Boundary Conditions: Exploring the Hudson River in Autumn

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

As the season descends into Winter, we figured it would be good to post a long-overdue writeup of a trip that we took during the magical boundary between Summer and Autumn—a trip up the Hudson River in October 2013. 

Fall colors

In mathematics, a boundary condition is a constraint imposed on the solution of an equation. By imposing boundary conditions, you focus on a specific subset of solutions, rather than all solutions.

In ecology, there’s also the concept of a boundary—in this case, the transition from one habitat to another. Boundary conditions are then conditions at the habitat boundary. And as a tidal estuary, the lower Hudson River itself is a permanent habitat boundary, since it’s the interface between salt water and fresh, between the ocean and the rivers and streams that feed it.

The two meanings are different, but what they have in common is the notion of focusing on a particular part of the cosmos, one embodying flux, change, and intermingling of diverse forces.

That’s what we did one day this Fall when we drove north for an extended weekend of kayak-camping on the Hudson River, at our favorite spot, the Hudson River Islands State Park, about 20 miles south of Albany.

We set up camp
River view

For this excursion, we’d joined forces with Alex and Jean, fellow paddlers and fellow bloggers at 2Geeks@3Knots, who drove up from New Rochelle. And we were hoping to meet up with Mike and Julie, paddlers from Albany with whom we’d shared a lively correspondence over the past year but had never met. And also, with luck, with our friend David, who lives both in NYC and upstate, and was planning to be on the river up there that weekend.

All of us from different habitats, in other words, but with our common boundary—the Hudson River.

Day 1

We met up with Alex and Jean at our launch point in Hudson, NY, shortly before noon on the Saturday. The idea was to paddle north to Stockport Middle Ground—an island about 5 miles upriver—and set up camp. On Sunday, we’d meet up with Mike and Julie, and hopefully David, for a leisurely paddle around the area.

So Alex and Jean, Vlad and I unloaded our boats and camping gear, packed the boats, parked the cars, and set off north across the shimmering silver water. We were paddling against the current, but we had plenty of time before dark.

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It was one of those clear, warm, blue-and-golden days that can’t quite decide whether it’s part of Summer or Fall (that boundary thing, again). Rainbows of trees striped both sides of the river: green, golden, russet, with the occasional scarlet splash. A flock of Canada Geese (first of many)  flew overhead, honking loudly.

It was a relaxed, comfortable paddle, and we reached Stockport Middle Ground by mid-afternoon. The campsite we’d picked out—the one that Vlad and I camped at in 2011, on our trip down the Hudson from Albany to NYC—features a generous sandy beach extending up to a leaf-covered carpet of land behind. Now it was festooned for some IMGP7740 cropped smallreason with a bright pair of American flags. Vlad paused to survey the campsite, while Alex, Jean, and I paddled on past the campsite to meet a couple of kayakers paddling toward us from the opposite direction.

They turned out to be on their way from Albany to NYC, and were also seeking a campsite—in fact, they had their eyes on the very one we were claiming ourselves!  Fortunately, they graciously acknowledged that Vlad had arrived there first (good thing he’d stayed behind to guard it, and that we were four against two!). We offered to share the space—along with the beer we’d brought along—but they opted to paddle on, reserving the right to return if they couldn’t find something else suitable. We didn’t see them again, so we assume they did.

The next order of business… that beer! After several hours in the sun-warmed boats, it was warm too. What to do? Fortunately, there was a firewall built of cinderblocks at the campsite. I dropped a few cinderblocks into the Hudson to create a submerged “beer cooler” and stashed the cans inside.

Then it was time to set up the tents and change into camp clothes.

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By then, the beer was cold—well, cool enough to drink. We each grabbed a can and set off on a leisurely stroll down the beach, as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky. We clambered over and under a few downed trees, and marveled at the patterns left in the sand by the outgoing tide.

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And… what was that? There was a curious construction among the trees, set back from the beach but now lit up by the low sun that penetrated between the tree trunks. It was white and  spooky-looking, with strange long tie lines. Maybe it was because it was close to Hallowe’en, but it felt haunted.

