By WILLIAM SHANNON
Each year I try to challenge myself to an immersive Hudson River adventure. Last year I spent five days paddling from Troy to Manhattan, circling Manhattan on the sixth day and paddling north to Westchester County on day seven.
This year my trip was much more abbreviated, spending one very full day kayaking from Tivoli to Denning’s Point in Beacon—an expedition of more than forty miles.
The purpose is always a little hard to define and I end up spending about 10 percent of the time on the water trying to figure out why I seek out these trips.
I started from Tivoli, packing lightly for one night of camping. As I loaded the kayak, a woman and her son inquired where I was going. There always seems to be a person or two at the starting point of these journeys and I always enjoy humbly boasting of the length of the trip—even this shortened one.
I was in the water at about 9 a.m., just a little before full high tide. I would then paddle on a long ebb tide that lasted well into the afternoon.
I eased past the trestled mouths of Tivoli Bays, past Magdalen Island and Cruger Island. Slowly, I went toward the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge.
Long stretches of solo paddling always take on a sort of walkabout quality for me. I think of the things that have happened since my last long paddle, negotiate my future goals and try to better understand myself. So much of these trips are made up of paddling—just paddling, mile after mile, hour after hour.
By the time I got under the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, my thermos of coffee was empty and I started into my gallon of water.
As I paddled along shore in southern Hyde Park I saw, washed up on shore, the corpse of an Atlantic Sturgeon. I beached my vessel on the rocks to get a closer look.
Sturgeon are one of the mythic-seeming beasts of the Hudson—and getting a close look at one was very exciting. Atlantic Sturgeon are said to sometimes leap out of the water for mysterious reasons and I retain a small hope that I’ll witness a Sturgeon leap one of these trips.
Myriad flies hovered about the dead Sturgeon. Its skin was mostly eaten away—quite recently it seemed. Its skeleton showed its full body, with the rows of bony plates extending along its back intact. The bony plates, or scutes, give the fish its pre-historic look.
I paced it out as being between four and five feet in length, which would suggest it was fewer than six years old, never reaching spawning age. Fully-grown Atlantic Sturgeon are typically between six and eight feet in length and generally spawn between the ages of 11 and 21.
I paddled on, and it was after 4 p.m. when I coursed under the Walkway over the Hudson bridge and the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie. With the sun sinking in the sky, I started questioning how far past dark I would be paddling to get to Denning’s Point.
The Newburgh-Beacon Bridge is one of those spans that is visible from an aggravating distance away. At first it becomes a goal and a useful motivator. But, two hours of paddling later, when the bridge is still fairly far in the distance, the bridge becomes an object worth cursing at—a thing that will never be reached.
It became full dark before I got there.
Utter exhaustion started to take over and mixed with pain from bad poison ivy between the fingers of one of my hands. Extreme soreness in my shoulders and arms hit at this time, too, and I longed for the time when I was able to go for days of paddling without experiencing any real soreness.
A waxing gibbous moon, about two-thirds full, helped illuminate the remainder of the journey.
A fireworks display unfolded to the north, at my back. It was far enough away that I could only hear the booms, but I turned to break for the finale, watching the bottoms of distant clouds light up.
Minutes after that show’s conclusion, another fireworks display started, this time in Beacon right to my east as I paddled. For this show, I could see the tops of the fireworks. That helped salvage enough morale to keep me going to Denning’s Point.
I finally paddled under the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, going against a challenging flood tide.
Approaching Denning’s Point, two miles or so south of the city of Beacon, I ran into a growing problem in the Hudson River—sprawling beds of water chestnuts, an invasive species. I had to paddle hard to get through a few hundred feet of the surface vegetation of the plant. Once close to shore, I took advantage of a shallow channel, five feet or so in width, between shore and the plants. Denning’s Point, a mostly undeveloped 64-acre tract of land on the river side of the train tracks has a storied history. There was a major Native American presence dating back more than 6,000 years. There was also once a home there rented by Alexander Hamilton in the 1780s. And there was also a highly productive brickworks that operated there from 1881 to 1939. Now, a small building that houses the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries is near the road entrance to Denning’s Point.
Coursing along the point’s wending coast line at dark can be eerie. It was right along here during my first Troy to New York City trip five years ago that I heard something that I hesitate to tell people about, due to how far-fetched it can seem.
I’d been unfamiliar with Denning’s Point during that trip and was close to shore to look for any feasible camping spot when I paddled right into the scene of a killing. It was pitch dark and, twenty feet or so from where I paddled, a goose was attacked by a grunting, snorting animal. The goose screeched for about five seconds before silence and I heard the animal retreat onto land with its prey. The only explanation I’ve ever been able to figure is that it was a feral pig that hunted the goose and that my paddling prompted a need for quick action on its part, or else I might have spooked away its prey. I slept with my knife next to me that night.
On this trip, I was forced by the water chestnut bed to paddle right along that spot. Sometimes downed trees along shore made it necessary to go back into the water chestnuts. In the vegetation, my paddle spooked a fish and two frogs. Along shore, I scared away a large bat from a low-hanging limb and I went through about three spider webs, brushing off one spider stowaway that climbed up my neck.
Once I got to the little campsite at the southernmost tip of Denning’s Point, I dragged my kayak up to my sleeping spot. It was 11:30 p.m.
I laid out my sleeping bag and unloaded my little propane one-burner camping stove and heated water to cook an instant Thai noodle bowl for dinner. But my exhaustion was so great from 14 and a half hours of continuous paddling that I dumped out the noodle bowl after a few bites and collapsed onto my sleeping bag.
With rain in the forecast for Saturday, pain from sunburns and poison ivy and the exhaustion I was feeling, I scrapped my plan to paddle another 25 miles to Croton the next day.
Instead, the next groggy morning, I boiled water for a cup of instant coffee, listened to news reports on my little crank radio and gazed out across the Fishkill Creek Bay, toward Bannerman’s Castle a half-mile downriver in the gentle rain. The castle is one of the best sights to see on the Hudson River. It was also the general location of the alleged murder-by-kayak that occurred earlier this year.
Fortunately, my friend Adam happened to be working a construction job in Beacon that day and was able to give me and my vessel a lift north. I spent the day exploring Denning’s Point and the city of Beacon. Denning’s Point has miles of trails, and some ruins and old standing buildings from the brickworks. At a couple points, you can see crumbled bricks put down to build up muddy parts of the trail. The bricks contained all or part of the works’ brand “DPBW,” for Denning’s Point Brick Works.
Late in the day, to move my kayak closer to a loading spot, I paddled around to the inside of Denning’s Point, through another water chestnut bed and through thick mud. At low tide, the mud was bad enough that when I tried to walk the kayak, I sank knee-deep. So, I got up on my knees in the boat and used the paddle to force through the soupy mud, finally arriving at the pullout maybe a half-hour later. Such things are character-building. That’s what I tell myself.
Trips like these always become more fun in retrospect. As I re-enter normal life, there’s always a slightly altered frame of mind going forward. Running water and mosquito-free sleeping become things of beauty. And I think of the next trip with excitement.