Gail Porter, the purveyor of a kayak rental and tour service on Partition Street, held either side of the red kayak. I was instructed to step in with my left foot first. Most of the rest of the group of eleven were already paddling adeptly in their own watercraft, far ahead from the landing point at Saugerties Beach. I trailed, following the wide wakes of the experienced kayakers. Large amounts of watermilfoil plants and duckweed floated on the creek.
“We’re trying to give opportunities to people of all ages to get out in nature,” explained Maxanne Resnick, executive director of the Woodstock Land Conservancy and one of the tour guides of the group’s “Paddling the Watershed” event. The Esopus Bend Preserve is one of the hidden hiking gems of the Hudson Valley, and the group was spearheading the second year of the event to share the experience with interested locals.
A population of Lenape Indians used the site next to the Barclay Heights for fishing and the river for transportation. Prior to 1830, the most prominent outcropping of rock in the preserve was used as a carriage trail to enter the village from the south. The thick grooves in the limestone that once accommodated wagon wheels are still visible today.
The trail led to s scow or ferry that once brought these vehicles to Stony Point. For the brief span of a year, a pontoon toll bridge operated here. Known to some locals as the old Schroeder Farm, the land was used for some 40 years to grow fields of corn. When it was purchased for a preserve in 2003, volunteers extricated a dozen junked cars from the property; according to members of the WLC. A 1960s Volkswagen Beetle was left on the property to amuse hikers.
Kate Berdan, the youngest of the Woodstock Land Conservancy contingent at 23, paddled ahead of the group and pointed out the invasive plants that clung to our oars. While some participants listened attentively, others paddled along the edges of the river, eyes peeled for wildlife or glances at the homes along the banks. Water striders parted around the bows of our kayaks. Dragonflies darted above the water. One elderly woman stopped paddling to eat in the middle of the almost-still water. An earthy smell I couldn’t place permeated the air.
Rounding a sharp bend in the creek, Berdan and Resnick helped us beach and dismount our boats on a “siltation beach.” The surrounding sycamores indicated the boundaries of the floodplain that marked the waterfront entrance to the preserve.
Pointed out to us on the Schroeder Trail were signs of beaver activity, small stumps topped with sharp, gnawed cones. Wild turkeys nest in the preserve in June. Coyotes gather here in winter. Red foxes, noses to the ground, forage here. Eagles have been spotted on river birches. Snapping turtles live, nest and hibernate here year-round.
The small swatch of land features a wide array of local terrains. A lowland meadow and state-designated wetlands are in the floodplain in the eastern portion of the preserve. Hemlocks shade the southern region, and thick forest line the northern portion. Benches, including at Bear Point, overlook the Esopus at varying angles.
As we walked through the preserve, conservancy members took it upon themselves to clear brush and fallen trees along the trail, reasoning that it was their job and that they would “need to get it done anyway.” While we all peered at the maps that had been provide, the old hands knew the trails as though they were a part of themselves. A love of the local ecosystems rushes through these volunteers like a force of nature.
The preserve is open from dawn until dusk, and guided tours are available through both the Esopus Creek Land Conservancy and the Woodstock Land Conservancy. By land, it can be accessed via Kalina Drive. Detailed maps of the trails are available on the Esopus Creek Conservancy website.