Tuesday, March 12, 2024

A trek for science: Students journey the length of the Hudson

By Tim Keyes, Joe Dadey, Greg Morrissey, John Barnhardt

The Concept:

A chance meeting in Saranac Lake incubated the expedition. Joe Dadey of Adirondack Hamlets to Huts (AHH) was minding the Trails Center when relatives of Greg Morrissey of Mountain Goat Movement (MGM) popped in. AHH facilitates guided and self-guided trips throughout the Adirondack Park. MGM, out of New Jersey, leads area high-schoolers on epic adventures – climbing Kilimanjaro, skiing in Greece, surfing in Costa Rica, etc. AHH and MGM allied and with student input, agreed to partner on a big regional project in July 2023. Connecticut-based Evergreen Business Analytics (EGBANA) supports non-profit Community Science and became the third leg.

An experiential learning expedition was born: 8 high-schoolers enjoined to trek over Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York, navigate the length of the Hudson River from its source at Lake Tear of the Clouds, to its mouth in NYC solely under human power (perhaps a “first” for a such a team). Students also engaged in a study of the Hudson’s water quality – for general pollution levels and microplastics. They learned about themselves and their outdoor capabilities, simultaneously experiencing the history, culture and ecology of America’s first river. Filming was led by fellow Explorers Club member and Emmy Award-winning cinematographer John Barnhardt of Barnfly Productions.

The expedition was intended to be inspirational for all youths, enticing them into challenges outside their comfort zone and digital world, engaging them in outdoor pursuits and science outside the lab. In particular, microplastics and its impact on environmental and human health is a relevant story – one for which the ending may depend on youths of today.

The Team:

We sought team diversity – socio-economically, geographically, and culturally. Practical considerations were made, however: our “pilot” expedition would host young males, rising juniors and seniors. Ideally, geographic representation would include the entire Hudson River watershed – from the Adirondacks to greater NYC. In the end, 2 students were selected from the Adirondacks, 4 from greater NYC, and 2 from California. Students were largely strangers to each other. All were screened for character, physical ability, and outdoor experience. Three of eight were Eagle Scouts. Four had never visited the Adirondacks before, and 2 had never hiked a mountain! The overall expedition included 3 leaders, 5 support guides, and 4 in the documentary film squad, for a crew of 20, with a mix by gender, age, and ethnicity. Most of us had no experience supporting film production but were eager to learn. Key among the guides was Bhima Gaddy, a seasoned educator and dedicated resource for MGM, and Kari “Safari” Fitzgerald who provided logistical support, ensuring gear and provisions were supplied.

The Plan:

The plan was ambitious and challenging. Long, hard days under mixed modes of travel, interspersed with periods of haste and waits lay ahead. No one was 100-percent sure a large party would avoid mishaps or injury, though much preparation was done to reduce risk. A cultivated team esprit-de-corps and mutual support was crucial.

The Hudson is 315 miles long and tidal to Albany. The salt front varies, reaching to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. The river emanates from Lake Tear in the Adirondacks, trickling downslope through a succession of rivulets and creeks until becoming navigable by whitewater raft, canoe and kayak. The trip was to be two weeks in duration, which required biking the Empire State Trail (EST) from Troy, NY to Edgewater, NJ. The final leg was sea kayaking the length of Manhattan to NY Harbor.

The Science:

Scientific goals were developed to be practical yet meaningful. They included gathering of data using hand-held devices: meteorological observations, Total Dissolved Solids / Electrical Conductivity, pH (acidity level), Chloride levels, and for microplastics (samples were sent to a lab enroute). There was a tacit assumption, and hope, that the High Peaks region of the upper Hudson would be the purest in the watershed, potentially free from pollution and microplastics – especially at Lake Tear. Data were recorded on waterproof ledgers and analyzed post-trip. There were 20 river sampling locations, 10 for microplastics.

The Journey:

The expedition began inauspiciously but ended gloriously. Day 1 was an 18-mile hiking odyssey, with 3,600 feet of elevation gain (and greater descent), as we accommodated the filming and water sampling needs. The “day hike” ended up being a 20+hour ordeal for the team, but we were primed henceforward for challenges that lay ahead. With the hiking portion largely completed (aside from canoe “carries” or portages), the padding and pedaling portion commenced, with 350 more miles to go…150 on water! See Figure 1.

