Ever since I bought my first kayak (a Wilderness Systems Focus 15), I’ve been planning an epic kayak adventure. But, between family, photography and you know, life and things, I been a little busy. If I don’t schedule it into the shared calendar my wife and I have months in advance, it’ll never happen. So two months ago I looked at Hudson River tide charts to figure the best set of days to paddle down from Albany, taking river currents and tidal ebb and flood into account. The Hudson River is a tidal estuary all the way up to Albany, so if you don’t plan well, even though you may be paddling downriver, you can still be fighting the current. The plan: paddle for 3 days from Albany down to Cold Spring, camping along the way. 90 miles. So, an average of 30 miles each day with the current helping us. Totally doable.
I’m a fan of solo adventures, but since I’m new to kayaking, and because my friend Don also loves long adventures in the wilderness too, I asked if he’d like to come along. Don’s kayak is out of commission until he fixes the rudder, so he rented a Dagger Stratos from Matt Kane of Prime Paddlesports. Matt’s a wellspring of information for all things paddle and his business caters to adventurers like me and Don. We picked up Don’s yack in Cold Spring, NY where Prime Paddlesports is headquartered, left Don’s car for our return trip and headed up to start our adventure.
Once we got up to Albany, I dropped Don and the kayaks and gear off at the Corning City Preserve boat ramp, and drove to my mother’s cousin Betsy’s house. Her husband Dan had kindly offered to let me leave my car with them while we journeyed. Perfect! Dan drove me back to the launch point, took some pictures of us, and then wished us well as we paddled off under the Livingston Avenue Bridge.
On our first day we planned on an easy paddle about 25 miles down to Stockport Middle Ground Island. I figured, leaving at noon, we could get there in 6 or 7 hours with the current in our favor and still have a little light to set up camp by. The unintended theme for this particular trip should have been, “Nathaniel Underestimates Everything”. Sure, if we paddled non-stop at a stiff pace, we probably could’ve made that schedule. But we’re not Olympic athletes, we’re a couple of regular dads who occasionally go to the gym. With a few breaks and a little sight-seeing, it took us 8 hours to get 22 miles.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this trip was the bridges. I take them for granted in daily life, barely noticing them as I zip across in my car. If I’m lucky, I’ll appreciate the view as I go, but it’s over and forgotten in seconds. Not so in a kayak. Paddling 2 miles an hour, everything takes a long time. And everything is big because you’re basically sitting at water’s level. Trees and other features onshore loom over you, and bridges all seem impossibly high.
Afternoon deepened into evening and we were treated to beautiful colors in the sky and on the water. The breeze was warm and pleasant, and I experienced whole minutes of peace where the usual, incessant chatter of my mind stopped altogether and was replaced with a relaxed wonder. This was why we were here. This was the purpose of the trip. As the sun set, we realized our hopes of making the first planned campsite were gone, so Don and I discussed our alternatives. Looking at maps and double-checking our location on our smartphones, we found a good looking beach that was past the high tide mark and would suit our needs.
Disappointed not to make our scheduled stop, but happy to have found a great spot with flat, dry ground and a fire pit, Don and I set about making camp, eating and enjoying the evening. On my other adventures I always brought the simplest, easiest food. Power Bars, raisins, milk boxes, nuts. Basically, anything small and dense with calories that won’t get ruined when it gets wet. Not exactly a meal fit for a king, but good for a trip where storage space was at a premium.
I really love long exposure photography, so after we settled in I busted out my little travel tripod for some 30 second exposures. I didn’t realize the tripod had a loose head and was slowly drooping until I got the images into the computer, but here’s one that’s fairly sharp.
The next morning it was gray and cool out. The forecast called for rainy conditions most of the day with the possibility of storms. Not the end of the world, but a far cry from the absolute kayaking perfection we’d enjoyed the day before. I was in a hurry because I was still hoping we’d be able to catch up on the 3 missed miles from yesterday. Not taking into account fatigue and possible wind, I figured if we paddled diligently we might still make it to Cold Spring by the next evening. We stretched our backs out (they were sore and stiff from yesterday’s work), broke camp and plopped our boats in the river just as a light rain began.
