There is arguably no better vantage point from which to enjoy the bucolic splendor of the Hudson Valley than the hull of a kayak. Although the canoe is more frequently evoked in popular culture (perhaps because the word canoe has so many rhymes), that open-hulled boat-for-two is better suited to the white-water currents of the Delaware River. In the Valley, the kayak is king.
“Canoes are made of wood,” explains Kris Seiz, the owner of Storm King Adventure Tours, a kayak outfitter in Cornwall-on-Hudson. “Kayaks are a plastic/fiberglass compound, lighter weight, easier to handle, and ride lower in the water. They’re like a torpedo compared to a canoe.”
Weighing only about 40 pounds, kayaks are easy to carry. If you find yourself in the shallows, or scraping the rocks below the water, all you have to do is get out of the kayak, lift it up, and move it to deeper water. “The great thing about kayaking is that you can kayak in a foot of water,” says Edie Schwimmer, who with her partner Lee Ferris operates Hudson Valley Kayak Tours, based in Rhinecliff. “There are a lot of great places to go where people feel confident because the water’s not deep.”
Ease is another factor. The kayak requires just two extra pieces of equipment: a paddle and a PFD, or personal flotation device. That’s it. “There’s a reason you see so many retired people with kayaks on their cars,” Seiz says. “You just pick them up and go.” Paddling is also simple. “It’s very, very easy to do,” Seiz says. Her outfit gives 15-minute tutorials before each outing, covering the basics.
“Everybody goes out,” she says. “We have newbies on every tour.”
Certain bodies of water demand a higher degree of difficulty. “It’s relatively easy to move the boat safely through the water,” Schwimmer says. “It’s not easy to cross the river.”
Schwimmer’s small operation focuses on the area’s ecology (she’ll take kayakers to places where eagles nest, for instance). A number of larger outfitters — Hudson Valley Outfitters in Cold Spring and Atlantic Kayak Tours in Saugerties, to name two — offer kayaking rentals, lessons, and tours. Storm King Tours has a summer program called KICKS — Kids in Colorful Kayaks — aimed at the 10-14 age group. Members in the Storm King kayak club rang in age from 15-82, Seiz says. Once the kids can swim well enough, it’s fun for the whole family (although the “Full Moon Paddle” is more of a romantic run).
The Hudson River is among the best kayaking destinations in the Northeast — and the secret is getting out. “The river is very dynamic,” says kayak enthusiast Johnny Miller. “It’s tidal all the way to Troy.” He should know; he’s done the 10-day excursion from Albany to New York, and negotiated his craft around the city’s Downtown Boat House.
His favorite local spots: Foundry Cove in Cold Spring; the Highlands from Beacon to Peekskill (he recommends parking in Beacon, kayaking down the river, storing the boat at a Hudson River Valley Greenway storage rack, taking the train back to Beacon, and then driving to Peekskill to retrieve the kayak); near the stone bluff at West Point; and Bannerman’s Island. In addition to Bannerman’s, Seiz favors Moodna Creek Marsh and Plum Island. Schwimmer likes Tivoli Bays, particularly for beginners, as the barrier of the railroad trestle makes the water especially calm. But there are countless gorgeous vistas along the Hudson to explore — and nothing quite like a kayak.
“It’s an outdoorsy, environmentally friendly, ecologically correct recreation,” Seiz says.
Storm King Adventure Tours
Hudson Valley Outfitters
Atlantic Kayak Tours
By Olivia J. Abel
Did you ever wonder how a monkey feels when he’s swinging methodically from branch to branch in the jungle? Maybe you should hop on a zipline. Of course, careening down a “zip” is a much smoother experience, but I was certainly reminded of our primate relatives as I zipped from treetop to treetop on a beautiful spring day at Hunter Mountain. (I did picture myself in a loincloth, but that’s a different story.) On a zipline tour, participants don a harness attached to a wheel that rides along a steel cable (which is most often strung between two trees). Although there are a few tips for slowing down and landing, otherwise there isn’t a lot of skill involved. You simply jump off and go — and let gravity do its thing. Speeds vary, depending upon your weight and the height and incline of the cable, but they can exceed 50 miles per hour.