IMGP7889 cropped smallIMGP7895 cropped smallWe were too intimidated to explore further—almost. Alex and I ventured up to it, and discovered…

… a tent outhouse! Vlad promptly dubbed it the “Blair Witch Outhouse”.

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We went as far as we could on the island, and turned back. The sun was setting, and it was time for dinner, which was a feast: Nuts, cheese, fruit, salmon, and rice. Plus a few more cans of  beer (though the IMGP7983 cropped small“cooler” was now invisible, several feet underwater in the muddy river).

As darkness settled in, we noticed we weren’t alone. There was a bonfire across the river, and what looked like a pickup truck on the beach (though the distance made it hard to tell). And there were the faint strains of music, with drums and the thump-thump-thump of a bass. Obviously some folks were having a party.

But the noise wasn’t enough to disturb us, or even interfere with the crickets that serenaded us from closer by.

Photos from Day 1 (click on any photo to start slideshow):

Day 2

DSC_0080 cropped smallThe morning dawned overcast, but promising to clear. Well, I’m told it did (and the photos are evidence). But to be honest, I was fast asleep, though everyone else was up and about.

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DSC_0022 cropped smallAn hour or so later I poked my nose out of the tent, washed up, and began to prepare breakfast: Coffee (with cocoa), bacon, and fried apples, an Autumn treat!

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As we ate, we looked across the river to the place that had been the site of the bonfire and the source of the music the night before. It seemed quiet and deserted, yet something was different…

“What’s that?” Jean asked. “It looks like a pickup truck in the water!” We squinted and cocked our heads, but couldn’t tell for sure—but it really looked like the pickup truck up to the windshield in the river.

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We were still sitting around the table sipping coffee when two kayaks appeared: A white one and a red-and-white one. It was Mike and Julie—the friends we’d never met! They’d driven down from Albany that morning, and launched from Coxsackie, a few miles north.

We exchanged hugs, and Julie broke open a container of delicious homemade muffins. Then we all got in the boats—leaving the tents in place—and set off to see the sights.

First order of business: Investigate the sunken pickup truck across the river. Was it really a sunken pickup truck?

IMGP8015 cropped smallIt was, indeed. Although the beach appeared deserted, the truck sat several feet into the river, with water swirling around the dashboard. From the trajectory, it appeared as though the truck had driven down a steep hill, across the narrow beach, and straight into the water. It was hard not to believe that the ample merriment of the previous evening had something to do with that!

Still, though, we didn’t want to leap to conclusions. And we worried a bit that something more sinister than a Saturday night party had occurred. After all, this was just across the river from where a dead body had been found about this time last year—by Mike and Julie, no less!

The truck could have been stolen—or worse…

We paddled around the truck, talking loudly. (Mike well captured the occasion in his photos posted here.) Finally we agreed to call 911 to report the drowned truck. Just as we were about to place the call, several disheveled young men appeared on the beach. They advised us they owned the truck, and there was no need to call the cops. They would get another truck and a winch and haul the submerged truck back up on the beach later that day.

“We’re water rats,” one said, “We do this all the time.”

Hmm, I thought to myself. All the time? Seems like an expensive hobby!

But it was clear they wanted us to leave them alone, and we had sights to see! So we paddled back across the river, off into the bright sunshine.

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Mike led us around the back of Stockport Middle Ground, where, he said, we might find an eagle. Sure enough, there was a giant eagles’ nest high in the trees, and a couple of eagles perching nearby, breathtakingly black-and-white against the crisp blue Autumn sky. We spent quite a while there, as the photographers among us vied for the best shots. (Mike’s spectacular shots of that eagle family from his other regular visits are here.)

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Next, we paddled under a railway bridge into Stockport Creek. We meandered down several of the creek’s numerous branches, stopping every now and again to take photos of a particularly brilliantly colored tree in the woods lining the banks. Jean spotted a street sign neatly patterned with bullet holes, which reminded her of living in the South, where street signs sometimes invite target practice.

