Hopping islands in the Hudson River

paddling past Peebles Island

Paddling past Peebles Island.

By Duncan Crary

Ahead of the Rail, River, Hudson II tour this coming weekend, we have a series of posts focusing on the Hudson River this week.

I've got a thing for islands. And not just the tropical resort kind. Show me a dry spot in a parking lot puddle and I'm compelled to adventure onto it.

Every island, like every potential lover, is mysterious from afar. Little worlds unto themselves, they can be paradise or prison -- deep dark sanctuaries where the wild things are. Put the spade to their sands, and you may strike pirate gold.

Here in Albany, our recorded history begins on the islands where friendly Mohicans once welcomed Henry Hudson ashore. I often wonder about that first languageless exchange -- of arrows snapped across the knee and spirits passed around the fire. Today, there are fewer islands and even fewer Mohicans in these parts.

So for the wayfarer of backyards, these are some notes I've logged on a handful of the Hudson River islands among us.

River Week is sponsored by: Albany County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Downtown Albany BID, Dutch Apple Cruises, Harmony Mills, Hudson River Greenway, Nine Pin Cider, Sweet Sue's, and Downtown Troy BID.

River Week in-post ad Dutch Apple

River Week in-post ad Hudson Valley Ramble

Peebles and Van Schaick islands

Peebles Island looking onto Mohawk River
The view from one of the walking paths on Peebles Island.

Probably the best place for an island hop around here is the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers (map. There are about a dozen islands of various sizes forged by the Mohawk River after it plunges over Cohoes Falls and unbraids to the north and south -- some are covered in city blocks, others are wild and undeveloped. Among them, Peebles Island is a gem known for its excellent hiking trails with waterfall views.

Part of Peebles Island State Park includes the much larger neighboring Van Schaick Island, where one can peer through a chain link fence to the remains of the 1916 Matton Shipyard. The last vessel built here was a tugboat in 1983, which is surprisingly recent given the look of the place now.

van schaick island matton shipyard
Matton Shipyard

A little farther down the road is the Van Schaick Mansion, circa 1735, clad in Holland-made bricks and other Dutch features. The house was used as military headquarters by British generals during the French and Indian War, and by generals from the Continental Army during the planning of the Battles of Saratoga. It's open for tours once per month.

van schaick island van schaick mansion
Van Schaick Mansion

Hop to it!

Take a bicycle north from the village of Green Island over the newly opened Black River Bridge to Peebles Island State Park and you'll pass by Van Schaick Island Country Club, the Van Schaick Mansion, and the Matton Shipyard along the way.

On return, try continuing north over the bridge to Waterford, then east over the "Union Bridge" to Lansingburgh. Head south to Herman Melville's house then cross back over the 112th St. Bridge.

There are public boat launches (trailer and cartop) in Lansingburgh at River & 123rd St. and in Waterford below Lock 2. There are cartop carry-to launches on Peebles Island, as well.

Center Island, AKA, Starbuck Island

center island view of troy
Downtown Troy as viewed from Center Island.

Between the city of Troy and the village of Green Island is Center Island (map), though on some maps you'll find it referred to as Starbuck Island. Both are correct, but technically Starbuck Island was merged with another island, through dredge spoils, to form a larger "Center Island" -- which is crossed by the Green Island Bridge.

Starbuck Island got its name from the Starbuck Bros. foundry located there in the 1850s. Next time you're at Slidin' Dirty in downtown Troy, look for the Starbuck brand on the cast iron storefront. And, yes, there is a meandering connection between the name of this island and the Starbucks Coffee Co., which is named after First Mate Starbuck from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

One of Melville's boyhood homes is still standing alongside the river in Lansingburgh. But, until someone proves it, we can only assume the famous author had encountered the Starbuck name while growing up here -- which might have been the inspirational source of his character's name. On the other hand, the Starbucks were among the founding families of Nantucket, where the book's character hails from... and Melville surely knew that. One way or another, there's a connection and I'd get a kick out of seeing a Starbucks Coffee open on "Starbuck Island," though I'm not particularly keen on the chain.*

center island chairs along water
These chairs on Center Island will not survive high tide.

While much of Center Island is developed today -- with a marina, a car wash, and a tightly-packed condominium development -- the northern portion is still wild and offers shady shores, fishing spots and views to neighboring islands and the downtown Troy skyline. Here, below the Troy Federal Lock and Dam, the waters are tidal.

Hop to it!

On foot, walk across the Green Island Bridge and head north through River's Edge Apartments. In the northeast corner where the buildings end, there is a chain link gate across the road to prevent unauthorized vehicular traffic. Pedestrians can pass around the gate and continue beyond to explore, but be respectful of the neighborhood and the private clubhouse on the way.

By water, you can launch a kayak or canoe from Ingalls Ave. in North Central Troy, from the Troy Downtown Marina or from Hudson Shores Park in Watervliet. Caution: the western side of Center Island can get very mucky and is sometimes impassable in low tide. Be sure to paddle around the other nearby islands but keep a safe distance from the power plant, the dam, the lock and the center of the shipping channel.

*(For another connection between Moby-Dick and a now submerged Hudson River island in our neighborhood, lookup "Whale Island.")

Papscanee Island

Papscanee Island farm fields
This farmland on Papscanee Island might be the oldest under cultivation in the US.

Papscanee Island is another multi-island dredge spoil merge on the Hudson, only this time a peninsula results (map). The island was once settled and farmed by the Mohican people. Because about 30 acres are still farmed for corn today, the stewards of Papscanee Island believe this land has been under active agriculture longer than any other land in the United States. (I take this yarn of maize with a grain of salt.)

Papscanee Island shore
The shore along Papscanee Island.

