Copyright 2004, Christopher Swain. All Rights Reserved.
Underlying the beauty of the spectacle there is meaning and significance. It is the elusiveness of that meaning that haunts us, that sends us again and again into the natural world where the key is hidden.
Lake Tear of the Clouds: highest source of the Hudson River
June 3, 2004. Swim Day (SD) #1. Lake Tear of The Clouds, highest source of the Hudson River. Weather: Cloudy, cool. Water temperature: 54 degrees. Crew: Chris Runyard.
After climbing 4,293 feet up onto the shoulder of Mt. Marcy, I shivered my way into my wetsuit and squished across the bog to the shore of Lake Tear of the Clouds. Melting snow and stunningly cold springs feed this tiny lake--this "summit water."
I swam across the lake to the outlet--a distance of about 300 feet--before I had to start hiking again. Water depth was 1.5-3 feet. I dragged my hips as I swam. I didn't kick at all. Sometimes, instead of stroking, I pulled myself across the mud with my hands. The cold turned my shoulders blue and my hands into thick, numb weights. It took me an hour of walking to warm back up.
As I hiked down beside Feldspar Brook, then the Opalescent River (actually the color of dandelion wine), and finally Calamity Brook, I looked for swimmable water. I saw lots of gorgeous, shallow water studded with slotted falls and boulders instead.
While I marched down the trail through the hail and rain storms, I thought about the two challenges facing us: Getting to the Atlantic, and Making It Count.
All the swim logistics and physical effort are about getting to the Atlantic, but it is the school visits and community events and media coverage and web resources that will make the Hudson River more friends.
And that's what counts.
June 4, 2004. North Creek, NY.
Morning at the school in North Creek, followed by some whitewater rescue training with Moose, of Hudson Whitewater World. Tomorrow we head back upstream and I start stroking as soon as it gets deep enough to swim (just below the Upper Works Trailhead at the foot of Mt. Marcy).
I miss my daughters already!
June 5, 2004. SD #2. Macintyre Furnace to Route 28N Bridge. Hours in the water: 8. Crew: Chris Runyard, Dave Olbert.
How do you swim when theres less than a cubit of depth in the Hudson?
Drag yourself over the mud and weeds with your hands.
Yes, today it really started. Runyard, Dave Olbert (1995 Hudson River Raft Guide of the Year) and I sloshed upstream toward the Upper Works trailhead until the river became a 5 centimeter thick sheet of ruffled glass shot through with rocks. And thus achingly, beautifully unswimmable.
Then I grabbed my $47 Morey Boogie board, flopped down and started dragging myself across the wet gravel toward the Atlantic Ocean. It wasnt pretty, but at least no one could say I skipped a meter of water that might have been swimmable.
Then I searched for a rhythm. I swam the pools, hauled myself across the mud, splashed upright through wetlands. I dove and picked up a Budweiser can, a Meisterbrau can, a Black label can, an Esso oil can, a Firestone tire, a Vermont trailer license plate from 1957, a U.S. Royal tire, and a section of railing from a bridge. By the end of the day we had collected over 150 pounds of trash.
Parts of this section were far from the road. Late in the day, I bumped down a channel fifteen feet wide and as many inches deep, under a canopy of birches and maples that shouldered a heavy load of orange sunlight. Under my goggles, sand dunes, meadows of grass, and fallen branches oozed past, a submarine world that looked like an aerial view of our own. At times, I would forget to breathe until the nervous ache in my chest nudged me out of dreamtime.
Ive never swum a river so shallow, so nutrient-poor, that the bottom is nearly always in sight. It turns out that nothing--short of my three and a half year old daughters glacial blue eyes--can hold my gaze like smooth rocks, and gravel speckled with gold.
The first reality check on the Hudson came within a few miles. Here, within a mile of each other, are two roadbeds that cross the Hudson and effectively dam it. I hadnt ever heard anything about this when I researched the upper Hudson. But within a few miles of the base of Mt. Marcy, the river twice slows, pools up, and cooks in the sun.
I was stunned. The first roadbed has a bit of river pouring over it, and functions much like a low head dam. I climbed up and splashed over it, and the canoeists carried over it as well. But the second road is a wide, fat lane built for the diesel/electric dump trucks that once patrolled this mine under the auspices of the National Lead Company. And this second road is high and dry.
And this second road is, in effect, a dam. Water stops, trash piles up against the upstream side, and four culvert pipes channel the entire (pristine, free-flowing, myth-busting) upper Hudson River underneath the now-unused road. Well, three of the culverts do. The fourth ends in a dry pile of gravel. Good luck to the trout who picks culvert number four.
The upper Hudson here is supposed to be a clean, cold, free-flowing stream. Something is not right here.
What to do? Walk around. Complain. Sure. But I see an opportunity here: lets free-flow this section of the upper Hudson. With a little help from National Lead (now NL Industries, based in Houston, Texas) and the local folk, we could dig those roadbeds out in a few hours. And then wed get back what we thought we had all along: an unobstructed upper Hudson.
Let's turn these warm weedy lakes back into a river.
Ill chat with the town supervisor and the locals in North Creek to see what they recommend. And Ill volunteer to get out there with a shovel when the big day comes.
Here's the upper Hudson River at Upper Works Road. photo: Christopher Swain
The entire upper Hudson River stops here and trickles through these four culverts, courtesy of NL Industries. Photo: Christopher Swain.
But only three culverts come all the way through the roadbed. (I eventually swam through the one on the far left.) photo: Christopher Swain
Culvert number four ends in this gravel pit. Photo: Christopher Swain
(Double click on any of the above three images to enlarge.)
Let us know what the good people at NL have to say! (And if they tell you they are worried about the money, let them know that Christopher Swain will happily raise the money to cover their costs.)
June 6, 2004. SD #3. Route 28N Bridge to Newcomb, NY. Hours in the water: 6. Crew: Chris C-Bomb Runyard, and Dave His Wife Says Hes a Hunk Olbert.
A day of bony rapids and slow, dark, chilly pools. I swam the pools and then scraped and dragged over wrist-deep rapids in a tube. The boogie board doesnt work on these--it just racks up on the first sharp rock (takes about 30 seconds) and ejects the rider onto another sharp rock (takes about half a second). So it was tube or hike around. But even if theres not enough water depth to take a stroke, I still want to be on the river.
I found another cool piece of trash--a fifty pound rusted oval. Our best guess is that its the rusted remnant of a Model A rim.
Tonight will be our final night at the Copperfield Inn in North Creek, a four diamond resort that offered to house us on our way through, thanks to the efforts of Tim Record at the Upper Hudson River Railroad, and the Gore Mountain Chamber of Commerce. Its time to trade in the plush beds for sleeping bags and tents and head into the Hudson River Gorge.
June 7, 2004. SD #4. Newcomb, NY to Indian River Confluence. Hours in the water: 8. Crew: Chris Runyard, Moose and Buzzsaw.
Moose and Buzzsaw are rafting guides from Hudson River Whitewater World. They volunteered to help us through the whitewater of the Gorge. Moose is a big strong guy in his early forties with white patches in his thick red beard. He looks dignified even in a dirty dry suit, but his eyes have the half-mad glint of a guy who paddles his inflatable kayak over waterfalls on his days off. Buzzsaw combines the lean, capable musculature of an Army Ranger, with the earnest gaze of a small-town Reverend.
As I swim, drag, tube, board, walk, and scrape my way down river, Moose, Buzz, and Runyard, who now insists he must be called C-Bomb, bump and grind along nearby in a raft and in a Ducky, an inflatable kayak.
There are some pools where I actually lose sight of the bottom for more than a moment, where I can stretch out my strokes and pull myself across the surface like a wannabe torpedo.
Along the bottom of many pools I see moss-covered logs, cleanly cut at both ends, shaved of branches, and sunk in long lines that trace the direction of the current. These were the logs--especially Hemlock-- that make it down to Glens Falls. One hundred and more years ago, logging activity in the Adirondacks was intense (it still is by some accounts), and every tributary carried thousands of logs to the Hudson when the spring runoff and a coordinated dam release sent them on their way. These logs were cut by paper company employees and floated down toward the Big Boom in Glens Falls where they gathered by the millions waiting to be sorted and milled.
How did they sort out millions of logs? Each company, Finch Pruyne, International Paper, whomever, slugged the end of every log they felled with a special marking hammer. This branded the log with a distinctive pattern, so mill workers and others knew whose logs were whose. (Want an example? Check out the pictures of a log marked by the A.N. Cheney Co. below.)
I dive down and rub away the mossy growth capping the end of a sunken length of hemlock looking for a mark. There is none I can see. Wrong end? Years of scouring? Who knows. Ill keep looking.
An hour before we reach the Indian confluence we pass the Cedar River. I twist my head and stare back up a soft, tight, green valley. The late afternoon light--what is it with Hudson River light?--dapples down through green leaves. Where it hits the water it catches fire and burns white and gold.
Sure, we pull a beer can or a canoe paddle off the bottom now and then, but this stretch of the Hudson doesnt need a cleanup. It needs our protection. It needs to be here when our children and nieces and nephews decide to float down it in thirty, forty, eighty years.
Note A.N. Cheney's marking hammer impressions (They look like "eyes.") Double-click to enlarge.
Close-up of A.N. Cheney Co.'s mark. Double-click to enlarge.
Got a marked Hudson River log you want to identify? Use this handy table. Courtesy: Robert H. Boyle. Double-click to enlarge.
June 8, 2004. SD #5. Indian River To North Creek. Hours in the water: 8. Crew: Moose, Buzz, C-Bomb.
No more wondering about swimming the whitewater of the Hudson--here goes. I pull on my wetsuit, hockey knee pads, soccer shin pads, SCUBA boots, hockey elbow pads, a kayaking helmet, SCUBA gloves, swim cap, googles and fins. I glance sidelong at my cheapo boogie board and think, Ill be lucky to hang onto you for more than one minute. Or youll break in effing half. Then I banish these thoughts. I cant make room for doubt right now; itll just make more space for the fear to expand into.
I know Ill die and I know Ill be fine at once. People have swum all parts of this Gorge by accident. And I have a good relationship with the water. But as Moose describes various hydraulics--mostly holes made by rocks on the river with a re-circulating action behind them--he says things like, I do NOT want you to go NEAR that one. If you DO, youll get surfed for an indeterminate period of time. Sometimes he says get surfed and sometimes he says get Maytag-ed but what Moose is telling me is that its no fun to be spun around and around and around underwater behind a granite boulder in the Hudson River.