IMGP8368 cropped small 2Speaking of target practice… it was the first day of duck-hunting season, and we kept a sharp eye out for hunters. But we didn’t expect the fellow we saw in a canoe, armed with a bow and arrow. Another self-described “water rat”!

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A couple of miles up Stockport Creek, we came up to a massive arched stone bridge. Julie said to me, with great economy: “There’s whitewater! And rocks!” Sure enough, just beyond the bridge we reached a rapid over which the waters of the creek cascaded down to us. Alex was delighted: Here was a chance to practice his rock-gardening skills!

IMGP8479 cropped smallWe played in the rocks for a while, then headed back down the creek. We passed a pair of ducks happily nibbling grass in the sunshine. They seemed strikingly IMGP8517 cropped smallunafraid, given that duck-hunting-season was upon us, but we soon found out why: They were the pets of a man who lived nearby, and protected them fiercely. We had a chat with him before paddling out of Stockport Creek into the open Hudson.

By then it was early afternoon, and we were supposed to be meeting up with David. We called him and found he was just leaving the Hudson boat launch, paddling north to meet us.

As we paddled southward I kept scanning the horizon for the flash of paddles. After about an hour, I saw the barest twinkle. Was that…? Could it be…?

It was! We met up with David in the middle of the Hudson and decided to land for a late lunch at the northern tip of Middle Ground Flats, an island just a few minutes’ paddle away. It was a veritable feast! Fruit, nuts, salami, and cheese—and the joyous reunion of old and new friends.

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Then we all paddled down the river to the Hudson boat launch, where David and Alex packed up. Regrettably, Alex had to work the next day, and caught the train home, leaving his boat on the car for Jean to drive home tomorrow.

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Then Vlad, Jean, and I paddled back up the Hudson to our campsite, and another dinner underneath the stars (chili this time). We crawled into our tents and fell asleep to the sound of the cicadas.

Photos from Day 2 (click on any photo to start slideshow):

Day 3

Pink dawnPaddling out

The dawn was gray and pink, with mist rising from the calm river. As usual, I slept in. Jean took a walk on the beach, and Vlad went off for a paddle. His early-morning energy was rewarded. He encountered the sailing barge Ceres, on her way from Vermont to New York City with a load of produce and the larger goal of restarting sailboat commerce along the Hudson after a break of more than 100 years. Ceres—sails down, under engine power—passed him by, heading down the Hudson, a radiant blue against the misty river.

DSC_0532 cropped smallHere’s how the crew of the Ceres described that morning on their blog:

Today dawned calm, with the current just at the end of the ebb.  We slipped the dock at 7:30 and made the most of the last of it, with the Hudson looking like old glass, with the subtle undulations and ripples you sometimes see in 19th-century windowpanes.

Vlad also checked out the drowned pickup truck across the river, and confirmed it had been hauled out of the water, somewhat the worse for wear.

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After breakfast, it was time to pack up the tents and head out for the last time. For a change we decided to head north, up the river, and spent a lovely day exploring the ins and outs of the bays, marshes, and creeks along the eastern shoreline of the Hudson. We made it as far north as Rattlesnake Island, then stopped to picnic at Coxsackie.

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And then it was the now-familiar trip back down the river to the Hudson boat launch, and home.

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All in all, it was a wonderful trip in the boundary conditions between city and country, ocean and river, and Summer and Autumn!

Photos from Day 3 (click on any photo to start slideshow):

Many more of Vlad’s photo from the trip are here. And Mike’s huge collection of photos from his and Julie’s regular paddles around the area is here.

52 responses to “Boundary Conditions: Exploring the Hudson River in Autumn

  1. My arms ache from looking at your photos. I would prefer to be in a canoe and have some one else row! How many miles would you average a day? Great shots. Do you ever fall into the water? I would worry about my camera.

