Hudson Highlander hits the water after the spring thaw
The ice is gone. No more blizzards in the forecast. Spring is finally here. Time to get on the water.
Winter hadn’t been very long or very cold, but I hadn’t been on the water in a while. All last fall my new teaching job had been sucking up my mental energy, but things had since settled down. Then my kayaking friend James Dougherty invited me to paddle The Great Swamp in Brewster, NY.
Calling the Great Swamp a swamp is a little misleading. When I think of swamps I picture a muddy expanse of puddles, vines, and moss. It’s really a northern branch of the Croton River which widens into a swampland. It’s a gorgeous ecosystem, absolutely teeming with life. It was a perfect first paddle of the season. Instead of braving the open Hudson, we would be in a narrow channel rarely more than thirty feet wide. Instead of waves, the obstacles would be sharp curves, overhanging branches, submerged logs, and beaver dams.
I was anxious to see the first stirrings of spring. After winter, these are always heartening. Paddling with us were a few other kayakers from a local Meetup Hudson River and Beyond. We launched at a nondescript site alongside a closed day camp. I was the only standup paddler in the group, which felt weird. I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider. (Standup paddling doesn’t have an established culture in the Hudson Valley yet.) After greetings, six of us headed out into the swamp. The water was in the low–mid 40s, which meant warm clothing was essential. Since the air was pretty warm, I went with a farmer john and long-sleeve rash guard. Most of my fellow paddlers were more heavily clad than me.
Into the swamp
Swamps are usually teeming with life, but in late March there were barely any signs of it. The trees were an expanse of grey, but if you looked closely you could spot little red buds starting to emerge. Every now and then we’d come across clumps of green algae, which had probably grown in the last few days. Occasionally I’d spot a little turtle pulling itself onto a log.
There were also the birds, dozens of species. We heard chirps, honks, twitters, and the hammering sound of woodpeckers. It was as if the swamp was finally waking up that day and the birds were holloring, “Yes, were here! It’s time to start life again!”
The further we paddled into the swamp, following the course of the river, the more tangled it became. The winter storms had knocked many a tree into the channel, and we were all forced to wriggle around, over, and through dozens of obstacles. I had brought my 14’ NSP board, and it was fun maneuvering it through the tiny breaks between logs. Sometimes I had to walk to the nose to lift the fin over an especially shallow barrier. I had never tested my skills in quite this way.
I was feeling pretty cocky until I tried to slide over a partially submerged beaver dam. I did the fin lift but the front section wouldn’t go down because the midsection was still on the dam. The fin caught and I went forward into the cold water. I was wearing a full PFD, which was good because I immediately sucked in a mouth of water. The water was also only about 4 feet deep. As I pulled myself back on my board, I realized I had done the involuntary inhalation which happens when you hit cold water. (It’s funny how you can have these intellectual thoughts going through your head while you’re scrambling to get back on your board.) I had always thought that I could resist that sort of thing. At least I had inhaled clean fresh water!
Soon after we met up with a couple more groups who were part of the established kayaking community on the Hudson. During the conversations with a leader about cold water and protections, I had the discouraging experience of being told my wetsuit was inadequate for cold water and that it might be okay to exclude me from trips because of my cold water gear.
I’m always safety oriented, so this bothered me a lot. Perhaps I was being a little too stuck with my point of view, but I left the kayakers discouraged and annoyed. I was hoping to build community, but it felt like they weren’t interested in the same. I finished my paddle with James, and we talked about what happened. He listened, which is what a friend does. I appreciated that.
Vexing moments aside, it was great to be back in the water! Winter hadn’t been very long or very cold, but those dark days can still be pretty discouraging. Now that spring was here, it was time to get back in the rhythm of paddling again!
P.S. All the maneuvering around the logs did put a hole my board, something I didn’t notice until my next paddle!