TAKE ME TO THE RIVER. Or at least show me how to get there.

November 18, 2008 at 11:03 pm 1 comment

      Although entirely bordered by it on the west, Columbia County has a “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” kind of rapport with the Hudson, one of 14 American Heritage Rivers. Unless you are a boater or frequently cross the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, you might even forget it’s there, which seems a pity considering its extravagant beauty.
      Transportation routes, topography and private property conspire to keep the river more unseen than seen, despite its size: At water level, only a narrow strip of flat land borders the river before the bank rises. And this strip–once promoted by the New York Central Railroad as part of “The Water Level Route” to the Midwest–is occupied by the tracks of today’s CSX Railroad, over which freight and passenger trains thunder north and south.
      In Columbia County, only one bridge carries foot and vehicle traffic over and above the tracks, at Hudson’s Waterfront Park and marina. Look both ways anywhere else. The railroad right-of-way is a barrier that isn’t going to go away, and it feels as much mental as physical. It has also served to discourage waterfront parks and recreational areas.
      Topographically, no palisades or mountains corset the river in Columbia County as they do elsewhere. But you need to find the right spot at the right elevation to get a good look down into the river valley, and many of the best vantage points are occupied by private homes. If you crane your neck, you may catch a river view beyond the backyards of some. But other ridge top homes are grander, and they’re discreetly proprietary of their river view.
      Yet even with all these limitations, Columbia County offers a surprising number of places–some relatively unknown and under-visited–where the glories of the river can be accessed, viewed and admired. A ramble to these places-and a survey of river visibility, north to south–starts on Route 9J at the border of Columbia and Rensselaer counties where the view to the west is of Schodack Island. Schodack Island State Park is accessible from Castleton-on-Hudson, but state officials have locked the gates this winter because of budget cuts.
      Pass the tip of the island, and the river comes into view at its full breadth. The road descends to water level and arrives at the entrance to the Swyer Preserve, the first of several riverside properties in the county owned or protected by government or non-profit agencies and open to the public.
      The Lewis A. Swyer Preserve at Mill Creek, a 95-acre freshwater tidal swamp and inter-tidal mud flats, is owned and maintained by the Eastern New York Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. The Con- servancy purchased the land in 1989 with funds donated by The Swyer Family Foundation and constructed a boardwalk trail through the very wet wetlands. The trail leads to a wooden lookout tower, just east of the CSX tracks.
An ecological oddity
      Fresh water tidal swamps are rare. Of only five in New York State, three are in Columbia County: Stockport Creek, Rogers Island, and Swyer. The Swyer Preserve is about as near to a bayou as to be found at this latitude, and walking through it is pleasantly spooky. Snapping turtles, water snakes, estuary beggar ticks and red-backed salamanders are among its fauna; and the flora includes phragmites, virgin’s bower, swamp oak, and kidney leaf mud plantain.
      But the pleasure must be deferred for now. The Swyer trail is closed pending repair of the boardwalk, which has buckled in several places. “Flooding, ice jams, frost heaving, and the soft shifting soils all combine to make maintenance of the existing boardwalk difficult,” says Troy Weldy, Director of Ecological Management for the Nature Conservancy.
      “To fix the problem,” Weld says, “we aim to install an elevated boardwalk on helical piers drilled deep into the soil.” But he notes that the estimated $500,000 cost of a new handicap-accessible boardwalk, with the addition of a canoe and kayak launch, was “higher than we anticipated.” The organization hopes to have the funds in hand by spring and reopen the preserve to hikers in 2009.
      Back on 9J, not far south of Swyer, comes the first of two historical markers denoting places where Henry Hudson put to shore in 1609. Here, it states, Hudson was “entertained by Kinderhook Indians” on September 19.
      A pair of imposing homes built by Henry Van Schaack in the early 1800s announce the hamlet of Stuyvesant (formerly Kinderhook Landing), one of the few communities directly on the shore of river. Its little waterfront park and landing are a pleasant place to watch ships, boats and trains go by. The old riverside train station is being restored by the Stuyvesant Historical Society.
