I love hiking. It’s good exercise, you can commune with nature, observe the native flora and fauna, and even improve your mood. If you really want to have an immersive experience though, it’s hard to beat kayaking. It’s like hiking on water. And in our area, there’s no better place to head than the Great Swamp.
There’s something about being in a kayak, low in the water, drifting by clusters of purple wild flowers springing from ferny, moss-covered stumps, accompanied by the steady drone of neon-colored dragonflies that takes you far away from everyday cares. The occasional startled frog lets out a squeaky croak and plops into the water, speckled with bright green duckweed. You go around a bend, and suddenly you’re sliding through a “field” of lily pads with their unfurled flowers like sun-gold fists being held aloft on slender wrists. You turn again and greet the steady stare of a painted turtle sunning itself on a muddy bank. You might spy a swimming beaver, or an otter, maybe even a fox or a deer refreshing itself at the water’s edge. The fluid, trilling song of the red-winged blackbird, like drops of water echoing in a well, abounds in the air. A low, grunting honk comes from a great blue heron while it lifts off over the reeds, seemingly in slow motion. No alligators, but quite as otherworldly as the everglades in a way.
The High Point
The Great Swamp is not a single body of water. It’s a 6,000-acre forested area traversed by a network of rivers, streams, bogs and ponds. These wetlands stretch for twenty miles through Dover, Pawling, Patterson and Southeast – the entire watershed covers 63,000 acres. The water does have a current, and at its high point (in the town of Pawling) it divides into two directions, creating what’s called a North Flow and a South Flow. It’s certainly not whitewater rafting; you will just notice a subtle difference in effort when you are paddling against the current in some areas.
Although much of the shoreline is on private property, there are a number of public spots near Pawling where one can “put in,” as it’s called. Depending on the season and the height of the water these paddles can offer quite different experiences. Some areas are inaccessible in dryer seasons, some are exposed and are fairly easy to navigate, others are shaded by willows and may have a few tight spots created by downed trees that require a bit of maneuvering.
Two popular spots that offer easy entry are Patterson Environmental Park in Patterson and Gage Road in Brewster.
Where to ‘Put In’ – Patterson
The habitat in Patterson is a red maple swamp but many of the trees are now leafless, weathered trunks, leaving most areas exposed to the sun, so remember to bring a hat and sunscreen. Here, the East Branch Croton River flows south, and you can meander along the waterways for several hours before heading back against the current. To get there, turn south from Route 311 onto Front Street and follow it until you see the Patterson Recreation Center building. Across the street on the left, you’ll see a dirt road that crosses the (very active – so be careful!) train tracks. A half mile down the road you’ll reach a small sandy beach where you can park and gently slide your kayak right in.
Where to ‘Put In’ – Brewster
For another south flow experience, head toward Brewster on Route 22 and turn east onto Old Doansburg Road. Just before you get to the Green Chimneys campus, you’ll see Gage Road. Turn right and follow the road about a half-mile until you get to the cul-de-sac with a picnic bench where you can park. Entry here is not a beach, you’ll have pull your kayak parallel to the shore and step in. This can be a little tricky if you’ve never done it by yourself, but with a little practice (or someone holding your kayak steady) you’ll be fine. (There’s also a beach at the park across from the nearby Green Chimneys campus, but it’s only open to the public weekends and after 5:00 p.m. during the week). Here you can paddle north against the current for hours in mostly tree-shaded waters. The sun coming through the leaves dapples the water, showing off the reddish hue of the bottoms. You’ll have to duck under the low-hanging boughs of trees, and in some areas push against a surprisingly strong current, but my son and I actually enjoyed the obstacle-course quality of this paddle. It’s never dull!
What to Take – and Where Else to Go
If you’re worried about bugs bothering you out on the water, don’t. You can enjoy the floating butterflies and the water striders skating over the surface without mosquitos snacking on you. As with hiking, wear sunscreen, always bring water, and if the weather may be changeable bring clothing to layer on as necessary. Capsizing in the calm of the swamps is unlikely, but it’s never a bad idea to have a bilge pump with you. There is also a federal law to wear a PFD (personal flotation device), otherwise known as a life vest, so you should always wear one while participating in boating of any kind.
If you prefer wide-open spaces, you may like to put in at one the many lakes or ponds in our area. White Pond in Kent has plenty of parking and easy access. It’s fairly large so you can get a good workout if you circumnavigate the whole pond. And if you’re really adventurous, you can always go west for a paddle in the Hudson. Little Stony Point, part of the Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve, is next on my list.
Visit the recently revamped Friends of the Great Swamp website (http://frogs-ny.org) for more information on swamp ecology and wildlife, as well as a list of launch locations. Paddling.com is a great site offering articles on choosing a kayak, how-to videos, gear reviews, and an interactive map of paddling locations.