It all started from being alone.
You’d think that a famous waterway alongside the biggest city in America would be a watersports paradise. New York Harbor has always been one of America’s greatest harbors, but it’s unfriendly to paddlers. A century of industrial pollution made the Hudson River a polluted nightmare. There are also the crazy water conditions, fierce currents, and the tendency for the Hudson River to change direction with the tide.
No joke about the conditions! We have a section of the river system called Spuyten Duyvil which is Dutch for “spit at the devil.” It refers to a colonial era story of a crazy man who thumbed his nose at fate to swim the waterways. He drowned.
Then there’s Hell’s Gate at the intersection of Manhattan Island, Long Island, and the Bronx. Let’s not forget World’s End at the foot of West Point, where the water sometimes looks like it’s boiling from the cross-currents and eddies.
But there are always a few brave souls.
The Hudson River Rats, a hardy bunch of windsurfers, were pioneers in getting back into the water. They were accompanied by kayakers and canoeists, people wanting to reclaim this scenic waterway back from the pollution that almost killed it. And there were the boaters, and even fishermen who dropped their lines for the migratory fish not tainted by the still-present PCBs.
Even after forty years of an active cleanup and a strong environmental movement, this legacy remains. No matter that there are now several beaches and a riverpool, that legacy of Pete Seeger’s “Dirty Stream” lives on. People are afraid of the Hudson.
I was one of those hardy River Rats, but when I discovered standup paddling that seemed more my speed. No more expensive quiver of sails and masts, no more stressing about the wind — just a board, paddle, and me. Instead of the windy expanses I was discovering hidden coves and bywaters. Despite the fact that I was traveling calmer waters, I was now alone. After all these years, barely anyone paddled the Hudson and most of those that did were kayakers.
Paddleboarders were alien invaders — people would point at me from shore like I was some strange creature. I once ran into some canoeists who said, “We thought you was Jesus walking on the water.”
Of course the solo paddling was meditative, but even that gets old after a while.
Changes on the home front
A few years ago, my town of Peekskill did some major work on its waterfront. Like the much of the Hudson, it had relics from the industrial past. In particular, there was an old brown field that had been sitting fallow for decades. It was still polluted from factories torn down a hundred years before. Finally the city, in partnership with Scenic Hudson, a local nonprofit, cleaned the area up and created a new section of the waterfront park.
To my surprise this included a floating boat launch!
Typical of me, I ignored it. I had my habitual spot — a dirty beach alongside the local boat ramp, complete with attendants who knew me well. But one day I decided to try it. I shlepped my board the fifty yards from my car, across a little stream, across grass then down a gangway.
An idea is conceived: HVH2O
It wasn’t as convenient as the boat launch but it was … nicer? So on my next paddle I tried it again. This time I stopped and looked around the grassy space around the dock, “Someone should start a paddling center here. Hmm. Maybe me…,” I thought to myself. Of course I dismissed that thought immediately. I was waaaaay too busy. Too much going on. Someone else would have to do it.
But good ideas don’t go away. And during a time when my teaching career took a bad turn, I did something funny. I talked about my idea with some people — and they liked it. And I’m not talking about that “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea,” response when you know you’re being humored.
I got, “Hey, you should do this!” So on a whim I posted the idea on Facebook. My feed exploded. I got deluged with likes and comments like “We need this!” and “I would love to see this in Peekskill!” I honestly wasn’t expecting that reaction. Was I really onto something? Seems like I might not be alone much longer.
The more I thought of this, the more I wasn’t interested in a traditional paddle business. I’m not very motivated by money. (I know. I’m weird that way.) I care most about doing the things I love with people I like. As long as I had enough money to do that, everything was fine. It made sense to create a place where everybody has a chance to paddle, not just those who could afford it.
Peekskill has many families who fall into that category, and I wanted to provide access for them. (I was poor as a child and would have done anything for something like this.) So if I was going to do this, it would have to be a nonprofit community center. We might even do some riverside science, like water testing and fish seining and activities like that. I thought combining paddling with environmental education would be very meaningful, doing double duty of spreading Pete Seeger’s message of caring for our waterways and ecosystems.
I talked about my idea with a friend, and she told me her husband Jim was thinking of doing a science education center in town, also serving the local youth. Maybe I should talk to him?
Sounded good. We got together at a local pizza restaurant, and Jim brought his friend Dan who was his partner with his science center idea. Over beers, we hashed out a plan. We would start the paddlesports center first because that was the easiest first step. It would do traditional rentals and lessons, but also set aside part of its time for free and low-cost sessions. As we built up the paddling, we would include classes on riverfront science and slowly ramp up the education programs. As things progressed, an environmental center for education.