Kayak Trek Takes Expeditionary Studies Grad Student from Rouses Point to Hudson River
By Gerianne Wright
There was a moment during Bobby O’Connor’s kayak trek from Rouses Point on Lake Champlain to the mouth of the Hudson River when he thought he may have bitten off more than he could chew.
It happened on the first day.
“We had a pretty strong head wind,” the 2013 SUNY Plattsburgh expeditionary studies grad said. “I didn’t know what to expect for the remaining nine days and started questioning our decision.”
His group kept calm, though, and the going got progressively easier, he said.
“We were incredibly lucky — we had great weather. It was amazing,”
O’Connor, 25, is earning his master’s in expeditionary studies at SUNY Plattsburgh. The trip was one of his program’s capstone projects, which also involved collecting data on the presence of microplastics in the water along the way.
After much preliminary planning, including collaborating with Dr. Danielle Garneau, associate professor in the Center for Environmental Science on the microplastics research, he and his paddle companions, retired expeditionary studies program director Dr. Laurence Soroka and adjunct EXP instructor Jim Sausville, all experienced kayakers, set out on a 10-day paddle from Rouses Point on the northern tip of Lake Champlain May 21.
“You just need to get comfortable,” he said.
While most experienced kayakers would pack what they needed for the entire 10 days, O’Connor and team packed enough food, water and clothing. What they didn’t have enough of, like sunblock, they were able to procure through a network of family and friends along the way.
They paddled an average of 30 miles a day, camping first on Valcour Island. From there they headed out to Snake Den Harbor south of the Essex/Charlotte ferry crossing. On the third day, they reached Ticonderoga where the lake merges into the Lake Champlain channel.
“I’ve been on a lot of expeditions over the last 10 years. I was excited about doing my science. It was really fun.” — Bobby O’Connor ’13
Science and Expedition
It was there that the blending of expedition and science began when O’Connor cast out a net to see what he could pull up for Garneau. Garneau had mapped out which areas O’Connor should concentrate on for sampling and discussed protocols for using the plankton net.
For his part, O’Connor and crew had planned to sample every 10 or 15 miles. That changed when they realized how much time the process took.
“We had to scrap some of the sampling areas because we were not moving when we needed to be,” he said. “I underestimated the amount of energy it takes to do the sampling; it took time to get the net set up, and then we’d do a two-minute tow for each sample.”
Both O’Connor and Garneau were excited at the prospect of cross-curriculum collaboration.
“It was a great marriage of the two disciplines,” Garneau said. “It fit so nicely, with a whole lot of interdisciplinary research. Bobby will also be doing some of the work in the labs as well.”
O’Connor said the trip added a whole new purpose to his work.
“I have friends who have been studying (microplastics) who said this project is great. I’ve been on a lot of expeditions over the last 10 years. I was excited about doing my science. It was really fun.”
The trip took them through Ticonderoga and the LeChute River. Family picked the team up there and brought them to O’Connor’s family camp in the vicinity. The next day, they struck out from the northern tip of Lake George.
“It was the perfect starting point for the next day,” he said. But a case of food poisoning from a barbecue cookout the night before left them not being on par with the 33 miles on Lake George that they thought they’d be able to do that day.
The trip continued, though, with the trio covering route down to Troy, the Port of Albany and onto the Hudson River. They encountered the most difficult day of their trip north of Poughkeepsie when O’Connor said he the tidal flow inhibited paddling.
“It took us 12 and a half hours of paddling that day,” he said.
At West Point on the Hudson, they connected with O’Connor’s girlfriend and her mother. They stayed at West Point and had a history tour. And although they were transported to different launch points along the way, O’Connor said the actual mileage of the trip was pretty much the same as if they had been on the water throughout.
Traffic ‘Exploded’ in Harbor
From West Point, they made it to Yonkers on May 30 and after getting an early start the morning of the 31st, they entered New York Harbor about 8 a.m.
“Until that time, there had been little traffic,” O’Connor said. “But 8:30 or 9 a.m., the ferry traffic exploded. We found ourselves in an active harbor. It was chaotic and scary. There was so much going on.”
And their presence didn’t go unnoticed. Their 18-foot kayaks drew the attention of the authorities. When they neared the security zone of the air craft carrier and national monument, the Intrepid, the NYPD on board a police boat told them they had to exit the harbor.
Naval Helicopter Above
“Two Coast Guard boats came flying up to us, surrounding us,” O’Connor said. “The guards were pointing at us, telling us we had to get out, NOW. We told them, ‘We’re trying to!’ It was pretty funny. And it was full-on excitement when we got to the Statue of Liberty. A Naval helicopter circled us.”
After circling Ellis Island, they paddled to Pier 92 and met O’Connor’s parents, who helped them trailer their gear and then brought the kayak-weary travelers back up to their home in Saratoga Springs.
“It took me a few days to start to feel better,” O’Connor said. “We all paddle quite a bit, and (yet) we all got blisters early on.”
He said after the trip that he was looking forward to the next phase: analyzing the samples that were collected. Work on them began mid-July.
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