By WILLIAM SHANNON
Beacon, New York.
Heavy gusts of wind pushed the water north and waves crashed up onto the beach of Denning’s Point.
We had made camp on the point the night before, to ensure an early start for our trip of about fifty miles.
Getting into our kayaks and pushing ourselves past the breaking point of the waves was a challenge for me and my friend, Jen, as we embarked on a cold morning last week.
The sun pushed above the eastern hills and, in the midst of Fishkill Creek Bay, we battled the swells that gurgled water at their tops as they shifted us around.
Not the most gentle of starts.
We approached Bannerman’s Castle on Pollepel Island, deciding against docking due to the choppy waters.
Francis Bannerman built this castle in 1901 to store surplus ammunitions from the short-lived Spanish-American War a few years earlier.
The giant structure, which is visible from the eastern shore—a highlight for any Hudson-line rail passengers with river-facing window seats—reads “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal.”
An explosion of 200 tons of gunpowder and shells damaged a portion of the castle in 1920. And between a fire in the ’60s and a partial collapse in late 2009, the castle is now a stabilized ruin, open for occasional tours through the Bannerman Castle Trust.
A couple hours into the morning, the winds died down substantially.
We passed the large monument that highlights the Catskill Aqueduct, which carries water from the reservoirs of the Catskills, underneath the Hudson south of Newburgh, down to Yonkers, where it meets a system that carries it the rest of the way south to provide drinking water for New York City residents.
On our right was Storm King Mountain, often called the birthplace of American environmentalism. Here, in 1962, the group Scenic Hudson formed to fight a proposal to build a large-scale pump-hydroelectric plant. The plan called for levelling off the top of the mountain and stretching transmission lines across the river.
The courts, setting a basis for modern environmental law, ruled in favor of Scenic Hudson.
The mountain is also the northern welcoming point to the Hudson Highlands, one of the Hudson River’s most beautiful stretches.
The Hudson Highlands are one of the few regions of New York State where lizards and cacti appear naturally.
The river is narrow in this section and there’s very little development in eyesight. Many of the trees were showing their fall colors as we paddled through.
We approached the Military Academy at West Point around Noon and broke for lunch on Constitution Island.
I remembered the time when, as a nineteen-year-old, I was on the water paddling well past dark on my first and most-barely-thought-out trip down the Hudson.
Unknowing and desperate for a camping spot at the time, I climbed up the hill in the dark woods of the famous complex’s northern end.
As I broke into a clearing at the top of a hill, an alarm was blaring and a cadet in a guard car was soon questioning me and informing me that I had stumbled into West Point, where camping is not allowed.
We were soon back on the water, moving past the massive buildings of West Point.
Somewhere in the woods south of the campus, when it was an American fort in 1780, a courier was captured and an important message intercepted.
The courier had been sent by Benedict Arnold—then the patriot commander of West Point—with plans detailing all the intricacies of the fort, to be given to the British. That’s when Arnold was revealed to be a traitor—though he was able to flee to British-controlled Manhattan and lived out his days in comfort with the British.
On the water, we soon coursed underneath the Bear Mountain Bridge, which carries the Appalachian Trail in addition to a roadway.
Jen introduced me to a hidden gem in this stretch on the western side of the river. Just through a train trestle, a large waterfall cascades down a series of rocks and meets its basin just barely inland of the trestle.
At the big turn in the river near Peekskill, we hugged the western shore, both to cut the corner and to steer clear of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which sections off a large swath of the river along its shore.
Almost past the power plant, where the river starts to open up gradually with a series of bays, I made the call that we ought to cross over.
So often, the moment you decide to cross the Hudson is when all hell gets set to break loose.
Less than a third of the way into our crossing, heavy gales of wind picked up, shifting direction a few times.
Cross waves and large swells and whitecaps resulted.
The conventional thought is that, when you’re in such a small vessel as a kayak, you should cross the Hudson River at a 90-degree angle to get through the danger-zone quickly as possible.
But, when white-capped waves join the mix—which you don’t want to parallel—a straight path across the river becomes damn near impossible.
Waves crashed on the fronts and backs of our boats.
Jen managed to jet ahead toward the eastern shore.
From the west, a dark wall of heavy rain glided toward us.
I put my paddle at rest and grabbed for my green poncho.
Just as I got my hands on it, heavy rain poured down.
I put the poncho on, keeping half an eye out for rogue waves in the hectic waters.
I slid the poncho hood over my head in the heavy rain.
The wind whipped it right back down twice.
