When it comes to planning a paddling destination, it’s easy to overlook the Hudson River. Its waters flow by cities and towns with some 11 million people, hardly the stuff of adventure and getting away from it all. But the Hudson is more than metropolitan. Along this river can be found 100-foot-high waterfalls, hills rising 1,400 feet, quiet hamlets whose “Holly, Dolly” streets have changed little in a century, pristine northwoods wilderness, and wildlife-filled freshwater and saltwater marshes in which to meander. It’s remarkable that in such a populous area, one often feels very much alone on the river, thousands of miles from everyday life, reliving a bygone era when only Native American canoes plied these waters.
Adventurers will find that the Hudson is more than just a river. It is actually a sea-level fjord, a long arm of the Atlantic Ocean whose tidal forces reach far inland. Indeed, the Mohicans’ name for the Hudson was Muhheakunnuk-the river that flows two ways. Whether headed north or south, a paddler wise in the ways of the river’s flood and ebb currents can get a boost of 2.5 to 3 miles an hour. Like any other river, the Hudson can be benign and lazy. But weather can disturb its calmness in a matter of minutes, turning a leisurely paddle into a race for life. Local paddlers respect the Hudson’s whims and never take anything for granted.
I have paddled every inch of the Hudson River over the past 15 years. I’ve been out on brutally hot days when I was forced off the water by noon and on frigid days when I dodged ice floes churned up in the wake of a passing Coast Guard icebreaker. The river never ceases to offer new surprises. Paddling the Hudson is like eating an artichoke. Peel off a leaf and you find a more delectable one underneath.
The Hudson is not homogeneous. You’ll find that it offers great variety along its course. As a general rule, the changes correspond roughly with the location of its bridges. There are just eight bridges in the 145 miles between Albany and New York City. The mile marker at each bridge indicates its distance from the Battery, or lower tip of Manhattan. Here is a taste of what you can expect:
Albany to Castleton-on-Hudson Bridge (Mile 135) This part of the river is so narrow it’s hard to believe that it can be the same one you see alongside Manhattan. Here, the shoreline is marked by remnants of a failed attempt to create dikes and thereby force the river to dig its own channel in order to carry industrial traffic. Dredging has been necessary to keep Albany open as a major seaport. Yet despite this being a commercial artery to the sea, the surroundings have a bayou-country flavor. Trees droop lazily over swampy banks, and there are few buildings or houses.
Castleton to Rip Van Winkle Bridge (Mile 114) Here, the river starts to broaden. Old industrial towns emerge along the shore. The city of Hudson, 120 miles from the ocean, was once one of the world’s busiest whaling ports. Captains brought home so many fine furnishings from their world travels that the town is now a thriving antiques center. Many islands dot the shore on both sides. Others are called islands, but don’t try to go around them: they are now connected to the shore through natural silting. Located here is Hudson River Islands State Park, one of the growing number of official Greenway Water Trail campsites along the river.
Rip Van Winkle to Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge (Mile 95) The river broadens even more in this section, and the 4,000-foot-high northern Catskills loom to the west. Larger towns appear, as well as major plants from the days when this was the world’s leading cement supplier. Even so, the setting remains mostly natural. Lovely marshes at Tivoli Bays invite exploration. When I first paddled this stretch of the river I was surprised to learn that the northward flood current is almost as strong as it is 100 miles away at the river’s mouth.