Paddlers’ paradise

Photo of kayaker by Dion Ogust.

One of the most effective ways in which a community can foster a healthy citizenry is by maximizing the appeal and user-friendliness of its resources for outdoor recreation. Esopus got on that bandwagon big-time during the years when Ray Rice was town supervisor, making plenty of user-friendly public-accessible parks a top priority. The happy result is that Esopus is now well-stocked with choices of places to hike, both small municipal parks and larger preserves run by organizations like Scenic Hudson, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the West Esopus Landowners’ Association and the John Burroughs Association.

So that takes good care of exercise for the legs, but what about the upper body? The next step was to take advantage of the many bodies of water that enrich the township, including miles of Hudson River shoreline. Under the leadership of current supervisor John Coutant, the townsfolk used the town’s bicentennial in 2011 as a reason to spotlight Esopus as a paddlers’ paradise, with organized excursions heading out from various points of departure. Whether you prefer kayaks or canoes, still or running water, gentle or more rugged watery adventures, Esopus has a destination (or several) to suit your tastes and your equipment.

Although Esopus has several points on the Hudson that were designated launch sites for kayaks and canoes, the problem was that because of water chestnuts only a few of them were usable during high summer. That evil, invasive water plant crowds out all competition in its ecological niche, clogs up harbors against navigation, strips the river ecosystem of oxygen and turns its beaches into a prickly minefield for barefoot waders: the dreaded water chestnut (Trapa natans). By July, it turns most bays and inlets of the Hudson into dense mats of impenetrable green. Eventually they wash up on shore in rotting, stinking piles.

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One acre of the plant produces enough spiny seeds to cover 100 acres of watery real estate the following year. And the water chestnut doesn’t even have the saving grace of supplying the Chinese cuisine ingredient of the same name. By last year it was posing a serious threat to recreational use of town natural resources including George Freer Park, Sleightsburg Park, Lighthouse Park, Esopus Meadows Preserve and the Black Creek Forest Preserve.

Enter our hero Chester, and everything started to change. For non-motorized boaters, the most exciting milestone of 2011 was the town’s acquisition of its new aquatic workhorse, affectionately known as Chester.

Chester — more formally known as Alpha Boats Unlimited’s Model FX-7 — is a water-chestnut harvester, an ungainly-looking blue-and-orange metal contraption that plies the beaches, bays and inlets of the Hudson chomping up the nasty green invaders in a 17-foot-wide swath. Chester can cut through ten feet — about half a ton of water-chestnut plants — per minute. The minced-up plants are piled into massive floating mounds that quickly compost, sink and dissolve. Chester can transform a once-clogged harbor into a maze of navigable channels that are inviting to paddlers, fishermen and wildlife alike. Esopus residents report increased activity of bald eagles, ospreys, egrets, swans and herons in the cleared areas.

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