The Upper Hudson presents class III-IV rapids in the Indian River-North River section, which were navigated in whitewater rafts. Below North Creek, where we enjoyed our first hotel stay of the journey, we used inflatable kayaks (“duckies”) to descend a 20-mile boulder-strewn gauntlet under bluebird skies on Day 5. Hard as it was to take water samples, we continued to meet the challenge. 

Heavy, cumbersome canoes were deployed below Warrensburg where waters were calmer and the weather remained good. Significant obstacles lay ahead – the crew encountered its first canoe portage around a dam – hoisting heavy canoes along a mile-long path with 300 feet gain in elevation. 

Violent thunderstorms and strong headwinds added to the challenges of portaging around dams, rapids, and feeder canals. Strong headwinds and thunderstorm threat caused the expedition to terminate paddling at Stillwater, 16 miles short (north) of Troy, NY. We backtracked the following day to continue “solely under human power” and biked the EST on gravel bikes from Stillwater to Edgewater, NJ over the next four days, taking further water samples as we neared the river. Our planned 50-mile ride to Hudson, NY became 70-miles under a heat advisory. When we biked past Troy, where the Hudson is roughly at sea-level, we’d descended over a mile from the top of Mount Marcy! By this time, we’d retrieved 16 samples, 6 including microplastics.

Leaving the EST briefly, we followed the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to Catskill, where we enjoyed a self-guided tour of Thomas Cole’s residence/studio. Violent storms again thwarted progress after crossing the Kingston/Rhinecliff Bridge, so we stashed bikes for later retrieval. To continue traveling “solely under human power,” on Day 12 we again backtracked to the bikes, requiring a 70-mile bike ride from the bridge to Brewster NY, crossing the Walkway Over the Hudson several times to get good video footage. 

Our last biking on Day 13 ended in Edgewater, covering 60 road miles, but also navigating the Bronx and up and over the George Washington Bridge.

On the final day, we were driven north along the Hudson to Bloomer Beach, where we launched sit-atop kayaks, guided by Urban Paddle, and paddled the final 12 miles to Jersey City, in choppy water but under magnificent skies with stunning views of the Manhattan skyline. We’d made it!

The River’s Voice:

Despite the challenges and uncertainty, expedition objectives were successfully and gloriously achieved! We were met on the docks at Manhattan Yacht Club by joyous friends and family, and a well-deserved celebration/awards ceremony ensued. Everyone was happy and sad the journey was over; new experiences were shared, new friends for life were made, yet new discoveries about the region and ourselves were found, and memories of a lifetime were etched in everyone’s psyche. We’d all become ambassadors of the Hudson. What remained were the expedition scientific results. Were we to be relieved or troubled?

We ultimately took all planned samples. The pollution data rendered what we’d imagined: higher pH in the Adirondack Park portion of the river than below, and dissolved solids – indicative of general pollution levels – increases by river mile south, influenced around NYC by saltwater.

Sadly, microplastics were observed in every sample taken. The astonishing result is that microplastics were more prevalent in the Upper Hudson than southward. This could be from rainfall dilution outside the Adirondacks, and/or from added tributary volume. More research over a longer time span is needed to verify these results…but we’d made a dent.

The Epilogue:

The Hudson River Source to Sea expedition was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The moment is upon us to seize on another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the voice of the river to be spread throughout the region…the country…the world – that this waterway, indeed all waterways, should be stewarded with greater care.

The documentary film is expected to be released in April 2024. 

All photos provided by Tim Keyes.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

One Response

  1. Tim says:

    “The works of man dwindle, and the original features of the huge globe come out.  Every single object or point is dwarfed; the valley of the Hudson is only a wrinkle in the earth’s surface.  You discover, with a feeling of surprise, that the great thing is the earth itself, which stretches away on every hand so far beyond your ken.” – John Burroughs

    What a great expedition with amazing student-explorers Tim & Tom Apelizan, Brady Jacobson, Sage Kite-Whidden, Eli Riancho, Cole Sears, Isaiah Skurnick and Cole Wells.

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