You know, Moose says, If it happens to you, if you are getting Maytag-ed, you may pop up now and again, and if you do, grab a breath, because you are going down again. Now if you cant swim out, and you probably wont be able to if you are getting surfed like that, then go the bottom and grab the rocks down there and pull yourself out of it. I have crawled and dragged myself on all fours along the bottom and out of a hydraulic. And thats what youll have to do.
Of course when my moments come, Ive got Moose ahead of me in the inflatable signaling which way to move. When it gets too sporty, he screams, Follow me! through the spray and roar. And I try.
In the Narrows, the first significant rapid, I lose the boogie board. Then, crazy or not, I lunge for it, and, impossibly, recover it. I shove it underneath me and then consider for a moment tossing it away again. I am about to ditch the board and just swim (rafting guides say this is the easiest rapid to swim) when I nearly dislocate both shoulders as the board pile drives down onto a rock and tries to tear free. The point of impact is the most tender area of the male anatomy and if it werent for the board, as I tell someone later, It would have been the worlds cheapest vasectomy.
Mile-Long rapid goes by in a whirl, although I wish for an adrenal exhaustion nap halfway down. On the way out I bash the inside of my right knee on a rock hard enough to shoot a bolt of electric current up into my head. Just missed the knee pad. And then I get body slammed left cheek first onto something else hard and sharp and my butt knots up like its starring in a physiology of spasm demonstration.
In Givneys Rift, the rapid where Moose tells me, You are going to take some hits. There is no clean way to get through this one. I get through the first bit clean, and then somehow get sideways to the current, lifted up and then dropped onto a rock. I land on the outside of my left thigh and I feel the muscle tissue squash into my femur. I hear my self screaming, F--K! as I get washed downstream. I kick my legs and get a shot of pain but I can tell nothings broken. I swim on. For a moment, and there are these surreally long moments in rapids, I have a chance to think, That ones going to leave a mark.
I get through it all and then, as we reach Black Hole a small hydraulic formed by a ledge just above the North River confluence, the guides decide to give me a surfing lesson. Get on your board, they say, And kick up that eddy of green water to the base of the ledge and then kick through that foam until the front of your board gets on the green water sliding down the ledge. Youll have to kick like crazy. They say if I get there, I'll be able to use the re-circulating water to hold me in place as I surf the face of the wave sliding down the ledge. Ill be able to rock side to side and move back and forth along the face just like I was body surfing. It sounds like bull, but I try. I veer out of the green water and get swept backwards, away from the ledge. But a minute later, I go in again and this time, even as I give up, I feel myself breaking through the wave and foam at the base of the ledge. And suddenly, without a kick I am starting to climb the face of the wave. I cant believe it. I rock side to side and slowly I side across the face. I push the nose of the board down and accelerate up the face of the wave until water pours over the front of the board, the nose buries, and I start going down backwards, but with some kicking I save it and get back on the wave. Now I stretch out my arms, press my chest into the board and pretend to fly. I hold it for a moment, two, three, and then my back tires and I change position. I cant get my mind around it. Water is howling past me at double digit speeds but I am riding UP IT. Its the closest Ive come to surfing anything and the memory sticks in my cells. As I write this I already know: Ill be trying this again.
Rapids. Hydraulics. Surf or get surfed. Fly or die. Swim or be swum. In the Gorge, the River reminds us that it is still in charge. Rafting is big business here, six or seven companies run this stretch every weekend. Boats full of Citiots and Tour-ons as cranky locals have been known to call them, pay big bucks for the big hits that the upper Hudson dishes out. Then its back to Manhattan or Brooklyn or Englewood or Westchester to share tales of danger over drinks. Meanwhile in the North Country, nothing is so simple. Raft guides hoping for a career may have to be content with living in a tent (their fees average $45-$85 a day, usually only on weekends). Not all folks remember to tip their guides. And water levels--jacked up by timed releases from the Indian Lake Dam--may cause untimely temperature fluctuations and scouring in the Hudson as they carry rafts down a stream that otherwise might not be able to float them.
As usual, there are no easy answers. It is not clear how to balance so many compelling economic and ecological concerns. We need people to enjoy the river, to use it, to build relationships with it. Too much use, and we could lose the river. Too little and the river is without champions. Its a hard call. For me, the dam release--the Bubble, as the guides call it--was a bonus. It gave me something of a pillow between me and the rocks. But was I contributing to the degradation of the ecosystem? I dont know. Ive got divots and dents and tears in my wetsuit. Markers of the hits I took. Would I take a few more hits for the river? Sure, I guess. How many more? Its hard to say. Again, there are no easy answers.
June 9, 2004. Recovery day. Today as I gimp up stairs, and hobble down the sidewalk, I savor the bruises from the rocks of the gorge. As I warm up, and get my walk back. And I aim thoughts of gratitude toward Moose and Buzzsaw.
So much to do. There is no story unless I tell it. I need to update this site. I need to think about the next set of challenges. I need to see what I can do about getting those roadbeds out of the upper river near the mine. And I need to see my daughters soon. I miss them.
Overheard today: Tim Record of the UHRRR got asked a question: Why are you doing all this (for the swimmers)?
Tim answered, This is the way I am. I like to help people. I was one of the first river runners, you know. Also, weve got a railroad here. We are always doing promotion. That is what we do. We want to help. Its easy.
And we are happy for the help. Thank you, Tim.
And while we are on the subject, let's talk about our fine Field Coordinator, Nicole Bowmer. She never shows up in theses on-the-water credits, but she is a whiz on dry land, setting up school visits, community events, homestays and shuttling for all of us on the team. She is the reason we can make it count so often.
June 10, 2004. SD #6. North Creek to Riparius. Hours in the water: 4. Water temperature: 76 degrees. Miles: 8. Crew: Chris "My Rain Barrel is Full" Runyard.
Last night we were privileged to attend a community roundtable discussion at North Creek depot. Folks from three different generations shared their Hudson River recollections, concerns, and hopes. The documentary crew recorded it all and it was simply moving to see so many folks speak from their hearts about the affection they feel for this waterway. I hope it is the first of many such events as we move down the river. After all, we swim in search of ways to help. And we like nothing better than to carry messages and regards to neighbors downstream. Thank you to the people of North Creek for making room for us in your town and on your river. May your words and examples inspire others throughout the basin.
Today in the water, the average depth was about nine inches. Sometimes there was room to slip a boogie board between my belly and the rocks for a little impact protection, sometimes not.
Flow is low, because there is no more snowmelt on the way. Still, a free-flowing stretch of river is a wet miracle at any level.
We scooped up more trash today: 15 feet of PVC pipe, twisted metal fittings, and a bracket of some sort. Added to the haul of the past few days, it is enough to bring our total over the 200 pound mark.
(Now, I know I've said that there is only so much trash we can pick up, and that the worst pollutants are the ones we can't see, but I have to say, it still feels darn good to pull trash out of this magnificent river.)
Tomorrow kicks off two days back home playing with my daughters. I'll be back in the water on the 13th.
Welcome to the rapids. I'm the one in the blue crash helmet and red life jacket. In the center of the photo is one of the holes Moose wanted me to avoid. Double-click to enlarge.
Close-up: I crash through a hole. photo: Basil Childers. Double-click to enlarge.
6/13/2004 Riparius to The Glen. SD #7. Weather: Mostly sunny. Water temperature: 72. River miles 7. Garbage watch: one 35 pound piece of steel (looks like it fell off the bridge), a Budweiser can. Freestyle strokes: 94 (thats right, 94.) Crew: Chris Runyard.
The water is comically shallow. I drag my guts over rocks, sometimes with the Boogie board protecting my onions, sometimes while draped over a tube. Once in a while I get to swim a pool and tear through it like Mark Spitz on speed.
When Im not bartending, Im fishing, says a local bartender. Within seconds he breaks out an album of fishing photos, and shows us his business card. Hes a fishing guide, it turns out, moonlighting as a bartender. It further unravels that several years ago he got sick of seeing turds and toilet paper floating by as he fished the Schroon River and the Hudson below the Schroon confluence. A little sneak and peek and he discovered that the culprit was the town of Warrensburg. The town piped their raw sewage straight into the Schroon. So bartender-man went to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and spilled the beans. Then he kept a low profile. They ended up having to build a sewage treatment plant. Which is great, but taxes went up, right? So I dont want people to find out it was me, and come burn my house down. But come on. The toilet paper was floating RIGHT BY, you know? They shoulda cleaned it up.
Well, they did clean it up. And this bartender is a hero. Except hes scared people will find out he did the right thing. Which sucks, in my book. How is it that we get scared as soon as doing the right thing costs us money? How can we expect much of ourselves for as long as this is the case? What is a clean river worth, anyway?
Lots of you asked for a picture of all the gear Ive been wearing to keep the rocks from turning my legs into string cheese. So these are for you:
Lower Body Armor for the Rapids. photo: Basil Childers.
Street hockey pads make for slow swimming. photo: Basil Childers.
6/14/2004. South from The Glen to the 418 Bridge. SD #8. Garbage watch: 16 golf balls, 1 twisted length of metal. River miles: 7. Crew: Runyard.
The Hudson, like every river, has its urban myths and its rural myths. And we tripped over another myth today: The river cleans itself. This myth is quite popular on the upper Hudson (as it was on the upper Columbia, too.) Here is the version that one friendly local resident served up for us today: There used to be just a few of us up here, living in our camps, minding our own business. (Rural houses in the North Country are often referred to as camps even if they are large enough to qualify as castles elsewhere). So it didnt use to matter if our sewage went straight in(to the river). The river cleans itself you know, sometimes in as little as twenty feet. The rocks, the water, they help clean it. But now that more and more folks are moving up here...
Okay, okay enough. Stop the madness. Rivers do not clean themselves and everyone knows it. (Fact: one dog pile can render 1000 yards of shoreline unswimmable. Fact: one leaky diaper can close a beach for the afternoon.) So what? So dont dump your sh*t in the water even if you are the only house for 100 miles. Its not about the people moving in. Its about admitting that you are part of the problem. Its about not telling yourself lies.
(In case you think Im all self-righteous, let me remind you, that I am part of the problem. There are solvents in the soaps and skin products that wash down my shower drain, I drive a car that is too big for me, I use a sunscreen while I swim that contains titanium dioxide--the product of some of the very mining operations I hope to reform. Yes, sir. I have a long way to go.)
