By WILLIAM SHANNON
Part of my incidental routine for outdoor adventure is to be lackadaisical in the planning stage, which often makes for some aggravation during the trip, but makes for a better story to tell when the trip is over.
This past week, my brother and I escaped our normal lives long enough to paddle on the Hudson River from the mouth of the Roeliff Jansen Kill—which is the boundary line between the towns of Livingston and Germantown—south for about ten miles to Tivoli Bays.
Coming out of the Roeliff Jansen, we paddled our kayaks straight out toward the channel. The tide was low. It was also incoming, and would be for the entirety of our trip.
Along the shore of North Germantown, a large rig on the railroad was hammer-drilling either spikes or holes for spikes into newly laid replacement ties. The sound was immense and coasted along the water.
Also in North Germantown, we watched an osprey descend to the surface of the water with its talons outstretched.
It came up with its talons empty. But, before it was clear that the osprey had missed the fish, a bald eagle swooped in and tussled with the osprey as they flew off, careening across the river.
Approaching Germantown’s Anchorage boat launch, we paddled past a small houseboat moored off shore. We began to cross the river to see the Lehigh Cement Plant at a closer vantage point.
When we were about a third of the way across the river, a bald eagle—possibly the same one we’d seen a little earlier—outstretched its talons and dropped overhead toward my brother, before turning sharply to the left and piercing a fish from just below the water’s surface.
The scene at the surface took place about twenty to thirty feet away from us, which is by far the closest I’ve been to a bald eagle preying on a fish in the Hudson.
The middle of the Hudson River is where conditions can intensify on a dime.
That’s what happened as we crossed. Due north winds braced the incoming tide and the resulting swells and whitecaps ensured that we both got fairly soaked with spray.
We made it into Inbocht Bay and began observing from the water the northern stretch of Lehigh’s plant, the part of the complex that’s been abandoned. We beached on a gravely shore to break and stretch.
My brother, who’s quite a bit larger than me in stature, decided against squeezing through the brush to get a better look at a few of the abandoned buildings. But I couldn’t resist.
When I broke through a thick patch of brush, I saw five free-standing cement pillars, all around twenty-five feet in height and spaced evenly amid high grass and bushes.
I followed the clearing and went through a bit more brush to get underneath a massive pavilion that was mostly empty, with sporadic holes in the roof. Faded aluminum cans of Coors and “Bud Dry,” riddled from long-ago target practice, littered the cement floor.
Two wood boards rested on four short cuts of a tree. The two benches faced each other and between them was a small firepit. I peered into a building attached to the pavilion. The building was filled from floor to ceiling with old wood bins and smelled of rot.
If the hills around Lehigh ever run out of gravel, or if the plant ever decides—for whatever other reason—to shut down, much of this northern stretch of already abandoned buildings could be repurposed into something really cool.
We were back on the water paddling near shore, along the woods that comprise much of Lehigh’s property. The current was still rough, with winds blowing north and northwest, but we stuck near the western shore to get a good glimpse of Lehigh’s loading dock. Here, right near the river, workers in dump trucks at regular intervals unload tons of gravel. The gravel is eventually loaded onto barges, along with finer and crushed gravel, and distributed for construction projects throughout the northeast and beyond.
Where the shipping channel narrows and passes very close to the western shore, my brother and I decided to re-cross, toward the terminus of Germantown’s lower Main Street and the old brick book depository that is recognizable from afar on the river.
Toward the eastern shore, we encountered the obstacle that my brother has termed the Great Wall of Germantown. It’s a massive bed of water chestnuts that has been growing in size rapidly in recent years. It starts maybe a quarter-mile north of lower Main Street and stretches south for at least a mile-and-a-half, past the Cheviot boat launch at Germantown’s southern end. And it is hundreds of feet in width for most of that way.
With the current still a tangle of north-pushing winds, tides and occasional whitecaps, we decided to go through the Great Wall of Germantown to get to the open strip of water on the shore-side of the chestnuts, which was mostly insulated from the current.
Within the first thirty seconds of inching through the thick, spongy, beetle-infested invasive species, I think we both regretted our tactic.
Let’s take the briefest of half-minutes to explore how and why these cursable water chestnuts have gotten such a stranglehold on bodies of water in this area.
The black-thorned water chestnuts that you most commonly notice at the river’s high-tide and storm swell levels are the end products of the plant, which blooms with surface leaves in the water starting in early-to-mid summer each year. The plant, native to Asia and parts of Europe, was, according to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, “introduced to North America in the late 19th century by a well-meaning botanist who thought the plant was beautiful and useful as potential wildlife food. The chestnut quickly escaped the lakes where it was introduced, becoming a nuisance in the Hudson in the 1950s. It prefers slow-moving water up to five meters deep, and once established it forms dense, impenetrable stands of roots that even a kayak can’t get through.”
But get through we did—and with renewed hatred for water chestnuts. The fact that each plant produces twelve seeds annually, which are able to fester in the muck for twelve-to-twenty years while remaining viable, means the Great Wall of Germantown will become only more impenetrable in the years to come.
Back in the clear, we paddled past Cheviot and past the “wood estates” of Clermont: Northwood, Midwood and Southwood. And then past the rolling hills and the prominent mansion at Clermont State Historic Site.
We went past the railroad crossing at the bottom of Broadway, Tivoli’s main street, and past the concrete, squared protrusion, which claimed the lives of three of four Kingston-area teenagers in a boating accident a few years back. The concrete piling is twenty feet or so out into the water and a wooden cross, a bench and other memorial items have once again been placed along shore there.
Fighting the current for the fifth hour or so, we discussed how we might angrily review the Hudson River on Yelp, the crowd-sourced review site. (“We were made to feel like descendants of Livingston sharecroppers—which, ah, we probably are.”)
Past Magdalen Island, the rounded former hotbed of Native American activity, we went through the northern train trestle and into Tivoli Bays. The moon was still pulling water out of the bay and through the trestles. We eased through the serene wetland, toward the bay’s small floating dock, our terminus for the day.