The last time that we heard from Dave and Amy Freeman, the canoe-tripping couple were portaging their way out of Montreal, plodding along with a message about the sulfide ore-mining threat to the Boundary Waters in their signature-laden canoe ‘Sig.’ In the last couple weeks, they’ve made serious southern progress on their 2,000-mile route from Minnesota to Washington: paddling the length of a stormy Lake Champlain, through the Champlain Canal, down the Hudson River, past New York City, along the R&D Canal, down the Delaware River past Philadelphia, Thanksgiving paddling the Chester River into Chesapeake Bay, then a final 15-mile portage and a long-awaited arrival on Monday to Washington, D.C. See their map above, read more info on their arrival activities, and stay tuned for the final Dispatches installment of highlighted skills, destinations and lessons learned on the Freemans’ Paddle to D.C. journey. Here, Amy Freeman shares their experience paddling the Champlain Canal, “because it’s not every day you paddle through one of the nation’s larges Superfund sites.”
As we approached our first lock in the town of Whitehall, N.Y., Dave turned on our VHF radio and called the lockmaster on channel 13. She responded right away and gave us instructions for locking through. How interesting to be in this small, human-powered vessel yet treated the same as a big tugboat and barge. There was no need to portage, and better yet, we were not charged anything to lock through.
We progressed through Locks 12, 11 and 9 (yep, there is no Lock 10). It was near dusk as we arrived at Lock 9, so we asked the lockmaster about camping. He invited us to camp above the lock. There was a flat, grassy park, complete with picnic tables. This, for us, was luxury camping.
The highest point of the canal was between Locks 9 and 8, so the next day we began descending. By Lock 7, we were officially in the Hudson River. This is where barge traffic increased. We passed a spot where giant cranes off-loaded barges. The content of the barges? PCB-contaminated sediment from the river bottom. Hesitant to inhale that stuff and so much as touch the water, we paddled through a Superfund Site. At Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, General Electric had dumped about 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River over a 30-year period. This practice ended in 1977 and a 200-mile stretch of river was deemed to be one of the country’s most contaminated hazardous waste sites by the EPA.
A sense of longing to be in the Boundary Waters overtook me. We passed dredging operations and tugs moving barges. The rest of our time on the canal was a surreal juxtaposition of Superfund Site and the typical sights of a water-based camping trip. We camped at Lock 4, and if it weren’t for the sign warning against eating any fish caught in the river and the two barges that locked through in the night, we could have been on any other river trip.
The following day, we rushed through the remaining locks and passed Albany. Although we paddled into the dark and rain of a fall evening, we were determined to camp in a place that was away from industry and reminders of the Superfund Site. So would I recommend a paddling trip here? Maybe in a few years after the dredging project is complete. After all, it is a historic river, you can camp at any of the locks and you don’t have to portage. It’ll also give you a new sense of appreciation for the remaining wilderness we do have in this country.
For more Resources on paddling the Champlain Canal and PCB contamination, check out NY Canals, the Hudson River environmental advocacy group Clearwater, as well as the EPA’s info on the upper Hudson River cleanup.