6/15/2004 From the 418 Bridge to Northern Lake Luzern. SD #9. Weather: Mostly sunny. Water temperature: 72. Crew: Runyard. Miles: 13. Garbage watch: One huge tractor tire (we had to float it with a tube because it was too heavy to lift), the front panels of a clothes dryer, lots of metal chunks and shards, many, many golf balls.
Today we checked out of 1000 Acres, but Jack invited us to stop by--as we swam by--for a BBQ lunch. We did. Fortified with cheeseburgers, I swam a strong, slow, second shift in the afternoon. After a while, I realized that I had swum way past Buttermilk Brook. We ended up on the northern outskirts of the town of Lake Luzern. A big thank you to Jack and the 1000 Acres Dude Ranch staff for a gorgeous riverside stay.
I was so proud of that damn tractor tire I pulled out. The thing must weigh 200+ pounds. Runyard and I together couldnt even lift it off the ground. Added to our existing trash collection, it brings our total close to the 450 lb. mark.
Its gratitude time! Thanks to Patty at Coopers Cave Ale Company for setting us up at the Queensbury hotel and for arranging dinners at the coach house, the 132 Glen Bistro and Applebees. Thank you to Nick Bodkin at the Queensbury for an awesome donated massage. And thank you, Pete Burns, proprietor of Beaver Brook outfitters and third generation river man, for the loan of a canoe.
Thank you to Organic Valley and Patagonia and all our partners for helping us to get off to such a strong start.
And thank you to my lovely, generous wife Heather and my two perfect daughters for supporting me in this work, for loving me anyway, and for showing the world what an unheralded and priceless act of generosity and faith looks like. I miss you and Ill see you in a few days.
6/16/2004. From Northern Lake Luzern to Lake Luzern (just shy of Rockwell Falls). SD #10. River miles 1.5. Garbage watch: 3 aluminum cans, 1 bottle, various small pieces of metal, 3 golf balls. Crew: Runyard.
A short swim day. The bottom stretched out like a wet, yellow mural of desert. Submarine ridges and dunes buckled under the weight of yellow, orange, and green blotches of light.
I wore a summer-weight fullsuit, and it was too hot, no matter how much water I let in.
I stopped just shy of Rockwell Falls.
Rockwell Falls is the narrowest part of the mainstem Hudson River. Only twenty feet wide, the river dives and squeezes through a thin, sharp shelf of rocks and drops perhaps six feet before morph-ing into a nasty hydraulic from which hardly any water appears to escape. (Of course, the falls look different at every water level.) Today I watched it, looking for an opening, contemplating a swim over the falls. What I saw wasnt promising. On impact the water turned to froth and hurled itself back toward the rock shelf as if electrocuted. Foaming cathedrals and flying buttresses appeared and vanished as all that air and water looked for a way out.
Ive heard the Rockwell Falls stories. That the rocks are undercut here at the falls, and that a trip over the falls means a long watery spin cycle underneath the rocks, with no way to the surface, and no company but the ghosts of others who have tried the same trick. Ive heard about the Northern Pike who lurk in the first dark sharp-sided pools, how they are four feet long, and dont like drop-in company. Fish that scare research divers enough that they surface, shrug off their tanks, and walk away from a career.
And Ive talked to a few old-timers who swam up to the falls from below as teenagers looking for a way to cool their own heat, and then felt the siren song of 8,000 cubic feet per second of oxygen-packed water teasing them closer, and closer, and under.
One of them works for the Park and Rec. now, and he tells me, Dont do it. Dont swim over the falls. Every rock down there has somebodys name on it.
6/17/2003. Off Day. Meetings.
Today Ill meet with General Electrics representatives in an effort to learn another piece of the story behind the 197 mile long superfund site that Ill be swimming through very soon. In future journal entries, after the break, Ill share the story of what I learn out there.
After the break: the Swim Team gets the official tour.
A thought before meeting with my neighbors from GE:
It is my sincere belief that if the concerned parties were to meet and discuss their future with an open mind and a sincere desire to find a satisfactory and just solution, a breakthrough could be achieved. We must all exert ourselves to be reasonable and wise, and to meet in a spirit of frankness and understanding.
--His Holiness the Dalai Lama
6/18-6/20/2004. Ah, the scheduled mid-June break. Time to go home, recharge, and reflect on these first 88 miles of the Hudson. Soon enough, Ill be swimming in dirtier water.
May I carry the memory of all these clean, cold, shallow, happy, dangerous, gorgeous, bruising miles with me as I swim on down to the island where I was born.
June 21, 2004. We are back in Glens Falls and ready to get going. (Although the three of us admit to wishing for a longer break.) Pete Burns at Beaver Brook Outfitters has been kind enough to loan us a canoe again.
We hoped to have our donated Zodiac by now, but no dice.
June 22, 2003. Rockwell Falls to Corinth. Swim Day (SD) #11. Weather: Clouds. Rain. Water temperature: 75. Crew: Christofero Runyardio. Director of Dry Land Operations: Nico Bowmer. River Miles: 5. Freestyle strokes: 3642. Miles remaining: 222.
The rain felt refreshing until I started to freeze. Then I was dogged by hot chocolate fantasies, and by guilt about all the times I made fun of French boys who sipped hot chocolate for breakfast. It turns out my francophone brothers hit on the ideal drink for a cold, wet day on the Hudson.
We swam to the boom of the first dam in Corinth and then shot back to Lake Luzern in the car to take a crack at Rockwell Falls. The falls were still an ugly hydraulic, so I hiked around the first drop and then heaved myself into the foam and rode a vee down to just above the bridge. Then I eddied out, climbed up on a rock, planned the rest of my route. Like most dangerous things that turn out okay in the end, it felt anticlimactic. I was ready for trouble but it never came my way. I floated uneventfully down to the Sacadaga confluence, as thick arrows of granite and black-bottom pools slid beneath my goggles.
Later, I fell back on the words of Albert Einstein, Clever people solve problems. Wise people avoid problems. I am not a wise person, but I avoided problems this time. It might have been fun to look clever instead.
Tonight we went to a town meeting in Corinth. Debate raged about whether to build an incinerator and landfill in Corinth (on the old International Paper Company site). The proposed incinerator would be the largest in the United States. It would burn 48 train cars full of New York City trash every day. Feelings ran high: I counted three police cars outside.
During the Q&A, I suggested to the company (proposing to build the incinerator) that they apply the precautionary principle to their decisionmaking process. In other words, not to build an incinerator at all unless there was conclusive proof that no harm would come to local life as a result. One of the bought-and-paid-for compnay scientists tried to say the precautionary principle didnt apply: that the issue was trash, not life.
Now Im no scientist, but the 400 people in that room looked plenty alive to me.
And the trash? That looked like New York Citys problem, not Corinths problem.
We are staying with the Seaburys near the Big Boom (more on the BB in future entries). The Seaburys are river people, and it is a pleasure to be here. We feel lucky.
Some of you have asked what my generous, brilliant, faithful, and patient crew people Nicole Bowmer and Chris Runyard look like. Here they are partying at a local Superfund Site:
Nicole Bowmer & Chris Runyard--The magic behind The Hudson River Swim.
June 23,2004. Corinth to Spier (pronounced spy-er) Falls Dam. SD #12. Weather: Mostly sunny. Water temperature: 75. Crew: Do Run Run Runyard. Designated dry-ver: Nicolette Bowmer. Freestyle strokes: 3021. River Miles: 5. Miles Remaining: 217.
Below the Sacandaga River, we ooze into an altered Hudson River. Pooling up behind dams, the Hudson fattens and slows, like an uncle too fond of pudding. The water still moves--the dams on the mainstem Hudson have no significant storage capacity--but the dams suck some of the river out of the Hudson. It is as if the River has suddenly hit Middle School, hunched her shoulders, and gone into hibernation.
After hauling the support canoe for 7/10 of a mile along a portage trail, we finally put in below the second dam. (There are two dams here in Corinth, perhaps 300 meters apart. Someday, I want to swim between them but I have not yet found access where I wouldnt be trespassing. Ill find some eventually.)
I knocked out a decent swim this afternoon. I drank about 80 ounces of Gatorade and ate nine Newman-Os Organic cookies (Oreos that are supposed to be good for you). Not the best combination, but we lost most of our organic snack collection a few days ago and now are forced to mix and match.
I passed some long pleasant stretches chatting with Runyard as a tailwind(!) buffeted his canoe along.
No big swims yet--we had quite a few 8,000-11,000 stroke days on the Columbia last year--but today, in the last 900 strokes, I thought I might have stumbled onto a pace.
And none too soon: tomorrow, we hope to cross the 100 mile mark.
June 24, 2004. Spier Falls Dam to Sherman Island Dam to Big Boom Road in Queensbury, NY. Swim Day #13. Weather: Sunny, windy. Water temperature: 76. Time in the water: 6 hours. Crew: Chris You Betta Runyard. Russian Space Station liaison: Nicole Bow-meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer. River miles: 7. Remaining: 210. Freestyle strokes: 4460.
As I huddled near the escort canoe, Jet-Skis roared, and gusts of wind folded the blue-brown river into tufts. I heard the roar of traffic on the Route 87 (Northway) Bridge 600 yards away underwater.
As I swam into the former home of the Big Boom, the river was full of domes of rock that looked like burial mounds. The mounds are really piers left over from the days when logging companies sent their logs down river toward Glens Falls on the surge of spring melt water.
The logs ran as far as Queensbury, just upstream of Glens Falls before they hit the Big Boom. Here, they ran into massive rafts of logs and chain anchored by mounds of shale heaped into piers and placed in diagonal lines across the river. Collectively, this Big Boom held the logs in place so they could be sorted.
In the 1800s tens of companies used the river as a highway for the millions of trees they felled in the Adirondacks. After 1924, Finch, Pruyn & Co. was the only mill that still ran their logs down the river. And even Finch Pruyn abandoned the practice in 1950. But 54 years later, I stroke past the remnants of those stone piers.
Log Drivers work the Big Boom on the Hudson in the 1880's. Double-click to enlarge. Courtesy: Glen Falls Historical Association
The Big Boom today. Note the trees growing on the remnants of stone piers. Double-click image to enlarge.