I am truly impressed by the size of the ships the Hudson is able to accommodate. There are some large pleasure boats, tugs and barges navigating the water, but when a tanker or cargo ship came into view, it was always a show-stopper. The Hafnia Lise isn’t exactly a supertanker, but from the seat in a kayak she’s enormous, and the swells generated by her slow passing definitely made the trip more interesting.
At this point the realization that we might not make it as far as Cold Spring started to creep in, and as we rafted together to have some food on river, we wondered what our plan B might be. With one car in Cold Spring and the other in Albany, it could be a challenge. Don suggested he might grab an Uber and take it to his car while I stayed with the boats and gear, then come back and grab me. From there, we’d proceed as planned. Unwilling to let my lofty goals go, I said let’s just put our backs into it and see if we can’t make it.
One of the great things about the Hudson River is the islands. It’s got quite a few. As the rain came and went throughout the day we were able to stop on a few of them to rest our increasingly tired bodies and poke around a little. Foolishly, it just didn’t occur to me that we’d get progressively more and more worn down as the trip went on. Add to that a poor night’s sleep, chronic chilly dampness, and a little wind…. You see where this is going. Not to Cold Spring by Wednesday, that’s for sure.
In addition to the islands, there’s beaches, boat ramps, logs and old, abandoned whatnot to park on and eat some granola. One spot was a pile of rocks about 200 yards out in the river, with a couple of uprooted trees and the foundation of some old building just above the high tide mark. We clambered out of our boats, slipping on slimy rocks as we struggled to simultaneously keep our balance on stiff legs, stop our kayaks from floating off into the river, and step out of the water onto dry(ish) land. Somehow I managed to slice my leg on one of the rocks.
After a snack, a stretch, some water and a little rest, we discussed the feasibility of landing in Poughkeepsie instead of Cold Spring. Loath to give up my ambitious plan, I reluctantly agreed that it was no longer realistic. As we adjusted out plans, Don looked over his shoulder at the sky. “Um, I think maybe we should get off the water.”
I looked where he was pointing. Black clouds were bubbling up over the hills on the horizon, and the on the banks of the Hudson trees started to bend as the air pressure changed, indicating a front was approaching. I put my camera gear back in it’s dry bag, slipped into my sprayskirt and then plonked back into my kayak, slipping on the rocks and getting gross, stinky sea sludge all over my legs and open wounds. Perfect! Now I was going to die of sepsis. I love kayaking, but right now, in this moment, I was beginning to hate everything about it. And to doubt my own sanity.
As we paddled away from the island, the wind blew harder and our slow speed was reduced to a crawl of maybe 1 mph. With waves. To get out of the wind as much as possible, we headed toward the shore while trying to keep our southerly direction when Don got stuck on a sandbar. In the murky water, the visibility was only about 20 inches, with the bottom frequently hard to discern because of it’s color and lack of texture. Anxious about the coming storm and reluctant to move away from the relative safety of the shire, we worked our way back out into the river to get him loose. Once that obstacle had been overcome, we were more or less forced to stay out there in the open, a hundred or so yards offshore, lest one of us become stuck again. On we struggled, using our paddle strokes as feelers to judge the distance to the hidden mud. Finally the bottom dropped off and we were able to move closer to the cover of shore. Then I got stuck. Brilliant!
You’ve heard of something being painfully slow. As the weather moved in, progress began to physically hurt. A kayaker can average about 3 mph. Add a tidal ebb to that and you get my anticipated 5 mph. This was the optimistic formula I plugged in when I planned the venture. Now toss in a blustery headwind. Suddenly, though you’re putting your back into it, progress grinds to a snail’s pace and you’re left fighting just to keep moving. Stop even for a second and your kayak starts getting blown backward and you loose precious yardage (read: energy). So, despite the fact that our bodies were burnt out and in pain, we were forced to dig deeper and keep pushing the water with our paddles. Non-stop. Forever.