And now at Hunter Mountain, the longest and highest zipline canopy tour in North America has just debuted. With more than five miles of ziplines, some of which are nearly 600 feet above the ground, you can come to appreciate the Catskills in a whole new way. The Top of the Mountain Tour ($119) — scheduled to open this fall — starts at the summit and features five ziplines; the longest is 3,500 feet. Participants will travel at up to 50 miles per hour and can ride side by side with (or race) a companion. The Mid Mountain Tour ($89) that I took is located deep in the forest (reminiscent of the ziplines you may have seen or read about in Costa Rica) and features a series of shorter, slower zips and other woodsy elements like swinging bridges. On this tour, your guides, who wait for you on little tree platforms, fill you in on different aspects of the local environment. Finally, right outside the main lodge is the Adventure Tower ($19 for two times). Four stories of climbing fun, it is basically an oversized jungle gym for grown-ups.
So zip away, my friends.
Catamount Adventure Park
Cable, wood, ropes course, zipline
Frost Valley YMCA High Adventure Ropes & Ziplines
From a leisurely ramble along Poet’s Walk in Red Hook to the heart-pounding ascent up Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring, the Valley offers hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of hiking trails. “I’ve been leading two hikes a week for four years,” says Lalita Malik, chair of the Mid-Hudson Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club. “I don’t know how many hikes that works out to, but we haven’t had a repeat yet.”
Some local areas suitable for an afternoon’s jaunt spring immediately to mind: the 46,000-plus acres of Harriman State Park in Orange and Rockland counties, which is renowned for its 31 lakes and 200 miles of trails; the side-by-side Shawangunk preserves — Minnewaska and Mohonk — with their sky-high views of the mid-Hudson and beyond; and (for serious climbers) those famed peaks in the Catskill Park. But there are loads of less populous — and strenuous — spots to exercises the leg muscles. Try strolling the grounds of Olana, Montgomery Place, Mills Mansion, Locust Grove, or any of the other historic sites in the region (most of which include carriage roads or easy-to-navigate trails). The recently opened Roosevelt Farm Lane in Hyde Park — a short woodland route that connects FDR’s Springwood estate with Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill retreat — is just one of 33 parks operated by the environmental group Scenic Hudson. (Check out www.scenichudson3.org/parks/special/parks2.htm for trail maps and other details about all of the sites they maintain.) Just over the state border in Massachusetts, a half-mile saunter along a babbling creek offers a huge reward to hikers: the stupendous view of iconic Bash Bish Falls, at 60 feet the Bay State’s highest waterfall (and a popular subject of the Hudson River School painters). Malik, who most enjoys ridge hikes, offers a laundry list of favorites including the Undercliff/Overcliff loop in the Mohonk Preserve, and certain sections of the Appalachian Trail (89 miles of which run through Putnam, Dutchess, and Orange counties).
Hiking is really nothing more than taking a walk in the woods. But because we’re more accustomed to walking on pavement — not dirt, rocks, sand, leaves, and the like — hikers must be careful with their footing to avoid trips and falls. It goes without saying that a pair of good, sturdy shoes are a must. Besides plenty of water, Malik recommends carrying a map and a compass “and knowing how to use them.” Most importantly, “know your limits,” she says. “Turn back if you start to feel overly tired. The best destination is not the top of the mountain, but your car at the end of the day.”
Accompanying experienced hikers on a short outing is the perfect way to learn the ropes. Malik’s group offers a year-round series of hikes for those new to hiking, or who prefer a leisurely pace (check www.midhudsonadk.org for details). And older readers might enjoy tagging along with the Wappinger Walkers Club, which organizes Saturday excursions to historic sites and other regional locales from March through mid-November.
“Hang gliding is a sport of the senses,” says Greg Black, owner of Mountain Wings, a full-service aerosport shop and hang gliding school in Ellenville.
Once regarded as a dangerous activity, hang gliding has evolved into a much safer sport. As opposed to just strapping in and taking flight, beginners learn from a gradual training program — taught by instructors who must be recertified annually — which allows them to move at their own pace.
