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What Lewis Pugh Saw Swimming 315 Miles Through the Hudson

In September, the British endurance swimmer laid claim to being the first to swim the full length of the Hudson River.

by Lynn Freehill-Maye
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By Day 26 of his record-setting venture down the Hudson, endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh was enduring. He was some 270 miles into the journey and admitted to being both tired and sore, yet energized. “It’s been exhausting and inspiring in equal measure,” he said, standing dry on the dock with West Point behind him. “315 miles is a helluva long way.”

Lewis Pugh swims toward the Bear Mountain Bridge. (Photo: Courtesy Lewis Pugh Foundation)

The night before, he’d swum from midnight to 2:30 a.m. You might think a swimmer would prefer the visibility that sunlight offers, but on a journey like this, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Pugh had been swimming 10 miles per day for going on a month, broken up into an early and a late session. Since the Hudson is a tidal river, the timing of those sessions is dictated by ocean tides, which affect which way the water is flowing all the way up to Troy.

The next night, the tides would demand swimming from 2-4 a.m. (something that should only be done with a safety kayaker like he had alongside.) But Pugh didn’t dread it. “The river is so peaceful then,” he said “It’s so quiet. The back is sore, and the only way to relieve that is to open it up with backstroke. Then you look up into the heavens and have the stars and the moon. It’s very comforting.”

People often asked Pugh about the logistics of the monthlong swim, which he began on Aug. 13 and finished Sept. 13. Most important: He swam unassisted, which his team defined as using only a Speedo, swim cap, and goggles. For energy, he sometimes ate bananas and isotonic drinks in the water, mostly vegetables and some chicken for protein outside of it (never fish, since he’s U.N. Patron of the Oceans). Along with his safety kayaker, a catamaran with a small support crew was available for on-boat sleeping.

Hazards were a source of concern for him and others. He started at the Hudson’s source, Lake Tear of the Clouds, and early on had to camp and run along the river when it was too shallow to swim.

Pugh ran alongside the river in northern spots where it was too shallow to swim. (Photo: Courtesy Lewis Pugh Foundation)

Once he got in, he was afraid of crashing into a hidden rock at full speed. Aquatic plants like the water chestnut made swimming a challenge in some places, and their spiny seeds caught like a burr in his armpit.

Then, of course, there were the invisible hazards. He’d been lucky during the second and third weeks of his trek: There was little rain that would wash sewage into the river. But PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, were a big concern as he got toward Albany. General Electric dumped millions of pounds of the chemicals in the Hudson over time, and more action is needed to protect human health and the environment. “Down here are the hidden risks, stuff you don’t even see, the PCBs and E. coli,” Pugh said. “When you get in a river and there’s pollution, you worry about it.”

Spiny seed pods from the invasive water chestnut plant stuck in Pugh’s armpits like burrs. (Photo: Courtesy Lewis Pugh Foundation)

But after all that, Pugh was most interested in talking about the people he’d met. Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann of the Ramapough Lenape Nation stood out — they’d talked about thousands of years of Indigenous peoples caring for the planet. Marist College students and president Kevin C. Weinman did too — they jumped into the river and swam with him in Poughkeepsie, in what he called a collision of “leadership and hope” that he couldn’t imagine happening back home in the U.K.

Later, he would go on to do one of his last legs of this journey with Yvette Tetteh, a fellow environmentalist and swimmer who had swum the full length of the Volta River in Ghana.

In Poughkeepsie, Marist College students — and president Kevin C. Weinman — jumped in and swam with Pugh in front of the Marist boathouse. (Photo: Courtesy Lewis Pugh Foundation)

Across ages and demographics, Hudson Valley residents seemed to truly love their river, Pugh thought. And for someone who’d swum everywhere from Antarctica to Greenland, the Red Sea to the North Pole, he was still excited and energized by the Hudson.

“This river’s unique,” he said. “At the source you’ve got beavers, vultures, bears, and bald eagles. At the end you have New York City. [People are] proud of what has been achieved but know there’s more to be done. I pray this river gives hope to people around the world.”

Pugh and Yvette Tetteh near the George Washington Bridge. (Photo: Courtesy Lewis Pugh Foundation)
Lynn Freehill-Maye is managing editor of Scenic Hudson’s HV Viewfinder. She is also a Hudson Valley-based sustainability writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Scientific American, Sierra, Civil Eats, CityLab, Modern Farmer, and beyond. 

 


Click here to learn more about the Restore the River campaign for a clean river that enhances quality of life for all Hudson Valley residents.


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Hudson Valley Viewfinder is a collaborative, community digital magazine sharing what inspires us about the beautiful Hudson Valley. We publish original stories and multimedia content about all things sustainable in the region along the Hudson River — including agriculture, science, wildlife, outdoor recreation, green transportation, environmental justice, and more.

Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
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  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
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Businesses, please note that as a nonprofit, Scenic Hudson is restricted from advertising or promoting for-profit companies, through Viewfinder or other outlets. While we understand content managers may wish to alert us to your company’s role in a relevant topic, we are unable to add links to businesses to our stories.

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