June 25, 2004. Big Boom Road in Queensbury, NY to Feeder (Canal) Dam. Swim Day #14. River Miles: 1. Remaining: 209. Freestyle strokes: 302. Weather: overcast, sprinkles. Water temperature: 75. Time in the water: 30 minutes. Crew: Runyard is face down with muscle aches and chills, but we were lucky enough to convince our host, the charming Jackie Seabury, to paddle along. On the dry side: Nicole What side view mirror? Bowmer.
This afternoon I swam over mossy brown shipwrecks of sunken logs, and over domes of broken shale. More remnants of the Big Boom days.
I never picked up much speed because I was afraid of racking up on something sharp. But there were moments when my strokes were just right, when I felt the snap of cleanly-finished strokes in my triceps and lats, when one stroke sent me gliding for meters and meters.
Heather and Rowan and Celilo are coming to visit tonight. I am excited to see them. I miss them so much. My heart is sad when I am away from them for very long.
June 26, 2004.
Play day with my daughters, Rowan (3 yrs.) and Celilo (11 mos). Rowan says she wants to see the river. Is there a park at the Hudson? she asks. Or is it small like a swimming pool?
More good news. It looks like the Town of Corinth has rescinded its letter of interest in the incinerator that was the subject of the public meeting we attended.
Gee, it looks like those 400 people were alive after all.
Encouragement from the locals, Queensbury, NY.
6/27/2004. Glens Falls Dam to Hudson Falls Dam. Swim Day #15. (Out of order: see 6/28). River miles: 3. Weather: Mostly sunny. Water temperature: 77. Freestyle strokes: 535 (breaststroke). Crew: Ol' Floppy Hat. Who's On Dry Land? Nicolchester Bowmer.
Stand on the Route 9 Bridge in Glens Falls looking downstream and you see a canyon of industry. Paper mills on both banks and a construction site behind you mean there's no place to access the river without trespassing.
(Speaking of trespassing, later in the day we figured out how to swim the 300 meters between the two dams in Corinth.)
No river access: looking downstream from the Route 9 Bridge in Glens Falls. Finch, Pruyn & Co. appears on river left, SCA on river right, and the rock formation that houses Cooper's Cave appears on lower right. (But you'll never get past the fences and No Trespassing signs). photo: Christopher Swain
What's a swimmer to do?
We put in downstream next to the Glens Falls Wastewater Treatment outfall and paddled and dragged the escort canoe upstream to the bridge, much to the amusement of the union workers on cigarette breaks at Finch Pruyn.
We made it to the bridge and I headed off downstream, armed with a tube for the bony rapids ahead. I saw massive boulders perched on the bottom, twelve feet below my fins. Almost immediately I glided over a fat silver pipe hemhorraging brown liquor into the water--SCA's outfall. My nostrils burned. I tasted acid and sulphur. Visibility was cut in half.
Two minutes later, four or five silver pipes rose from the riverbed and dumped their wet, black loads. The plumes fanned out in the current and hid the bottom. I jumped up on the tube, scared of splashing around in all that effluent.
I slid off the tube a little later and still couldn't see much. The water was full of particulates and murk--for the first time on this journey I couldn't see anything coming. I ran into old stone piers, logs, rocks. I just missed pieces of pipe and metal and machinery discarded by the mills in years past.
I finally swam clear of those mills only to pass by the fenced-off debacle of a contaminated Ciba-Geigy site on river left. One local said, "They've got all sorts of lead and metal contaimination in there. They fenced it off ten years ago and no one's been allowed in since." A good thing, perhaps, but no comfort to the swimmer stroking past a contaminated riverbank.
On this stretch, I daresay there are few canoeists. There are perhaps just a few fishermen (and fisherwomen) who have savored the scope of the violation that industry has brought to this stretch of river. Difficult to access, and tough to spot from the road, this section of river bears the scars of a stream bent to the needs of shareholders, not neighbors.
6/28/2004. Feeder (Canal) Dam to Glens Falls Dam. Swim Day #16. Weather: Sunny. Water temperature: 77. River Miles: 2. Crew: Chris "I'm a Short-Timer, can't you tell?" Runyard. On the beach: Nicole "Ahh, my pants are wet again" Bowmer.
We swam this one out of order (see 6/27) so we could take advantage of the Sunday morning lack of vigilance at the Glens Falls bridge yesterday.
A quick swim, but I am coming down with whatever disease Runyard had a few days ago. I've got a sore throat and a runny nose.
I fantasized about an afternoon nap as I swam, and my fantasy came true when I got back to the Seabury's: two hours out cold on the couch.
I'll take tomorrow off and try to get well. Swimming while sick didn't work that well on the Columbia, so I'll try to take better care of myself this time.
Early this morning I went to Glens Falls Hospital so they could draw my blood. A lab test will establish the baseline level of PCBs in my blood, before I swim into GE's 197 mile long superfund site on the 30th.
We hope to test my blood for PCB's again after I swim the Thompson Island Pool--the most contaminated stretch of the Hudson River--and once more after the finish in late July. Stay tuned.
6/29/2004. Sick Day.
Although we won't be camping out there, we will swim past Roger's Island (in Fort Edward, NY) on our way to Thompson Island Dam tomorrow.
This island was one of the favorite haunts of Major Robert Rogers, an unconventional warrior who fought in the French and Indian Wars. Rogers and his "Rangers" achieved unprecendented success against larger, and often better equipped enemies, while living off the land in this region.
Major Roger's standing orders or "Ranging Rules" as they are sometimes called, are so respected that they are still studied by today's U.S. Army Rangers.
There are many similar versions of these standing orders. This version is courtesy of the 75th Ranger Regiment of the U.S. Army:
Rogers Rangers Standing Orders:
Don't forget nothing.
Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minutes warning.
When you're on the march, act the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer. See enemy first.
Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don't ever lie to a Ranger or an officer.
Don't ever take a chance you don't have to.
When you're on the march we march as a single file, far enough apart so one shot can't go thru two men.
If we strike swamps, or soft ground, we spread out abreast, so it's hard to track us.
When we march, we keep moving 'til dark, so as to give the enemy the least chance at us.
When we camp, half the party stays awake while the other half sleeps.
If we take prisoners, we keep 'em separate 'til we have had time to examine them, they can cook up a story between 'em.
Don't ever march the same way. Take a different route so you won't be ambushed.
No matter whether we travel in big parties or little ones, each party has to keep a scout 20 yards ahead, 20 yards on each flank and 20 yards in the rear, so the main body can't be surprised and wiped out.
Every night you'll be told where to meet if surrounded by a superior force.
Don't sit down to eat without posting sentries.
Don't sleep beyond dawn, Dawn's when the French and Indians attack.
Don't cross a river by a regular ford.
If somebody's trailing you, make a circle, come back onto your own tracks, and ambush the folks that aim to ambush you.
Don't stand up when the enemy's coming against you. Kneel down, lie down, or hide behind a tree.
Let the enemy come 'til he's almost close enough to touch. Then let him have it and jump out and finish him with you hatchet.
For more information about today's 75th Ranger Regiment:
6-30-2004. Swim Day #17. Hudson Falls Dam to Thompson Island Dam. Weather: Sunny. Water temperature: 78. Crew: Chris Runyardee-e-i-e-i-o. Field coordinator: Nicole Bowmer. River Miles:10. Freestyle Strokes: 3678.
I just swam through the most contaminated stretch of the Hudson. I glided over mud packed with PCBs, lead and mercury. I pondered the fact that if I ate forty pounds of fish out of these waters--over a lifetime--I'd have stacked my own deck in favor of cancer.
That said, the "Thompson Island Pool" as it is called, is one gorgeous place to swim. If didn't know it was the beginning of a 197 mile long Superfund site I'd suggest that people come out and paddle this section.
Some folks do say it's okay to paddle here, too, just so long as you don't eat the fish. (Now I'm no scientist, but if I were you, I'd stay away. But if you must come, don't play in the mud.)
A few weeks back, the Swim Team got the official tour from a General Electric (GE) representative. (Actually, Mark Behan, our tour guide, works for a PR firm hired by GE to meet with curious folk like us. Mark also performs a similar service for Finch, Pruyn & Co. a big paper mill in Glens Falls. Mark is a communications pro, and we were duly impressed with what an upbeat spin he managed to put on the havoc PCBs have wreaked on 200 miles of the Hudson River valley.)
In the photos that follow, I'll try to explain what happened at the GE site in Hudson Falls, and what remedies GE has initiated in the wake of EPA's Record of Decision. (Double-click any of the photos below to enlarge them.)
This building once housed the Union Bag and Paper Company. It became one of the primary manufacturing sites where GE workers handled PCBs. The rock (Shale) below this site is now saturated with PCBs. And that's the problem...
...Shale is porous. Liquids, like oily PCBs, seep through it. This photo shows Bakers Falls on the Hudson, just downhill from the factory shown in the photo on the left. Dime-sized puddles of PCB's leach out of these rocks and into the Hudson River, every day.
To slow the movement of the PCBs in the rock, GE has drilled a series of wells into the shale and installed pumps that actually suck the river back toward the site. The idea is that this will keep PCBs from moving toward the river.
This is a close-up of a "sentry well" next to the factory shown above.
GE collects the water from their pumping their operations and rainwater runoff and treats it at this plant. Up to 125 million gallons a day of water can be treated. Contaminated solids are pressed into "cakes" and shipped to a facility in Texas for storage.
Yeah, they are going to need a lot more buckets.
This is the contaminated beauty called the "Thompson Island Pool." The EPA has asked GE to dredge it--bank to bank. (This is a wildly controversial topic in local circles, but the decision has been made. Dredging opponents maintain that the risk of re-suspending PCBs is too great. Dredging advocates say that we have the hydraulic dredging technology--think soda straw--that will minimize re-suspension. Both sides have a point. And so the fight goes on.) Before GE can dredge up any PCBs, they need to figure out where they are...
...That's what these contractors are doing. These guys are taking core samples of river bottom in an effort to create a "map" of how the PCBs are distributed in the mud. Once there is a map they hope to start dredging. (Dredging is scheduled to begin in 2006 or 2007).
Bottom line? These signs aren't coming down any time soon.
As usual, there are no easy answers. Just lots of questions. Questions like, Why didn't the United States Environmental Protection Agency order GE to clean up ALL the PCBs? (GE is now required to clean up just 40 of the 197 miles of contaminated river valley.)
For those of you struggling to come up with answers yourselves, we'll post some fact sheets in tomorrow's journal entry to help your thinking along.
