Lewis Pugh’s Historic Hudson River Swim

The river sings many songs to those who are willing to listen. Sometimes it’s a song of impermanence. Sometimes surprise or awe. Or history. Or interconnection. Sometimes it’s uncertainty – for you never know what will come down the river from moment to moment.

I remember one summer day in 2018 when I was kayaking and saw something puzzling up ahead in the distance, heading downriver towards me. I couldn’t make out what it was. It looked different than any boat I’d ever seen and only grew more curious as it came closer. After paddling by what turned out to be a rustic houseboat, I learned it was a loose replica of a shantyboat built by U.C. Santa Cruz art lecturer, Wes Modes’ crew out of mostly recycled and repurposed materials. The boat was traveling down the Hudson River as part of his project, A Secret History of American River People. Modes and crew were collecting stories from the people living in communities along the river. It was a story boat – and the most memorable human-made creation I’d ever seen come down the river.

That day, the river sang a song of wonder, along with the value of being prepared – for I encountered the story boat without a camera.

The river is my greatest teacher and muse. After 15 years of living on the riverside, I have come to realize that I am passionately in love with the Hudson River. When you fall in love with a river, you realize that everything is connected to it. And you want to protect it.

Usually, what comes down the river is a surprise—including wildlife, such as the occasional swan or loon sighting. Sometimes, though, you have advance notice. Within the past month, a fleet of what seemed like hundreds of kayaks came by. When I saw the first kayakers approaching, it dawned on me that there was a Paddling the Canal event celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Champlain Canal. Somehow, it had slipped my mind! I grabbed my camera and positioned myself on the bank. It was like watching a colorful river parade. I took lots of pictures and even made a video. The positive vibes were contagious.

Even more recently, I learned that ocean advocate and British-South African endurance swimmer extraordinaire, Lewis Pugh, would be swimming the entire 315-mile length of the Hudson River from mid-August to mid-September. He plans to arrive in New York City in time for the United Nations General Assembly Week and Climate Week NYC 2023 and the U.N. Secretary General’s Climate Ambition Summit.

Pugh has done some incredible endurance swims to draw attention to fragile ecosystems – including across the North Pole (only possible due to the melting of the Arctic Sea ice) and across a glacial lake on Mount Everest – the highest swim in the world. He was the first person to swim the length of the British Channel, as well as the first person to do long-distance swimming in all five oceans. Notably, after his swim through the polluted River Thames, his teeth were loose in his gums! He is the United Nations Patron of the Oceans and was chosen as the 2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. His endurance swimming accomplishments, which began at age 17 (he’s 53 now), are utterly mind-boggling – and the pictures of them jaw-dropping. 

Upon completing his Hudson River Swim, he won’t be the first person to have swam the entire length – Christopher Swain did so in 2004. However, he will be the first to swim unassisted, without a wetsuit and fins. Pugh is making his way down the river in just a Speedo, cap, and goggles.

The Lewis Pugh Hudson River swim through our area was something I didn’t want to miss. He was swimming to highlight the interdependence of river and ocean health and to promote restoring, protecting, and respecting our rivers. Earlier this month, I completed my yearlong river sunrise photography project and felt a sense of kinship with anyone else undertaking a river project. 

Pugh swam through our area yesterday. I went kayaking when he was expected to swim through our quiet stretch of river, in hopes of seeing him on the water. However, after two hours, I hadn’t seen a single sign and became enraptured with a great white egret. Did I miss him, or was he running behind schedule? I paddled back home and couldn’t have been inside the house for more than ten minutes before I saw a bright green, double kayak alongside a swimmer coming down the middle of the river. It was him!

I bolted to the riverside with camera in tow and cheered him on. He was swimming on the other side of the kayak, so I couldn’t get pictures from my spot on the bank. I jumped in my kayak, to get a better view – feeling like kayaking paparazzi. 

After a few minutes, I returned home and drove to the park down the road, where he was headed.

A small group of supporters gathered on the dock just before the lock, where we were told he would come out of the water (since he can’t swim through the locks) for a lunchtime meet-and-greet. After a few minutes, the green kayak was spotted in the distance, to everyone’s excitement. Before climbing out of the water, someone asked him how the water felt. He smiled and exclaimed, “Nice and warm!” 

Pugh made his way to the pavilion, where he started eating lunch, and I sat down and talked with him. I was carrying a camera with a large lens, and he asked if I was from the press. I replied, “No – I’m from the river!” Surprisingly, there weren’t any reporters present, despite a number of them been contacted. I introduced myself by telling him I had just completed a river project that was the opposite of what he is doing – since I stayed in one spot for a whole year photographing river sunrises, and he is navigating the entire length of the river. As someone passionately in love with the river, I expressed deep gratitude for his efforts to advocate for rivers and oceans.

He wondered why the beautiful park was so quiet and remarked that if it were in England, there would be lots of people enjoying it. 

