Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Own Personal Private Great Hudson River Paddle - Part 1: Pipe Dream to Reality!

7 days. 160 miles. Waterford, NY, to Red Hook, Brooklyn. Just me, my trusty Romany, and what felt like about a hundred pounds of camping gear!

I don't even remember when exactly I got the idea in my head that I wanted to do this, but it's been a pipe dream of mine for ages.

It may have been the Great Hudson River Paddle, a group paddle down the Hudson to celebrate the Hudson River Watertrail. The event was held annually as an end-to-end paddle down the Watertrail from 2000 to 2010. A lot of friends did the Hudson River this way - it was a very civilized way to do it in that there were pre-arranged campsites in towns along the way, vans carried all your gear, food was all taken care of and if anything went wrong, you were in good hands. Massive water gun fights would break out, a strong sense of camaraderie would develop among the group, every town the paddle stopped in would have a big festival with barbecues and music. For a lot of people, this was a really great way to do this.

On the down side, it ended up taking 10 days, which at the time was a lot of vacation for me to take, and although this is going back too far to remember clearly, it may have been at a bad time for me at work. In addition, some friends who were accustomed to more independent paddling would report finding the schedule to be a bit frustrating - the daily segments were a bit on the short side, the pace was very strictly set and held by the guides, and I think there were restrictions on independent paddling in the afternoon after the daily segment was done. It's all good group management and I think I would have accepted it in that spirit, but for some, it did chafe a bit.

I toyed with the idea of joining in a lot, but I never actually did, and then in 2011 the end-to-end paddle event was re-organized into a collection of shorter local day paddles that were blended in with the Hudson Valley Ramble (Hudson Valley residents, check out that link if you're not already familiar with the Ramble - the September event has all sorts of good ways to explore your area).

Still, the stories, both good and bad, that I heard from my friends over the decade that the full paddle was being done certainly provided plenty to think about.

A book that I purchased and read somewhere in the earlier days of the "GHRP" may have actually been another spark for the thought that I wanted to do it on my own -- although in a sort of backwards way! The book is River of Mountains, by Peter Lourie, an adventure writer who became the first person ever to paddle all navigable stretches of the Hudson all the way from its source at Lake Tear of the Clouds all the way down to New York Harbor. I've pulled the book off my bookshelf for a reread - I think I'll enjoy it more now that I've done my own voyage, but my impression from my first read those many years ago was decidedly mixed. The way the book came to be was that the author's wife had just given birth to their first baby; he was trying to be a good husband and stay close to home to help out, but eventually she said something like "Honey, I appreciate what you are trying to do but would you please go have an adventure and get out of my hair for a bit?"

He complied, but he doesn't want to go on one of his usual far-flung expeditions, so he looks around closer to home and settles on what he initially refers to as "this dull, grey-brown, barge-plying slug of a river".

His approaching the river with that attitude really upset me - and although he does come to learn a lot more respect for the river as he plans his expedition, another recurrent irritation I found with the book came with the fact that he ends up doing much of the trip solo - but doesn't seem to like solo paddling at all! His narrative lights up when he finds friendly people for company - when he's on his own, it feels like drudgery.

I LOVE solo paddling - travelling my own speed, covering water at a good steady rate when I want to, stopping to poke into interesting nooks at other times, setting my own timetable and thinking my own thoughts - love it. I had no interest in repeating the first portion of his voyage (portage to Lake Tear of the Clouds, plus some hair-raising whitewater in the Hudson River Gorge) but once he got down to the more controlled parts of the river, I couldn't help putting myself in his river shoes as he paddled and thinking how much I would have reveled in the very moments that he seemed to find the most onerous.

So there was that - and then between then and now, there were a lot of kayak camping trips with friends who are highly experienced campers, most frequently with TQ, who is an Eagle Scout and treats me like a total princess on our Norwalk Islands trips, taking care of everything but my own personal gear, and planning menus featuring things like Chinese red-cooked ribs, or perfectly grilled steaks, or New England clam chowder. The guy does not stint on his efforts when it comes to making roughing it as smooth as possible, when he goes camping he goes in style and he takes good care of anybody who's lucky enough to go with him.