7-1-2004. Swim Day #18. Thompson Island Dam to Northumberland Bridge. Weather: sunny. Crew: Runyard. She stays dry: Nicole Bowmer.
We swim on in search of solutions.
Here are two of the fact sheets we've been pondering:
(1) Hudson River PCBs Fact Sheet
Courtesy of: CLEARWATER
Q. What are PCB's?
A. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are a group of synthetic oil-like chemicals of the organochlorine family. Until their toxic nature was recognized and their use was banned in the 1970's, they were widely used as insulation in electrical equipment, particularly transformers. Reputable chemists have since concluded that "it was probably a 'mistake' ever to make or use PCBs".
Q. Why are they dangerous?
A. They are serious poisons which have been shown to cause damage to the reproductive, neurological and immune systems of wildlife and humans and are known to cause cancer. Specifically, because PCBs in the body mimic estrogen, women of child-bearing age and their infants are particularly susceptible to a variety of development and reproductive disorders. A National Academy of Sciences committee has stated that "PCBs pose the largest potential carcinogenic risk of any environmental contaminant for which measurements exist."
Q. Where are they?
A. There are numerous known contaminated sites around the U.S. Among the most dangerous of these, and of particular concern to residents of the Hudson Valley, are the forty "hot spots" in the Hudson River resulting from the dumping and leakage from General Electric (GE) plants at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. There are PCBs in Hudson River water, biota, and sediment from Hudson Falls to New York City -- 200 miles that comprise the nation's largest Superfund site.
Q. How did PCB's get into the water?
A. During the period when they were used, General Electric legally dumped some 1.5 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, and unknowingly saturated the bedrock beneath both sites with at least that much again. Pure PCBs are oozing out of the bedrock to this day, constantly recontaminating the river.
Q. Isn't this just a local problem?
A. No. Once bottom-dwelling organisms absorb the material it is passed along up the food chain. Insoluble in water, PCBs are not readily excreted and remain, in ever-increasing concentrations, lodged in the fatty body tissues of fish as they grow. As one consequence, a once-thriving commercial fishing industry in the Hudson Valley, earning about $40 million annually, is now all but dead.
Almost all of the river-dwelling fish are migratory, and the effects are such that the New York State Department of Health has issued an advisory telling people to severely limit their consumption, even of fish caught recreationally in the Hudson. Women of child-bearing age and children under fifteen are advised to eat none at all. Since subsistence fishing is common in the lower reaches of the river, there are particular concerns in these areas. Further, unless the contaminated material is removed, there is an ever-increasing risk that, while remaining dangerous, it will be dispersed gradually, carried downstream, and thus become irrecoverable.
Q. Is the Hudson River really better now?
A. The Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972 in spite of GE´s strong opposition, required sewage treatment and minimization of industrial discharges. Standards for water quality have improved over the past few decades, but PCB´s have persisted and continue to poison fish, humans, and other organisms.
Q. Is the Hudson really healing itself?
A. Not when it comes to PCBs. PCBs don´t disappear, they just go somewhere else. Every day, and especially after heavy rain, PCBs move downstream into the ecosystem of the tidal Hudson, affecting the region´s fish, wildlife, and people. These PCBs enter the ocean and migrate throughout the world. Hudson River PCBs have been found in human and animal fat from the Arctic Circle.
Q. Will dredging make the river worse, as GE claims?
A. No. Many advances have been made in the last 15 years, and suction removal has been successfully employed at a number of other Superfund sites around the country. Often this has allowed fish consumption advisories to be lifted after just 2 or 3 years. Suction removal does not stir up the river. On the contrary, the Eddy Pump, for example, works like a straw in a milkshake. Likened to liposuction, this vacuum process leaves the river so undisturbed that operators can monitor the sediments with underwater cameras mounted at the base of their equipment. The dredged spoils enter a contained system of storage and transportation that is closed off from contact with the environment.
Q. Was GE´s dumping of PCBs legal, as they always claim?
A. Not always. For years the state DEC had been trying to get GE to reduce its staggering discharges, but GE threatened to leave the state, taking its jobs with it, and made DEC´s position politically untenable. GE had permits to pollute -- but frequently violated them.
Q. Will the cleanup be financed by my tax dollars?
A. No. Superfund law stipulates that the polluter must pay.
Looking for another perspective? Try this:
(2) An Introduction to PCBs
Courtesy of: General Electric
What Are They? PCBs belong to a class of organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons. For 50 years, the manufacture, sale, use and discharge of PCBs were legal in the United States. More than one billion pounds of PCBs were produced and sold.
PCBs were considered a miracle chemical because they would not burn and were widely used in electrical equipment installed in wooden factories and school buildings where fire was a constant threat. In fact, some city codes and some insurance companies required the use of PCB-type transformers and capacitors.
PCB Chemistry PCBs are a family of compounds produced commercially by directly chlorinating biphenyl. Many different combinations are possible. In chemical terminology, "phenyl" denotes a ring structure of six carbon atoms attached to something else; "biphenyl" results when two such rings are attached to each other. And polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) is any molecule having multiple chlorine atoms attached to the carbon atoms of a biphenyl nucleus. Chlorine atoms can be placed at any or all of 10 available sites, with 209 PCB mixtures theoretically possible.
PCBs were manufactured and sold as complex mixtures differing in their average chlorination level. The 209 possible PCB compounds are referred to as "congeners." PCB congeners with the same number of chlorine atoms are known as "homologs" or "isomers" of each other. The materials now collectively referred to as PCBs are actually several dozen individual PCB congeners clustered around some average degree of chlorination.
Congeners may be grouped in terms of the number of chlorine atoms attached to the biphenyl molecule. For instance, one chlorine would produce a mono-chlorobiphenyl, two a di-chlorobiphenyl, 10 a deca-chlorobiphenyl. Any biphenyl molecule with two or more chlorines is commonly referred to as a poly-chlorinated biphenyl.
Their Physical Properties The physical properties of PCBs vary among the different homologs. Lower-chlorinated PCBs (the mono-, di-, tri- and tetra-chlorinated PCBs) tend to be light, oily fluids. Penta-chlorobiphenyls are heavy, honey-like oils. The most highly chlorinated PCBs are greases and waxy substances.
In general, PCBs are nonflammable and water-insoluble. They have high boiling points and low electrical conductivity. They are chemically and thermally stable. These physical properties made PCBs extremely desirable for a wide variety of industrial applications, including dielectric heat transfer fluids, hydraulic fluids, solvent extenders, flame retardants, organic diluents, dielectric fluids, inks, dyes, paints and adhesives. For example, PCBs were found in carbonless copy paper, newsprint and caulking compounds.
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7-2-2004. Swim Day #19. Northumberland Bridge to just below "The Cove." Weather: mostly sunny. Crew: Chris "It's my last day, eff you, Swain!" Runyard. Nicole: as herself. Miles remaining 178.
So what do I think about GE and the PCBs? I think that GE should gather its' best minds and put them to work on developing a technology capable of removing ALL of the PCB contamination in the Hudson Valley. And then market this technology to the world.
(If GE pleads poverty, I'll point out that EPA estimates the total bill for the cleanup at 500 million bucks. Sounds like a lot of money, right? Except fining GE 500 million dollars when their annual revenues top 134 billion dollars, is the equivalent of fining someone who makes $30,000 a year a measly $112. In other words, it's a screaming deal for GE.
GE could afford to do the right thing. Voluntarily. And if they did, I'd be happy to help publicize their good example.
Well, I got the cold that Runyard had. And now I cough yellow slugs of mucus into the river. The snot in my lungs leaves me short of breath. It ain't pretty. So why keep swimming? Because momentum is my friend.
We crashed down falls studded with the remants of old piers and pilings. Runyard hit one with the canoe and spun, but luckily, in the ideal direction. He looked like a a hero. There was so little water that I got hung up--beached--halfway down the falls. But it was worth it. While boats ply that concrete trench next door know as "The Canal" we have the actual river channel to ourselves.
(To all the folks who say they paddled the entire Hudson, I would submit that if you went down the canal and through the locks instead of staying in the actual river channel-- low head dams and falls and all--you didn't really paddle the whole Hudson. (I mean no offense, here. In fact, I hope I have just given you an excuse to come back and paddle it again!)
7-3-2004. Nowadaga Creek.
High in the Mohawk River valley, the Hudson's largest tributary, sits Nowadaga Creek. One of the Hudson's smallest tributary streams, the Nowadaga begins as a pristine stream and is soon masquerading as a landfill.
In an effort to join our neighbors in the actual down and dirty work of restoring one's local creek--something folks all over this 13,390 square mile watershed are doing--we spent a day cleaning thousands of pounds of trash out of the Nowadaga.
Talk about creek restoration is great, but it's cheap. Today we put on the gloves, lined up beside our neighbors, and made it real.
Check it out:
BEFORE. Double-click to enlarge.
AFTER. (Did you know organic chocolate milk tastes better after pulling 13 tires out of the mud?) Double-click to enlarge.
7-4-2004. Swim Day #20. Toward Stillwater. Weather: Sunny. Water: the thermometer is busted, but its too warm! Crew: Andy Norris and his mom, Barbara. Freestyle strokes: 1,863.
Almost everyone on a boat or on a riverside lawn seems to know what we are up to. People are waving, yelling, Good Luck!, swerving their boats towards us to have a look. Its a national holiday all right: I see flags snapping and inhale the smoke of a thousand charcoal briquets.
It is just another work day for us, but it is different, too. Runyard is back in Portland, Oregon--his salt and pepper Tom Cruise good looks hard at work in another watershed. Runyards relief, Andy, who also hails from Portland, will be my on the water support from here until the finish. Runyard was our flora guy, he kept track of the whatever grew along the river. But Andy is a fauna guy, he catalogues animals as he paddles. He also stirs the pot with a liberal dose of conspiracy theory each day, which he delivers bare-chested, un-prompted, with a ready smile.
7-5-2004. Today we met with Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi, at their home above the Hudson in Beacon, New York.
Pete, now 85, claims he cant shinny up a mast the way he used to. But hes still got the long, lean body of guy who built his own log cabin, and the recall of a college bowl champion. And when he breaks into impromptu song about sour cream at the lunch table, I catch myself smiling the same way I did when I listened to his records as a boy.
I was a Pete Seeger fan before I knew what a fan was, and now my three year-old daughter is a Pete Seeger fan as well. At 36, I am a fan of Pete Seeger in another way too, for Pete was one of the first to dream the dream of a pristine Hudson River. Over forty years ago, Pete, along with folks like Bob Boyle, was quietly rallying folks to the cause of a clean Hudson River. Along the way, he spearheaded the effort to build the Hudson Sloop Clearwater, that has since carried thousands of citizens and schoolchildren onto the Hudson, and given them a visceral experience of the lower river.
I hoped to have the chance say thank you to Pete, to acknowledge that I stand on his shoulders as I try to carry the dream of a pristine river forward. I aimed to glean whatever I could from a guy who has witnessed two generations best efforts to protect the Hudson.
It all would have different if wed bought land on the other side of the mountain, or two or three hills back, says Toshi. Here, we see the river every day.
When Pete and Toshi tell the story of building their log cabin (they now live in a renovated barn next door), fifty plus years of marriage are on sudden, happy display.
Well, Id gone to a school where Id learned to use an ax, Pete explains. So I cut the logs and Toshi mortared between them.
And I SCRAPED the logs! Toshi yells from across the room.
Later, as Toshi asks for some modifications to the fence that Pete installed to keep the whitetails out of her vegetable garden, Pete says hell get to work on it, just as soon as I have a nap-free hour. They are both smiling.
Of course, I am out for some kernel of Hudson River wisdom, some fuel I can use to drive myself forward through dirty water, a glimpse of what might occur to me fifty years from now. When I ask Pete what he sees as the greatest challenge facing the Hudson River, he answers with a question of his own:
How do you get people who are just trying to make ends meet to care about the future?
How would he characterize the progress made in protecting the Hudson over the last fifty years?
Weve been able to turn the clock back a little. If more people get involved, we can turn the clock back a little more.
And then he refers me to Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8. (The King James Version of Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8. is reproduced below, for those not familiar with it:
1: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: 2: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; 3: A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5: A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6: A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 7: A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8: A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. )
Any advice for the swimmer?
Remember that you are part of a worldwide movement, that you are just one grain of sand....The world will be saved by millions of small things, and these things will be done by people like you....Im very serious, people like you will save the human race, because you are doing things, not just talking.
At first I feel unworthy of the compliment. But then I realize that Pete is giving me something else here: something I can spend fifty years living up to.
After I hug him goodbye, I feel sad. Like I'm leaving a Grandfather I am only just getting to know.
July 6, 2004. Swim Day #21. Lock C4 to C3. River Miles: 2. Freestyle strokes: 462 plus some breaststroke. Lots of dead mans float (havent used that stroke in while). Miles to the Narrows: 171.
I swam this section unescorted. While Andy and Nicole watched from the bank, and then from the grassy knoll of lock C3 (if Andy is standing on a grassy hill, I have to call it a grassy knoll). I stroked lazily downstream over mossy rocks and green weeds bent double in the current.
This section would have been a logistical drag for the canoe so we left the canoe behind. As I snuck between islands, I took time to look around, to taste not just the sewage but the pine needles in the water. It was the shortest, quietest, easiest day Ill spend on the water for the rest of this swim. I even did a little breaststroke for a change.
We choose to be married to a schedule on this swim. We said wed finish on or before July 28th, and we will. But what is lost is the chance for more days like this. Days where the schedule doesnt loom like a thunderhead. Days when I can afford to fall under the spell of layers of water and sun and rock. Days when I lose count of my strokes and dont much care. Days when I simply let the river carry me.
The fact is, I dont always have the skills to appreciate the river when I am hell bent on making more miles, on keeping to some schedule I made last winter.
I met a fisherman who grew up on this stretch. I stood up in the river next to his boat and we talked. He remembers it before the dams. He told me about sneaking out on the railroad bridge to jump into the channel one summer day, and how his father, a railroad engineer, spotted him from a train and wagged his finger at him. (No wonder: when I swam under the bridge it looked to be a thirty-five foot drop.)
But, he said. He was too late. I was with some guys. You know. I was committed.
July 7, 2004. Swim Day #22. Two segments: Down to Stillwater, and then lock C3 to C2. Freestyle strokes: 6460. Crew: Andy Norris.
I said Andy is our fauna guy (Animal dude? I think I need a better nickname for him). Anyway, he is todays (and tomorrows) guest writer. Take it away Mr. Norris:
Wildlife sightings today:
One family of black ducks, seven Great Blue Herons, two Green Herons, one Bufflehead (fish-eating, diving duck), two Double crested Cormorants, one Belted Kingfisher, six Beaver dams, lots of great shoreline that would be excellent riparian habitat for Mink and River Otters. Also, one very old deciduous tree that may have been around when Hudson came up the river (though he stopped short of this spot). I was so amazed by this tree I forgot to note what species it was.
It was sort of lonely -- felt like there should have been more wildlife for a stretch of river this long. Of special note was the full chorus of perching birds in the trees along the shoreline of this stretch of river. Too many species to count!
July 8, 2004. Lock C2 to C1 and then C1 to Waterford, NY (Rte. 4) bridge. Crew: Norris. Outreach: Nicole B. Miles to Narrows: 168.
Swimming through the GE Silicones outfalls is like drowning in hot vat of something nasty. I dont know whats in their discharges, but I do know that it smells and tastes BAD and is bathtub-hot. These are permitted outfalls, as far as I can tell. But the real question is not what GE--or any company-- can legally dump into rivers. It is, Why dump anything into rivers at all?
It is time to put a price on what a clean river is worth, not just on what dumping chemicals is worth.
The trouble is, you cant put a dollar value on a clean Hudson River. Almost by definition, a clean river would be priceless.
And now here is more from Andy Norris, our escort boater and wildlife maven.
Two Belted Kingfishers, three Great Blue Herons (likely the same ones seen as yesterday), three Spotted Sandpipers (bobbing up and down and eating insects and other critters along the shore), five Wood Ducks (these ducks nest in holes in trees near water, and when the fledglings leave the nest, they pop out of the hole, fall to the ground, and then waddle to the nearest body of water), fifty Canada Geese (several pairs of adults with this years goslings, one Bald Eagle (Ho Mr. Eagle! Welcome back! DDT, a pesticide now banned in the US, killed off most of the eagles in these parts decades ago. They are finally coming back in significant numbers. Believe it or not, American chemical companies still produce and sell DDT to countries without bans), one American Kestrel (a small bird-eating falcon. A few warning calls went out from the chorus of perching birds when this raptor flew past), one Garter Snake (swimming), two Pileated Woodpeckers (this crow-sized woodpecker with a large red crest was the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker. For those of you who dont know, the Pileateds cousin, the almost identical-looking Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, is now officially extinct. Recent exhaustive attempts to find this bird failed. Logging in the southeastern United States has destroyed the Ivory Billeds habitat. THC-free hemp planted in just a portion of our nations tobacco fields could have freed up some habitat and saved this bird from extinction.)
7-9-2004. Waterford to Federal Lock & Dam. Then Federal Lock and Dam to below Green Island. Miles to Narrows: 154.
I had a quick swim downstream this morning. This river was up two feet after yesterdays rains. I stumbled out of the water at the Federal Lock and Dam. As Andy and the canoe locked through with a group of powerboats, I admired the candy wrappers, plastic bags, and condoms floating in the stagnant water between the lock doors.
After Andy locked through, I climbed down the ladder at the southern end of the lock, and took the big leap into tidal water. There is no salt to taste this far north, but the drop from here to the Atlantic Ocean is just two feet.
The Hudson River below the Federal Lock in Troy, is what happens when the moons gravity pulls the Ocean up a two foot tall hill until it runs into a wall of freshwater. The salt line is somewhere between Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, but it is the Atlantic Ocean and the tides that I need to work with now. No more locks and dams to slow me down. And its a good thing, too: we told folks wed swim out under the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge on July 28. Yikes! Time to get stroking.
This weekend Ill be at home seeing the family, and recharging my batteries for the big push. Well be back in the water on Tuesday, July 13.
7-13-2004. Swim Day #25. Route 2 Bridge in Troy to Albany Municipal Launching Ramp.
Okay, the water is nasty. Sure it rained a little, but brown scum is brown scum. And sewage is sewage: I know it when I smell it.
I feel the pressure today. After doing the math this morning, I can see I'm in for a helluva lot of swimming. We burned up all our built-in rest days and reserve days when Runyard and I got sick back in Queensbury. Now I've got fifteen days to make it to the Atlantic.
It sucks to be on such a prescribed timeline. But there are advantages. I KNOW I'll swim under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on July 28.
Unless I'm dead.
Yeah, I'm a drama queen.
July 14, 2004. Swim Day #26. Albany Municipal Launching Ramp to Coeyman's Marina. Crew: Norris. On dry dry dry land: Bowmer. River Miles: 12. Freestyle strokes: 7,430.
Here we go with the double swims. I need to swim every outgoing (ebb) tide to make it to the Ocean on time. So today I did a double. I swam the morning ebb tide and then hopped back in to catch the evening ebb tide.
It's hard on my body. I am not as strong as I was even a year ago in the Columbia. And it's hard on the crew. I swam twice as much but I am four times as cranky. When we get lost on the way home, I want to kick the windshield out of our rental car. But I can't lift my legs that high.
7-15-2004. Swim Day #27. Coeyman's to Athens, NY. Crew: same as yesterday. Freestyle strokes: 7821.
Athens is cool. I have the impulse to stay. But I need to keep going.
The river is widening out now and we really need to switch from a canoe to an aluminum skiff to deal with wind and waves. Andy powers manfully along but I drop him in the swells and headwind. Then I get mad and hungryand cold waiting for him. I yell. I complain. ( Heck, I even punch the side of the canoe when he arrives.) But it's my own damn fault. We needed to switch boats in Troy, and I haven't pulled the trigger yet.
Our new (to us) escort boat. A big thank you to Don Turk and the good folks at Wolverine Fabrications. Double click to enlarge.
7-16-2004. On the Hudson Sloop Clearwater.
School's out, but we meet with groups of kids whenever we can, and there is no better place to do this than under sail on the Hudson. Thanks to Pete Seeger's vision decades ago, at least one true Hudson River Sloop still plies these waters. Carrying a third of the sail area of her forebears the Clearwater is more than a sailboat, she is an educational platform as well.
Groups of kids who sail on the boat rotate through a series of on-board stations where they learn hands-on, how to:
(Double-click on any of the images below to enlarge.)
....No easy task with a gaff rig this big....
....Set a trawl for fish....
....Identify fish (no one could i.d. this one)....
....Join a tiller crew (it takes three to tack)....
