By Theodore W. Scull. The first river I got to know well was right outside my office window. It was the mighty Hudson and it flowed both ways as the incoming tide from the Atlantic was often stronger than the out flowing river. In fact, the tides reached Troy, just above Albany, some 155 miles from the river mouth. That had to be the limit because of the Champlain Canal locks.
The Hudson was a busy waterway for liners, cruise ships, cargo vessels, tankers, tugs towing barges, ferries, excursion boats, sanitation vessels and sailing craft. At first I sailed only the 75-mile stretch from New York to Poughkeepsie, and not until many decades later in 2010, did I close that gap when I cruised the entire navigable length from Troy to Manhattan.
My first two overnight river cruises took place even before I started working in Manhattan, with the first aboard a Russian riverboat, five days down the Danube from Vienna to the Black Sea. The most exciting portion was riding the rapids through the Iron Gates, a fast-flowing stretch that passed through a narrow gorge between Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and Romania. Steam locomotives were on hand to aid upriver traffic before locks controlled the flow.
The second was aboard an old Russian side-wheeler plying between Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Rostov, steaming along both the Volga and the Don. I never expected a river trip to be rough but crossing a huge lake in a windstorm was not unlike being on the open sea. Not to send fear into timid hearts and unpredictable stomachs, that was the one and only time on a waterway that I experienced rock and roll.
Then a long gap ensued before I was invited to be a lecturer aboard the venerable sternwheeler DELTA QUEEN. Completed in 1927, she became America’s quintessential steamboat, a living legacy that connected the past directly with the modern versions we have today. I think we may see her sailing again.
That first cruise covered the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, all so different that I got river fever and was determined to travel on more. At first, all were located in North America: a short stretch of the Missouri; the Kanawha in West Virginia; the Sacramento and Stockton in California; the Columbia and Snake in Oregon and Washington, and along the Salmon River into Hells Canyon in Idaho.
The first international river was the St. Lawrence dividing the U.S. and Canada. It’s referred as La Mer (The Sea) to French Canadians from where it meets the Saguenay to its issue into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. From the Saguenay inland it is both a natural river and a controlled one with locks that create the St. Lawrence Seaway. On different small ships, I have traveled this river from Lake Ontario, along the section where it becomes the St. Lawrence Seaway, sharing the channels with the big lakers (bulk carriers), and on past Montreal and Quebec to the Saguenay.
Europe entered the picture again exactly 20 years ago when I made an autumn cruise on the Rhine, Moselle and Main. I loved the castles, cathedrals, vineyards fringing the banks, picture postcard towns and the commercial river traffic. Their varied attributes propelled me to study maps of Europe’s navigable rivers; it was staggering where I could go and did: from the North Sea, some 2,123 miles (3,147 kms) to the Black Sea; from Amsterdam across Germany and up the Elbe to Prague in Central Europe; most of the way between the English Channel at the mouth of the Seine and via the Soane and Rhone almost to the Mediterranean, apart from a dry stretch between Paris and Burgundy; and St. Petersburg to Moscow via the Neva and Volga.
Beyond Europe, the Nile beckoned and more than satisfied me as a way to see Upper Egypt’s antiquities — the temples, statues, feluccas, and shadoofs, but sadly few people are currently venturing there, though my brother did so as recently as December 2015 and experienced no incidents.
The mighty Amazon is really two rivers, the wide stretch between Manaus and the Atlantic where some of the larger cruise ships go and the really remote road-less Upper Amazon (Solimoes) where the river provides the transportation in addition to dozens of tributaries navigated by small river boats that penetrate deeply into Peru. I made one exciting eight-day journey from Iquitos, the world’s largest city without road access, down to Manaus and the junction with the Rio Negro. I loved seeing how people made their living on and around the river, spotting the exotic birds and animals, also calling the river home, and catching a piranha on my birthday and having it grilled for supper.
Then came the mighty Yangtze in China climbing by riverboat from Wuhan through the Three Gorges to Chongqing and the totally different and culturally-rich Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam — and one day hopefully the Irrawaddy in Myanmar (Burma) and the Ganges in India.
While the first river I knew was the Hudson, I now have a sneaky view of the East River, but then it’s not what it says it is; it’s only a tidal strait between Long Island Sound and Upper New York Bay. Still it seems to be what it isn’t officially, so I am satisfied, and it sees some of the small ships covered on this website plying between New England and the South and on around the Battery and up the Hudson.