This past Sunday I stopped overnight in beautiful Cold Spring, New York. The village of Cold Spring—which has an incredible spot on the banks of the Hudson River—is in Putnam County, just north of Westchester.

In the morning, I decided to take a walk along the river. The sheer scale of the river, and the views across it, looking toward the soaring bluffs on the Hudson’s western side, are pretty breathtaking.

But what captivated me, as someone who has lived in New York City for over two decades, is how accessible the river was, and how inviting it seemed. From where I stood on the shore of Little Stony Point Beach, you could literally walk right into the river.

The Hudson River from Cold Spring. Photo credit: Sarah Crean.
Little Stony Point Beach, Cold Spring, N.Y. Photo credit: Sarah Crean

There were no embankments or railings or cement structures. The river was right there, waiting. It was easy to imagine that this is what the shore of the Hudson had once been like all along the western edge of Manhattan.

Many were drawn to the river the day I visited. There were people throughout the half-mile stretch of beach, playing music, barbecuing and swimming.

Encountering the SeaChange Climate Justice Flotilla

As I walked along Little Stony Point Beach, I passed two amazing, but fragile-looking canoes, covered with drawings.

I wanted to keep moving but it was impossible not to ask what these canoes were. Both vessels flew flags and it was clear they were being used for a major journey. What I had stumbled across was a Climate Justice Flotilla.

Artwork on SeaChange canoe showing flotilla entering New York City. Photo credit: Sarah Crean
Artwork on SeaChange canoe showing flotilla entering New York City. Photo credit: Sarah Crean

The canoe “pilots,” Amaranta Herrero and Kevin Buckland, explained to me that a fleet of hand-made, full-scale, paper boats is traveling down the Hudson, from Troy to New York City. The “SeaChange” flotilla is to arrive in New York City as the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit gets underway and environmentalists from across the country come together for the September 21st People’s Climate March.

The project was initiated by and Mare Liberum, which describes itself as a Brooklyn-based boatbuilding collective.

The SeaChange Flotilla. Photo credit: Sunita Prasad
The SeaChange Flotilla. Photo credit: Sunita Prasad

The flotilla is making several stops on its 160-mile journey, visiting riverfront communities like Albany, Newburgh-Beacon, Hudson, and Peekskill. Every stop has significance. The stop in Peekskill on Tuesday, for example, focused on Indian Point and the question of nuclear power.

Herrero, Buckland, and the rest of the flotilla had been in Newburgh the night before I encountered them. They said they met with local residents and activists to discuss the escalation of crude oil rail shipments along the Hudson. They had also gathered to hear a presentation from Riverkeeper on an oil heating facility proposed for New Winsdor/Newburgh that could potentially handle crude from the Canadian tar sands.

Herrero and Buckland noted that as they visited communities along the Hudson, they were learning about the threat of parallel disasters: local and global. The use of the Hudson as a path for crude oil shipment threatens the river, Hudson Valley residents and the climate, they said. Ultimately, “we all live downstream,” Buckland observed.

The SeaChange Flotilla arrives in New York City tonight at the Inwood Canoe Club. The flotilla will circumnavigate Manhattan on Saturday and Sunday. You can follow the flotilla’s progress, find out where they will be landing and how to join them here.

I asked Herrero what it had been like to paddle a fragile canoe in such a wide and powerful river. One of the canoes had capsized in the Hudson, she answered. “Our trip is unpredictable, like the environment,” Herrero said.

A Local Issue: Sewage Releases into the Hudson

It was surprising to me how a brief walk along the shore of the Hudson could raise so many questions about how we relate to our environment. During my walk on the beach, I also encountered large pipes extending into the river from the shore. I had passed the village’s local sewage treatment plant on my way down to the river, and wondered whether the pipes were an outflow point for the plant.

Drainage pipe into the Hudson River. Photo credit: Sarah Crean
Drainage pipe into the Hudson River. Photo credit: Sarah Crean

As we reported last week, water quality throughout New York State is impacted by the fact that sewers and sewage treatment plants can become overwhelmed by rain, leading to the release of raw, untreated sewage into local waterways.

I have not yet been able to confirm that the pipes are outflow points for the Cold Spring Wastewater Treatment Plant, but I have located the state permit that confirms the plant can release effluent into the Hudson. Once wastewater is treated, it re-enters local waterways.

The longitude and latitude coordinates for Little Stony Point Beach, which is considered an “informal beach”, do seem to match the coordinates of the effluent release site mentioned in the town’s permit.

The night before I arrived, the mid-Hudson Valley had experienced heavy rain. Hopefully, there had been no need to release untreated sewage from the pipes on Little Stony Point Beach into the river.