To those who know it the Hudson is the most beautiful and fascinating of all American rivers. Lordly, majestic, glorious and noble are the words most often used to describe it. Its heroes and villains, ranging from the Headless Horseman to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, are part of American myth and history. Yet there is a side to the Hudson that few persons know: the life beneath the surface of the water that first races down mountain peaks, then glides through gentle valleys and looming hills and ends by plunging into the abyssal ocean depths.
By turns, as it flows south from the tiny pond that marks its source in the Adirondacks, the Hudson is composed of fresh, brackish and salt water, and it contains an astounding variety of animal life. In the river's wide southern expanses of the Tappan Zee and Haverstraw Bay, it is literally an arm of the sea. The Atlantic reaches in 50 miles upriver to Bear Mountain, where in a blurred no-man's land of marshy creeks and coves, sand sharks, striped bass, yellow perch, white perch, sea sturgeon, pipefish, black bass, tomcod, butterfish, common jack, billfish, pickerel, bluefish, menhaden, anchovies, American sole, summer flounder, smelt, sunfish, sea horses and trout mingle in startling confraternity. Once in a while even porpoises move in from the sea, swimming as much as 100 miles upriver, where they blister and die in fresh water. In the summer muskrat and mink live in the ballast rock under the New York Central tracks on the east bank, and in the fall rafts of wild ducks dive for food within sight of the George Washington Bridge. In the winter bald eagles in search of fish ride the ice floes south to Croton Point, and in the spring fishermen spread gill nets on hickory poles to catch shad on their run from the sea. In any season this river is an intricate and awesome thing.
Nor is it restricted to where the maps would have you think it ends. Twenty-five thousand years ago, before the glacial icecap melted, the Hudson ran much farther out to sea. Now, south of the Narrows, the entrance to New York Harbor, the old river channel runs into the Atlantic bottom, sinking deeper and deeper into the shallow continental shelf. There it has buried waterfalls that would dwarf any now on the surface of the earth. One hundred miles southeast of the harbor the old channel ends in a great canyon one mile deep and five miles wide. Here, or so those who have tried it say, is the "most fabulous fishing spot in the world."
The Hudson, excluding its nether reaches beneath the ocean, is 320 miles long, and in its course it drains 13,000 square miles. The ocean tides sweep up it all the way to the dam at Troy, 150 miles north. At the Narrows and at Troy, the average range between high and low tide is four and a half feet. Much of the river is surprisingly shallow. In Haverstraw Bay, where the river is almost four miles wide, the bottom is for the most part only eight or 10 feet down. It is a soft, gray, mucky clay, and in some places is extraordinarily thick. The engineers who built the Catskill reservoir aqueduct had to dig down 1,100 feet to reach bedrock before they could tunnel under the river.
The downstream flow is 135,000 gallons per second. But besides this normal flow, there is yet another force at work: a large subsurface current set in motion by the rising tide. The current sinks because it is composed of sea water, which is heavier than the fresh water coming downstream, and when the current is running strong it pumps five gallons of water up the Hudson for every one gallon that the river sends down. After burrowing north for 40 miles, the current surfaces, joins the normal downstream flow and goes out to sea again. So complex and deceptive is this current that it flowed undiscovered until 1958.
The source of the Hudson is a two-acre spring-fed pond named Lake Tear of the Clouds, 4,300 feet up on the southwest slope of Mount Marcy, which is the highest point in New York state. Descending from the Adirondacks, the Hudson splashes through forests of spruce, hemlock and pine. More than 1,200 lakes and ponds drain into the river. The headwaters average 60 inches of precipitation a year, 20 inches more than the rest of the river valley gets, but the branches of the trees slow the melting of the snow and the roots retard runoff. The Hudson almost never floods. Through these upper reaches beavers work along the banks of the tributary streams, and white-tailed deer are abundant. Black bear, which have been known to exceed 600 pounds, are so common as to be a nuisance to summer campers. There are fishers, a very large and relatively rare member of the weasel family, and bobcats, and once in a while a lynx wanders south from Canada. There may even be a mountain lion or two. Sporadically, there are reports of gray wolves, but these are coy dogs, a cross between a coyote and a dog gone wild. A genuine wolf has not been seen since 1912. The last elk was shot in 1942, and the moose disappeared back in the 1860s. In 1951 a moose showed up on a golf course near Troy, then galloped off to parts unknown. The guess was that it had not come down from the Adirondacks but somehow had straggled across the country from northern New Hampshire or Maine.
