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This post is totally off the news - a simple reflection inspired by a rumbling encounter between a freight train and a canoe.
I’m stepping back briefly amid reporting on how to cut the terrible flash-flood vulnerabilities that were exposed as the fading remains of Hurricane Ida disgorged deadly deluges. I’ll be posting this week on ways communities can reduce the threat posed by this extreme-weather hazard - one that can strike almost anywhere and one that global warming is intensifying.
I hope, wherever you are, that you're able to squeeze in some activities that recharge your spirit facing such turbulent times. My wonderful wife, Lisa Mechaley, has a decades-old canoe that too often sits by the garage given our workloads. We pulled it out on Sunday, despite a light rain, and joined some good friends out on the misty Hudson River, a mile downhill from our house.
Rivers have many meanings and these evolve over time. To most residents of the Hudson Highlands, where I’ve lived since 1991, 50 miles north of New York City, the river is mainly an aesthetic wonder - a stunning waterway winding fjord-like through the worn-down remains of a billion-year-old mountain range.
Tourists flock here by the thousands on weekends. Their numbers surged with the pandemic as city dwellers sought escape. The check-in tent at Breakneck Ridge, said to be the busiest day hike in America, sometimes looks like a supermarket checkout line. Bird watchers scour the sky for eagles. Kayakers dot the waters.
Many visitors normally come from Manhattan on the Metro-North Railroad commuter line on the east bank. But the record flooding from Ida tore away the ground beneath the tracks in several spots, interrupting service.
This has happened in previous extreme storms. Unless big investments are made to raise the rails, expect more damage and delay. The Hudson here is a tidal arm of the Atlantic and even lower projections of sea-level rise guarantee no new “normal” shoreline for generations to come.
Most visitors, and even many younger residents, are utterly unaware of the industrial activity that dominated, and contaminated, the river and its banks through much of the last two centuries.
Much of the pollution from that time, through a burst of activism and investment, has been cleaned up (a process that was the heart of my beat in my first decade at The New York Times).
Many of the physical impacts have faded, crumbled or been masked by greenery. A quarry that, right up until the 1970s, was excavating and barging great loads of rock to form the foundations of the 20th-century urban surge is gone. Now the great scooped-out cavity in the flank of Blue Hill is a green-lined destination for hikers. The barge-loading landing, on Little Stony Point, is a vest-pocket state park thanks to the activism of folk legend Pete Seeger and others.
One vestige of our industrial economy still fills the hills with rumbling vibrations every few hours, as CSX freight trains, some a mile long, traverse the company’s River Line, running from New Jersey north through Albany and then connecting west to the U.S. heartland.
On this paddle, we and two friends, John Allen and the author Lynne Cherry, crossed to the west side of the Hudson, where a low passage beneath the freight-line tracks connects the deep main river with a little bay called The Clove.
Lisa and I arrived first, laying back in the canoe to make it beneath the steel beams under the tracks, less than three feet above the high-tide waters. Then came John. We fanned out to explore the little bay, which extends north toward the back side of the fabled mountain called Storm King. The mountain was the focus of an epic 15-year battle between advocates for scenic preservation and a utility that wanted to build an energy-storing reservoir inside the hunk of granite.
Lynne had been snapping photos and was late. As she approached the passageway under the tracks, the rails began to hum and a rising rumble came from a southbound train negotiating the long sweeping curve around the base of Storm King.
Seeing the length of the train, Lynne decided not to wait.
There’s no great drama here, just a wonderful, momentary superimposition of two dimensions of activity on an ancient river - the surge of commerce and the splash of a canoe paddle.
The locomotive roared over the little bridge just as Lynne glided beneath, lying prone in her boat to avoid a head bump. The engineer saw us waving and blew the air horn several times.
She joined us, somewhat breathless from the noise and scale of what was over her head. The train rumbled and clanked past us for seven minutes at least.
Watch here to get the feel of this moment:
Lynne, best known as the author of a string of popular environmental books, also founded Young Voices for the Planet - a video project amplifying the voice of youth climate solution seekers. She and John like to collect litter on these paddling excursions. John poked along one shore, pulling out a bucket and a toddler-size soccer ball. “I always bring back whatever I can,” he said. “It's all those years of following Pete Seeger around parks picking up a gum wrapper.”
Lynne paddled over to a large piece of black plastic conduit not just to retrieve it, but to put it to good use. Her basement, like thousands of others here, had badly flooded, and she was determined to shunt as much downspout rainwater as possible away from her foundation.
The yard-long length of split plastic pipe was perfect.
Silence spread after the last train car disappeared to the south.
A young eagle flew overhead and settled in a tall tree not far from the rising face of Storm King.
The Hudson tide began its slow twice-daily turn from rising to ebbing.
We paddled for home.
Near our destination, the village of Cold Spring, an American flag that someone had erected on a shallow spot in June was now tattered but still fluttering and standing firm.