One of the team members kayaking alongside him asked me if I had seen the bald eagle near the dam when I was in my kayak. I hadn’t because I was focused on them – but I photographed them seeing the eagle. (See slideshow, below.)

A few other locals gathered in the pavilion, along with members of Pugh’s small crew, and the conversation was fascinating. We ended up talking for about an hour. There was quite a bit of conversation around Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, the Falkland Islands, and Pugh’s 2017 swim in South Georgia and how hard it is to get to that remote location.

He listened to a few members of the park’s board of directors and others talk about local history – many tidbits I didn’t know about (or perhaps had forgotten), including why the park was named Hudson Crossing and a nearby house that still has several cannonballs lodged in the walls from the Revolutionary War. Later in the conversation, the owner of that house joined us and confirmed the stories. There were stories of wars and field hospitals, ghosts, General Burgoyne setting the whole area on fire in his retreat, and the German Baroness, Frederika Charlotte Riedesel. We also talked about the PCB dredging and river wildlife that has returned, including bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons, and egrets.

Here we were: a small group of Americans talking about the Revolutionary War in a spot where it actually took place, with a British swimmer passing through to promote health of the oceans and rivers that connect us and support all life. In this brief meeting, stories of local history intersected with a much larger story.

I experienced Pugh as softly well-spoken with a calm, centered presence and characteristically British sense of humor.

He mentioned that he encountered a snapping turtle during the day’s swim and said he’d rather go head-on with a great white shark than a snapping turtle any day.

He talked about growing up in a military hospital and as a five-year-old accompanying his father, a military surgeon, on rounds. He said what made the biggest impression on him were the amputees from both the First and Second World Wars.

Interestingly, part of his medical protocol for long swim sessions is to take Pepto-Bismol both pre- and post-swim.

Gifts of local maple syrup, pickles, and cookies were proudly and enthusiastically offered to Pugh and his team. 

Participating in the conversation, I couldn’t help but marvel at the thought of all the stories he hears as he stops in communities along the river – similar to the story boat from five years ago. Honestly, it was one of the best days I’ve ever experienced in Schuylerville! The interaction prompted me to reflect on how little I’ve explored the river I’m so in love with and made me want to accompany Pugh and team down the river, to hear more river stories.

I attempted to do that today, but my timing was off. I arrived about two minutes too late to see him get out of the water at a park in Stillwater, and returned about two minutes too late to see him start swimming again after taking a mid-day nap in between two five-mile stretches. But while he was resting in the van, I enjoyed more conversation with a couple of local Riverkeepers.

I’d like to show up to support Pugh as he makes his way down the river toward Albany this week, if my teaching schedule and weather permit. I love the thrill of a photography challenge and the welcoming energy of his crew. But if the only photos I end up getting are the ones I took yesterday, I’ll still be satisfied. I can’t imagine any other image having more personal meaning than the one featured, above.

In that image, he’s swimming past the processing site from the PCBs Superfund dredging project, which is in the background. Ten years ago, this spot was the epicenter of the project, bustling with huge barges traveling back and forth, hauling PCB-contaminated soil expunged from the riverbed, to the processing facility. (See images contrasting then and now in slideshow below.) Pugh is swimming for healthy rivers, and photographing him in this spot speaks powerfully to me.

To express what I saw in my mind, I made a composite image (also in slideshow below) of a photo of him swimming through this spot and a photo of the dredging operations in the same spot ten years prior.

The actual photo of him swimming through this spot was a case in which I was at the same time behind (where I feel most comfortable) and in front of the camera. There’s a picture on the Lewis Pugh Foundation Hudson Swim website from yesterday’s adventure (Day 13 – August 25) that shows those gathered to greet him in Schuylerville, including yours truly.

Pugh’s swim through our area has been tremendously inspiring. Whether or not I continue to follow him down the river this week, he has ignited in me a longing to explore more of the river that is so dear to my heart. I’m truly grateful to have met this extraordinary human being. If I have a chance to talk with him again, I’d like to ask him what his mind is like when he’s swimming. As a longtime meditation practitioner and teacher, it’s what I’ve been wondering about most since meeting with him yesterday – and would be a very different conversation.

I imagine it would be equally fascinating to hear stories from the different river communities and the different kinds of questions he’s asked – and answers given – as he makes his way from the Adirondack high peaks to New York City. And his insights and impressions of different parts of the river.

In addition to Pugh’s website and his foundation’s website, there is a New York Times article about his Hudson River Swim, and his Facebook feed is updated frequently with informative, awareness-raising posts and videos. There are also numerous posts on my old blog about the PCB dredging as it was taking place.

So many different kinds of articles could be written about Pugh’s Hudson River swim, from disparate perspectives. This is just my small contribution to a much larger conversation that I intend to be more involved in. It feels like meeting Pugh and following his journey already has watered many seeds in me and will have a profound and lasting effect. I can’t help but wonder how the hearts and minds of others up and down the river are being pollinated as he proceeds along the mighty Hudson toward his destination.

© 2023 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

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