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The River Calls

After an epic series of summer journeys down the Hudson on homemade rafts, Dallas Trombley and Robert Ellis will do it one more time—in a canoe

by Sarah Sherman on June 12, 2014 · 1 comment


Intrepid adventueres: (l-r) Ellis and Trombley. Photo by Sarah Michelle Sherman


In sight of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, Dallas Trombley and Robert Ellis started to panic as their raft began to take on water. As they attempted to paddle to shore, they bottomed out on a sandbar. They couldn’t paddle to the other side because there was a channel and they would’ve sunk. So, they paddled to a buoy, where they spent three hours trying to call for help. With no luck, they decided their only option was to call the police. “We told them it wasn’t an emergency, there was no hurry,” but the police had no choice other than to treat it as an official 911 emergency. They sent the Hudson Fire Department to rescue the guys. “It felt horrible,” Trombley says, and that marked the end of their first attempt to raft down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City.

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It all started in November 2005 during a visit to New Paltz, when Trombley and Ellis, while walking along the Wallkill River, got the idea to build some sort of vessel and take it down the Hudson. “Let’s get some floating stuff and go from Albany to New York City,” Trombley told Ellis, and they decided to build a raft. Aiming for a launch on June 1, 2006, they began work on Crab Legs, their first of seven rafts.

“I didn’t grasp why a screw would be better than a nail,” Trombley says, revealing his level of knowledge on building something like this. Using rotting particleboard, a lot of nails, and barrels donated from the Coeymans Yacht Club, Trombley constructed the first raft they’d attempt to take down the Hudson. The 15-by-15-foot raft wasn’t exactly the most impressive piece of craftsmanship. “It was like a piece of cheese,” Trombley says. “Rotten and flexible.”

When the day came to launch “Crab Legs,” Trombley’s mother tried to inaugurate the boat by breaking a bottle of champagne on the bow. “The wood was so soft that it wouldn’t break . . . so we just drank it.” Ignoring the signs that they might not have had the strongest vessel to take them down the river, they set off for the city. They sank less than a day later.

Trombley and Ellis will attempt their seventh trip down the Hudson beginning today (Thursday), but this time in a canoe named Poly Canoeinated Bi-Paddle (P.C.B for short). As they prepare for their journey, Trombley and Ellis test their canoe in the water just off Ingalls Avenue in Troy while reflecting back on the adventures that consumed their 20s. They recall the sounds, the smells, and the sights along the river that seem to be burned into their minds. Of the river’s scent, Trombley says it’s “like mud and warm air dense with pollen.” Ellis describes it as “majestic” and recalls the peaceful sounds of birds and boats passing by. Trombley remembers the sound of the barges: “They are silent save for a low rumble as they approach. . . . But then they pass like a city block of apartment buildings all lit up, and their engines rumble.”

Trombley and Ellis met back in middle school in Ravena, but their friendship reached new heights when they started going on these adventures together. Trombley, a writer and also a server at Albany’s El Loco, and Ellis, who works for the Department of Labor, both will turn 30 July. Trombley thinks their canoe trip will serve as a nice bookend to this decade of their lives, as all of this began when they were just 21.

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The U.S.S. Crab Legs 2.0, as the name suggests, was Trombley and Ellis’ second raft, which they took down the river in August 2006. It was built from a dock donated by the Shady Harbor Marina in New Baltimore. “We put the boat in the water, and the paddle wheel broke immediately,” Trombley says. After 10 long days on the water they had only made it to Kingston. The wind was blowing upriver the whole time, and their only means of propulsion was paddling, but you can’t paddle a dock into the wind. The trip wasn’t going well.

“There were three consecutive days of over 100 degree weather, and horseflies bit us until our skin looked like cobblestone,” Trombley says. They were also out of food and were beginning to annoy each other—not a good combination. After spending three days in the exact same spot about a mile above the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, Trombley declared the trip over. “I had nothing to come home to except the realization that I had failed again,” Trombley says.

