This is easily the prettiest section of the Wallkill River so far.
North of the Midway Road boat ramp, opposite Orange Regional Medical Center, the river is wide, lined with trees and teeming with wildlife. Landscape photographer Nick Zungoli of Sugar Loaf is my paddle partner today.
As we drag our kayaks down to the river, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus shows up to shake our hands and wish us well.
“We really want to start improving the access to the Wallkill,” Neuhaus says. “People are leading healthier lives and want to get outdoors, and paddling a kayak down the Wallkill is a great way to do that.”
We push off, pass under the Route 17 bridge, and soon Zungoli is moving from one side of the river to the other taking pictures.
“I’ve been paddling the Wallkill for 40 years,” he says. “I’ve never gone completely end-to-end like you, but I’ve paddled my canoe and done aerial photography and shot from the banks.”
“Back in the 1980s, I did a photo exhibit of the Black Dirt region,” he says. “And that’s when I really came to know and understand this river.”
Raindrops begin to splash all around as we move past young deer grazing on the banks, eagles taking off from trees and fish jumping out of the river. There are wildlife surprises around every bend.
“I consider myself a photographer who is interested in the environment,” Zungoli says. “So, obviously, I am very interested in nature.”
“For me, it is really spiritual out here,” he says, looking up at the canopy. “Day-to-day activities really mean nothing when you are out here. You get to leave the whole world behind.”
We paddle under an arched railway bridge, and moments later a thundering commuter train crosses. A huge carp jumps clear out of the water and splashes down only yards from Zungoli's kayak.
“Holy crap, did you see that?” he yells out. “It must have been 30 inches long!”
The rain starts to fall harder, and we are both happy to have dry bags for our camera equipment.
“This is just wonderful,” he says. “Thank you for inviting me.”
We paddle past horse farms and fragrant honeysuckle bushes on either side of the river.
“Back in the day, people didn’t travel by road, they traveled by river,” he says. “And this river was a highway into the interior. It was a very important trade route.”
“When you research it, this whole valley was formed by the glaciers and this river,” Zungoli says. “It is the river between the two great rivers.”
We are soaked and decide to stop early and pull out at the Thomas Bull Park boat ramp.
John DeSanto is the former director of photography at the Times Herald-Record and now a freelance photojournalist and author of the weekly 845LIFE essays.