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    • This was not really a distance-paddling trip, more of a camping, relaxing, and social trip :-)

      But if we really have to get somewhere, we can probably do 30 or 40 miles a day, less of course if conditions are poor, and quite a bit more sometimes in New York Harbor where strong tidal currents help us along…

      You need to get a waterproof camera :-)

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  2. Amazing adventures and such gorgeous photos!!

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  3. … and they did find another campsite, but not exactly a high and dry one! …http://www.onewithwater.com/page6.html see Oct-12-14.

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  4. What a brilliant and fun trip Johna! ( And Vlad)

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  5. Super report & gallery — we miss everybody, especially the running ducks, Jack & Quack. “Quack’s the plain one,” said the rustic custodian/owner, who kept repeating — “Don’t shoot my ducks!” The fact that we had cameras not guns did not placate him. We returned several times late October & November, no sign of any of them. Maybe all three took shelter away from water for the duration of hunting season, will check in the spring….

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  6. FAntastic captures!

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  7. Great photography of a beautiful part of the world. Thank you for sharing.

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  8. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing this “boundary” report, and showing that a mosty peaceful connection with nature can be found even near NYC. I am really enjoying the adventurous spirits that you and Vlad have.

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    • Yes, just go a few miles out of NYC (this was considerably farther, of course) and you can see surprisingly wild nature. I think part of that is due to the fact that, in contrast to Western Europe, there just hasn’t been time for every square inch of land to be cultivated for centuries…

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  9. beyond. jealous.
    What BEAUTIFUL images!
    Pssst. I am in the process of nominating you for an award, if you bother with those things. :-)

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  10. Wonderful! This captures the true spirit of the upper river

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  11. What a fabulous adventure! Stunning photos as always and how about those Canada Geese! Hopefully they were thinking abut packing up for the winter. :)

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    • The big flocks flying overhead were probably migratory geese—although many of them migrate to here from still colder regions, I believe—but there are plenty of year-round resident geese as well. Just yesterday we saw a group sitting quite contentedly in the snow in NYC…

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  12. Thanks for the great story and photos of my favorite area of the river. I was at Four Mile Point (pickup truck spot) yesterday, doing a Christmas bird count. It looked a bit different somehow.

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  13. It looks so beautiful, and with mysteries thrown in to boot!

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  14. Fabulous photos! You really had the most wonderful adventure. Thanks for sharing it here. :)

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  15. i love the one where the three of you walked by the beach. relaxed but solid bonding. plus the sky, always love the blue sky :)

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  16. It’s funny, but your kayaks match the autumn colors :)

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  17. what a great trip and awesome photos! the colors are spectacular! thanks for sharing!

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  18. Blair witch outhouse I’m still laughing.

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  19. Wow – fabulous! I don’t know what’s more exciting – the get together with new & old friends, the exploring, the saga of the truck…a great trip. Thanks for taking us along.

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  20. Loved this post and all your photos! I live in Tarrytown and every year wonder when I going to break down and buy a kayak, as I own a terrific tent and grew up canoeing in Canada. This is very inspiring!

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  21. Hi Johna, Just found your blog and read this entry. Good to see your picture as well as of Jean and Alex. Really enjoyed the reading especially since about 44 years ago I lived in your area. Will you be at Sweetwater this year? Thanks for the trip!

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    • Hi, Jack, thanks for reading our blog! Johna will no doubt answer herself, but just a quick word that unfortunately we won’t be at the Sweetwater symposium this year—it’s just a week before we’ll be starting the Everglades Challenge…

      Happy New Year!!

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      • Hi, the Everglades Challenge is something I would love to do but living so far away makes it even more of a challenge. The 10 days before Sweetwater I am going to paddle the wilderness trail in the Everglades. Looking forward to your blog on the Challenge. BTW, Really enjoyed the blog on the paddle around long island.

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        • We’ve just returned from the Everglades ourselves! We didn’t follow the Wilderness Waterway everywhere, but we did paddle from Everglades City to Flamingo (and then through Florida Bay on to Key Largo). Some preliminary photos are here—full writeup forthcoming. It’s a fun trip!

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