In the 1920s and '30s the State of New York Conservation Department conducted biological surveys of all the watersheds in the state. Three volumes dealt with the Hudson, and they contain detailed papers on the aquatic plants, plankton, insects and fishes of the region. Every pond or stream feeding into the river was noted and numbered, and many were examined closely. Lake Tear of the Clouds itself was found to have no fish at all. Some biologists believe that trout were planted in other remote ponds and lakes in the area by ducks and geese that accidentally picked up the adhesive eggs on their legs. Farther down, the Hudson has native brook trout. Some of the feeder streams have so many, in fact, that the fish are stunted because of overpopulation. The trout in the river itself are mostly browns. The brown trout were imported from Germany and Scotland in the 1880s when the brook trout began to die after deforestation caused the water temperature to rise.
In Thirteenth Lake, which drains into the Hudson, the Conservation Department has stocked Sam Browns, a cross between a female brown trout and a male Atlantic salmon, but so far none has been seen in the river. Whether or not the Hudson itself ever was an Atlantic salmon river is a matter of dispute. The consensus now is that the river was south of the salmon range and probably had only a few strays. The Hudson is too warm and too slow to attract salmon in any number. Between 1873 and 1882 the Fish Commission of New York planted several hundred thousand young salmon for stocking in the river, and the results were not cheering. Few were ever seen again, though in 1930 an angler reported catching a 15-pounder in the river near Kingston. In all probability it was a stray. (Then again, an angler never knows what he may catch in the Hudson. In the summer of 1932 a fisherman said he caught a barn-door skate near Albany.)
By the time the Hudson reaches Warrensburg in the foothills of the Adirondacks, it has descended more than 3,000 feet in 70 miles. The temperature of the water has risen so that only a few brown trout linger—they can withstand higher temperatures than the brook—and "warm water" fish, such as northern pike, pickerel, black bass and sunfish, are numerous. The bass are essentially intruders; they are native to the Midwest and the Great Lakes and entered the Hudson only upon completion of the Erie Canal in 1825.
At Glens Falls and Fort Edward raw sewage pours into the river, and the mills and factories add their wastes. Dams and locks choke the flow and turn the river into a chain of sluggish lakes. By the time the Mohawk, an "open sewer" according to innumerable state reports, joins the Hudson and the river passes over the Troy dam, it has become highly polluted. Nonetheless, there are fish, including striped bass and shad, that nudge against the dam. But a short way south Albany adds its sewage, and the filth is too much: the river dies. For 10 miles there is a fishless stretch of water. In place of fish are the strange creatures that biologists call "index organisms" because they are the telltale signs of gross pollution. There are sludge worms, which dwell upright in the mud in stationary tubes, half burrow, half chimney. Pale red in color and 2,000 to the square foot, they carpet the bottom. There are leeches, rattail maggots, the larvae of syrphus flies, which as adults are bright and handsome insects that look like bees and wasps and feed on the nectar of flowers. In warm weather methane gas bubbles the size of grape-fruit rise to the surface. The stench is overpowering. The Hudson is so awesomely foul here that it is a source of wonder to sanitary engineers, and in the trade they speak of the place, almost fondly, as "the Albany pool." When the upriver runoff slows in the summer, the pool is at its worst. There is little current to thrust the pool downstream, and on those rare occasions when it does stir, the rising tide from the sea pushes it back up toward the dam.