Fortunately, for it being October, the rain was warm.
The crossing took much longer than I expected. But, finally, we were back to the relatively calm waters near the eastern shore.
The rain settled into an on-again off-again gentle mist.
Within a half-hour, the wind died down completely.
We continued to hug the eastern shore each time it opened up into another bay.
More than ten hours into paddling, we could see Croton Point, the day’s destination.
We were in Haverstraw Bay, the widest part of the Hudson River. At three miles wide, it’s roughly three times the width of the Hudson in my home area.
Due to its width, Haverstraw Bay can be treacherous when the wind is bad.
But, we were given the gift of a golden sunset over a gentle bay, as we finished the last mile or so of the day.
We set up camp as it got dark and ate a dinner of Cajun shrimp and cheesy grits.
I hung the damp sweatshirt and long-johns that I’d worn in the morning out to dry on a stubbed branch of a tree.
I walked to the swimming beach at Croton Point, where there’s a Gatorade vending machine.
When I got to the dark machine, I plugged it in to the adjacent building.
The year’s over. October kayakers are not to be catered to.
Unlike the previous night, we set up tents to shelter from the wind and the forecasted rain.
On my crank radio, we listened to the beginning ceremonies of game one of the Mets playoff series against the Dodgers.
As I faded into sleep, the air was still relatively warm.
Sometime during the night, I woke up, the wind whipping outside and warmth unattainable.
I got out of my tent and felt for the sweatshirt, flailing in the wind and now dry as a bone. I put it on over my other sweatshirt and put my long-johns on over my other long-johns.
I put on my thick socks, my winter hat and pulled both sweatshirt hoods over top of my head.
I soon achieved a decent sleep.
In the morning, after exploring Croton Point and packing up, we set out on the water.
Rounding the point, we could see the Tappan Zee Bridge and its partially constructed replacement.
We passed by the concrete walls, the seas of razor-wire and the guard towers perched by the water along Sing Sing Prison in Ossining.
We broke for lunch and explored the Tarrytown Lighthouse.
We approached the Tappan Zee and the massive, under-construction pylons just north of the existing bridge.
A Coast Guard boat zoomed between and along the old and new spans.
The new bridge is scheduled to open in 2017 after receiving fast-tracking from the federal government.
Passing underneath the current Tappan Zee, we noticed the patched-over cracks in a couple of the pillars supporting the bridge. On a tight budget, the bridge was designed for a fifty-year lifespan and opened to traffic sixty years ago this December.
Through the Tappan Zee, the New York City and New Jersey skyline take up the bulk of the view when you look downriver.
For the final hours of this stretch, you get to ruminate the fact that, just beyond that hazy outline—of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Freedom Tower—the Hudson River meets the sea.
We passed the Westchester County river towns of Irvington, Ardsley-on Hudson, Dobbs Ferry and Hastings-on-Hudson.
A sweeping ebb tide carried us downriver at a quick clip.
To our right were the Palisade Cliffs, the reddish-brown stands of ancient rock, which are always humbling to be in the midst of.
Before terribly long, we were along the city of Yonkers.
Near one of the industrial loading docks in Yonkers, we slowed to watch as a crane worker repeatedly sank a large metal bucket into the water to dredge the bottom along the dock. He dumped the mud on a nearby platform.
We passed along the shore of the Bronx. We could see the George Washington Bridge in the distance, knowing our terminus for this trip was just before the span.
We soon paddled into the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, an extension of the Harlem River.
At Inwood Hill Park, we beached our vessels and set foot on the storied island at the Hudson River’s mouth.
We had kayaked to Manhattan and now awaited my friend Travis. I had dropped my truck off in the city two days prior and he was on his way to retrieve us.
In the meantime, we carried our gear and our boats to the street corner in Inwood. We explored the park a bit and I showed Jen the baseball dugout I spent a night in during a paddling trip rainstorm last year. (Once you’re in New York City, camping feels more like being homeless.)
We chained and strapped and bungeed our vessels onto my pickup and celebrated the end of our journey at the Bohemian Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens, where we eventually parted with Travis.
Soon, my pickup, puttering north on the Taconic State Parkway, took us through the dark turns and past the pressing stone walls of Putnam County.
We marveled at how quick we were driving the length of what it just took us one, and two days to paddle.
I congratulated my rusted pickup on reaching her 164-thousandth mile.
The over-loaded little truck, exhaust purring with two sea kayaks on its back, admirably broke the 50-mile-an-hour mark here and there as we continued north in the chilly night.