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Hudson River Watershed: Source to Sink in Eight Days

Dr. Karin Limburg, eight students explore river from AEC to Manhattan

By Karin E. Limburg

The year 2009 marked the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's exploration of the river that now bears his name. As part of the celebrations, I led five undergraduates and three graduate students with interests ranging from environmental chemistry to fisheries to sustainable development on a weeklong field course in June.

We began in the Adirondacks at the headwaters of the Hudson River and ended at the river's terminus at the southern tip of Manhattan Island.

We began at Huntington Wildlife Forest (HWF) because of its special place in the watershed.

Before Colvin Verplanck's decisive measurements of elevation in his High Peaks surveys, it was thought that Harris Lake and its feeder streams and lakes were the ultimate source of the Hudson River. Indeed, the trio of headwaters - Round and Corner ponds draining into Catlin Lake, and Wolf Lake - form the second headwaters area for the Hudson.

Speaker Jon Erickson of the University of Vermont set the stage for the course by describing the tangled, historical interplay of opportunity, exploitation, and conservation that defines the Adirondack region. Speakers Stacy McNulty and Colin Beier from ESF's Adirondack Ecological Center told the students why HWF is an excellent site on which to observe the generation of many of the ecosystem services that support the watershed. We explored characteristics of a headwater lake (Wolf) and hiked around Arbutus Lake with Colin.

Wednesday of that week took us downriver to Hudson Falls and Fort Edward (still in the Upper Hudson), to get firsthand perspectives on the PCB dredging issue. We met ESF alumnus Jim Sullivan EFB '06 and General Electric engineer Ed LaPointe to see GE's on-site remediation, and with Richard Bopp, professor of environmental geochemistry at Rensselaer

Polytechnic Institute, got a broad perspective and tour of the initial dredging projects.

We departed these sites to meet U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Gary Wall and state Department of Environmental Conservation environmental chemist Simon Litten at Cohoes Falls, the natural fall line in the Mohawk River (the Hudson's largest tributary). There we learned about the history of this fascinating region. We followed them to the Troy Dam and finally saw tidewater there. We ended the day at the Huyck Preserve, a small ecological research station tucked away in the Helderberg Hills.

Our exploration continued Thursday with a visit with Rene VanSchaak of the Greene County Industrial Development Agency to learn about attracting businesses that would agree to sustainable development practices. The students came away with deep respect and excitement.

That day, we caught up with the "Quadricentennial Flotilla," a collection of ships that included the replica of Henry Hudson's boat the Half Moon, the Clearwater, the Ian Fletcher (Riverkeeper's boat), and an antique fireboat. We had seen evidence of the "Quad" from celebratory banners posted as far up-watershed as Newcomb.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were taken up by exploring tidal freshwater wetlands and learning about new exotic species threats, eel conservation, stream ecology and restoration, and real-time data networks. We did all this while working our way from River KM 165 (Tivoli Bays) to River KM 40 (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), visiting a number of places in between and meeting with experts who shared their knowledge with us.

All the way we collected our own data to make comparisons as we moved further down the watershed. For instance, comparing the conductivity of Wolf Lake water (22 microSiemens/cm) to the lower Hudson (5,776 microSiemens/cm) showed the phenomenon of increased dissolved ions as we moved literally out of the clouds down to the head of the estuary.

Monday was our final day. We rallied early from our only motel stop (in Tarrytown) to catch a commuter ferry to lower Manhattan. The New York Water Taxi, a large hydrofoil, sped us from Yonkers, around the southern tip of Manhattan, to Pier 11 (at the eastern end of Wall Street) in just under an hour.

The students experienced the vibrant hustle-bustle of people heading to their jobs. We were met by Mike Levandowsky, a Pace University biologist who has a terrific command of the history of Old New York. We spent three hours with him, learning about architecture and history as we tromped about the oldest parts of the city. The noise level was a stark contrast to the Adirondack woods.

Our last stop was the Hudson River Foundation. There we had lunch, final presentations from our hosts at the foundation, and a discussion about the week's experiences. The trip wrapped up with a New York commuter trip (subway and Metro North train rides back to Yonkers), followed by the long drive back to Syracuse, 40 miles west of the Hudson River watershed.

This course was run in 2009 to celebrate the Quadricentennial of Henry Hudson's voyage of discovery. It was a similar exploratory voyage for the student participants, who saw the river and its watershed from source to sink, from many places and perspectives. They also had a chance to measure and observe a small fraction of its biophysical conditions themselves. This integration of data collection, meeting with experts and really seeing the places where the issues play out is an invaluable type of experiential learning.

Karin Limburg is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology.