As we exchanged greetings and debated which way to head out, a car backed a trailer with two jet-skis down the boat ramp. Friends who live along the creek had told us about these Harleys of the water buzzing deafeningly up and down the stream, terrorizing ducks, swans, herons, non-motorized water craft, and local residents. We had seen them in the Hudson River, and one time we witnessed a show-off jet-skier flip over and sink the thing. Serves 'em right, we thought.
Having seen the jet-ski contingent, we led our small fleet into the sanctuary of the Esopus Bays with their pond lilies, water chestnuts and coontails. These water plants can clog boat motors and other machinery, and if the motorheads haven't learned this, they soon do. For the moment we were safe among the lilies with the dragonflies, damselflies and carp. But some of us wanted the mobility afforded by less vegetated waters. Once afloat, the Jetsons had zoomed upstream to the deeper straightaway past the Ferry Rocks. We left the shelter of the bays and paddled past the noisy, crowded beach and around the bend for which the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve is named. Lingering in the broad, deep stretch of the creek before the Ferry Rocks, we took in the grandeur of the shores - new sand bars with burgeoning greenery on our left, and rugged, lichen-dotted limestone bluffs on the right.
Just past the bluffs was a lower outcrop with ruts left from carts that long ago pulled up to the shore, waiting to be ferried across to a road on what is now the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve. There was no dam back then, so the creek water was much lower, exposing a craggy rock ridge that ran diagonally across the stream. When the water is low enough, a bit of it reappears, and draws swimmers out from the shore to check out this chunk of new land.
Times have changed. We turned the corner at the Ferry Point and entered the straightaway between the second bend and the steep-walled gorge that can be seen looking north from Glasco Turnpike, which crosses the Esopus just west of NYS Route 9W in Glenerie. The creek's natural character doesn't change here; slow, straight and deep is the theme right up until the gradient steepens in the gorge, creating rocky rapids that we've never been able to negotiate.
The banks of the straightaway have houses on the west side, and the nature preserve on the right, a peaceful vista for creekside residents and boaters.
As we entered this stretch things were busier than usual, but quiet, just kayaks, canoes and a respectful boater with a motor who toned it down in the presence of quieter company. A pair of mallards floated lazily by, and a kingfisher croaked raucously and flashed blue as it flew from tree to tree along the bank of the nature preserve.
But a paddle on the creek is a passage through a shifting soundscape, and a new sound faded in. Ahead of us a woman was yelling harshly about being photographed, and about the charitable things she did for the neighborhood, punctuated by an occasional "How dare you!" We saw that the yeller was a woman on a jet-ski. A man was sitting silently on another jet-ski while the woman, with a young boy in her arms, went on shrieking about having as much right to be here as anyone else and to do whatever she wanted. The target of her tirade, a woman standing on the bank, stood all the while as still and silent as a statue. Still engulfed by her creek rage the jet-ski woman sped off, leaving a wake that bobbed our little craft like a cork.
We moved upstream, hugging the natural shore, looking for sights of natural interest. We spotted a water snake basking on a low rock outcrop, and maneuvered in for a closer look and maybe a photograph. The snake accommodated as we nudged the canoe against the rock. It didn't even mind that a damselfly used the snake's tail as a rest stop. Only as we pushed off did the snake make a move, not an alarmed dive into the water but a casual wriggle up the bank.
Casual seemed the order of the moment for now. As we meandered along, the two ducks crossed our path again, or maybe two other ducks. All was calm and bright. The courteous boater couple motored slowly by again, and we saw they had a happy dog, content to sit and enjoy the scenery and the ride. We waved and said hello and what a great day it was.
Farther upstream we came upon the jet skiers again, at the dock of a house across the creek. As we moved along they played water games - drag racing, speeding in loops and circles, and dragging a raft with a person or two lying on it up and down the creek at top speed. All this was reminiscent of other "big thrill" stuff like water-skiing and carnival rides that travel the demarcation of fun and fear. This kind of enjoyment may be singularly American, in origin at least, but now worldwide due to commercial Western dominance. Other cultures probably have their own variations; it's a human thing.
On the way back we spotted a friend near her home, and stopped to chat. She had been the recipient of the jet ski woman's tantrum. A longtime resident and founder of the Esopus Creek Conservancy, she's used to neighborhood attitudes and conflicts, and takes them in stride. I joined the conservancy this year, and as a member and life-long environmentalist, I share the concern that the natural calm and beauty of the stream corridor is being more and more disrupted by people who come from a different perspective and tradition, and view the environment differently from nature-lovers and free-floating friends.
John Edwards, the recent presidential contender, talked about "two Americas." Two doesn't seem nearly a large enough number once you begin breaking it down and keeping a tally. In the final analysis, and in reality, there is only one America, only one Earth, and probably only one universe - at least that we can ever hope to know, if we last long enough to scratch its surface as far as knowing goes.
Can gentle paddlers who commune with lilies, damselflies and water snakes at least communicate with those who rev up their power toys, churn up the foam and seek gassed-up and not-so-cheap thrills? Is adrenaline better than serotonin? Will the wolf survive? Will the manatee? Will we? ++