....And hang on to this tiller!
7-17-2004. We did a retail store visit today, hoping to highlight the connection between food and waterways. Between what happens on the farm and what ends up in the river.
I spent a lot of time thinking back to my Columbia River Swim and how, for most of it, there was a massive disconnect between my food choices and my clean water message.
During the day I swam past orchards getting sprayed with neurotoxic pesticides and at night I snacked on conventional fruit. It was nuts. And it took me awhile to realize that if I really wanted pesticides and herbicides out of the rivers, I had to eat organic produce. I had to be part of the solution.
Now, I didn't attempt to foist this epiphany on every consumer I met today, but I did point out that I've met some of the organic farmers in the Hudson watershed, and that if you want to eat for clean water, you've got some extremely tasty local options.
Of course, most interactions came down to this, really: "Wait...YOU are the crazy guy swimming the Hudson?! Hey, hey honey THIS is the guy swimming the Hudson, come over here check this out. So, are you feeling okay, you're still alive it looks like. Tell us about it. What's it like out there? Man, I can't believe this. You're a nut!"
7-18-2004. Swim Day #28. Athens to Saugerties. Freestyle strokes: 7,600. Crew: Norris. Outreach: Bowmer.
Instead of tangling with the NY State Naval Militia at Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant (we had hoped to do a paddle-along event past the plant today), we read the writing on the wall (They'll arrest everyone) and lead an informal town meeting at the Stewart House in Athens instead.
The folks at the Stewart house offer me a shower before I speak, and, well, the drain in the proffered shower leaks and water hoses into the dining room below. I feel terrible about this but apparently it confirms what was feared about this particular drain, so I tell myself that I have performed a small, helpful, yet destructive canary-in-a-coal-mine function.
Other than that, the meeting goes well. These folks live on the river and love it. When I tell the story of a Troy woman whose mother threw away her clothes after she fell into the Hudson, I see heads nodding, and smiles. I am preaching to the choir in Athens, but it feels good to put the vision of a pristine Hudson in front of scores more people.
I also get a chance to thank Nicole and Andy publicly for their incredible labors on behalf of this swim. I can't thank them enough for all the work that they are putting in, especially now that we swim doubles every day. I absolutely couldn't do it without them (or without Runyard for that matter).
7-19-2004. Swim day #29. Saugerties to Norrie Point State Park. Crew: Andy. Landside: Nicole. Freestyle strokes: 8,503.
This was a long one today, but a stunning sunset of clover honey light drenched the river as I climbed back into the boat.
We are staying tonight with Molly and Dan Katz. Dan is a urologist, and when I suggest that having two daughters is enough in an already crowded world and that maybe I should get fixed, he says, "I'll do it. Tonight."
Which gives me pause.
It turns out I am not quite ready, yet. At least, not if I have to swim tomorrow.
7-20-2004. Swim day #30. Norrie Point to Marlboro Yacht Club. Crew: Andy. Chevy pilot: Nicole. Freestyle strokes: 8,600. River Miles: 15.
Thirty days into this and I haven't really talked about who was here before european contact. Most of this information comes straight from Robert H. Boyle's "The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History".
In 1600, within the Hudson Valley, the people called Algonquin were formed into three loose confederacies: the Mohican, which occupied both sides of the river south of Albany; the Delaware, on the west shore south from present-day Catskill into New Jersey; and the Wappinger which ran from Poughkeepsie south to Manhattan (and included, among others, the Manhattan tribe). The Montauk, a separate confederation, ruled Long Island.
According to one Smithsonian ethnographer, there were about 3,000 Mohicans; 4,750 Wappingers, including those in Connecticut; 8,000 Delawares, and 6,000 Montauks, including the Canarsees in Brooklyn.
Many place names in the Hudson River Valley are anglicized versions of Native American place names. Manhattan, the island; Schenectady, from the Iroquois SKA-NEH-TA-DE, originally applied to the Albany area and meaning beyond the opening or beyond the pine trees, probably in reference to the Karner sand plains: Cohoes, canoe falling; Copake, snake pond; Taconic, full of timber; Poughkeepsie, possibly safe harbor; Hoosick, place of stones; Schodack, place of fire, because this island in the Hudson was the traditional Mohican capitol and site of the council fire; Hackensack, lowland; Tappan, cold springs; Croton, from KENOTIN, wind or tempest; Sing Sing, from SITSINK, meaning, prophetically, in view of the prison, stone upon stone.
Naturally, I find all this lore fascinating.
But I can't help wondering what happened. Where are these peoples now? Very, very few survived. Stories of the dislocation, removal and slaughter of indigenous people certainly form part of the history of the American West. But these sharp edges of history do not get much play here in the East.
The fact remains that my European forebears killed and relocated thousands of folks who had been living in the Hudson Valley for millenia. This happened. It is history. It was what it was.
But it was not okay.
7-21-2004. Swim day #31. Marlboro Yacht Club to Cold Spring. Freestyle strokes: 7,300. Crew: Andy. Groundpounder: Nicolette. River miles: 15.
Many Abenaki people hunkered down and stuck around in the Hudson drainage basin after contact. Earlier this month, we met Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki who lives near his ancestral land in the Hudson valley. Joe is a writer and a teacher and a tracker and a linguist. Though those terms do not do him full justice.
I asked him about names in his traditional language. I'll do my best to render them phonetically.
What is the word for white Europeans?
Awanigeeknigeek. Which literally means: "Who are these guys?"
What is the word for the lower Hudson River?
Mahikanitewk. Which literally means: "The river that flows backwards."
Joseph also happens to be the Editor of the Greenfield Review. For more information about his literary and related work, check out:
7/22/2004. Cold Spring to Verplanck Point. Crew: Norris. Freestyle strokes: 7144 River miles: 13. Weather: Partly cloudy.
Got a late start this morning because I had a chance to speak with John Cronin. John was the Riverkeeper on the Hudson for 17 years. In this capacity was a full-time river advocate for the Hudson. He documented water quality, nailed polluters, helped enforce the Clean Water Act, and participated in nearly every major Hudson River protection effort in the last two decades. Now he divides his time between his teaching duties at Pace University and the Hudson Fisheries Trust.
For me, John bridges the gap between the WWII generation -- people like Bob Boyle, Pete Seeger, and Franny Reese who first called for the legislation and action that would begin the process of cleaning up the Hudson River over forty years ago -- and my generation.
As John talks, I think of how many sets of shoulders I stand on as I swim. If it werent for folks like Boyle and Seeger and Reese and Cronin, I wouldnt be able to say what I say on this swim: that the Hudson river has come a long way, but its still a long way from pristine. Without the efforts of folks like John Cronin, Id be having a very different kind of swim.
Twenty years ago I would have been swimming in an open sewer. Thanks to John and the generation before him, I swim in a river with a fraction of the contamination that John experienced twenty years ago.
I asked John what he thinks of the swim. He says he thinks it great. And that after two decades of victories, the challenge facing clean water advocates on the Hudson has changed. Where once river advocates used the Clean Water Act to compel tens of companies and municipalities to curb their pollution, now most Hudson River industries and communities are in compliance. This means a shift of focus. The days of sue-ing fat targets like Exxon, ConEdison, Anaconda Wire, and the railroads are gone.
Now, suggests Cronin, weve achieved much of what is possible under the Clean Water Act. As a result, we now need a new vision for the Hudson River. Says Cronin, Thats what your swim is doing. Youre helping people to imagine what could be.
Ive waited three years to meet with John Cronin. He looks different than he did in the photos taken on his first day on the job two decades ago. Cronin is 47 now, and he is a father. Hes moved on from Riverkeeping to different challenges. Yet when he speaks about the Hudson, theres light in his eyes, conviction in his voice. The old warrior is alive and well behind a recent growth of beard. Yet the vibe is a peaceful one. I detect no bitterness. And its an honor to speak with a guy who has done so much for the river.
Later as I swim past Garrison, I realize Cronin and I have much in common. We are both fathers eager to see our children swimming in a clean Hudson River. John spent years trying to make that dream come true. Ill spend just two months in this river. Sure, Ill do plenty of follow up, but in the end Ill never match the hundreds of thousands of hours Cronin put in on the Hudson. On the other hand, I think John has a point. I can do a little something here. I can put forward, if only for a brief time, an updated dream for the Hudson river. A dream of a pristine river, drinkable all the way down to Troy and swimmable all the way down to the Atlantic, every single day of the year.
And John is very generous. He gives me more credit than I deserve for voicing this dream as I swim.
I end up thinking about my last meeting with Pete Seeger where he told me a story. He said, Imagine a see-saw. One end of the see-saw is held down by a basket of heavy rocks. The other end supports a basket of sand. Those of us doing environmental work, are essentially trying to fill that basket of sand, teaspoon by teaspoon. People watching tell us it is hopeless. They say, Youll never fill up that basket with sand. You guys are using teaspoons. Sand is leaking out through the weave of the basket faster than you can fill it. And even if it werent, there arent enough of you. Of course, one day there will be enough folks with enough teaspoons filling the basket fast enough that the see-saw will tilt the other way.
And when that day comes, the folks who are standing around watching will say, That happened so suddenly. Howd you guys do that?
Sometimes swimming this river does feel like trying to fill a basket of sand with a teaspoon. Sometimes I feel like Im having only the tiniest impact. Like my message is buried under the weight of the information age. That simply imagining a pristine Hudson for my daughters doesnt have much value. But guys like Seeger and Cronin show me that Im wrong. That, small as it might be, imagining a pristine Hudson for the next generation is still a significant act even if it doesnt feel like one. So I swim on. Feeling unworthy of the praise, but grateful for the encouragement.
7/23/2004 Verplanck Point to Ossining. Crew: Norris. Freestyle strokes: 1410. River miles: 7. Weather: Clouds, rain, thunderstorms.
Today I felt weak from the first stroke. My shoulders glowed orange with ache. My knees hurt. My head ached. I lacked the willpower to put more than 20 strokes together without resorting to my grandmothers keep-your-hair-dry breaststroke. I needed a rest today. I was burned out. The swim became a float. I even tried napping on my back, awash.
Soon, a headwind raised whitecaps bent on flooding my nose and mouth. The water turned indigo then black then brown before settling on gray. I decided I had to take some strokes, and I laid down 1400 of them -- ugly, choppy, rough freestyle strokes -- before lightning hit two seconds away.
