River Time

Kate and Hudson River Dog NeenaWe left from the Troy Dam later than planned. High tide was at 9, and by 11 we had already missed two precious hours of the ebb current. On the Hudson, the tides become a tyrant, not letting you stop or rest or eat. You go with those six hours, rest later. Or that's what you do if you want to travel. By noon, when we made our first gravelly stop, the roar of Albany traffic in the background, I knew we were not making miles. This was a trip about river time.

We included Merle, who at age 72 teaches Outward Bound courses, has a shock of curly gray-white hair and a calm steady demeanor; Kate on her pedal boat, after shoulder surgery, long legs shoving south; and me, on a short fall break from teaching, desperate not to think about faculty meetings. The most important team member, however, was Neena, a pint sized dog, which Kate had just rescued. This was Neena’s river baptism. To keep her happy--and who doesn't want to keep a dog happy--we stopped every hour to stretch and pee and marvel over how slowly we were moving.

Sunset over the oil tanks from our first campThe plan was to make it to Schodack Island our first night, but we were about six miles short of this goal when the sun started its Western dance. We had just made it through the thick of Troy, Rensselaer, Albany--those industrial towns at the northern end of the navigable Hudson River. The shoreline was often green, and always rimmed with roads. Asphalt and concrete, sirens, horns, the jackhammer under the Troy-Menands Bridge, like thunder, but more violent. But also: buildings gleaming in the distance, Stuyvesant's excessive mansion, the pair of Peregrine falcons that swooped from under one bridge, the squirrel that climbed aboard my kayak (see previous post!). This is what the river always promises: the ugly and the beautiful, the tedious and the fun, the moments I will forget and those that I hold close to my narrative heart.

We needed a campsite in this unlovely place. Room for three tents, three boats, three tired women. Papscanee Island is not quite an island, and is rimmed with wooden pylons, visible at low tide, and beyond the pylons, rocks covered over with...asphalt. The asphalt was often cracked in a yawn to reveal a jumble of rock teeth. The Hudson River Watertrail guide states "There is no river access for boaters." But, we needed access into the trees. And that is what we found, directly across the narrow river from a set of oil tanks.

Once dark settled in, once we had eaten our magnificent burritos--all river food is delicious--we realized that the spot lights from the oil tanks were going to keep us company through the night. I had been yearning for the quiet that is sleeping with my back to the ground. But that is not what we had that night. At two in the morning a barge arrived, pushed by a roaring little tug. And they began to offload oil, using enormous diesel powered pumps. They were still pumping when we pulled our near sleepless bodies from our tents.

"That wins for the worst campsite of my life," I joked.

You would think at this point I would speak of grumpiness, of bad temper, or perhaps even the nuttiness of this adventure. Instead, I'm going to write of giddiness as we shoved south, of wonder as I counted the bald eagles that soared over us, or perched in a nearby tree, fishing for their next meal. By the end of the day I had counted twenty-two of the big birds, birds that but twenty years ago had all but vanished from the Hudson Valley. I allowed myself a drop of hope.

First the wind gusted from the south, making our passage a trial, then it shifted to the north, making it a joy. We scooted along, and by four in the afternoon, we pulled onto the sandy shore of Gays Point.

campsite at Gays PointGays Point redeemed Papscanee Island. It was all peace and darkness. Quiet, except for the screech owl that trilled its pleasure into the night. We built a fire, and I read from Thomas Berry's The Great Work, while Kate cut up a zucchini from her garden. We drank wine and talked about when Brant would migrate south. We spoke of places we had traveled, of Kate's life on sailboats, Merle's building her own house. And I wondered what story Neena would tell us if she could talk. What story would the river tell us? I slept well through the cold night.

The smooth river pulled me early from my tent, to oatmeal and coffee. Before we slipped into our boats, we stood with our toes in the water and "clapped on" the river. Merle spoke of the beauty and necessity of this river, our time on it. It was but a drop of time, but at that moment I felt like we had been there for days, weeks, my body settled into its aches, my mind into the quiet thoughts that emerged from what I saw. Nothing more.

Then we pushed south, wondering where our adventure would end. As I approached Stockport Middle Grounds, the first flock of Brant coursed by over head. Six more flocks of the small dark geese flapped by, bringing news of the Arctic, and of colder weather, of winter.

I was now in familiar land, reaches I had paddled many times before: Middle Ground Flats, the quirky village of Athens, the Rip Van Winkle bridge. I knew the zig zag path of the channel in this section and how the eastern shore is shallow at low tide.

Sunrise Gays PointCatskill called us in. Fish sandwiches and tea from the dock-side restaurant called us in. I hate ending any trip; I hate ending a trip earlier than planned. But there was no way to ride the outgoing current all the way home--that was 11 miles south. How often is a trip just what you plan? Never. Still, I had gotten not what I thought I wanted, but just what I needed from the river: three days of river time, when what matters is the next bald eagle, the next stop, the shared slice of dried mango, the ache in my lower back. I was lucky to have two easy companions and one trusty dog who made it all possible.

Merle, Kate and I stood with our toes in the water and "clapped off." Merle spoke with a clear wisdom, thanking the river for our time, the company, the adventures had and to come. I had tears in my eyes as we all clapped our goodbye to the river.



References (87)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (2)

This is beautiful, Sue! Clearly the trip inspired your narrative heart. Wish I could have joined you :-)

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIza Trapani

Are you aware of using the special lures for pike? Well, I came to know about it recently, when I happened to visit Lure-obsessed.com

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJack

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>