A fine autumn day in the valley is prime time for kayaking and canoeing on the Hudson. The pleasurably perplexing conundrum is always this: Where shall we put in, and what will be our destination?
I submit for your consideration a day or overnight trip to Esopus Island, situated at River Mile 84 near the eastern bank of the Hudson in the Town of Hyde Park, just southwest of Staatsburg’s Norrie Point. If you own your own watercraft, you can head out on your own; if not, you can join one of the guided tours offered by the outfitter called Atlantic Kayak Tours. For more information, e-mail Info@AtlanticKayakTours.com or phone (845) 889-8461. You can find out more at www.atlantickayaktours.com.
If your image of the boat launch at Norrie Point State Park is just the busy, crowded powerboat marina, think again: As part of the effort to create a Hudson River Watertrail component to the Greenway campaign, a kayak-friendly floating dock has been installed in the cove east of the Norrie Point Environmental Center. The hand-launch platform slants down gently to the water, punctuated by slots in which you set your boat, step in safely and push yourself off. You need to be somewhat wary of nearby motorized craft until you get well clear of the marina, of course; but then it’s not a very long paddle to the island itself.
About a mile long, rocky and partially wooded, Esopus Island lies directly across from the mouth of Black Creek. It was once known as Pell Island, when it constituted part of the large estate of a fruit magnate named Robert L. Pell, Esq. Pellham Farm, Pell’s 1,200-acre spread in the Town of Esopus was an impressive complex. It contained an orchard with over 25,000 apple, peach and pear trees, grapevines and currant bushes, 10 artificial lakes that he used for fish farming, 10 miles of roads, paths and bridges, hay, cotton and tobacco fields, herds of livestock, huge barns, a cider mill, farmworker cottages and a wharf at which four steamers landed each day to carry off his products for export, mainly to Europe. Pell also owned resorts on Overlook Mountain in Woodstock and at Paltz Point, later to become the site of the Mohonk Mountain House.
Pell was one of the largest fruit shippers in the world until the Civil War blockade wiped out his transatlantic market. He was forced to mortgage Pellham Farm in 1869; in 1904 it was sold off to the Redemptorist Fathers. They razed Pell’s mansion and in 1907 built the massive grey granite seminary known today as Mount St. Alphonsus. The facility has been turned into a retreat center in recent years and is in the process of changing ownership to the Hutterian Brethren of the Woodcrest Community and still dominates the blufftop.
Other sights that you might spot on the west bank on your paddle out to Esopus Island include the only wooden lighthouse on the Hudson River, at Esopus Meadows; a boulder known as Indian Rock because it was carved with a silhouette of a Native American chief, now too weathered to make out; and a series of stately buildings. These include Rosemont, once the home of Judge Alton B. Parker, who lost the 1904 presidential election to Theodore Roosevelt, and the Marist Brothers Seminary, formerly the estate of Standard Oil founder Oliver Hazard Payne. A bit further south, and much less ostentatious, is Riverby: the home of the great naturalist John Burroughs.
Esopus Island is one of those relatively undiscovered natural resources in our region, because most people don’t yet realize that it’s now part of the state park system. Camping on it used to be illegal. That didn’t deter powerboaters from the nearby marinas at Norrie Point and the Poughkeepsie Yacht Club from using it as a spot for rowdy parties and leaving their mess behind. But the creation of the Watertrail — which aims to provide kayak/canoe access points less than 10 miles apart, and overnight accommodations less than 15 miles apart, all along the Hudson — has changed matters. The beer cans have been cleaned up and there are now designated camping and picnicking areas on Esopus Island, as well as trails and fishing access spots. There is reportedly at least one geocache hidden on the island.
The Greenway folks offer this description for boaters: “There is a small beach on the southeast side of the island and a few sheltered spots on the west side. A small cove at the north end can shelter a few boats. Watch for the shoals at the extreme north end of the island, which are marked by a nun buoy.” At the Hudson River Watertrail Association website you can view a map of all 94 Watertrail launch and campsites, including this one: www.hrwa.org/pages/trail_map.shtml. Just south of Esopus Island lies tiny Bolles Island, which is privately owned; you can’t land on it, but you can paddle around it.
In an 1894 book titled The Hudson, Wallace Bruce described Esopus Island as resembling “a great stranded and petrified whale,” and noted that even in those days it was a popular destination for canoeists. Other 19th century documents aver that “Indian councils” were held on the island — presumably by members of the Esopus band of the Lenape/Delaware tribe.
But in August 1918, the island also attracted a most improbable visitor from across the Pond, making it an especially appropriate destination in this Samhain season — or at any of the quarter or cross-quarter days, really, or during a full moon. His name was Aleister Crowley.