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“I think Dallas is insane in the best way possible,” says friend Latisha Cenicola. Many may think Trombley is insane for being so dedicated to this project, and many often asked him and Ellis why they were doing this (over and over again). “We told them we were protesting America’s reliance on fossil fuels,” Trombley says with a chuckle, but that wasn’t really the case. Sure, the guys think this is an issue to be explored, but it wasn’t their goal. “It was tongue and cheek,” Ellis says, “Funny to say.”

They told some others they were doing it for a college project. “Sometimes you just have to fake it,” Trombley says. So, what was the real reason? Well, originally, they thought it would be like a fun camping trip, and were looking forward to just simply being on the river. They thought they could drift most of the way. They had no idea what it really took to raft down the Hudson.

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In 2007, The Manhattan Project, raft number three, was built with two docks, again donated by the Shady Harbor Marina. Instead of using barrels like their previous boat, this raft floated on foam, which could not sink. They also included a sail, a well-built cabin, and spots for four people to paddle or row. They thought they finally had it figured out. They didn’t think Mother Nature could get to them this time, but they never thought about human nature.

As the boat was tied up in New Baltimore a week prior to the trip, their mooring lines were repeatedly cut. They still managed to get the boat on the water and left from Alive at Five in front of a cheering crowd. A little ways up from the Normanskill, Trombley and Ellis tied up the boat in order to collect provisions to take on board for the remainder of the trip. When they returned, the boat was missing. Trombley called the police, who found the boat adrift in the Port of Albany. Most of their gear was burned, their paddles were broken in half, the sail was ripped. Even the American flag they had onboard was ripped off and thrown ashore. Spirits were low. Trombley thought he was done.

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When asked why they are doing the trip this year, Trombley simply responds, “Because why not? I don’t think one needs to have cause to have an adventure.” Ellis says he’s doing it just for fun. “This time the motivation is more to enjoy ourselves than prove anything.” The only thing Trombley is trying to prove this time around is “the value of doing something different in your spare time that exposes you to new ideas and sensations and epiphanies.” He doesn’t think people realize how important it is to get outside and put themselves into nature. “If everybody spent more time outdoors away from commercials and mass media, we would have a smarter, more circumspect population, and that would be good for everybody.”

This time, unlike the others, it’s not that important to them that they make it to Manhattan. “When planning this trip we said to each other that if we don’t make it all the way to Manhattan we will not think of it as a failure as long as we enjoy the trip,” Ellis says. This project was designed to get the experience of being on the river without all of the work beforehand and with far less money (to date Trombley has spent $20,000 on this project).

“This is more of a trip down memory lane,” Trombley says. They’re not nervous this time, as they don’t anticipate much going wrong because their boat is so much smaller than their previous ones. “I hope to just have a really fun few days on the river,” Ellis says. He adds, “It will also be great exercise. . . . A guaranteed way to lose a few pounds.”

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In 2008, after spending $4,200, Trombley had designed a new boat, Excelsior, which was a “stitch-and-glue trimaran” with three separate hulls. When they launched, it quickly began leaking, which meant they couldn’t use the hulls as cabins as they had planned. Nor could they use the trolling motor charged by solar panels, as they had also hoped for. They had sails and a rowing station, but things started to break on their very first night. It rained every day of that trip, their oars broke, they could not go in the cabin, and the wind blew directly upstream, so they could not sail. By day seven they were only in Poughkeepsie, out of food, sunburned, and exhausted.

“All of our clothes were wet, we didn’t get enough sun to dry any of them. . . . I was feeling sick and freezing cold,” Ellis says. “I eventually told Dallas I couldn’t go any further.”

Worried that his friend and captain would be mad at him or resent him, Ellis was relieved when Trombley didn’t express any anger toward him at all, which must’ve been difficult. Trombley says, “I was so frustrated, I wanted to shut my mind off or smash things.” He knew he’d have to try all over again the next year. “The feeling was like a profound loneliness,” he says. “Like a desert at night . . . cold, solitude.” But he eventually moved on, got over it, and began planning for the next trip.

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Their plan for Thursday’s trip seems fairly simple, though Trombley acknowledges that that could change as soon as they put the canoe in the water, as their progress is dependent on the weather. Tentatively, though, they will leave Troy at 5:30 PM and pass Alive at Five around 9. Ellis says they will probably stop for a few minutes every hour to move around and stretch out. Around 2 AM, they are hoping to be in New Baltimore, where they will meet Trombley’s parents to pick up the rest of their supplies, which includes food, sleeping bags, a tent, and backpacks of clothes. They’re also going to take advantage of public bathrooms along the way at parks and marinas.

“Using a facility with running water and electricity is so much nicer,” Ellis says. While they have an assortment of dried food and typical snacks to eat, they are looking forward to the “real” food they’ll get when they stop along the way. “There is a man who has converted a pontoon boat into a hot dog cart. Hopefully we will run into him again,” Ellis says.

Hoping to reach Hudson by noon on Friday, the two plan to rest for four hours. Each day they need to move 50 miles in order to reach Manhattan by Monday morning. And if they don’t, well, then, they stop. Both have to return to work Tuesday morning.

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One night in October 2008, Trombley had a dream that inspired Assiduity, which would launch in summer 2009. It was a 24-foot long, 12-foot wide, two-story boat. It floated on 24 55-gallon barrels, sported a flying bridge, a biodiesel powered paddle wheel, a wood stove, and a keg. It cost $10,000 to make.

Once in the water, the biodiesel engine kept breaking. Five days before the launch, the guys gave it a try motoring across the river and back. The engine rattled its bolts loose and finally shot off pieces into the river. So, they had a $10,000 floating cabin with no propulsion.

In a hurry, they cobbled together a new boat, Mother of Inventions, out of two canoes and a sunfish. Nine days later they ended up in Cold Spring, 90 miles south, and ran into the same problem with the wind as every other year. It put too much stress on the oars and the boat to row into it all day. The mast broke, the anchor line snapped. They gave up just above the Bear Mountain Bridge.

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Each year Trombley and Ellis became more serious about their endeavor. With each failed attempt, they were learning more and more about the river and about the type of vessel they’d need. “We were getting smarter and more ambitious every year,” Trombley says. Locals were also gaining interest, and many encouraged them to keep going until they made it. Constantly being approached in grocery stores and bowling alleys, Trombley felt he really had something to prove.

This time, though, the guys aren’t worried about what other people will think. Ellis says, “Worse case scenario, we only make it 100 miles down the river. Anyone who would consider that a failure is welcome to get their own canoe and go do it better themselves.”

There are many things Trombley and Ellis find pleasurable about their trips. “I enjoy the peaceful beauty of the river,” Ellis says. Unlike a lot of people who may find the river gross, Ellis likes the way it looks and smells. He walks over it every day on his way to and from work, and the smells and sounds bring him back to his time on the river. Trombley likes seeing the remains of old buildings and ships as they float along. “I imagine what they looked like 100 years ago,” he says.

Which way to NYC? Photo by Sarah Michelle Sherman

Their hundreds of hours on the river has given both Trombley and Ellis a tremendous amount of memories, many of which remain vivid in their minds. On their last trip, their boat had a sail, which was blocking Trombley’s view of the left-hand shore. As they were paddling along somewhere between Athens and Hudson, Ellis spotted two people, maybe in their 40s or 50s, having sex on the shore very close by. “Dallas, look, look!” Ellis shouted. The couple were getting busy in about six inches of muck. They laugh at the memory and refer to it as “the fuck in the muck.”