The initial training readies student pilots for flight by teaching them how to soar the glider, first from flat ground, then from a small hill. A first-time flight from a training hill usually lasts just a few seconds, but with experience, gliders can roam the sky for hours (the Ellenville spot’s record is currently 11 hours, 20 minutes). There’s no specific age suggested for hang gliding — pilots generally range from teens to octogenarians — but the pilot must be able to keep an alert state of mind and have good reflexes for prompt decision-making. Equipment tends to be made for people who weigh between 90-250 pounds and stand five to six-and-a-half feet tall, but accommodations can often be made for others.
The Hang Gliders Manufacturers Association must approve all new gliders for airworthiness before they can be sold, ensuring high quality and safety. A typical glider weighs 50-70 pounds and has a metal frame that allows the pilot to maintain control over spinning, stalling, and collapsing, as opposed to the less-safe sport of paragliding, for which the glider has no frame. “We call paragliders sky buoys,” says Black, “because while they’re just hanging there, you can glide past them, then back over them, then underneath them — and they’re still in the same spot.”
According to Black, who has been soaring for about 36 years, hang gliding doesn’t give you the adrenaline rush that an activity such as skydiving would. Rather, he says it’s somewhat peaceful. “There’s a small breeze that hits your face, but that’s like driving 20 miles per hour with your head out the window,” he says. The average altitude of an experienced pilot is 3,000-6,000 feet, but many aim even higher, to the point from which a wide expanse of the state can be seen from the air. “You can see for miles and miles,” Black explains. “From the sun reflecting off buildings in New York City, to the Catskill Mountains. And you get to go where you want when you’re up there. It’s like magic.”
It’s recommended that all first-timers bring sunblock, layered clothing (to remove as you get warmed up), hiking boots, and a change of clothes (it can get a little dirty). During the training period, the repetitive lifting can get a bit tiring for those with minimal upper body strength, but once the air lifts the glider, the wind will sustain it while the pilot hangs suspended from a harness, removing the weight of the glider from the pilot’s shoulders. “The wings of a glider are just a tool to feel the air, and the wind tells you what to do to,” Black says.
Mountain Wings, Inc.
77 Hang Glider Rd., Ellenville. 845-647-3377
Here in the Valley, pedal pushers have the best of both cycling worlds. The region is chockablock with scenic country roads that are perfect for an outing of any length, from a few miles to a full century (that’s a 100-mile ride, in cycling lingo). The more adventurous can head for the hills and try mountain biking — an exhilarating sport in which riders maneuver their way along dirt roads and trails, which can be of varying degrees of technical difficulty (measured by the number of rocks, roots, switchbacks, steep descents, and other obstacles encountered along the way).
“Everybody loves riding a bike. It makes you feel like a kid again,” says Pete Nimmer, a board member of the Fats in the Cats Bicycle Club. Contrary to what you might think, mountain biking isn’t “what you see in those Mountain Dew commercials, with bikers jumping off cliffs and doing tricks. That’s not what we do,” says Nimmer. “We’re just people who like to ride our bikes in the woods. And it’s no more dangerous than riding on the road — even less so, because you don’t have any cars to deal with.”
Fats in the Cats — whose 200 members range in age from 13 to 70-plus — organizes group trail rides and offers skills clinics for new mountain bikers. “Our Tuesday evening rides are beginner-friendly,” says Nimmer. “And we will tailor a ride to your skill level.” Their Web site (www.fatsinthecats.com) hosts online forums so riders can connect with each other for outings, and includes a map — with detailed terrain descriptions — of 21 trail-riding areas in the Valley. With its wide carriage trails, Minnewaska State Park Preserve in New Paltz is “fantastic for a beginner,” says Nimmer. “It’s one of the best places to ride in the state.”
If you haven’t been on a bike since grade school, though, riding on one of the area’s many rail trails is a good way to get back in the groove. The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in Ulster County — which traverses orchards, forests, and open fields — offers fabulous views of the Shawangunk Ridge. Beginners (and experienced riders too) can take part in two upcoming local events. The Harlem Valley Rail Ride (July 25) in Millerton leads riders along the rail trail in northern Dutchess and southern Columbia counties. And the brand-new Discover Hudson Valley Ride (Aug. 22) includes routes through Rhinebeck, Hyde Park, and across the Walkway Over the Hudson (www.bikenewyork.org).