Yes, that Aleister Crowley: the British world traveler, student of yoga and many other spiritual disciplines, painter, semi-pro mountaineer, lousy poet, notorious libertine, possible spy, experimenter with psychedelic drugs, inventor of an Egyptian-derived religion called Thelema and probably the 20th century’s most famous theoretician and practitioner of Magick (his spelling, to differentiate it from stage magic). In his time the media dubbed Crowley “the wickedest man in the world,” and to this day most people, if they know about him at all, think of him as a Satanist (he wasn’t), an apologist for blood sacrifice, or that guy in the Ozzy Osbourne song.
The blood-sacrifice label stems from Crowley’s proclivity for couching his mystical writings in dense code understandable only to his followers. Having a special interest in the use of sex as a way of accessing elemental energies, he discovered early on that the Victorian censors wouldn’t let him publish anything using explicitly sexual terminology, but were fine with references to blood and killing — rather like the way movies get rated today. So Crowley took to substituting the one for the other, knowing that his acolytes would interpret correctly. Nowadays these alarming coded messages get quoted frequently on fundamentalist websites, taken at face value.
Crowley’s legacy is still a matter of great controversy even among the neo-Pagan community. Some regard him as a gifted seeker of knowledge and brilliant magical adept who contributed a great deal to the body of lore and ritual used in the Craft; others as a spoiled, self-indulgent rich kid with too much time on his hands who gave Paganism a bad name by using his spiritual quest as a way to feed his own appetites. His maxim “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” makes some uncomfortable because it leaves out the “An it harm none” bit of the Great Rede, the Pagan version of the Golden Rule.
Few who have studied his life and works question that Crowley was an extremely bright man who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He had a highly ironic sense of humor and delighted in twitting his critics, deliberately feeding the Satanism accusations by calling himself the “Great Beast” and his girlfriend du jour the “Scarlet Woman.” Pagans have no religious mandate to proselytize, so Crowley really didn’t care what the benighted masses thought of him.
So what was this rascally archmage doing in our neck of the woods at age 42? Good question. There’s a school of thought that he had been working for either British or American intelligence, perhaps for decades, disseminating disinformation by writing propagandistic essays for pro-German publications. These drew attacks on Crowley as a traitor, but closer reading shows that they were blatantly satirical and absurd — such as one in which he argued that England ought to become a colony of Germany because the people of island nations were fit only to become fisherman or pirates. Was it just his dark sense of humor, or was he a government agent? There are clues indicating the latter but no conclusive proof. And it’s hard to fathom what espionage function he might have been serving by camping out for 40 days and 40 nights on an island halfway up the Hudson River in the waning days of World War I: watching for passing U-boats, perhaps?
In any case, Crowley decided to spend some time, which he called a “magickal retirement,” in the local wilderness meditating and working on his translation and commentary for the Tao Te Ching. He had come to America in 1914, and by 1918 was low on funds. So some Hudson Valley friends — including the almost-as-notorious globetrotting journalist William Seabrook of Rhinebeck, best-remembered for giving the Western world the term “zombie” in his account of a sojourn in Haiti learning vodun practices — staked Crowley to a tent, a canoe and some cash for provisions. To their alarm, he spent the money on gallons of red paint, brushes and climbing rope, which he used to paint Thelemic slogans all over the rocky outcrops of Esopus Island.
As it turned out, Crowley’s gamble that he would be “fed by ravens” while in his self-imposed isolation paid off. Curious locals spotted the graffiti and stopped by to chat with the odd man who was sitting on the shore in the lotus position for hours at a time. They started bringing food and drink (and his biographers also say that this “hermit” didn’t have to forswear drugs or women for 40 days, either). John Burroughs was still alive at the time, and while we have no record of their having met, it’s amusing to speculate what a conversation between these two sages might have been like. When it was all over, Crowley claimed to have experienced some profound mystical revelations on Esopus Island, and went on to further adventures in Sicily, Leipzig, Lisbon and back to England, where he died in 1947 — of either a respiratory infection or a heroin overdose, depending on which biography you believe.
Since those times, the memory of the famed magician’s visit has mostly faded from accounts of local history, but students of his career have come back to comb the island for traces of Crowley’s sojourn. There is graffiti to be found on the rocks, but his red-painted exhortations to “Do What Thou Wilt” have entirely faded away. Hikers can find remnants of stone walls on the island, probably predating his stay. And there is a curious stone on the east shore that resembles a megalith, showing signs of having been worked by hand. But let’s not forget that the Esopus people were here long before, privy to spiritual mysteries of their own. Aleister Crowley may be only one in a long parade of seekers over the millennia who chose this spot as a good place to meditate. Hey, the next one could be you!
If you do visit Esopus Island, whether for part of a day or overnight, please leave the red paint at home and adhere to modern-day best practices for outdoor recreation: Carry out whatever you carry in, and leave no trace of your passage. For more information about the many attractions of the Hudson Valley Watertrail, visit www.hudsongreenway.ny.gov/Trailsandscenicbyways/watertrail.aspx.