The ice harvest
      Not far south of Stuyvesant is a highpoint, both literally and figuratively: Nutten Hook Reserve, the northernmost area in the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve. Known collectively as Stockport Flats, the area encompasses Nutten Hook, Gay’s Point and Stockport Middle Ground Island; the mouth of Stockport Creek and a portion of the upland bluff south of the creek; the dredge spoils and tidal wetlands between Stockport Creek and Priming Hook; and the northern end of Priming Hook. (The area overlaps Hudson River Islands State Park–Gay’s Point and Stockport Middle Ground–which is accessible only by boat.)
      Nutten (the hamlet spells it “Newton”) Hook is notable not just for its ecological distinction as an area where ocean tide interacts with inland ecology. It also happens to be listed on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places, because the ice industry had one of its biggest production centers here.
      A small parking area on 9J fronts on a roadway (no vehicles allowed) that crosses the railroad tracks, passes an old farmhouse and barn, and leads to a trail to one of the best spots for viewing the river in the entire county. Nutten Hook has a sweeping view to the north, and from its highest spot–a short and not difficult climb–there are more fine views of the river below.
      Nutten Hook is also a place that has a story to tell, and interpretive signs document it well: How men harvested ice from the river, stored it in a great warehouse (now gone), and shipped it south to New York City when hot weather arrived.
      One structure remains from the 1880s industrial complex, a starkly beautiful ruin of the brick power house with its lofty chimney. Power generated there kept the conveyor belts running to move ice blocks from the shore up to the immense ice house, where they were packed in straw to await summer demand.
      A trail (the Federal Path) skirts the bluff beyond the power house, leading to a ferry landing that was active until the 1930s. Or visitors can drive a little farther down 9J to Ferry Road, which also leads to moorings for the old Coxsackie ferry. Interpretive signs relate its history and describe the natural environment.
      Continuing south on 9J, the road veers eastward to connect with Route 9, and the river is no longer visible. But turning right on County Route 22 takes you back to the riverside, where Stockport Creek, described by an onsite sign as “one of the ten largest tributaries to the Hudson Estuary,” joins the river. Signs also describe the Stockport Creek State Wetlands to the south and the Hudson River Island State Park to the north, and explain how in 1926 the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river to create a navigable channel from the port of Hudson to the port of Albany. Dredged material created the peninsula at Gay’s Point as well as Stockport Middle Ground and other smaller islands.
Open space at city’s edge
      Beyond Stockport, Route 9 approaches the county’s most densely populated area. But some of the riverside’s most enchanting overlooks also lie ahead. Turn right on Rod & Gun Road in Stottville to reach the newest protected area along the riverfront, a 6.5 acre public park under development, with long views of both the river and the Catskill Mountains. Part of a dairy farm, the land was purchased by Scenic Hudson, Inc., working with the Columbia Land Conservancy.
      The park will be the centerpiece of one of the county’s longest swaths of preserved riverside land. Not only is it surrounded by 92 acres of protected wetlands and meadows, but a short distance to the south–and possibly connected to the new park by a trail some day–lie the 714 acres of the Greenport Conservation Area, which is owned by the Open Space Institute and managed by the Columbia Land Conservancy.
      The area contains more than four miles of trails that meander through open fields, deciduous forest, and dense cedar groves. A one-mile trail with a gravel surface, the first “access for all” trail in the Hudson Valley, is usable by persons in wheelchairs or those with limited mobility.
      The area also features a picnic pavilion, a gazebo and an overlook with panoramic views of the tidal marsh, wetlands, and Middle Ground Flats, with mountains in the distance. To get there, turn off Route 9 onto Joslen Boulevard; the entrance is opposite the Joslen Motor Lodge.
      The City of Hudson exists because of the river. It began as the river landing for the town of Claverack, and it grew into the county’s only urban center thanks to the developing port and the industry it generated. Today, with a new waterfront park and a waterfront plan to guide future changes, the city and the river have a more relaxed and less industrial relationship. The old promenade on the bluff above the river at the base of Warren Street remains a fine place to take in the view to the west.
