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A Man and His Dog Watch Over New York’s Hudson River

John Lipscomb is a fierce environmental advocate for one of America’s historic rivers. He and his dog Batu continuously patrol the Hudson and its tributaries, supporting scientific studies in their 36-foot wooden boat.

Capt. John Lipscomb
After a brief stop to pick up water, Capt. John prepares to shove off from the dock on Rondout Creek. He and Batu are headed to the Hudson for an afternoon patrol.
Photographs by David Kidd
Capt. John Lipscomb has been patrolling New York’s Hudson River since the summer of 2000. He monitors the waterway on behalf of Riverkeeper, an environmentally focused nonprofit organization. Until a few years ago, he was usually alone out on the water. Now though, he enjoys the company of first mate Batu, a three-year-old yellow lab.

“He’s a little bored some days,” says John. “But he has cultivated friendships in so many of these places where we stay. He knows who has the milkbones, and who doesn’t.” A bag of Batu’s toys is always on board, including his favorite, a frisbee.

John and Batu cover more than 5,000 miles a year between April and December, following the river as far north as Troy and down to New York Harbor, a distance of more than 150 miles. Nights are always spent aboard the boat, a 36-foot wooden craft originally designed for harvesting shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay. Supremely stable in the water, the boat’s wide, mostly flat bottom makes it ideally suited to Riverkeeper’s needs: patrolling the river and its tributaries, supporting scientific studies and bringing members of the media and regional stakeholders out onto the river.

On a recent late summer afternoon, the captain and Batu set off from Kingston, close to the midway point of their patrol area. A tour boat passes, then a fishing boat soon after. Everyone aboard waves at John and Batu. “You always have to wave back,” he says.
Batu on a dock holding the rope to a boat in his mouth.
Relatively new to the job, Batu is still learning the ropes.
John Lipscomb
Away from the dock, John stops to talk to crew members and friends aboard the Clearwater sloop.
Two women aboard the Clearwater sloop.
Modeled after the sloops used as workboats over a century ago, the Clearwater is used to educate and advocate on behalf of the river.
The Rondout Lighthouse.
Passing the Rondout Lighthouse, one of only seven left on the Hudson.
The Kalmar Nyckel
The tall ship Kalmar Nyckel on its way to Kingston from its home port of Wilmington, Del.
07 Riverkeeper 197s.jpg
Capt. John is continuously monitoring river traffic on his radio. Much of the back and forth is about vessels making way for each other.
Batu laying on the deck of the boat.
Batu takes advantage of a bit of shade on this unusually warm August afternoon.
John Lipscomb driving the Riverkeeper.
Speed is not an option for the Riverkeeper patrol boat. “They built her too heavy. She’s not fast enough. But she’s a great boat for this.”
An abandoned crane on the water.
As John re-enters the Rondout Creek, an osprey nest is high overhead.
John Lipscomb
“This job has grown into two jobs. One is a captain job, which is a full-time job. The other is the advocate job. Which is also a full-time job.”
The Rondout Creek Bridge from below on the water.
Opened to traffic in 1921, the Rondout Creek Bridge was the first suspension bridge in the Hudson Valley.
Batu
Batu keeps an eye on the passing scenery. When out on the water, he knows only his front paws may be on the deck.
Batu sniffing a fishing net holding a blue plastic jug fished from the river.
Batu inspects an item fished out of the creek before John brings it aboard.
A train passing over the Wilber Bridge, as seen from the water.
A train passes over the Wilber Bridge, as they have been doing since 1903.
The Feeney Shipyard
The Feeney Shipyard has been building and repairing barges on the Rondout since 1904.
John Lipscomb
“Twenty years is a long time. It’s a third of my life. In many ways, I’m at my most capable now. But I am aware that I’m getting old.”
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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