Need a bike or other gear? Local cycle shop Bikeway (with locations in Mahopac and Wappingers Falls) offers new and used bikes as well as rentals; they also organize group rides and can provide contact info for area bike clubs (www.bikeway.com).
Practically a staple of the Hudson River since old Henry discovered it, sailing nowadays isn’t so much a mode of transportation as one of the most luxurious forms of recreation. But for Valley thrill-seekers, this water sport can also provide just the right amount of action and improvisation — all at the mercy of a breeze.
John Stephenson, treasurer of the Kingston Sailing Club — and captain of a racing sailboat called A Boy’s Dream — knows all about that. “We got hit with 40-knot winds,” he says of a recent jaunt up to the Rhinecliff Bridge. “Anything over 35 is gale force, and we broached” — or leaned almost parallel into the water. “Broaching is not something people like to do on sailboats,” Stephenson explains.
Despite some risk-taking, sailing is generally a safe and highly rewarding activity — especially with the Kingston Sailing Club. “We collaborate with the Hudson Valley Maritime Museum to bring schoolkids down to the waterfront and on the boats,” says Stephenson. In addition, he runs the club’s “Day O’Sailing” coaching program, which provides educational outings on the river for budding adult sailors. Walk-on crew members are always welcome; as the organization grows, Stephenson hopes to develop an official youth sailing program like those at the more established Chelsea and Haverstraw yacht clubs.
For now, it’s all about racing. “People in our club really just like to sail together, so we focus on producing an environment where everyone can come out and race, and have fun.”
“Safety’s first,” says Stephenson, “so having life jackets and the right safety equipment on board is important.” He also warns against setting sail in boats too small for the conditions. “I see dinghies with four people in them heading out where there are four-foot rollers. Never take your boat into conditions you’re not positive you can handle.”
Before you board, arm yourself with obvious gear, like sunscreen, nylon or waterproof pants and jacket, sailing gloves, deck shoes that won’t slip off, and a hat. (Bonus points if you top your noggin with one from a Mount Gay-sponsored regatta — these highly coveted red caps are a seaman’s badge of honor.) Before you head out, grab an experienced sailor, your best sense of humor — “and maybe Sailing for Dummies,” Stephenson jokes.
Kingston Sailing Club, Kingston
Chelsea Yacht Club, Chelsea 845-831-7245
Hudson Cove Yacht Club, West Haverstraw 201-684-0065
Hudson Sailing, Kingston 845-687-2440
It seems our little town of New Paltz keeps getting major national recognition (and not just on the issue of gay marriage). We’re referring to all the outdoor recreation accolades, such as “best adventure town” (National Geographic Adventure) and “best outdoor town” (Outside magazine), among others. Naturally, much of this open-air excitement is due to the legendary rock climbing on the Shawangunk Ridge.
Here, neophytes and experts alike can experience the hard, white quartz rock (perfect for climbing) and nearly 1,200 easily-accessed technical climbing routes at both the 6,500-acre Mohonk Preserve and adjacent Minnewaska, New York’s only state park preserve to allow climbing. And while many seasoned climbers from around the globe wait a lifetime to have a shot at routes like High Exposure (5.6) with its huge roof, and Shockley’s Ceiling (5.6), many of the routes are also ideal for beginners and intermediates. They’re all incredibly scenic. No wonder this is now the busiest climbing region in the country.
In recent years, there has been renewed excitement in the area. Skytop, one of the four major cliffs of the Shawangunk climbing scene with 300 documented climbs, was recently reopened to guided climbing for guests at the Mohonk Mountain House; this summer, climbing privileges have been extended to day guests, too. A half-day for one person costs $237; a full day, $338 (see www.mohonk.com for more information).
Currently, only four guide services are licensed to work in Mohonk or Minnewaska (see below), so contact one of them to get started. They all offer a variety of options: beginner lessons in pairs or larger groups, group outings, and even lessons for kids.