At that point, I was so desperate to put a stop to the swim day that I happily climbed into an aluminum boat in the middle of the widest part of the Hudson during an electrical storm.
We made landfall at the Ossining Canoe Club, yanked the boat up on the ramp, chained it to a fence, pulled the plug, and called Nicole for a ride. While we waited for her, we traded tall tales with members and guests loitering in the passageways of the club. They were a fine bunch, and we sure are grateful for the warm welcome and the shelter.
This morning on the way out to Verplanck Point, we paused across from Indian Point, hundreds of feet OUTSIDE their security zone. All the same, the New York State Naval Militia raced out to meet us in a river patrol boat. They were a humorless bunch. A guy in charge dressed in fashionable kevlar, and a soldier with an M-16 across his chest. Both trying to look very serious. Guy in charge explained, This is a military operation. Stopping across from the plant is not permitted. Cut your motor. Come alongside. (This was my first clue that these guys were plumbers and bankers doing their National Guard service, unexpectedly, on the water. Once youve cut your motor out in the wind and tide and chop, you cant come alongside anything. And I dont think they were suggesting that we start rowing.) The militiamen asked me what I was doing. I told them I was swimming the entire length of the Hudson River, from source to sea. They nodded and stared at my drivers license. Pretty far from home, arent you?
Well, I replied, It turns out you need to come to New York State if you want to swim the entire length of the Hudson River.
This observation elicited a generous offer to place our entire crew under arrest unless I continued down the channel immediately.
7/24/2004 Ossining to Hastings-on-Hudson. Crew: Norris. Freestyle strokes: 5180. River miles: 15. Miles to the Narrows: 25. Weather: Overcast with a tailwind.
The day after the deluge, it dawns cloudy. A tailwind teases up a swell in the Tappan Sea (hey, thats what the Dutch called it). Skip Storch appears. As far as I know Skip is the only person still living who can claim to have swum from Albany to Manhattan. He happens by on a 32-foot cabin cruiser, heaves himself into the water, and paces me under the Tappan Zee Bridge. Of course, we spend lots of time talking about his open water swims and as I admire his bright orange bathing cap.
Skip, it turns out, sold his very own shark cage to one Suzy from Australia who ended up setting the Cuba/Florida swim record a few years back. I lament the lack of a shark cage on this swim. I joke that, It might be more fun to have a shark cage. Of course, no sharks bother me. But if youre jones-ing for open water swimming trappings, you cant beat a shark cage, can you? Come to think of it, maybe some sort of garbage cage would be a better idea. Swimmer in, garbage out...
Swimming under the Tappan Zee was a milestone for me after the slap-happy chop of Haverstraw Bay. The bridge rose up out of the haze and I swam for it like a target.
Swimming under big bridges is a lot different than driving over them. As a swimmer I carry the memory of every time I drove over the Tappan Zee. Big bridge, cool views, and all that. But the road bed of the bridge exists in a separate space from the pilings and towers that welcome the swimmer. The roadbed is an experience of air and light and lanes punctuated by snatches of river view.
To swim under a bridge, you first have to swim toward it. If there is any sun at all, you know the moment you truly reach the bridge because there is a line where the shadow of the bridge cuts the river. Suddenly you glide into dark water even if its noon and for those several strokes in the shadow of the bridge there is a whiff of anxiety, uncertainty, inchoate shadows beneath your belly. Then just as suddenly, your arm digs into noon-lit water, you swim out of the shadow and all is forgotten. You roll on your back, look up at the road bed, the storm drain pipes, the girders, the rust, the rivets, and the pigeons (or if youre lucky, the Peregrine Falcons). And you pretend you werent scared, that you didnt miss the light.
7/25/2004. Two swims: Hastings-on-Hudson to Yonkers and George Washington Bridge to 79th St Boat Basin Crew: Pat, Owen, Andy, Jay, and Adam. Freestyle strokes: 5554. River miles: 10. Weather: Mostly sunny.
Back on May 25, I announced my intention to swim the Hudson. To mark the occasion, I splashed a few hundred yards downstream to the 79th St Boat Basin. Now I get to officially arrive. That first splash proved to be a fruitful scouting mission. I remember the line I picked through the moored boats, past the ice barriers, into the end of A Dock. So when Owen (who flew out from California to visit family and spend a day on the river) and Jay and Adam (who both flew out from Portland, Oregon to swim the waters of the Hudson as training for their own Portland Challenge coming up next week) unexpectedly jump into the water, I counsel them to follow me and to resist the temptation to swim toward the crowd waiting near the bike path. Naturally, I forget to mention the busted off remains of one ice barrier 20 feet from the dock, but thankfully no one carves themselves up on it.
Rowan, Heather, Celilo, and my old outlaw pal Nicole Butterfield, and her daughter, Camille, were waiting on the dock. Rowan comes up to me and says, Hi, Daddy. I made a new name for you: Big Swim. Hi Big Swim.
Rowan asks me to show her the Hudson.
I point and say, This is the Hudson. The mountains are that way (I point upstream). And the ocean is that way (I point downstream). Daddys going to the ocean.
Looking upstream at the George Washington Bridge, which carries more traffic per day than any other bridge in the world. Double-click to enlarge (and you may be able to see the little red lighthouse at the base of the tower).
7/26/2004. Two swims: Yonkers to the George Washington Bridge and 79th St. Boat Basin to Ellis Island. Crew: Norris, David Norris, Nathan Felde, Jay and Adam. Freestyle strokes: 4227. River miles: 14. Weather: Mostly sunny with a tail wind.
A hundred million people failed to vote in the last Presidential election, but a hundred times that many raindrops fell a couple of days ago and now Im getting shoved downstream as if I'm caught in a log flume.
Its almost unfair. I swim at maybe 65% effort, not even finishing my strokes properly. My kick is a joke. Today I am the kind of swimmer who makes Masters coaches cry. I can almost hear the voices in my head. You could be a decent swimmer if you just made a FEW small changes. Ah, but who needs to make a few small changes when you can saddle up on 21,000 cubic feet of water and gallop over the mud?
All the same, I am pretty happy. I think of my Rachel Carson. The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky.
Ill get sued by a generation of parents for saying this but I think it would be worth it for almost anyone to swim the Hudson as it passes Manhattan. The swimmers view isnt one you can get from a canoe or a ferry or the New Jersey shore. Its not a great view. A curtain of water rises and falls to interrupt it, foggy goggles blur it, power boats tear through it. But to see so many buildings packed high and tight on such a long, low shelf of rock, puts things in a different sort of order. From the Hudson, Manhattan is just a small island, gift-wrapped by three different rivers.
Looking downstream at the Manhattan skyline. Double-click to enlarge.
It does me good to see the long, sweet sweep of Nathan Feldes mahogany lapstrake ocean skiff beside me. Nathan has come up from Massachusetts to escort me these last few days. His boat was built at Lowells Boat Shop in Amesbury, Mass.
As a boy, I tooled around in an 18-foot Sport Dory that was built in the very same shop. Twenty years later, I think about the boy who drove that Dory across Salem Bay and wonder what hed make of the man he would become. Im not sure the man is happier than the boy was, but I am sure that the man hopes to make the next generation of boys happier. Somehow.
People know I'm out here swimming. They wave and yell from ferries, water taxis, and Circle Line boats.
The best greeting? It's a tie. Fifty schoolkids wearing red shirts, screaming what sounded like, We love you! Or the Staten Island Ferry pilot who slowed to idle, pulled open the pilot house door, pumped his arms over his head, and screamed, You can do it!
7/27/2004 Ellis Island to Bouy Red 2. Crew: Norris, Nathan Felde. Freestyle strokes: 1963. River miles: 6. Miles to Narrows: 1. Weather: Cloudy, drizzle, E/NE wind.
After the thirteenth jellyfish sting of the day, I got in touch with the joy of being nearly done with this swim.
Had some fun with the feds today: an overflight and hover by an US EPA helicopter. When I squinted up at the helicopter through my goggles, I could see a half-mad fisheries biologist jumping up and down and waving through the window. I am glad to know the EPA is behind me.
Seriously, though, its a pleasure to be out here in the Atlantic Ocean. You can debate all day, but its tough to find someone who thinks that the river continues much past the Battery. At the Battery, my Water Trail Guide zeroes out and the East River gives me a lazy wet slap on the butt. But I keep swimming.
I stopped a mile short of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Thats the finish line. Tomorrow, after altogether too much hemming and hawing and boarding and shuffling and stressing and talking, a gaggle of media folks, sponsors, friends, and crew people, will climb onto a fleet of escort boats, race out to Bouy 2, and watch me ride the tide for one final mile.
At the end, Ill get all the usual questions. Why did you do it? What does your wife think? Whats next for you? What did you actually accomplish? Whats wrong with your body now? What did you see?
Ill answer all these questions, and then Ill have a question of my own: Why isnt the Hudson River ALREADY pristine?
I'll be chasing the answer to this question over the coming months, in my dreams, school visits, and interviews with people in the Hudson Valley.
There wont be an easy answer. As usual, nothing is simple on a big river. The only thing thats certain is that every water drop eventually finds its way to the ocean and along the way each of them comes to reflect the people of the valley and the choices they've made.
7-28-2004. Buoy 2 to Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. River Miles: 1. Crew: So many people today, heck, Nicole Bowmer is even on the water today. Freestyle strokes: 393.
Well, this is it for the easy part. After today, the real fun starts--figuring out how to turn this river into a diamond.
I am so grateful and relieved to be nearly there, that I swim as if jet-propelled. I cover a mile plus in 393 strokes. Two jellyfish come out to meet me, but too bad for them I wore the long sleeve wetsuit today. Hah.
I swim under the bridge and then some. It is a helluva bridge (it used to be the longest suspension bridge in the world). The water gets saltier by the stroke. I am in the "salt wedge" here, a piece of the Atlantic that supports, jellyfish, sea horses, sharks, and other ocean life. I don't feel the push of river behind me anymore. I feel the tide grabbing me under the arms and yanking me out to sea.
As I cross under the bridge, I tell myself I'll swim until I can think of a good reason to stop. I try not to think of anything for a few strokes. And then I think of my daughters, Ro and Lo. And suddenly I want to be home. Playing with them. As soon as possible.
I pull up, raise my arms skyward, and then let myself fall back into the water.
I am done. And I've just begun.
Time to pull off my jellyfish-proof gloves! Double-click to enlarge.
Copyright Christopher Swain, 2001-2010. All Rights Reserved.