After fighting what seemed an impossible, 2 hour battle between river bottom mud, wind, choppy water, pain, fatigue and anxiousness, the incoming storm mercifully stayed east and then passed by us, giving way to another gorgeous sunset. We’d barely made any progress. It was getting late and we were hoping the next set of islands would have a spot, and as if to encourage us, a break in the clouds illuminated the first island as if to say, here it is! Rest here!
After circumnavigating the island and finding a good place to land, we unpacked, set up camp and ate. Then we collapsed into our sleeping bags fully intending to get up early and shove off for Poughkeepsie. But when the sun came up the next morning we couldn’t move. Everything. Hurt. We were in no shape to make a mad run and conquer the river. Not even down to Poughkeepsie.
A quick conference and the realization that these kayak adventures were supposed to be fun explorations, not painful, ego-driven races changed our trajectory. Our new (and completely realistic) goal: Kingston, NY. It was 10 miles away. Even with a headwind we could be there in time for lunch. Then I made an executive decision. I, Nathaniel W. Johnston, was going back to sleep.
When I finally crawled out of my tent to stretch out, the sun was shining and the air was gorgeous. As we broke camp and packed our boats, Don joked that the title of the trip should be, “Epic paddle from Albany to
Cold Spring, Poughkeepsie, Kingston.” With the self-imposed pressure of unnecessary deadlines gone, I laughed. I’d almost ruined a perfectly good camping trip by needing to accomplish something. Kind of like life. We’re all going to end up dead, and when we do, none of the stuff we accomplish will mean a whole lot. Especially if we were miserable the entire time. So what’s the point? Enjoy!
Before hitting “the road”, we ate another meal of power bars, granola and instant coffee, then hiked around the island to explore. With big, soft beds of moss atop lichen covered cliffs overlooking the river, airy thickets of trees and little spring flowers, it was like a little, forgotten paradise. I won’t have been surprised to see a group of fairies dancing in a circle in the dappled shade. Actually, considering how fatigued I was, I’m surprised I didn’t see them in a hallucinatory vision.
As we splashed down the last handful of miles of our trip, we paddled under the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge which seems miles tall. I looked it up and it only has 75 meters of clearance under it’s main span, but I swear it’s twice that. On the other side of the bridge is the Charles Rider Park where locals were enjoying fishing and hanging out. We found an inviting little spot to take a break and decide how we were going to get to a car.
An Uber or Lyft from Kingston to Albany was a little pricy but doable. Failing other options, we decided I’d take one while Don waited with the kayaks and gear. But first I thought I’d call Dan. He seemed really interested in our trip, and, having travelled, hiked and camped all over the world, he’s quite an adventurer himself. He picked up the phone immediately. After listening to my saga he told me he’d come down following his golf game this afternoon. Probably 3 o’clock. That was perfect because that’d give me and Don time to fart around and take our time. We agreed to check in around 2.
With that particular worry gone, we got back on the water and headed south again, enjoying warm sun, a light tail wind and a favorable current. We stopped to watch another humongous ship, the Rickmers Shanghai, as she (I think I’m supposed to refer to ships as “she”, but in this day of politically-correct uncertainty, I’m sure there’s probably a gender-neutral way I should address a boat) headed out to sea.
With only a scant few miles left to Kingston, we found an abandoned industrial facility tucked in the hills above the river. The woods were pretty thick and it took some poking around, but we found an old dirt road that took us up to the complex at the top of a hill. Half expecting to find a swarm of zombies, or at least a couple of vagrants, we poked around. Nothing but broken glass, empty bullet casings and random junk. No walking dead.
I love abandoned, dilapidated ruins. I always have. And, with colorful spray painted artwork, broken stuff and evidence of regular partying, this spot didn’t disappoint. It seemed to be some sort of grain or dry chemical storage and transfer facility. We wandered, enjoying the stark isolation spaces like this create. There was probably a town or at least houses over the next hill or two, but it felt like we were in another, forgotten era. According to one bright red tag, “Roger does drugs.” Who knew?
I can’t decide if I like some of these photos better in black and white or color. What do you think? Black and white photos have a nice way of bringing the soul out in something, but the bright realism in color photography always satisfies the senses.
With our need to explore more (and stretch our much neglected legs) sated, we got back into our red sea kayaks and paddled the last few miles to Kingston. I always get sad near the end of a trip. It’s like the last few dips on a rollercoaster before the ride stops. The fun is almost over and you know it, so it looses some of it’s shine. I was tired and looking forward to a real meal, a hot shower, and a soft bed, but, as we rounded the little spit of land the Rondout Lighthouse sits on and headed up Rondout Creek, something in me longed for even more adventure. Maybe we should’ve gone at to another town further downriver.
I called Dan to let him know we’d be waiting for him at the Hudson River Maritime Museum next to the rowing club on the waterfront. He was about 30 minutes out. The timing was perfect.
The Kingston waterfront is a busy little gateway to the Hudson River, and Rondout Creek bustled with small watercraft, a rowing team, a number of light tugs, small commercial vessels and a few abandoned looking things tied sadly to moorings. Tourists and relaxing locals milled about the shops, enjoying the water’s edge and the warm afternoon. Kingston welcomes you! So said the sign on a partly submerged barge on the waterway’s edge.
Don and I paddled up to at dock the rowing club used and pulled our kayaks out of the water. Curious, a few onlookers wandered up to watch. Then Dan walked up, all smiles and hugs. Generous as always, he insisted he buy us lunch before we did anything else. Don and I were too tired and hungry for real food to resist. We left our kayaks with all our stuff in them (minus phones, wallets and camera, which went with us) next to the water and walked to the Ole Savannah Bar and Grill. The food and ambiance was as amazing as I’d hoped it would be, and from our table on the deck outside, we enjoyed the bustle of the waterfront as we told Dan our story and ate. I had the Cubano with extra pickles. It was utterly amazing.
On the hour drive to get my car in Albany, Dan and I philosophized, and he told me stories of his work as an officer in Vietnam during the war. He is an incredibly deep person and a retired Jesuite educator. Despite being tired enough to sleep for 3 days, the conversation was so interesting that I was disappointed when the drive was over. Dan’s always been an enjoyable guy. After looking at a few of my photos and some hugs, Dan and his wife Betsy gave me a cup of coffee and sent me back to Kingston in my car to get Don and our kayaks and stuff.
By the time we got down to Cold Spring to return the Dagger to Prime Paddlesports it was night. I dropped Don at his car and we bid our farewells. The trip was over. I drove home quietly with my arm out the window, soaking up the last tactile feeling of my adventure with the hairs on my arm. I noticed I was driving the speed limit. My normal 10 mph over habit had given way to a more relaxed approach. I’d been traveling 1 to 4 mph for the past 3 days, and now 45 mph on Albany Post Rd. was plenty fast for me.
I’d learned an important lesson about myself this week. I consistently over-estimate my self and my abilities. Not necessarily a bad thing. It’s gotten me into a good photography career and propelled me into places that, given accurate self-appraisal, I might not have dared to venture. Ignorance and enthusiasm have their place. But on the river, in a very small boat, you need to be careful.
I pulled up in front of our house at 10 pm. I’d told my wife I’d be back some time in the afternoon. As I unloaded the car, my thoughts went to the next big paddle. Next time I wanted to do it solo. I figured I’d give myself 5 days and paddle all the way down to Dobbs Ferry. Or at least Cold Spring. Maybe this fall when the leaves change. That would be cool.