Past Fort Ann, NY – June 28, 2013
[Note: You can read the post or hear me read it and see pictures of the Hudson in the video above.]
The Hudson feels like a punch drunk fighter struggling to stand. Fireflies glow in the darkness next to aging power plants and prisons. Trains roll through the night like glowing, rumbling worms across from cliffs rising into the sky. Dead fish and used condoms float under birds migrating north.
Nine-million people flicker through every glimpse of the river. Millions more crowd the past. But the air tastes fresh when the wind blows right.
There’s beauty here. I didn’t see it at first, when I paddled up the river’s mouth in New York Harbor. I only saw the biggest city in the United States crowding the shore, and trash floating in pale-brown water. I watched Styrofoam cups and candy wrappers float by the kayak’s hull. I saw garbage tangled in the roots of trees. The air smelled stale, almost rotten, and I counted the days I would have to spend on the river.
“Just a hundred and fifty miles,” I told myself. “That’s all.”
Then I saw the palisades rising off New Jersey’s shore. The rock walls disappeared into a mist of rain and looked pulled from a postcard. Two days later I snaked through the Hudson highlands at sunset and watched the Appalachian mountains turn into black silhouettes and the water swirl purple and pink in the soft light.
It’s easy to give up on a place. It’s easy to think it’s impossible to fix. It’s easy to turn your back and go somewhere else, somewhere cleaner. Factories, power plants, sewage, storm-water runoff, it gushed into the Hudson for years before anyone fought against it. People tell me you could smell the water from miles away. It almost killed the river, almost, but not quite.
Piece by piece, fight by fight, it’s gotten better because people didn’t give up on it, they saw the beauty there amid the devastation. They fought back to protect the river, their river, our river. And I saw the pieces as I paddled up it. Waterfront parks that bring people close to the river’s edge. Stretches of beautiful mountains and cliffs. Kids fishing off the banks. Flocks of birds overhead. I even saw the dredging cranes and barges hauling out sand laced with pollution.
There’s still a long way to go, a long, long, way. The river’s stumbling and battered, runoff flows every time it rains, nine-million people still live on its banks, but the river’s still standing, still beautiful, still holding itself up on the ropes and beating the knockout count.
And still, like it always has been, worth saving, worth fighting for.
One hundred and fifty miles later, it’s hard to say goodbye. I’m going to miss it.
The Hudson River is one of the most complex rivers in the country. It floods with tide, it has dams and locks, it has nine million people living around it. Fifty years ago, people joked that it was an open sewer. Polluters had essentially stolen the river from the public by using it as their dumping ground.
Riverkeeper’s efforts patrolling the water and taking polluters on in courtrooms has been instrumental in restoring the river. They’ve held polluters accountable and forced them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up the Hudson. They’ve worked to get better laws passed to protect the water and educate people about the Hudson River. Their efforts have inspired other “waterkeepers” on more than 180 waterways across the planet.
When I passed through Ossining, New York, I was lucky enough to meet some of the people working at Riverkeeper. They are an amazing group and I’m glad that I saved some of my budget on the return trip to donate in support their efforts. I urge you to check out their website and learn more about their efforts on the Hudson and how you can help.