Epic voyage tests paddler’s mettle
By Michael Brace
Why would you want to paddle the entire length of the Hudson River? Many people asked that question as I prepared for my solo canoe trip down that great river from its highest source at Lake Tear of the Clouds, on the southwestern flank of Mount Marcy, to its terminus at the tip of Manhattan, 315 miles away.
Foremost, I felt an intangible force leading me on, a mystique about the ancient river that held me in thrall. Perhaps the British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton described it best when he referred to “the lure of little voices.”
It started simply enough. Several years ago, my wife, Aimee, and I were hiking in the High Peaks on a fine autumn weekend, and I took a photograph of her on the footbridge that crosses the Henderson Lake outlet, where the Hudson begins. It fascinated me that the mountain water tumbling beneath her feet would, in time, reach the ocean near a bustling Battery Park. At that moment I started to imagine the adventure that would take me from the Adirondacks to the sea.
And so it was that on Aug. 3, 2003, I found myself hiking into the High Peaks beneath the hull of a 10-foot Hornbeck canoe. I christened my vessel Little J in honor of my daughter, Julia. This name also harkened back to J.H. Rushton’s Wee Lassie, a lightweight canoe built in the late 1800s that inspired the design of my 17-pound craft.
The spectacle of a hiker climbing a mountain with a canoe fastened to his backpack provided great entertainment for those I met along the way. As I picked my way among the boulders on the trail toward Mount Marcy, a hiker asked where I was headed. I explained my intention to paddle the entire Hudson River, starting at Lake Tear. His eyes lit up, and he exclaimed, “What a splendid adventure!” He followed this with applause, a standing ovation that echoed through the surrounding forest and lifted my spirits. Soon after, another gentleman on the trail stepped aside to let me pass, declaring, “I must yield to a hiker carrying a canoe.” My first fans—and I had yet to paddle a stroke!
Cresting a rise, I finally saw the “shelf of land where there was a little lake,” as Theodore Roosevelt once described Lake Tear of the Clouds.
Under overcast skies I put my canoe into the dark waters of that same little lake, its surface only slightly ruffled by a soft breeze. So began my journey in the shadow of Marcy, the highest mountain in the state. A few brisk paddle strokes powered my vessel across Lake Tear. I thought to myself, “What have I begun?” I knew that over the next 315 miles I would have to contend with many hurdles and obstacles. My immediate concerns revolved around the rapids, waterfalls and the formidable Hudson Gorge—and those were all in just the first 30 miles. Beyond the whitewater lurked the dams, locks, shipping traffic and private yachts. I also would have to contend with the ever-present current and the tides. I was humbled yet exhilarated.
After my symbolic paddle-wetting on Lake Tear I carried Little J back down the mountain about 10 miles, following Feldspar Brook, the Opalescent River and Calamity Brook, all tributaries of the Hudson. I first put the canoe into the Hudson proper at Tahawus, a half-mile south of the Henderson Lake outlet where the river—here no more than a brook, really—carves a narrow course through boreal forests. Soon after I was drifting past piles of tailings along the stretch known as Lake Sanford, once the site of an iron mine owned by NL Industries. Leaving the Age of Industry behind, the river morphed into a lily-decorated marsh that emptied into a woodland channel.
I was thrilled to be on the water, but my euphoria was to be short-lived. An Adirondack guide had warned me that the river just below Tahawus, which contains class 5 rapids in spring, would be so low as to be unnavigable in August, and sure enough, I spent the better part of the afternoon lining and carrying my canoe through the boulder-choked waters.
Two days later, I experienced the other extreme, plunging through the wild rapids of the Hudson Gorge. At one point, after dumping me and my belongings, the frothing river pinned Little J broadside to a rock. As I stood up to my thighs in the thunderous whitewater, gripping onto the canoe, I watched in horror as the little craft began to fold just fore of the midsection. I pushed until the hull began to scrape along the rock, and suddenly the canoe popped up like a cork away from the rock. I shoved the hull into the current, with me in tow struggling to hold onto the stern line. Fortunately we soon entered a calm pool where I recollected my belongings and my stomach. Both captain and ship were no worse for wear save for a few scrapes.
The rapids continued for the next 30 miles, leaving little time to enjoy the scenery. It was something like driving in rush-hour traffic: Do not take your eyes off the road and be prepared to stop or swerve on short notice. The whitewater and the tension abated past the Glen, downriver from North Creek. I relaxed and admired the tall pines and mountain peaks as I cruised southward. Henry Hudson never got this far north on the river that bears his name, but the scenery reminded me of his description of it in 1609 as the “Great River of the Mountains.”
I spent my last night inside the Blue Line on an island upriver from the village of Lake Luzerne. It’s a lazy stretch of the Hudson with few visible signs of civilization. The next day I passed the village, and the Hudson joined forces with the Sacandaga. In the days ahead, I would pass Glens Falls, Troy, Albany, Kingston, Poughkeepsie … and on to Manhattan. The whole trip took two weeks. I often camped at vacant islands or deserted shorelines inhabited only by swarms of mosquitoes. I spent two nights in luxury, one in a hotel near Fort Edward and the other at a friend’s home near Albany. My final night was spent in the berth of a powerboat moored in a New Jersey yacht club. Its gracious owner, an old sea wolf, helped me out of my urban camping predicament.
I had dreamed of a big adventure, and the mighty Hudson did not let me down. The voyage taught me that my mental state was more important than my physical prowess. I was young and fit, ready for the tough carries and long days of paddling, but I had not been fully prepared for the fear and loneliness that can accompany the long-distance paddler. There was nobody to whom I could turn to help drag my soggy hide from a dangerous rapid. Each morning, I focused on my final goal to muster the will to crawl from my tent and press on.
Of course, I was wearied, but within three days of reaching Battery, I started thinking about my next canoe trip in the Adirondacks. At first, I thought I should spend some leisurely days meandering through the St. Regis Canoe Area. But then the shriek of adventure called. I’m thinking I might want to carry Little J to the remote headwaters of the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie or voyage across the Adirondack Park from Blue Line to Blue Line. Perhaps those “little voices” can never be silenced.