Float Upstream

We take the canoe upriver.

canoe bow

Not just any river. The Croton River.

Head upstream from its junction with the Hudson, next to a railroad trestle.

croton river

To our north is the venerable Van Cortlandt homestead, nearly hidden by trees. The family came to New Amsterdam in 1638. They lived on Stone Street – so called because it was the first paved thoroughfare in the settlement – where Oloff ran a very profitable brewery. Eighty-six thousand acres of land here on the Croton River were granted his son Stephanus by the Crown in 1697.

Dip your paddle. No, really lean into it. The tide and current are against us here.

Over our heads flies a cormorant, sleek and fast. A fish flops. A kingfisher appears on a limb, then another in flight.

Around the bend, a heartstopping moment with a wading blue heron. It bends down its serpentine neck and jabs, then gulps, gulps, gulps. It spots us. And barrels away ten feet from us, croaking all the way downriver. (All About Birds gives the precise acoustics.)

Along the way, houses perch atop steep cliffs and water craft wait on shore.


The Croton River travels through the Croton Reservoir, which has supplied water to New York City for a century, so technically it should be clean enough to drink, but the feathering algae under your paddles doesn’t look too appetizing. The Croton Dam was an engineering marvel. For 14 years 1,500 men plied over 500 pieces of heavy machinery, using 745,000 barrels of cement, 100,000 tons of coal and a gigantic amount of locally quarried stone to build what was called the most massive hand-hewn masonry structure since the pyramids.


I wonder how fast this water flowed before the Dam.

A small rapids, but too much for the canoe to manage, so we portage across the big slippery stones.

croton river stones

I bushwack through the shore’s thorns and poison ivy. At the climb-down point, plenty of coyote scat.


Up in the trees, a hawk lights on a bare limb. Light head, light breast. Without binocs its identity remains a mystery.

Then a beach, unpeopled, a desert island.


The water is perfectly cold.

gil swims

A druid tree displays its magical tangle of roots.

druid roots

A home for critters over many years.

druid tree

It’s an old tree. Probably was a sprout during the American Revolution, when there was no way to cross this river aside from the ferry. No plastic kayaks, recreational canoes. It was closely guarded by the Westchester partisans, who held the land north of the river, while south of the water was the hotly contested “neutral zone.”

A busy set of rapids guides us back.


I think I can’t do it. It would be so easy to tumble over, take a cold bath among the slick rocks. But I take a deep breath. Dip my paddle. Go.


Filed under Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature

2 responses to “Float Upstream

  1. Love the herons! I guess it’s fledging season as my favorite bald eaglets are about to fly the nest too. That’s very cool about your cousins.


    The roots of that tree are pretty spectacular… ready for a wonderful fairy house. Surely there are fairies. And that Great Blue Heron graced your day of challenges! The AllAboutBirds *bird cam* trained on the Heron nest near Ithaca NY is fascinating! Noisy! Those three babies are almost ready to fledge… and the chat column interested me for quite a few minutes… http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/8/Great_Blue_Herons/

    Cornell Labs is almost part of my family… very-very distantly! One of my cousins has sent MANY recorded bird calls to them for their library… he worked as a National Park Ranger in the wilderness parks of northern Minnesota and in Washington State… very lonely locations except for the birds.

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