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Down by the river

Explore the mighty Hudson River with your kids

Explore the mighty Hudson River with your kids

There are numerous ways to turn a trip on the river into an educational experience for the whole family.

The Walkway Over The Hudson provides an unparalleled bird’s eye view of the Hudson River. At 1.28 miles long, the Walkway is now the longest elevated pedestrian bridge in the world. Photo by Robert Rodriguez Jr.

The Mahicans called it “Mahekanituck,” meaning “the river that flows both ways.” Robert Boyle called it “the most beautiful, messed-up, productive, ignored and surprising piece of water on the face of the earth.” We call it the Hudson, named after the British explorer who sailed a Dutch ship up it in 1609 and told Europe of the wonders he found there.

Two years after his voyage up the river that would bear his name, Henry Hudson’s crew mutinied and cast him, his son, and seven other crew members adrift in an open faced boat in cold Northern Canadian waters. They were never seen again. So goes the last 400 years of history along the Hudson River: Sometimes full of hope and possibility, sometimes abandoned and left for dead.

The Hudson River is not just an river, It’s a tidal estuary; where the salt waters from the Atlantic Ocean and the freshwaters flowing down from Lake Tear of the Clouds atop New York State’s highest peak meet and mingle, governed by the tides.

This means that the southern half of the river, from Troy down to Manhattan, changes directions several times a day. It also makes for an astonishingly productive ecosystem home to over 200 species of fish.

Early European settlers wrote that the Hudson was so full of fish they could walk across the river on their backs. While that’s probably an exaggeration, the enormous heaps of oyster shells found via archeological digs along the Southern Hudson River show that it may have not been a very big exaggeration.

As an important avenue for trade and transportation, the Hudson was a vital component in the Revolutionary War with both sides viewing the river as a key to victory. The British figured if they could control the river, they would soon crush the rebellion. Fierce battles raged up and down the river from 1776 to 1778. Finally, General George Washington laid a massive iron chain across the river from his base at West Point, blocking the Hudson off. The fighting moved south until the war ended a few years later.

The river’s importance for trade increased with the popularity of the steamboat (thus reducing sailor's dependance on the Hudson’s finicky tides) and the construction of the Erie Canal, which connected the river to Cleveland and the Great Lakes. But the increase of trade led to the gradual decrease of the river’s health. By the middle of the 20th Century, the Hudson was a smoggy mix of raw sewage, household garbage, industrial waste and goodness only knows what else. The marine population dwindled, the bald eagles and ospreys who once soared along the river left, and the Hudson became a symbol of unchecked greed and avarice.

The people who lived on the river began to fight back, most famously in 1963 when Con Edison sought to turn Storm King Mountain into the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. In what is considered the birth of America’s environmental movement, a group of concerned citizens formed a group called Scenic Hudson and eventually blocked Con Ed from building the plant. Suddenly the people of the Hudson Valley realized that the fate of the river was theirs to control. Groups like Riverkeeper and Clearwater joined Scenic Hudson in fighting for tougher laws to protect the river.

The late folk icon Pete Seeger and his friends built the Clearwater, based on the designs of the old Dutch sloops that sailed the river in cleaner times, and journeyed up and down the Hudson in order to inspire others to join the fight.

When he was told that the river was beyond hope, he replied “If there’s hope for the human race, there’s hope for the Hudson.”

A young volunteer cleans up Waryas Park in Poughkeepsie as part of Riverkeeper’s annual Riverkeeper Sweep. This past May, over 1,900 volunteers of all ages pitched in at 82 different sites, stretching from Manhattan to Albany. Together, they pulled more than 31 tons of trash from the river and its various tributaries and shorelines. The health of the Hudson River has improved dramatically over the past 20 years thanks in parts to the tireless efforts of groups like Scenic Hudson, Clearwater and Riverkeeper. Photo by Leah Rae/Riverkeeper

READ MORE: Kids will love these fun places to dip the toes

Fifty years after the battle for Storm King Mountain, the Hudson River is in the middle of a miraculous comeback. Bald eagles and ospreys fly the skies once more. Shad, Atlantic Sturgeon and Striped Bass once again swim in its waters. The fish stocks are too fragile for anything as large scale as commercial fishing, and swimmers need to regularly check the water quality before taking a dip, but the river that inspired America’s first painters, poets and writers is now inspiring the next generation of Hudson Valley residents.

