Stories and inspiration
One of the reasons we organize storytelling events for the outdoor community is that we know that even small exposure to new ideas can trigger major new adventure paths.
For instance, a few months 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 at this point, because it set off a series of events that led to our recent mini-epic paddle of the lower Hudson.
As thru-hikers, trail runners and international backpackers, we're 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 a foldable Oru Kayak and were learning to use it, 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 Oru's?" 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 fairly 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 your inner dirtbag, chill out, and look out for both type 2 and type 1 fun: work hard while enjoying it as much as you can.
This was our first extended paddling trip, so didn't want to get ourselves in over our head, but we did want to see what our Oru Kayaks were capable of. Oru is 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 be, 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, so we planned this trip to be social from the start. Angel had been coordinating with folks in the Hudson Valley for several months to organize the first East Coast Boldly Went storytelling event in Athens - a small town where we could paddle right to the venue (the Athens Riverside Diner - as classic an American diner as you're likely to find) and hear some stories from locals about life on the river. She's also set up get-togethers with folks in New York City connected with OutdoorFest and Mappy Hour, like-minded organizations that bring people together in the outdoor community in inspiring ways.
But what we found was that meeting cool people came naturally. Before we even started, we crashed in Albany with Alan Wechsler, a guy we met randomly through the Warm Showers bike-touring website, who we found out was both a serious all-around outdoorsman and an award-winning journalist who writes primarily about the outdoors. He ended up coming to the event in Athens with his girlfriend, and with Darryl McGrath, a serious birder and the author of the book Flight Paths about the successful efforts of a few female biologists to bring both Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles back from the brink of extinction.
Beyond those personal connections, 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 laudromat.
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 time. On a windy day in Seattle, we can throw our kayaks on Puget Sound and go from urban safety into a harrowing, life-threatening encounter with mother nature in a matter of minutes. And so, 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 taking 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 I would compare the experience to bike touring with a commuter: you can make it work, but there will be times when you wish you had a beefier 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 beyond one fluke, but nearly catastrophic hole punched in my boat 4 miles into the trip (Gorilla Tape works miracles), 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
There's nothing quite like the experience of discovering a hidden gem, and it's strange that a paddle down a river that fronts possibly the most famous city in the world would seem like that, 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.
And we're of course all about helping people get outside, so if you have questions about our trip, logistics, gear, or if you want to repeat it, please, contact us!