The trails make their way through buggy swamps, wide-open farm fields, and a vine entangled forest that looks like the backdrop to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. Once you reach the eastern riverbank, you'll welcome the cool breeze blowing off the water. This is one of the better spots to watch for big ships, tugs, and barges heading to and from the Port of Albany. (Use this website/app to see which vessels are near.)

Hop to it!

Getting to Papscanee is almost more interesting than the preserve itself, as the road to its northern entrance passes through the highly industrial Port of Rensselaer. I recommend taking Riverside Ave. in downtown Rensselaer past Fort Crailo to American Oil Rd./Riverside Ave. To bike it from Albany, take the pedestrian ramp up to the Dunn Memorial Bridge sidewalk. There is a cartop boat launch at the southern entrance to the preserve, in Schodack.

Hudson River Islands State Park

Google Map of 42.319354,-73.7793227

Skipping over Schodack Island State Park... Hudson River Islands State Park is accessible to the public by boat only. The state park includes Gay's Point peninsula and the island of Stockport Middle Ground. Each features primitive campsites equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, grill and outhouses.

I prefer the sandy beaches of Gay's Point, which the locals affectionately call "Hillbilly Hawaii." This is a wonderful camping experience that mixes up nature with industry, and civilization with wilderness. While here, you are almost guaranteed to see many large ships and barges passing close by. And the Amtrak trains will regularly rush up and down the eastern shore. But you're also likely to spot bald eagles in their natural habitat, a few blue crabs might wash ashore and, if you're extremely lucky, a sturgeon may breach the surface.

Duncans_friends_Roger_Philip_and_Ian_on_Middle_Ground_Flats_island
Duncan's friends Roger, Philip, and Ian on Middle Ground Flats Island.

When I stay there with friends, it's a two-night trip. We set up camp the first night, then spend the second full day paddling downstream with the current to Athens and Hudson, making a picnic stop on the southern tip of Middle Ground Flats Island. We then paddle with the tide back upriver to the campsite for a second night.

Hop to it!

Boat launches (cartop & small trailer) are located in Coxsackie, Hudson, Athens, and in Stockport Creek.

Caution: Signs at these boat launches warn of ocean-like conditions that can occur on the river. This is no joke. High winds and strong currents are game changers.

Resources

Get the skinny on all the Hudson Valley islands by reading A Kayaker's Guide to New York's Capital Region, by Russell Dunn, and A Kayaker's Guide to the Hudson Valley, by Shari Aber.

Duncan Crary will be on an island from now until the ice forms. He is a collaborator on AOA's Rail, River, Hudson! event.

Comments

Not only would it show a good example - but it also would remind people of the law - if the person photographed paddling was wearing a PFD / lifejacket.

In New York State, adults are only required to wear a PFD/lifejacket in pleasure vessels less than twenty-one feet, including rowboats, canoes, and kayaks, BETWEEN NOVEMBER FIRST AND MAY FIRST.

All other times of the year, adults do not need to wear a lifejacket. But a pfd must on board each person. That is an adult pictured paddling in my canoe, in the summer, in safe conditions. And there was a pfd for him and me onboard in accordance to the law.

Here is the law:

http://nysparks.com/recreation/boating/safe-boating/life-jackets.aspx#sthash.Wh6m5FW3.dpuf

By law you are only required to carry a PFD with you. But it's smart and reasonable to wear one at all times. There are too many what-ifs -- you may be a good swimmer, but can you swim when you're unconscious? What if you have to rescue me, it'll be a lot easier if I (and you) have a jacket on. What happens when your PFD is securely strapped to your canoe/kayak which is floating downstream without you? Have you ever practiced putting on and zipping up a jacket in the water in an emergency situation (it's kind of like wrestling an eagle)? Plus they provide a good grab point to pull someone out of the water. I wear mine, it's just dumb not to.

For those who think they're too hot/bulky, we're a long way away from those square orange monstrosities stashed on cruise boats. There are lots of comfortable (and convenient -- with zippered pockets and built in whistles) PFDs cut specifically for paddlers, and inflatables are super small and lightweight.

I've paddled this section of river multiple times, there's always something interesting to see, from a heron rookery on the estuary side of Schodack Island to the osprey nest near Stockport flats. It always amazes me the number of bald eagles I see.

And to second Duncan, while I always have it with me, I only wear my life vest in cold or windy weather, it is a personal choice. When paddling in 3 feet of water it is unnecessary. It would be like wearing one in a swimming pool.

.

My previous comment was more to emphasize that the first photograph of the article should have been left out, because it didn't set a good example - not to reflect whether or not the paddler was following the law.

As -B said, it's smart and reasonable to wear a life vest, instead of just having it in the kayak. What good does it do if you're not wearing it?

From personal experience, I've had to remind children I've kayaked with to wear theirs, only to be told their parents don't make them, or the parents don't wear them either.

My point is that - although they are not required by law to be worn at all times in all conditions - it's about common sense and safety.

Hey Guys,
Glad you enjoyed Camp Swampy.A couple frIends and I cleaned that spot on the tip of the Middleground facing the Athens Light house over 20 yrs. ago,removing broken bottles garbage old stoves etc. and still take care of it.The state does nothing to keep it clean and we continually have to as what we call river pirates stop by when we aren't around and leave their crap there.We call it Camp Swampy because it's hard to sleep over on it for on certain tides and winds you end up quite soggy.It's a great place to hang out,listen to music,have some beers and picnic with the kids.Now my grandson,who is 5, and his friends are enjoying it and we hope to train him to keep up the tradition.He calls it Pirate Island after the Jake and the Neverland Pirates Disney show.
Erich Schubert(Shubs) one of the Original
members of the Swamprat Militia.John Palmateer (Johnny Swamprat) being the other.

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