Explore the islands of the Hudson River

 

Construction of Francis Bannerman VI’s elaborately detailed castle/arsenal on Pollepel Island began in 1901; it was not completed in Bannerman’s lifetime, and – not surprisingly, considering that it had been built to house 30 million surplus munitions cartridges – an explosion in 1920 collapsed parts of the buildings. (Illustration by Will Lytle)

Are you dreaming of an island getaway, but unable to spare the time or the cash to paddle your way around the Aegean or the Caribbean? If you’re confident in your kayaking/canoeing skills and have access to the right equipment, the mighty Hudson offers numerous opportunities closer to home, both for overnight and day trips. The Hudson River Greenway Water Trail website at http://hudsonrivergreenwaywatertrail.org/findaccesssites is a goldmine of destinations all along the river – there were 116 boat-accessible sites at last count, with more planned. But let’s focus here on spots on islands, or providing close access to them, south of Albany and north of Westchester. Moving from north to south, we find:

Schodack Island State Park

Schodack Island State Park sits off the eastern shore of the Hudson River 13 miles south of Albany; approximately seven miles of Hudson River and Schodack Creek shoreline bound the 1,052-acre site. A portion of the park shelters a Bird Conservation Area that is home to bald eagles, cerulean warblers and a great blue heron rookery of about 50 nests. Eight miles of multi-use trails wind through a variety of ecological communities. There are two launch sites: a very nice boat ramp suitable for both trailers and nonmotorized craft on the Hudson River side and a smaller, kayak-friendly cartop launch on the Schodack Creek. Park facilities include 66 campsites (new in 2016) with showers nearby, eight miles of bike and nature trails, a playground with volleyball nets and a horseshoe pitch, and pavilions with picnic tables and grills. Interpretive signage highlights the park’s historic and environmental significance.

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Once an archipelago of six islands, now joined into an automobile-accessible peninsula with dredged fill after the creation of the deepwater navigation channel to Albany, Schodack Island has an awesome historical claim to fame: It was the site of the central council fire of all the Mahican peoples. In fact, the name Schodack is an amalgamation of the Mahican terms ishoda (“fire plain”) and akee (“land”). It’s worth a trip just to walk these trails and contemplate the weighty decisions about the fate of an entire indigenous tribe that were made here over the course of millennia before the Half Moon ever sailed by.

There are also three Greenway Water Trail mainland access points on the western shore of the Hudson, directly across from Schodack Island, that can serve as alternative approaches for boaters:

Coeymans NYS Boat Launch, Town of Coeymans, Albany County: has restaurant facilities and kayak racks, in addition to a launch that accommodates boat trailers.

Hudson River Interpretive Trail, Town of New Baltimore, Greene County: very basic put-in, notoriously muddy.

Cornell Park, Town of New Baltimore, Greene County: cartop launch site that includes restroom facilities.

Hudson River Islands State Park

Accessible only by boat and attracting small motorized craft along with canoes and kayaks, this sprawling 235-acre park is located within the boundaries of the Stockport Flats section of the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve. There are three put-in points: Gay’s Point North (accessible through a hole in the breakwater and suitable only for very shallow-draft, hand-powered craft), Gay’s Point South and Stockport Middle Ground. There are no docks; power boats must be moored off the island, or visitors can bring their kayaks/canoes onshore.

These islands are fragile communities with many rare and endangered plant and animal species. Day-use facilities include restrooms, picnic areas with grills and nature trails. Transient camping is allowed on both the peninsula and the island, first-come, first-served. There is no entrance fee, and no reservations are needed for these primitive campsites. Popular activities include birding, swimming, fishing, hiking and hunting.

The nearest car-friendly Hudson River access points for those headed for the Hudson River Islands are located upriver at the Nutten Hook Research Reserve Ferry Road Launch in the Town of Stuyvesant in Columbia County and the Coxsackie New York State Boat Launch in the Village of Coxsackie in Greene County.

Sleightsburg Park

Including this one is a bit of a cheat, since Sleightsburg Spit is technically a peninsula, covering 79 acres right across the Rondout Creek from the Kingston waterfront, known as the Strand. But it’s frankly too good to leave out as a kayak/canoe destination. And two islands do form at high tide at the end of the spit, one of them topped by stone ruins that once served as a lighthouse foundation. Paddling all the way around them is just one of this spot’s attractions: The lower reach of the Rondout is famed as a “barge graveyard,” lined with the rotting wrecks of cargo vessels abandoned when the D & H Canal ceased operations in 1904.

The put-in, a short drive off Route 9W, is a concrete ramp friendly to both trailers and nonmotorized craft. Once you’re in the water, you can paddle upstream for the full marine archaeology tour or downstream toward the Hudson River itself to check out the sometime islands, the Rondout Lighthouse and Kingston Point. A shallow bay nestled behind the curl of the point is a prime place to watch bald eagles dive for fish.

Wear sturdy closed-toe shoes, socks and long pants if you want to take the walking trail out to the end of the spit, as it’s rough, muddy and loaded with poison ivy. There are a few picnic tables and grills in this park, but no restrooms. No matter; Kingston’s hopping Rondout neighborhood, with many restaurants and watering holes, is right across the creek.

Esopus Island

Being accessible by water only was one of the charms that lured this site’s most notorious visitor to sojourn here for 40 days and 40 nights in the summer of 1918: British mystic Aleister Crowley. He claimed to be spending his “magickal retirement” on Esopus Island meditating and working on his translation and commentary for the Tao Te Ching, but some have speculated that he may have been spying on river shipping on behalf of the US government during the waning days of World War I. Crowley painted esoteric symbols and slogans in red paint on the rocks lining the island’s shore, but all traces of his mysterious visit have long worn off.