When you get out to the ridge, the first thing you’ll have to do is “gear up,” which includes putting on climbing shoes (they bear a strange resemblance to bowling shoes, but have a sticky rubber compound on the sole that grips the rock), a helmet, and a harness. Rock climbing is done in pairs. One person ascends the rock face, the other acts as the belayer — staying on the ground and controlling the rope, which is part of a system of ropes and anchors designed to catch falls. Top-roping, in which an anchor is set up at the summit of the route prior to the climb, is widely regarded as the safest technique and the best way to learn. Marty Molitoris of Alpine Adventures says that beginners tend to be afraid of two things: “First, there’s the equipment and trusting it,” he says. “But that’s easy to overcome. The harder thing is trusting your feet. You need to put your foot on tiny little holds and trust that you can stand up on them. You don’t always have the big footholds that you want.” One thing that surprises many first-timers is that you don’t actually need all that much body strength. Says Andrew Zilewski, a manager at Rock & Snow, New Paltz’s one-stop outdoor shop: “Climbing is probably more like dancing than weight lifting; it is more about technique than brute strength.”
Rock & Snow
44 Main St., New Paltz. 845-255-1311
While many people think it’s utterly insane to jump out of a plane flying 13,000 feet high, the allure of skydiving still attracts scores of thrill-seekers each year.
Based out of Schenectady, Mohawk Valley Skydiving is one of the busier Capital Region sites, offering coaching with state-of-the-art equipment to ensure a safer yet exciting dive. But if you’ve driven around Ulster County recently, you’ve likely seen cars adorned with “Skydive the Ranch” bumper stickers from Gardiner’s Blue Sky Ranch — arguably the most popular skydive spot in the Valley.
There, the first jump is done in tandem with an experienced professional. The tandem instructor is connected to a harness on the student’s back and wears a large parachute capable of carrying the extra weight. The jump is made from about 13,500 feet in the air, and after free-falling to 6,000 feet — which is said to feel less like falling and more like floating — the student activates the parachute, decreasing the pair’s speed and sending them on a descent to the targeted landing zone. This might sound exciting to some and frightening to many, but others say the scariest part is actually signing the liability release form prior to the jump — a five-to-seven-page waiver acknowledging the sobering fact that such an activity presents the risk of “permanent catastrophic injuries, disfigurement, or death” (as noted in the Ranch’s form).
If any, most injuries occur upon landing, but following directions given by the tandem instructor generally keeps them to a minimum. Also, for safety reasons, skydiving is not recommended for everyone. The Blue Sky Ranch requires that first-time jumpers be at least 18 years old and weigh no more than 225 pounds (with some exceptions). Safety is often in the hands of the jumper, and as long as he or she makes good judgment calls, listens to instructions, and remembers a few ground rules, skydiving can be a thrilling experience.
A possible side effect of a first-time jump is a lingering sense of vertigo that can last for up to a few days in some cases. To prevent this and other maladies, many locations suggest telling the instructor about any heart conditions, recent blood donations, SCUBA diving excursions, or medications taken that could impair the mind.
Mohawk Valley Skydiving
Mohawk Valley Airport, Schenectady
Skydive the Ranch at Blue Sky Ranch
55 Sandhill Rd., Gardiner
The Catskills are widely regarded as the birthplace of American fly-fishing. It was here that legendary angler Theodore “Badger Hackle” Gordon modified British “flies” — man-made insect-like lures — to fit the entomological demands of the Neversink River, Willowemoc Creek, and, most famously, the Beaver Kill. Although the terrain has changed somewhat since Gordon waded into the waters in the 19th century, the Catskills remain one of the country’s finest fishing spots.
When the season begins on April 1, dedicated anglers descend upon tiny Roscoe in northern Sullivan County and, with great fanfare, fish the Junction Pool, where the Beaver Kill and the Willowemoc converge. This is how a hamlet with a population of 597 came to be called Trout Town, U.S.A.
