On its 315-mile journey from the Adirondacks to New York, the Hudson River varies from gentle trickle to mighty towpath, flows past ghost towns, bombed-out factories and the state capital, and teeters between stretches of pure beauty and fetid intrusions of chemicals, bacteria and other noxious backwashing
And it is in that unpredictable mix that British endurance athlete Lewis Pugh intends to dive next month, wearing nothing more than a Speedo, cap and goggles, with the intention of swimming the length of the Hudson – a month-long dive intended to draw attention to that. and the ongoing saving of the river and the work still to be done, here and elsewhere.
“I’ve been looking for many, many years for a river that could tell the story of all rivers,” said Mr Pugh, 53, whose previous long-distance swims have included the length of the English Channel, about 325 miles. “And always, every time, it comes back to the Hudson.”
Part of that, Mr. Pugh explains, is the Hudson’s unique endpoint in New York, home to both reporters and the United Nations, where he serves as a so-called Patron of the Oceans, lobbying for clean seas.
But most important, he says, is the Hudson’s steady revival from decades of pollution.
“It shows how a river can be abused and then cared for and turn its fortunes around,” Mr. Pugh said in an interview from his home in Plymouth, England. “And so it gives hope to people who live on the Ganges, the people who live on the Yangtze, the Nile, the Seine or here in England on the River Thames. That your river can be saved.”
Such hopeful sentiments, of course, do not negate the real dangers — epidemiological and otherwise — that Mr. Pugh expects to encounter along the way: According to a medical guide prepared for the swim, he will be confronted with possible infection from everything from “human sewage and rat infestation” to poisoning of chemicals like mercury left over from the Hudson’s industrial past.
The Hudson too has a tide consider, as well as other obstacles, including logs and branches, rocks and rapids, all of which can cause cuts, bruises or broken bones.
“Your swim can be over on Day 1,” Mr. Pugh said.
And that’s just in the water. Because the river often flows shallow in its upper reaches, Mr. Pugh sometimes runs on paths alongside it, where he is warned that he could encounter all kinds of terrestrial threats, including mosquitoes, diseased ticks and poisonous snakes. (If bitten, the medical guide warns, “Do not try to catch the snake.”) Steep terrain, mud, and marshy swamps beckon.
Even before he begins his swim on August 13, Mr. Pugh will have to walk to the source of the Hudson: the distant and elegantly named Lake Tear of the Clouds, a glorified pond on the south side of Mount Marcy, the highest of the state. peak, just south of Lake Placid, NY
He won’t be the first to make the trip. In 2004, a fellow environmental swimmer – Christopher Swain – first swam from the spring to the harbor, albeit in a wetsuit. But Mr Pugh claims a further challenge, saying he will swim “unaided”, something his team defines as using only the aforementioned Speedo, goggles and a cap – no gloves, fins or mechanized assistance – and will be constantly on the move, making progress downstream every day.
Unaided, however, does not mean unaccompanied: Mr. Pugh’s team for the watery walk will include a half-dozen or so support staff, including a chef, a physiotherapist and a “safety kayaker” who paddle alongside Mr. Pugh when the water. is deep enough to swim constantly. His swimming, sponsored by a European investment management companyis scheduled to end at Battery Park on September 13, in time to celebrate the signing of the High Seas Treaty at the UN – a historic agreement to protect ocean biodiversity – a week later.
His goal, he said, is for all rivers to be “drinkable, fishable and swimmable,” noting that their waters end in the sea.
“You can kill rivers,” he said. “We have to start respecting them.”
The degradation of the Hudson was specific to New York’s industrial growth — it was abused by companies making paint, paper, batteries and other goods — as well as part of a global phenomenon, he said. David L. Strayer, freshwater ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.
“Rivers have been intensively used for many purposes, and they are valuable for many purposes, and historically all the uses have not been carefully considered or coordinated with each other,” Mr. Strayer said. “Someone would dump slaughterhouse waste into a river, and they didn’t think about the guy who was swimming downstream or getting drinking water.”
For years, swimming in the Hudson was widely considered dangerous to your health, a trend that was reversed in no small part by the signing of the Clean Water Act of 1972, according to Dan Shapley, the senior director of the advocacy, policy and planning program. at Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit that monitors water quality and safe swimming spots.
“Fifty years ago, this kind of swimming would have been much less imaginable,” Mr. Shapley said, noting that “we were pouring raw sewage from almost every community, everywhere.”
And while some communities, especially near Albany and New York, still feed sewage into the Hudson during rains, he said, “most of the river is safe for swimming most of the time,” as long as you watch out for boats. , dangerous currents and unpredictable weather.
Both the state and city health departments advise that swimmers swim at regulated beacheswhich are monitored for dangerous bacteria and other contaminants, with officials posting regular updates. New York Harbor is still “not considered a swimmable portion of the river,” according to state environmental officials, but up the Hudson, open swims — ranging from polar dips to full triathlons – abounds.
However, Mr. Shapley added that this summer’s violent rains have caused wide swaths of the river to be considered unsafe at times, as sewers overflowed and other pollutants washed into the Hudson, including animal waste, street litter and bird guano. (Interestingly, one famous pollutant – PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyls, that did the Hudson the nation’s largest Superfund site – less of a concern for swimmers, because they usually gather in mud and on the bottom of the river.)
Mr Pugh, a former maritime lawyer, has previously swum in such unforgiving places as the North Pole and the Antarctic. But he seems to be taking no chances with the Hudson.
“In 36 years of swimming, I’ve only done four river swims because on three of them, I got seriously, seriously ill,” he said, recalling a terrifying experience of encountering a patch of polluted water in the Thames. “I remember coming out of the river and throwing up, and my teeth were actually loose in the gum.”
To that end, Mr. Pugh’s medical advice includes pre- and post-swim Pepto-Bismol, daily mouthwash for bleeding gums and frequent dousing with an antimicrobial skin cleanser.
He plans to swim about five hours a day, hoping to average 10 miles, while stopping to rest, meet locals and do interviews. “It’s easier to swim to the media than to make the media come to you,” he said. “It’s a lot more challenging if you’re at the North Pole.”
He trains in Plymouth, swims next to ferry boats and runs six miles a day. And last year, he came to New York to research his route, making his way to Lake Tear of the Clouds, high in the Adirondacks, and taking a dip, an experience he said cemented his decision to swim downstream.
“I did a little backflip and there was a turkey vulture right above me,” he said. “The water is fresh, you can just put your head in the water and just swallow. And I thought: ‘This is how all rivers should be.'”