Long before, the mile-long island was used as a meeting place by indigenous Esopus Munsee people, who left what appears to be a megalith behind. Located directly across from the mouth of Black Creek, it was known as Pell Island when it was part of the estate of Robert L. Pell, one of the largest fruit shippers in the world until the Civil War blockade wiped out his transatlantic market.

Esopus Island offers primitive camping and a picnic area. All waste is carry-in/carry-out. A small beach on the southeast side of the island, a few sheltered spots on the west side and a small cove at the north end are attractive to boaters. Shoals at the extreme north end are marked by a nun buoy. 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.

The main automobile-accessible place to launch your boat to visit Esopus Island is the nearby Indian Kill Marina, on the east bank of the Hudson in the mainland part of Norrie Point State Park, located in Staatsburg. That’s where you’ll find all the civilized amenities you could wish: a fancy boat ramp, restrooms with showers, camping, grills, an environmental education center, even a golf course with a restaurant. It also houses the headquarters of Atlantic Kayak Tours, which offers kayak rentals and conducts regular guided tours to Esopus Island and other nearby riverfront attractions.

Pollepel Island

This 13.4-acre blob of land just offshore from Route 9D, a stone’s throw from Breakneck Ridge, has ensconced itself firmly in the popular imagination due to the creepy aura of the ruins of Bannerman’s Castle located thereon. The island already had a reputation for being haunted when Francis Bannerman VI (1851-1918) chose it as the site for his family’s military surplus business when it outgrew its warehouses in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Construction of his elaborately detailed castle/arsenal began in 1901; it was not completed in Bannerman’s lifetime, and – not surprisingly, considering that it had been built to house 30 million surplus munitions cartridges – an explosion in 1920 collapsed parts of the buildings. A devastating fire followed in 1969, after which the island was placed off-limits to the public for many years.

But a volunteer organization called the Bannerman’s Castle Trust was formed to stabilize the ruins and reopen the site to visitors. Pollepel Island is not yet part of the Greenway Water Trail, and it’s illegal to land there unless you’re part of a licensed tour group. In season, the Trust conducts regular guided tours including ferry transport from both Beacon and Newburgh. If you want to do your own paddling and step ashore, you need to hook up with an outfitter. Storm King Adventure Tours depart from Cornwall, Hudson River Expeditions out of Cold Spring. If you want to head out in your own group, simply to view Pollepel Island and the castle ruins from the water, your closest departure points are Plum Point in Newburgh and Foundry Dock Park.

Constitution Marsh

Though it’s designated as a stop on the Greenway Water Trail, this magnet for birders doesn’t offer public boat launch sites; it does, however, organize its own kayak tours in season. (It’s not an island, either; but Constitution Island, property of the West Point Military Academy and open only to walking tours organized by the Constitution Island Association, abuts the Sanctuary, so we’re counting it.) Located just downstream of Storm King, the 270-acre Constitution Marsh is a rich estuarine habitat, particularly for birds. It’s a great place to spot bald eagles, and home to thriving populations of red-winged blackbirds, mallard and black ducks, herons and kingfishers. Bobcats, coyotes, minks and muskrats make their homes here as well.

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Pedestrians can visit the Audubon Center – open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – from a parking area at the intersection of Warren Landing Road and Indian Brook Road, a little way off Route 9D: slightly less than a mile round-trip. To paddle through the wetlands, it’s recommended that you join a tour group, since access is permitted only under the north railroad trestle into Constitution Marsh as the tide stage allows. This area often has swift currents. Careful preparation is essential for a safe and enjoyable trip, and to protect fragile areas and sensitive wildlife. Landing your boat in the Sanctuary is permissible only in emergency situations.

Foundry Dock Park in Cold Spring is the usual point of departure for the kayak tour groups run by Hudson River Expeditions, or if you want to explore with your own group. Visit http://constitution.audubon.org/programs/guided-canoe-trips to view the schedule for Center-run expeditions.

Iona Island

Located six miles south of West Point, 556-acre Iona Island is a bedrock island in the midst of the Hudson Highlands, bordered to the west and southwest by two large tidal marshes called Salisbury and Ring Meadows and the mouth of Doodletown Bight, an expanse of shallows and mudflats. A separate island, Round Island, was attached to the south end of Iona Island with fill in the early 20th century. The marshes and shallows occupy one mile between Iona Island and the west shore. In addition to being part of the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, Iona Island and its associated tidal wetlands have been designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.

Iona Island is comprised of brackish intertidal mudflats, brackish tidal marsh, freshwater tidal marsh and deciduous forested uplands. The marsh is a great place to watch wildlife. A variety of waterfowl, wetland birds, deer, muskrats, turtles, frogs, fish and crabs call the marsh their home. Bald eagles roost on the island in the winter, and are often visible from the overlook on Route 6/202 across the river. The marsh can be viewed along the Iona Island Causeway (off Route 9W), accessible by car or on foot.

Alas, public canoeing and kayaking are not allowed in the marshes surrounding Iona Island. However, free public canoe programs are available in the summer. To view the schedule, visit www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90413.html.

Consult the Hudson River Water Trail Guide at http://hudsonrivergreenwaywatertrail.org for extensive information about paddling on the Hudson River, including detailed maps. And don’t forget to look at the tide chart when you are planning your trip.