The Lower Hudson: A paddling gem hidden in plain sight
Stealing adventure inspiration
A few year ago, Angel and I were at a bookstore in Seattle, and I stumbled on a book in the local section by David Ellingson, called Paddle Pilgrim: Kayaking the Erie Canal and Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty. I neither bought nor read the book, but I really should, because it set off a series of events that led to a mini-epic paddle of the lower Hudson.
As thru-hikers, trail runners and international backpackers, Angel and I are generally happiest on extended adventures of the type where you can settle into the rhythm of living outside, and can start to forget, at least for a while, that life is anything but exploration. I happened on the book at a time when we had just bought foldable Oru Kayaks and were learning to use them, and when we'd just finished a year and a half of thru-hiking and backpacking in Latin America and were looking for something new. When I flipped through the book I thought, "Hmm. kayak touring? I wonder if we could pull this off in these Orus?" When an opportunity arose to visit the East Coast a couple of months later, we found ourselves putting in at Albany to recreate the part of the "Paddle Pilgrim" experience, spending a week and a half trying to make our way to NYC by way of the Hudson.
We'd planned to tackle about 150 miles of the Lower Hudson, which is all a part of the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail - a national water trail - which means that there are camping or hotel accommodations and launches at least every 15 miles on both sides of the river, and in most cases more frequently than that. Campsites and boat racks could have been more abundant and accessible, but otherwise the logistics of planning this trip were straightforward. There were plenty of places to get water, to resupply food, or to pop off the river for a shower and a night in a hotel. Things are set up there for long distance paddling, and we found that it was a challenge that we as fit people, but relatively inexperienced paddlers, could take on confidently and safely.
Beyond "Paddle Pilgrim", there are a few online articles about people who've taken this trip, but we didn't meet any one else doing even sections while we were out, and several locals told us they'd never heard of anyone doing the whole trip. Even being early in the season, that was surprising due to the ease of access and logistics, the availability of comprehensive maps and even a guidebook, the proximity to one of the largest concentrations of people in the world, and the fact that the river is perfectly set up for such a trip.
Our approach was to apply the lessons we've learned thru-hiking to an extended kayaking trip: pack as light as possible, embrace our inner dirtbag, chill out, and look out for both type 2 and type 1 fun: work hard while enjoying it as much as we could.
This was our first extended paddling trip, so didn't want to get in over our head, but we did want to see what our Oru Kayaks were capable of. Oru was a relatively new company with an innovative concept - a highly functional but lightweight origami-esque folding kayak that you can toss on your back and take to places that a normal kayak wouldn't easily go: two miles up trail to a mountain lake, for instance, or (in our case) the checked baggage carousel on an airplane and the luggage compartment of a Greyhound bus. We wanted to be as self-contained and human powered as we could, and do it on the cheap without car rentals or paid boat transportation.
Hudson River People
We tend to like our adventures with a side of community, and we found that meeting cool people along this route came naturally. People along the river seemed universally interested in what we were doing, and offered us important advice like which bushes to stash our kayaks in when we were spending the night in town, and where to find the local breweries. On one occasion when we were lugging our packs up a hill, a guy mistook us for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and offered us a ride to the trailhead at Bear Mountain. (Thru-hikers can't escape trail magic even if they try.) West Coast rumors of East Coast rudeness are greatly exaggerated.
For its access to history and quaint small towns, the lower Hudson is a sort of poor American paddler's version of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. There are towns, I'd say on average, every 10 miles along the river, and history is everywhere - from the giant manors, light houses, and literal castles dotting the river, to the ruins of ice houses where the frozen Hudson was broken up, stored and shipped down river, to the islands seemingly made entirely of the bricks that were produced to construct New York City.
Most of the towns are quaint maritime villages, but you get a range of experiences from a place like Coxsackie that is almost a ghost town to Beacon, which is a bustling arts community full of NYC refugees. In general the community along the Hudson is vibrant, and a highlight was wandering by accident into a Spring Festival in Highland, across the river from Poughkeepsie, where we gorged on street food and local beer while we waited on our laundry to dry at the local laundromat.
Outdoor adventure on an industrial river
One of the things I love about paddling is that it allows you to easily get out of the controlled environment of the city into the heart of nature without much travel Despite the fact that the Hudson is a relatively populated river, living on the water for a week and a half felt like a real outdoor experience, where wind, storms, and the tidal nature of the river were the primary challenges we had to contend with on a daily basis.
If you're not from the area, the Hudson itself is probably not exactly what you think: it has a reputation as a highly polluted waterway, and in places around the city it still has issues. But while the river is still impacted by its industrial history, NY has engaged in massive cleanup efforts in recent years, and our experience was characterized more by pretty tidal estuaries, abundant bird life, jumping fish, pleasant state parks, and rural villages than visible pollution. Nowadays, it's safe to swim in most places, even if we weren't brave enough to filter our drinking water from the river. The Hudson didn't feel particularly busy either, despite some reports we'd heard. It is an active shipping channel, but above NYC large ships were relatively uncommon - we probably saw 1 - 2 per day - and beyond a few smaller boats we frequently had the river mostly to ourselves.
It's a common saying that the Hudson behaves more like an ocean than a river, and while I think this is a bit of an exaggeration (conditions, when choppy, were very similar to our home base on Lake Washington in Seattle), a sea kayak would have been the ideal tool for the job. Our 12 foot, folding, lightweight and rudderless boats were functional overall, but you will wish that you had a better model. In our case this was typically in high winds, when tailwinds led to tracking problems and headwinds slowed down our lightweight boats more than they might have heavier ones. Our most nerve-wracking experience was during a river crossing at a wide point in high winds, when the river was whitecapping. We intentionally steered relatively close by some stationary smaller fishing boats so we'd have aid in case we capsized, and they cheered for us while we navigated some pretty gnarly chop. In the end our boats contributed to our decision to cut our trip about 30 miles short at Croton-on-Hudson when high winds were predicted and we didn't want to contend with tough conditions along with the increased large ship traffic near NYC. But generally speaking, the Oru's were what we expected them to be: light, functional, and fun, and pretty darn good for an affordable boat you can pack up, throw on your back, and cart around the city when you're done. And you can't really beat the cool factor.
Here's to hoping the trip becomes famous
It's strange that a paddle down a river that fronts possibly the most famous city in the world would feel like discovering a hidden gem, but because we didn't come across anyone else doing the same thing, this trip really did. 150 mile paddling trips might not be everyone's thing, but the fact that NYC sits at the end of a really fantastic one suggests to me that there's significant economic and adventure potential for the Hudson that hasn't yet been realized. It's a world-class paddling experience hidden in plain sight. To me, it's a water trip that captures a similar magic to the Camino de Santiago, or the Appalachian Trail, and an outdoor experience that was full of natural beauty, culture, and history.
Check out my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life for a comprehensive plan for how to make things like paddling the Lower Hudson your lifestyle, and not just a daydream.