“For fly fishermen, these are the hallowed waters,” says Jim Krul, executive director of the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum located in Livingston Manor. “Between Maine and Montana and everyplace I’ve ever fished, this is the place.”
The east and west branches of the Delaware River system also offer excellent fishing, as does the Esopus Creek, the many reservoirs, and the lakes in Harriman State Park. Restrictions do apply: some stretches are “no-kill” zones, where fish must be released, and regulations are more stringent at the reservoirs.
Fly-fishing is not the sort of lazy, hook-and-worm operation Tom Sawyer did while floating down the Mississippi. It’s a sport requiring skill, technique, artistry, and arcane scientific knowledge — of water temperatures, currents, feeding preferences, native entomology, and so forth. The object is to bag the fish by deception: you’re trying to trick it into biting at the fly instead of an actual insect. This is harder than it sounds. “If you’re a fly fisherman, you hunt for your trout,” Krul says. “You might cast to him for three days in a row, and he won’t take the fly because he doesn’t like the way it looks.”
And when the angler catches the elusive trout, most of the time, he throws him back into the river. “Ninety-nine percent of fly fishermen tend to release the fish, so you can come and catch him again,” says Krul. There is a mystique to fly-fishing, the by-product of a library’s worth of material written about the sport in its heyday a century ago. “Fly fishermen have their rock stars,” Krul says, “just like Yankees fans have Derek Jeter.”
The mystique and the degree of difficulty, Krul postulates, intimidate many who would otherwise enjoy the sport. “Anybody can learn how to do it,” he says. “You don’t have to be good to do it. At a certain time, with a certain lure, you will catch a fish.”
The stretch of the Esopus Creek between Shandaken and Mount Tremper in northwest Ulster County is uniquely suited to tubing. For one thing, the topography makes for rides that are fast enough to be exciting, but slow enough to be benign. For another, the flow of the creek is relatively constant. This is because the current, mostly a result of discharge from the aqueduct at Schoharie Creek, is carefully regulated by the City of New York and the Department of Environmental Protection. The latter, in an effort to ensure a safe environment for fish, maintains a water temperature that does not exceed 70 degrees.
“More than that and the oxygen level drops, and the fish suffer,” explains Harry Jameson. And he should know. Not only is he an erstwhile engineer with the U.S. Navy, he is also the owner of the Town Tinker Tube Rental, one of two such establishments in Phoenicia. “The average temperature is 60 degrees.”
The Town Tinker — so-called because Jameson’s original plan was to open a fix-it shop (the tube rental was supposed to be temporary) — has been in business for 31 years. F-S Tube Rental, owned by former sporting goods proprietor Richie (“The Tube King”) Bedner, has been in town even longer, since 1975.
The Town Tinker offers two courses. The beginner course starts right in Phoenicia and heads upstream (unlike most creeks, the Esopus runs north); the expert course, which features more intense rapids, begins north of town and ends in Phoenicia. Cabs shuttle tubers to and from the various starting and stopping points. Each course is two-and-a-half miles long and takes about two hours to complete.
The tubing season begins on Memorial Day, although the water can be cold until the summer begins in earnest (Jameson recommends renting a wet suit). While there are a variety of pricing options at each establishment, both offer tube rental and transportation for less than $20.
One weekend per month there are “water release days,” when the discharge from the creek is intensified from 30 to 90 percent capacity, adding an additional inch or two to the water level. This is when the rapids are the most rapid — and when the lines for tube rentals are the longest.
Because tubes are flotation devices that toddlers use in swimming pools, there is a perception that tubing is easy. This is not always the case — or not on the Esopus, anyway. The tubes themselves are big tire-like things, most equipped with wooden seats (highly recommended if you don’t want to bruise your behind on the rocks). The rapids can be intense, even on the beginner course, and the tube can be difficult to negotiate. Which is all part of the fun.
“It’s not something people are used to doing,” says Jameson, who enjoys watching customers try it for the first time. “It’s like watching people jump out of an airplane.”
Town Tinker Tube Rental
10 Bridge St., Phoenicia 845-688-5553
F-S Tube & Raft Rental
11 Church St., Phoenicia 845-688-7633, 1-866-4FS-TUBE