So much sewage once floated in the Hudson River that Shabazz Jackson and his friends made up their own version of the breast stroke when they swam along the shore in Beacon, N.Y., in the 1950s. They would jump in feet first, then flail their arms to push the stinking mess away from their faces.
"We all swam in the Hudson," Jackson, 50, an environmental engineer who still lives in Beacon, said. "It was an open sewer, but it was still the mighty river. You'd just swim with your head out of the water and push the debris away with your arms."
Today, Jackson still jumps into the river, but he is more likely to bump into other swimmers than into raw sewage.
After nearly 30 years of cleanup efforts, the Hudson River has rebounded from a dumping ground for human and industrial waste to one of the state's leading recreational sites. Now there is even officially sanctioned swimming in its murky waters, from organized races around Manhattan to a handful of public beaches in Westchester and Ulster counties.
And if New York state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation want to create a string of state-operated beaches along its shores from the northern tip of Manhattan to Columbia County, just south of Albany.
Still, the Hudson is not for everyone. Daniel L. Thomason, 28, a financial consultant from Manhattan who was visiting friends, steadfastly refused to leave his beach chair. "I would need a lot more convincing, let's put it that way," said Thomason, ignoring the beckoning wave of one friend. "The Hudson may be cleaner now, but it smells and looks nasty. I wouldn't even let my dog swim in there."
While the very notion can still wrinkle noses, people have dipped into the Hudson as long as anyone can remember. Open-bottom barges anchored in the Hudson, known as "floating swimming pools," were used by city dwellers for bathing at the turn of the century.
And swimming areas once dotted the river's banks, including "Cole's Grove," a dock and pavilions at the Catskills home of Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of painters.