ATHENS, N.Y. When Larissa Suparmanto told friends she was going to paddle her kayak 148 miles down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City, there were skeptics.
"People think it's polluted, or dangerous," said Suparmanto, who grew up in suburban Albany. "But it's beautiful. It's quiet, relaxing. You see beautiful historic sites, and the wildlife is fantastic."
Kayaking on the Hudson used to be mainly a pursuit for whitewater enthusiasts in the Adirondacks, where the river surges through rocky gorges. But paddling on the lower half of the Hudson has grown increasingly popular in recent years as kayakers discover the pleasure of taking a close-up tour of the valley's natural and historic attractions.
More than a dozen businesses have sprung up to meet area demand for kayaking lessons, equipment, rentals and tours. Outfitters like Hudson Valley Outfitter, located in Cold Spring, begin running guided tours as early as April, weather permitting, and start renting out kayaks around Memorial Day.
An annual event, the Great Hudson River Paddle, a 148-mile, 10-day kayaking trip from Albany to New York City, is held every summer to promote the Hudson Water Trail. This year it is scheduled for July 8 to 17. Festivals will be held along the river in Albany, Kingston, Poughkeepsie and Yonkers in conjunction with the trip.
To promote the Hudson as a recreational, cultural, and economic resource, the state is also developing the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail, which stretches 156 miles from Saratoga County north of Albany to Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan.
In 2001, Gov. George Pataki appropriated $1 million to develop the trail, initially conceived of in 1992 by a private group of paddlers called the Hudson River Watertrail Association. The state funding will help establish at least one access point every 10 miles, a series of campsites, interpretive centers, parking and restroom facilities, and riverfront kiosks with information about local businesses and attractions.
The Hudson River Watertrail Association recently published the sixth edition of a 160-page guidebook with detailed maps of the river and information about its cities, towns, historic sites, parks, marshes, beaches, boat launches, and wildlife.
Water trails also are being developed in other parts of the country, including the proposed Chesapeake Tidewater Trail, the Potomac River Water Trail, and trails along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, the Housatonic in Connecticut, the Des Moines River in Iowa, and the Snohomish River in Washington.
"It's all about creating tourism and connecting Main Streets to the waterfront," said Carmella Mantello, executive director of the Hudson River Valley Greenway Communities Council. "Communities are recognizing that the river is a precious jewel, and that there's an opportunity not only to increase recreational benefits but also to provide an economic boost."
Along the Hudson, as on other urban rivers, there are some ugly industrial sites, and one of the largest PCB cleanup projects in history is being planned along a 40-mile stretch of river bottom north of Albany. But the river's beauty outshines any blight, proponents say, and it's clean enough for swimming and drinking.
"In the four years that I've been paddling on the Hudson, I've seen the number of bald eagles skyrocket," Suparmanto said. "There are four nesting across the river from my put-in site near Albany."
"We came here for the challenge and fell in love with the communities along the way," said Connie Hyman, a nurse and kayaking instructor who came from Pacific Palisades, Calif., to join the annual Great Hudson River Paddle last summer .
"We were pleasantly surprised by how much kayaking people do here," Hyman said. "We met 86-year-old guys, 70-year-old women, all kinds of people paddling out to join us along the way."
The Hudson sometimes looks cloudy and can smell funky. But Scott Keller, a seasoned kayaker and river guide, said that doesn't mean the water is polluted.
"You've got a tidal river here," Keller said. When it's at low tide, "you're smelling the mud in the intertidal zone. ... Also, the Catskill Mountains are full of clay. When the rain washes down from the mountains, it puts a lot of silt in the river which makes it look cloudy. It's really quite clean. A lot of communities use it as drinking water."
With wind-whipped 3-foot waves and churning wakes from oceangoing tankers, the lower Hudson River can be dangerous in an open canoe. But such hazards just add thrills for kayakers.
"These are sea kayaks, they're built to handle those waves," Keller said. "When a big wake comes along, we'll go out and surf it just for fun."
The growing popularity of the water trail has led to business growth. "Six years ago, there were two kayak outfitters in the Hudson Valley," Mantello said. "Now there are 12 to 15."
"We're just blown away by how huge kayaking has become," said Teri Barr, who started Hudson Valley Outfitter four years ago. "Everyone wants to rent kayaks. I have about 80 in my fleet now."
Many of Barr's customers are New York City residents who take an hour-long train ride to the Cold Spring station, which is near the river. Barr's guides meet customers at the train for kayak tours of Constitution Marsh, a 270-acre tidal marsh managed as a bird sanctuary by Audubon New York.
"It's an amazing tour," Barr said. "We're booked up every weekend with a waiting list." The outfitter also offers tours of Bannerman's Castle, a turreted ruin that sits prominently on an island in the Hudson.
"People are discovering that not only is the Hudson a great place to come down to and look at from shore, but it's also a place where you can also get in the water and have a lot of fun," Keller said.
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