In the Shadow of Bridges - part three

Editors note: This is the final article in a series about a 328 mile canoe expedition from Plattsburgh to NYC conducted in September of 1988 with members of the 46th Talavera, British Armed Forces. Leaving Kingston at 6:30 a.m. in a heavy morning fog, we stayed in a tight flotilla for safety and communication. Navigation was strictly by compass. The lead canoe could barely be seen by the sweep boat, only about 30 yards distant. The fog lifted around 8:30 a.m. as headwinds kicked in, bringing both good and bad. They stunted our progress but gave some cooling relief as the day grew hot and muggy. Temperatures topped the 90 degree threshold. Our destination was New Hamburg, but without knowledge of campsites, we set course toward a small fleet of sailboats moored in a bay just south of the Poughkeepsie Bridge. A sign on the small, marina building read, Pirate Canoe Club and one half of an old canoe was fixed on the wall. A gentleman came to greet us. I havent seen this many canoes on the river in 30 years, he exclaimed. I dont know who you are or where youre going, but come on inside. Id like to buy you all a drink! He allowed us to make camp on the nearby lawn. Later, The Commodore presented us with Pirate Canoe Club hats and jackets. Food, drink and everything was on the house. It made for a long night! We paid for the evenings pleasures the next day as we struggled to make Bear Mountain State Park, some 20 miles downriver. The day began with a group of well feed and extremely hungover British soldiers who feverishly worked to deslug all our gear in the morning fog. The further we progressed downriver, the worse slugs got. They covered everything left outside including canoes, tents, gear, paddles and lifejackets. They also filled a tent which a drunken soldier had failed to zip up. It was not a pretty scene. The group was paddling strong and passed West Point before noon. The river, constricted downriver from the Academy, was moving fast with an outgoing tide. Our canoes shot past the cliffs and soon passed under the Bear Mountain Bridge. The Bear Mountain Park Police greeted our crew at a small pavilion on the river and allowed us to set camp nearby. Following an early evening, we were on the water battling strong headwinds before 7:30 a.m. Rounding a point, we gained an intimate view of the nuclear reactor at Stony Point and finally caught a tailwind. Rafting the canoes together, we sailed with ponchos taped to our paddles across Haverstraw Bay and stopped in the shadow of the Tappen Zee Bridge at 1. We skipped lunch and set course for New York City. Rounding a bend, we had the cliffs of the Palisades soon on river right as the George Washington Bridge (GWB) loomed in the distance. Although scheduled to camp at RossDock on the New Jersey shore, the Palisades Park Police had us set up at Englewood Yacht Basin, about a mile north of the GWB. It was obvious that the Palisades Park Police were battling with the Bear Mountain Park Police. They offered little cooperation and less information, especially when people tried to locate our camp. Sponsors, including Miller Brewing Company, Grumman Canoes, Kelty, Inc. and an assembled press corps were never able to find our camp. We had no beer, no food and no press. Worse yet, our camp was set in a decrepit old parking lot and as evening approached, the largest raccoons Ive ever witnessed came out of the woodwork. They strolled into camp to pilfer anything not secured in tents. As darkness enveloped the scene, the coons departed. Soon, one of the Brits asked, Where are all these odd, striped cats coming from? I looked at a herd of skunks coming our way. Quickly, I ordered everyone to grab the food and other supplies and move into the tents. Everyone huddled in the tents to enjoy a meal of cold spaghetti as skunks rampaged through the camp. After the critters left, I went to a pay phone in order to contact our sponsors and support crew. Plans for a safety boat to accompany our group to the Statue of Liberty fell through. I was on a pay phone for almost an hour and couldnt reach anyone. I later learned that they had been circling the park looking for us, frustrated by uncooperative Park Police. A friend, Bobby Lutomski, finally showed up and we loaded gear into his truck. He cautioned that remnants of Hurricane Gilbert were due to reach New York harbor the following afternoon. On day 13, we set off to Liberty Island at 7:30 a.m. Winds were whipping as rain pelted us. The river had 4 to 5-foot swells and with no symmetry to the waves, they hit us from all sides. With canoes unloaded of gear handled like corks on the high seas. Everyone struggled in unstable canoes. It was white capping by the time we passed under the GWB at 10, we were getting tossed around badly. Though the tide was with us, it offered no discernible advantage. By 11:30, as the tide turned, we were still within sight of the GWB. Wed only covered a mile in more than 4 hours time. Landmarks along the Jersey shoreline never moved and conditions were rapidly deteriorating. After 328 miles of paddling it seemed we would never complete the final few. The soldiers could no longer keep the canoes straight. It was unsafe and we had no power left in our human powered engines. Off Jersey Citys piers, I was forced to make the call. I told Sgt. Strachan and Lt. Robinson, In my professional opinion, its no longer safe to continue. You hired me for my expertise and I feel it is no longer within a reasonable risk of life or limb to continue. As much as Id like, I do not want to risk my life to get there! With little discussion, we pointed the canoes upriver and blew back to the GWB in less than 20 minutes. Sgt. Strachan was visibly upset and repeatedly pleaded that, The military objective requires that we continue. We must attempt to reach the location even if we only get within a few miles. Others were upset, some grateful but all disappointed. With the objective in view, we had been forced to cancel. We decided to watch the wind and wait it out. Everyone hoped conditions would change, but three hours passed and it only got worse. Amidst much grumbling, Lt. Robinson finally gave Sgt. Strachan the direct order, Expedition Liberty Triangle is officially over. After finally contacting support staff, the group departed the GWB around 5 p.m. with Sgt. Strachan staying behind to watch the canoes until arrangements could be made for a pickup. As we left, he sat alone, the only professional soldier in the group. Dreams of glory had faded quickly, now a stranger in a strange land he was alone in the shadow of a bridge, the picture of disappointment and disillusionment. Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at brookside18@ adelphia.net

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