One gorgeous Saturday last month, I kayaked across the Hudson River's wide Newburgh Bay, as a volunteer escorting 200 swimmers taking part in a fund raiser for the River Pool at Beacon. (The brainchild of folksinger and environmental icon Pete Seeger, the pool encircles a shallow portion of the Hudson along the city's shoreline, allowing people to take a refreshing dip without worrying about dangerous currents.) As the swimmers exerted themselves to complete the mile-long crossing, I soaked up the breathtaking scenery of the Hudson Highlands, which have been dubbed "America's Rhine."
The most exciting way to experience the Hudson or any body of water is to get out on them. The "greenest" and healthiest way of doing this is in a kayak. Statistics bear out that I'm not alone in believing this. Over the last 15 years, the number of U.S. kayakers has swelled from 400,000 to well over two million. Like me, no doubt they're enchanted by how different the world looks from the middle of a river or lake, not to mention the access kayaks provide to secluded spots -- such as wetlands and islands -- impossible for landlubbers to reach. The feeling of escape and discovery when exploring unspoiled places like these is almost palpable.
Fortunately, as kayaking has increased in popularity, so have opportunities to enjoy the sport. "Blue trails" have been developed along many waterways, allowing kayakers (and canoeists) to travel for an afternoon or several weeks. Scenic Hudson, the environmental organization I work for, has established several kayak launch sites and rest stops along the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail, which stretches more than 150 miles, ending in New York Harbor. The Maine Island Trail encompasses 180 islands and mainland sites on a 325-mile route in the Atlantic Ocean. Out West in Puget Sound, you can paddle 140 miles -- from the Olympic Peninsula to the Canadian border -- along the Cascadia Marine Trail, where more than 50 campsites offer places to relax weary muscles. This Web site features a wealth of information about these and many other trails across the country.
In addition to creating amenities for paddlers, groups promoting blue trails diligently work to protect shorelines' natural beauty. Such stewardship not only benefits kayakers but hikers, bird-watchers, indeed anyone who takes pleasure in and seeks inspiration from the magical landscapes along America's rivers, lakes and oceans. It also helps safeguard the quality of drinkable water supplies many communities depend on, and in some places will provide critical buffers against flooding anticipated under climate-change scenarios.
Like any sport, kayaking requires a level of fitness and preparation. Above all, never shove off without donning a Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Also, be aware of those factors such as changing tides or gusty winds that can turn a seemingly easy jaunt into an exhausting nightmare. And share your destination with a family member or friend. A complete list of sensible precautions is available from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Back at Beacon, after the swimmers emerged from the water and I lay down my paddle, Pete Seeger treated us to a concert. Among his songs was the classic ballad "The Water is Wide." It begins:
The water is wide, I cannot cross o'er,
But neither have I the wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.
I sang this song when I proposed marriage to my wife, Tara, some 14 years ago. This was not the first time Pete's song has brought tears to my eyes.
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