by Susan Fox Rogers
When I moved to the Hudson Valley from the desert southwest, where I had made my home for five years, I knew I would miss those wide western skies—a cliché, I know, but a good one—under which I could hike for hours and not see another person. It turns out I need a lot of space to move, to think; ideas come to me while I am in motion, like Thoreau on his strolls through the New England woods.
Lucky for me, someone dropped me into the Hudson River in a kayak and there I found the freedom and space I needed. On the river I could do what I wanted: paddle at dawn or in the dark, from one side to the other, or under the railroad tracks and into secret bays. In a small boat, a river is a near lawless world.
I had spent a lifetime outdoors, rock climbing and back country skiing but there were no boats in my past. So as I explored north and south, I had no idea what I was doing. That is, I didn’t know how to properly hold a paddle, but I also did not know that the Hudson was an estuary the length of 154 miles from Manhattan to Troy. I had to learn the complex movement of currents and tides.
I immediately saw the advantage of my perspective. There are many things you can see only from a boat on the river: graceful mansions, great graffiti, rogue encampments on islands, and spectacular sunsets. I felt like an explorer in uncharted lands.
I decided I would write from the water’s level about my kayak excursions, detailing what I saw and learned. There are the graceful bald eagles that soared over me while I poked into bays and tributaries, and the bricks that scraped my boat as I beached to explore an abandoned brick factory. I fell in love with the monstrous snapping turtle, a stoic, stubborn creature. But it wasn’t just the natural world that intrigued me. There was the industry present: shipping and the last of the cement trade. And, remains of industry past: the brick and ice houses that invited me to explore. I covered the river from Schodack Island just south of Albany to Manhattan. Twice I paddled around the city; those were exhausting, exhilarating days.
Though these adventures into new waters were cheerfully adrenalin producing, most of the time I slipped my kayak into the waters off of Tivoli, the little village where I make my home, for quiet, meditative paddles.
Tivoli is a ragged place to launch a boat, but nearby are the treasures of the wide cattail choked North Tivoli Bay, and north is the mansion Rose Hill, where for a time Dorothy Day housed one of her Catholic Worker homes. I got to know this stretch of the river so well—the snags and eddies, the places where I was sure to see an eagle—that I started to call it mine: My Reach.
We all want a place to call our own, but for me, as I wrote my book, I needed that sense more than ever. First my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died, and as I started to right myself in the world, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. My parents were generous, smart and wonderful people and my sense of loss was overwhelming. I continued to paddle, but my vision became framed by grief. I turned to the river for solace; the river was steady, offering up its watery belly as a place to mourn.
For most of the time I was alone on the river, but sometimes I would find a companion to venture out with me. On one day, I headed south out of Norrie Point with the plan that my friend John Cronin would pick me up in his motorboat and bring me back to the dock and my car. John is a Hudson River legend, the original Riverkeeper with thirty-five years of work and dramatic stories about the Hudson. Three hours into my paddle I saw his boat on the horizon. What I had seen in those three hours left me dizzy. First, was a sturgeon, a fish six feet long, lolling in a net, captured by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Sturgeons are fish of the deep, a legend from the past, a fish without bones but rather armor against the world. Touching a sturgeon felt smooth, like leather. Slick, like time. Solid, like love and death. As I moved on from the sturgeon, I was thinking in particular about my mother’s death on that hot August day. And, as if death were following me on the river, I saw a body on shore, bloated and still. The sheriff patrol boat had just arrived and was drifting in the current, while two officers stood on shore.
As John hauled me into his boat he said, “in my years I’ve seen two bodies on the river.” So casual, like he was talking about the weather or about the boys he had seen, heading to New York City on a raft with no water and lots of hope. I wanted to write my book without ever saying I love the Hudson River—it’s a cliché, after all–but it’s hard not to love a river that offers up eagles and sturgeon, bricks and death and hope.
All photographs courtesy of the author.
About the Author:
Susan Fox Rogers is a writer, teacher, editor, rock climber and kayaker who writes about the natural world and adventures in the outdoors. She is the author of My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir.