Plying a quintessential American waterway.
By Cynthia McVay
On a serene fall morning in the Hudson Valley, my eyes savor the billowing, exuberant orange, yellow, red, and still-green treetops as a friend and I set off in two single sculls on the water-glass of Rondout Creek. Rowing saved me this summer from the pandemic’s isolation grip, but the solace it brings comes tinted with the fractured world beyond.
We head east towards the Hudson River. Low tide reveals what’s been underwater all along: sunken trees and moss-covered docks, laden with invasive purple loosestrife’s long fingers. A blue heron stalks the shallow water. Cormorants cling to buoys. When I glance over my shoulder to see what lies ahead, I can’t tell whether the rippling water signals a floating log or a duck until it flies away. Osprey nest every year atop the rusty 30-foot arm of an arthritic crane, which reaches towards the heavens in a state of perpetual supplication. I carry a low-grade fear that a town planner will “clean up” this waterfront, mistaking its complex, adaptive ecosystem for unredeemed industrial wreckage.
We row to where the creek spills into the Hudson River. We gauge the river’s hospitality by the Rondout Lighthouse’s American flag: if it shivers horizontally—which is often, lately—it’s too windy and we turn around. In this COVID year, we are in singles and doubles, rather than quads or eights, and so row less than we normally do on this regal but intimidating river. The Hudson is a draw for its long vistas, the luxury of taking a dozen strokes without having to turn to see what’s ahead, and the excitement-cum-terror when an immense ship approaches. But what beckons most is its sheer grandeur.
“Yep.” We head back up the creek—which, to be clear, is no compromise; it has historical, aesthetic, and natural treasures all its own, delivered on a personal scale. Four bridges offer delectable shade and segment the three miles to the waterfall. We pull by the low-slung blue-and-white houseboat that a long-haired, bare-chested millennial outfitted as a B&B last year. A vomit-hued hospital ship is ripe for creative repurposing. We pass the sheriff’s dock, get a whiff of bacon from Ole Savannah’s southern brunch, hear woodworkers tapping in the barn. Each of several marinas has its own character. Connelly leans toward sailboats—some verging on yachts—and sports a huge, honking rusty hanger. At the far end, some part of it has been UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT for as long as I can remember. On a warm afternoon, small children with bubbled arms jump and shriek in the water I hope they don’t swallow. There’s a little Mexican restaurant, a cluster of fuel pumps, waterfront acreage for sale. A few trailers create a courtyard around an inviting, smoking barbecue.
We head toward the Wilbur train bridge. If we hear a rumble, we decide whether we can make it or to wait out the locomotive. They seem to go on forever, slowly: oil tanks, MAERSK containers, multicolored trailers, flatbeds, and container skeletons, heading in equal measures north and south. Sometimes we yield to impatience and take our chances, pulling quickly, hoping the train won’t kick a rock as we pass 150 feet beneath. So far so good. I wave at the older couple who while away the day on a large sailboat below the trestle and wonder how they trust the century-old structure.
I turn to take a good look before navigating this next part, through Feeney Shipyard, where barges and tugboats double- and triple-park and sometimes kick up debris we dodge in our fragile sculls. For over a hundred years, Feeney’s has been fixing and building marine vessels. I see a microcosm of America at work. It’s been busy, almost jubilant, the past few years. What does that say about global shipping and America’s economy? Are the ships out of commission while we get things straight with China? Or is there so much commerce that demand for more capacity reaches all the way back here? STATUE CRUISES, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island rests here, too, this pandemic summer, her windows masked with strand board, a metaphor for our fractious and fraying republic, where New York tourism has been suspended along with the hopes of immigrant children.
We row alongside the vast vessels, their sides smeared in orange and green like Richter paintings scraped by the lock walls of the Panama Canal, or the port of Newark. We’ve watched the progress on PILOT No.1 metamorphosing from oil spill response vessel to pilot boat mother ship. Cranes at rakish angles hoist American flags hundreds of feet into the sky. Workers in hardhats and protective visors scrape and paint; even on weekends, sparks fly. In the scrapyard at the far end of Feeney’s, a four-taloned claw wrangles a pile of old cars and lawnmowers. I applaud the efforts to recycle, but I worry the tall stack might topple into the creek. Despite my environmentalist bent, I appreciate the shipyard’s industrial beauty, productivity, and authenticity.
Just beyond the shipyard, two weeks ago, a 20-foot motorboat revved into high gear—heedless of the NO WAKE zone—creating a large, threatening wave. After passing me, they bore down directly at my friend as if playing a game of chicken. She shook for 10 minutes.
All summer, we’ve dealt with an unarticulated political rift on the Rondout Creek. Rowers, sailors, and kayakers seem to share a connection: physical exertion, poetry of motion, proximity to nature. Motorboats tend to gun their way down the creek, blasting music and heaving blue exhaust mixed with cigarette smoke, American flags on the bow and Trump pennants on the stern. Boat names may contain whimsy, but many are imbued with aggression or hard partying, like I CAN’T REMEMBER.
This morning, for almost the entire row to Eddyville, a motorboat creeps along behind us, its disconcerting presence hard to read. The boat is not only following us, but the rules—going slowly so as to not create a wake, which can easily unsteady a 25-foot-long, slender scull. It stops near a wetland inlet just short of where we habitually turn around. As we pass the boat on our way back, I make out three men and a couple of children. The morning sun catches a translucent line as one man casts a reel.
I wonder if I should thank them for going slowly. My instinct is to reinforce good behavior through acknowledgement, but I’ve learned it can backfire if it rubs up against the wrong sort of masculinity, the kind that rejects masks and common courtesy as outrageous threats against American liberty. I decide to take my chances.
“Thank you for going slowly.”
“Sure,” he says.
I smile in relief. Just then, I sense a flutter, a shadow. I look up. Flashes of white pop against the blue sky.
“Look! A bald eagle,” I exclaim. It lands in a nearby, leafless tree.
“Hey, kids. A bald eagle!” They move to that side of the boat to see.
We all watch together, riveted.
When they were named the national bird in 1782, bald eagles soared in the hundreds of thousands. By the mid-1960s habitat destruction, hunting, and pesticides reduced their numbers to 450 nesting pairs in the continental United States. Thanks to environmental protections, bald eagles came off the endangered species list in 1995. Every time we see one on our rows, we pause in awe.
I nod at the family and carry on. I exhale as I drive—push with my feet and pull with my arms, feeling the resistance of the water—and inhale on recovery, as I pull up the slide. That’s what this year has been: constant recovery.
I want to believe the eagle is an omen of good news. We are battling for our country and everybody in it, for the American flag and all it represents, for the planet’s future. The fall is progressing. Soon the boats will be put away—sailboats, motorboats, our sculls. The docks will be up. The days will shorten. I will miss rowing and the profound beauty the creek offers as winter locks up the waterways. But I will have something to look forward to in the spring.
Cynthia McVay G’88 WG’88 is an artist, writer, and rower based in the Hudson Valley and St. Croix.