I love it, but I have also developed quite a yen to see how I would do left to my own devices. One childhood phrase of mine that my folks like to repeat was "Do it self!"; I would apparently state that with great determination when someone tried to help me with something that I was learning to do myself (I think the specific story my mom tells involves tying shoelaces). I don't actually say it any more, but I still have that attitude - I'll take help, I'm a good learner, but at a certain point I'm ready to "do it self", and that's where I was with the idea of a multi-day kayak camping trip.

And I did it!

Not that I could have done it nearly as well without the help of a number of people, listed here in fairly random order: my old friends Jack and Pat at the terrific Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club, who gave me tons of information on the best campsites along the way (also thank you to the YPRC in general for sheltering me on my last night on the river when changed management at the Beczak Environmental Center meant that a campsite that had previously been available to through-paddlers suddenly wasn't, a fact I discovered just days prior to launch, yikes);  
"Dennis G. Moonstruck" and the other friendly folks at the Chelsea Yacht Club, who welcomed me, gave me a safe place to leave my boat while I spent one night with a dear old friend in Wappingers Falls, and then saw me off in the morning with yummy breakfast biscuits and candy; Scott Keller at the Hudson River Greenway, who helped me out tremendously with first night camping advice; Bill and Janice at Atlantic Kayak Tours, who were ready to come get me off the river if I'd needed it one day when storms threatened (fortunately the worst of the storms missed where I was and I didn't need to stop); Ralph, Donna, and Susan, who came out to meet me at Norrie Point and got me a delicious dinner and some batteries (a bag of batteries being the one item I'd packed that somehow didn't make it to Waterford - I have no idea where they ended up, probably under a seat in the rental car or something); Randy at New York Kayak, who would've given me a place to leave my boat in the unlikely but technically possible event I'd gotten back a day early; and of course my sweet TQ, who actually really would've liked to do this trip with me except that he can't take time off this time of year, but was still excited for me, augmented my camping supplies with a few key items (waterbags and extra drybags), watched for my texted check-ins like a very worried hawk, took a day off from work to come pick me up when I got home on Sunday and then made me insanely delicious homemade Eggs Benedict with fresh baked English muffin bread and fresh hollandaise and everything for breakfast on Monday morning. That's my guy.

And of course my friend Louise, who quite serendipitously made this longtime pipe dream turn into an actual honest-to-gosh thing by inviting me to come help out as a member of the Kayak Safety Team for the wonderful annual Women Swimmin' fundraising swim for Ithaca's Tompkins County Hospicare. I think without that, I'd still be thinking that a solo Hudson paddle would be a fun thing to do, instead of sitting here starting on my trip reporting!

Louise is an adventurer of a much higher caliber - she's an Antarctic kayak guide, and here she is with a weather report from the Drake Passage



Anonymous said...

as always, lovely to read your stories—looking forward to the pics and perhaps some drawings? I, too, love solo trips, and am inspired and excited to read more. . .

the nina said...

Check out the book "MY Reach". I think I donated it to the club library.

JP said...

Sounds great - good for you for doing it! Very much looking forward to hearing all about it.

Dennis G Moonstruck said...

Love the solo voyage. Most people don't understand.. The quiet solitude, if only for a few hours, watching the clouds drift by only cris crossed by the white jet trails.. Sailing Arround The World, by Joshua Slocum.

Tillerman said...

Good for you. That sound like quite an adventure and I look forward to reading about it.

As as someone who loves to sail on his own, I do understand why you enjoy solo paddling so much.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie - glad YPRC could help. Pat

Anonymous said...

Bonnie - glad YPRC could help blogger in pretty annoying. Pat S

Bursledon Blogger said...

Brilliant and congratulations - looking forward to the next episode max

Pandabonium said...

I've done some adventurous solo flights in alight plane and some solo hiking/camping trips, but I don't think any of them compares to this. (not that I'm comparing). I just really admire your imagination and grit. Awesome.

Anonymous said...

Nice job!!Looking forward to the continuation of the series!

--Johna (who can't figure out how to sign on with my Wordpress account)

bonnie said...

Johna, thanks! Wordpress won't let me comment with Blogger credentials either, I always end up having to use Facebook to comment there - I think it's competing blog platforms trying to make life less comfortable for the other one's users, boo.