As I have attempted to explore the connection between outdoor recreation with historical education and awareness, I have focused mainly on sites which feature walking paths and hiking trails whereby people can appreciate both the great outdoors and the sense of place and human history. In essence, I have focused exclusively on landed sites. Why not, then, turn to water-based experiences?
Rivers especially have stories to tell about the past and its human inhabitants. They provided a livelihood and means of transport for Native peoples, and later the Euro-Americans. They were strategic assets during times of conflict and they gave rise to cities and industries. Rivers have also been victims of environmental degradation and renewal. In the last decade or so, canoeing and particularly kayaking have become popular recreational activities. Why not create kayaking eco-tours in our local and state historic parks that give a different perspective on human and environmental history?
History on the Hudson River is just waiting to be told, and kayaking tours could be best positioned to tell that story. Long before the Englishman Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson in 1609 on the Half Moon while in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, and British planners attempted to control the river so as to divide her rebellious colonies during the American Revolution, the Hudson was a vital food, transport, and spiritual resource for Native Americans who inhabited its banks for thousands of years. Long before the river was known as Hudson’s River or the North River, it was named the Muhhekunnetuk, the Great Mohegan, by the Iroquois peoples and it was known by the Lenni Lenape tribe —who resided on both banks of the river at present day New Jersey and Manhattan—as Muhheakantuck, the river that flows two ways.
Touring companies can create such themes as “Rivers of Change” which tell the story of Native peoples, contact with Europeans, conflict and war, the rise of the United States, environmental degradation, and today, environmental resurgence. The goal now is to connect communities and people with the river once again so as to get back in touch with nature through the medium of recreation and education. While some organizations, like non-profit Scenic Hudson of Poughkeepsie, have laid the groundwork, other entities should be encouraged to fill a vacuum waiting to be filled. At the federal level, the National Park Service already offers kayaking and canoeing tours at Liberty State Park and Ellis Island at the southern tip of the Hudson. Could local, state, or for-profit ventures do the same further up the Hudson? While Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, adjacent to Bear Mountain State Park, and one of two forts built at the entrance to the Highlands during the early years of the Revolutionary War, has a kiosk and launch point for kayaks and canoes, it is designed for individual use only. Why not incorporate water activities into the park’s program so that it becomes an integral part of experiencing the history of the park and the river?
Senator Charles Schumer of New York has proposed to establish the village of Cold Spring and the surrounding Highlands region as a National Park. That could go a long way in promoting further recreational opportunities and environmental remediation and historic preservation of the Hudson River Valley, especially in preventing suburban sprawl. Kayaking is already a popular activity in the area, offered by outdoor adventure companies in the village. If Schumer’s vision comes to fruition, park planners could easily tap into this demand by offering eco-history tours to the general public.
The Hackensack River in northern New Jersey is another splendid example by which environmental conservation and historic preservation have joined together to advance the river’s renewal. The Hackensack River Keeper, a non-profit organization dedicated to the clean-up and environmental protection of the river, already offers group boat tours.
While not specifically geared towards kayaking, these boat tours nevertheless provide great insights on a multitude of topics, such as the Native peoples that lived there, the Hackensacks, part of the Algonquian speaking tribes. Such topics include how the Natives lived within their environment, how their social structure was organized, and how the strong physical and spiritual connection with the river defined the Hackensacks’ relationship to it and their surroundings. Rivers played a key role in the development of Native societies. They also played a vital role in the eventual displacement of the Natives and led to the rise of the burgeoning United States.
The Bergen County Historical Society (BCHS), which oversees New Bridge Landing (the site of the infamous Continental Army retreat across the Hackensack River before the arrival of British troops marching confidently from smashing victories in New York), is seeking funds to establish a new museum. Promoting recreational activities like boating or kayaking can go a long way in explaining both the critical historical and environmental forces that have shaped the Hackensack and its legacy. The BCHA can greatly benefit by offering kayaking trips that are sure to attract visitors who want to spend more time outdoors, as it is located in a densely populated area but whose residents already have access to parks, particularly to the newly expanded Overpeck Park, considered Bergen County’s Central Park. As people seek out greater access to the riverfront, the BCHA could tap into this demand to relate the history of the Hackensack.
Great strides have been made by random communities and townships to create the necessary means by which residents and the general public have easy access to the water. For example, Raritan Township in New Jersey is in the process of removing the last remaining dam on the Raritan. The idea is to have a continuously flowing river once again to allow fish species to migrate and spawn, and most importantly to encourage economic and recreational opportunities along its banks. If encouraging people to get back to the river is important, why not encourage people to get back in touch with history? Kayaking or canoeing tours can make a big splash in instilling a sense of appreciation for both the environment and the past.