Unexpected sights aside, they take pleasure in the small things surrounding the river. “There’s a lot you can enjoy just being where the land and the air and the water all meet . . . it’s just beautiful,” Trombley says. He appreciates the birds flying over top, the trains going down, the rotten infrastructure, sunken ships. He calls these “mini amusements.” Sometimes, his eyes reach farther away and he finds himself lost in the complexity of the sky above him. “On moonless nights in the middle of the river, the Milky Way is clearly visible, and if it’s warm, it’s hard to tell where the stars end and the fireflies begin.” It’s like a dream, he says, where you’re completely separated from society.

People who know Trombley and Ellis have plenty to say about their river pursuits. “People may look at you like you’re crazy, but usually say nice things,” Ellis says. Trombley adds that many people find their adventures fascinating. “There is such a dearth of adventure in our society that this project triggers romantic nostalgia for a time when there was more of it and less of whatever we have now.” Friends and family are supportive of this year’s trip, maybe more so than their previous ones, because it seems like a much more reasonable pursuit.

And what do they talk about during the long hours on the quiet river?

“We talk about constellations,” Trombley says. “What it was like for the Indians to come down and probably do what we’re doing.” They think of historical figures, who provide them with motivation. Trombley remembers a Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” which is how he feels he approaches these projects. They think of Hudson himself, who took 15 days to make it down to New York City. “And he’s a hero,” Ellis says.

The journeys strengthen their friendship, giving them an opportunity to learn more and more about each other. “After rafting and canoeing several hundred miles together, I guess we have a strong sense of what the other person is thinking,” Ellis says. He doesn’t think he would be confident doing the trip with anyone other than Trombley. “If I were to attempt it with someone else I would be concerned that the other person might give up or complain a lot. I know Dallas won’t give up and never complains.” And Trombley feels the same. “I think most people would get bored by the slow pace and the requirement to continually row, slowly, but steadily. They would start to complain almost immediately about the discomfort. They would want to pull off and sleep for several hours.” He adds that he thinks they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. “When Rob’s enthusiasm wanes, mine waxes, and vice versa.”

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In 2010, Trombley built another raft, Assembly Required. He used a canoe to make fiberglass molds and constructed a hollow boat that looked like a partially submerged Hummer with two 1-kilowatt windmills sticking out of the top. The idea was to use the wind to charge the batteries when they tied up during flood tides and then use the motor to power through the wind.

Unfortunately, they burned out the batteries. They melted on the first day, so they were back to rowing. When they couldn’t row because of the wind, they would get off the boat with a 100-foot rope and climb along the shore, which was often made of half-submerged boulders, and dragged the boat behind them.

Nine days later and 11 pounds lighter, Trombley set his eyes on what he’d been picturing since he was 21. He and Ellis found themselves slowly rowing the last few miles, past the Bronx, and fixing their gaze on the George Washington Bridge. Ellis says rowing under the GW was amazing. “Dallas and I knew we had finally done it,” he says. While joking and laughing, they realized that all their years of work had finally paid off. They were ecstatic.

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Trombley says that these trips allow him to escape the “existential ache of thinking ‘Have I done anything fun and adventurous lately?’” Ellis, on the other hand, says he doesn’t need any escape. He’s happier than he’s ever been in his personal life and career. “I’m sure by the fourth day I’ll be looking forward to getting home,” he says.

Both men do say they appreciate getting away from the real world for a few days. “It’s sort of like hitting a restart button on your brain,” Ellis says. “A trip like this helps you put things into perspective. It’s also a good reminder of how easy life is now for us compared to all the generations of the past.” When asked what he hopes to get from this trip, Ellis simply says, “I hope that my back and arms aren’t so sore that I can’t move for a week.”

Trombley goes a little deeper and says he’s hoping to feel “a little centered again . . . amused . . . content.” He’ll hope to gain a little more insight into the complexity of the Hudson, which he’s admired since he was young. “I always wanted to know what the shore looked like from the river,” he says. “It held so much mystery to me. It still does.”

Readers can follow this week’s river journey  on Twitter @dallastrombley and on Instagram @boatbuilder.


Update: Previously, the name “Robert” was misspelled as “Robery” in the deck. We have corrected and apologize for the error.



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