“The center of the world”
      Heading south out of Hudson, Route 9G/23B traverses the western edge of Mt. Merino. For river views along this stretch, turn right on Mt. Merino Road. One of the county’s most picturesque river views is near the highest point on the road, where woodlands open to reveal the Athens Lighthouse far below. The road continues past house after house with enviable views of the river, and an open field on the west side affords a stellar view of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. A short way beyond the field,
      turn right onto Hallenbeck Road and take it to the end to gaze across the railroad tracks toward Rogers Island, 281 acres of uplands and wetlands available for fishing, hunting, trapping, and snowshoeing.
      Fancy a walk, jog or bike ride across the river? Park your car at the eastern end of the bridge and sally forth on the Rip Van Winkle’s walkway.
      Olana, an undisputed jewel of the Hudson River Valley, awaits a little farther down 9G. The fantastical 19th century home of Hudson River School artist Frederic Church has one of the most commanding views to be found along the entire length of the river. Church regarded the spot as “the center of the world” and it’s not hard to see why when you stand on his home’s terrace and look south. The 250 acres of grounds are open daily throughout the year; house tours are available Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the winter months.
      Continuing south, views of the river are most easily found by turning off 9G onto side roads such as Oak Hill Road or Northern Boulevard, which leads to an access road for the Anchorage, a Town of Germantown boat launch. Fishing is said to be good here, and so are the views, especially if you ignore the large cement plant to the west.
      Woods Road parallels 9G south of the Germantown hamlet, but the deep wooded lots of the old estates lining it get in the way of the view. So follow Woods Road or Route 9G to County Route 6, which leads to Clermont State Historic Site, the home of Chancellor Robert Livingston. Its sweeping lawns and views make Clermont a spectacular conclusion to the tour. Although that pesky railroad lies just below the hillside, it’s out of view and, until a train roars by, out of mind. Clermont’s grounds and garden are open throughout the year; the home is open only on Saturdays and Sundays during the winter.
Ours to enjoy
      So what’s the total score for Columbia County’s river access? No question but it would be better if a railway had not interposed itself between the county and the river long ago, in days when no one thought to protest the march of progress in a booming nation and state. But thanks to happenstance, low population density, the efforts of both governmental agencies and environmental organizations, and increasing determination in the county’s riverfront towns to preserve river access and views, the score is not bad: A large portion of the county’s shoreline and its unique ecology are protected.
      Still, wouldn’t it be nice to walk safely along the shore? Is it fair to say that a riverside trail of any meaningful distance on the east bank is impossible because of the railroad, and that the most that can be achieved is sections of trail here and there, mostly on high ground and ridge lines, with views of the river?
      Those questions were put to Mark Castiglione, Acting Executive Director of the Hudson River Valley Greenway, a state agency whose mission is to “preserve, enhance and develop the world-renowned scenic, natural, historic, cultural and recreational resources of the Hudson River Valley.”
      “It’s certainly not impossible if you consider a ‘riverside’ trail one that perhaps only has visual access to the river,” said Castiglione. “Ultimately, the Greenway trail will be a ‘string of pearls’ that links together existing parks, trails, bikeways, historic sites, and historic community centers, while providing opportunities for physical access to the Hudson River along its length.”
      A Greenway planning map indicates possible additional trails in the future that, together with existing trails such as those in the Greenport Conservation Area, would form a continuous near-river trail from north of Nutten Hook all the way to Hudson’s Riverfront Park. If that continuous trail comes into being, Columbia County and the Hudson will be on better terms than ever.


The Independent


Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Public Waterfront, Region. Tags: , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. matt  |  November 22, 2008 at 1:50 am

    Thanks for posting this story. It’s really unfortunate that so much of the Hudson is cut off by the train tracks.
    I enjoy your site.



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