But only if you get out and enjoy it — and fight to protect it. Here are just a few of the ways that you and your family can make the most out of the fact that you’re lucky enough to call this beautiful, messed-up, productive, ignored and surprising piece of water your home.

Take a hike

For a bird’s eye view of the river, head to either Poughkeepsie or Highland for the 1.28 mile long Walkway Over The Hudson. Originally a railroad bridge, and the first bridge that spanned the Hudson River, the Walkway is now the longest elevated pedestrian bridge in the world and offers unparalleled views.

If the kids are a little iffy about heights, consider a hike at Poet’s Walk in Red Hook instead. This 128 acre park features almost two miles of gently meandering trails, numerous scenic overlooks of the river, and plenty of wooden pavilions and benches to rest on along the way.

For a hike that brings you right up to the river itself, the Tivoli Bay Trails wind alongside the ecologically vital wetlands and marshes of Tivoli Bay next to Bard College. Tivoli North Bay also features a canoe launch, where the Department of Environmental Conservation runs free canoe trips throughout the summer. Free canoe trips? Read on . . .

Poet’s Walk in Red Hook is a 128-acre park that features almost two miles of gently meandering trails with numerous scenic overlooks of the Hudson River, and plenty of wooden pavilions and benches to rest on along the way. Photo by Robert Rodriguez Jr.

Come sail away

There’s numerous ways to turn a trip on the river into an educational experience for the whole family. The aforementioned Public Canoe Program offers free canoe trips led by DEC naturalists in North Tivoli Bay and other Hudson River estuaries throughout the summer.

The program is open to anyone 6 years old and up, and reservations must be made in advance. Call 845-889-4745, x106 for more info and visit dec.ny.gov for a schedule.

The legendary sloop Clearwater, a floating environmental classroom, also offers educational public sails throughout the summer in addition to its many area appearances; go to clearwater.org/come-sailing/ for a schedule and more information.

Over at the Beacon Sloop Club, the sloop Woody Guthrie makes free sails during weeknights in the summer; visit beaconsloopclub.org to learn more.

But one of the best ways for kids to learn about the river is to learn how to sail it; the Beacon Sloop Club runs sailing classes throughout the spring and the Ophira out of Saugerties runs a Youth Sailing School that includes a “Little Puffs” program for 8-11 year olds. (ophirasailing.com)

Ride the rails

It’s easy for daily commuters who ride the Metro-North to take the Hudson Line’s river views for granted. But for kids who are obsessed with trains (you probably know a few,) taking the train is a treat and the scenic views of the Hudson rushing by are a bonus.

Head to the nearest Hudson Line station during off-peak hours when the fare is cheaper and buy tickets from one of the ticket machines on the platform. Kids under 5 ride for free, while 5-11 year olds pay a half fare.

The destination isn’t the point but since you have to go somewhere: The Peekskill Station features a riverside playground with a rocky beach and stunning views of the bend in the Hudson River at Peekskill Bay.


Shine a light

There are seven lighthouses on the Hudson River: The Little Red Lighthouse in Upper Manhattan, the 1884 Lighthouse at Sleepy Hollow, the Stony Point Lighthouse, the wooden Esopus Meadows Lighthouse, the Rondout Lighthouse in Kingston, the Saugerties Lighthouse and the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse.

All of them except the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse can be visited, and the Saugerties Lighthouse can even be booked for overnight stays.  Visit hudsonlights.com for more information.

The Saugerties Lighthouse is one of seven lighthouses along the Hudson River.

Come on in, the water’s fine

Yes, it’s safe to swim in the Hudson, although it’s a good idea to check in with Riverkeeper before taking a dip.

Go to riverkeeper.org/water-quality/hudson-river and use the online interactive map to get the most recent data on the water quality in your area.

All clear? Then head over to one of the Hudson River’s four official swimming beaches: Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson, River Pool in Beacon, Kingston Point Beach or the Sojourner Truth Ulster Landing Park in Saugerties.

Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer who lives in Beacon with his wife and son.