ridiculously priced soft serve.