Nyack-on-Hudson, as seen etched above the entrance of Village Hall, could very well be revised as Nyack-on-Fjord, a title that beckons both awe and intrigue. While our minds conjure images of fjords in distant Scandinavian landscapes, the notion of a fjord nestled in Nyack might seem like a captivating tale spun from fantasy. Yet, beneath the veneer of a tranquil river town lies a geological marvel that defies conventional thinking.
The Mystique of Fjords
Traditionally, fjords are envisioned as sinuous waterways, cradled by imposing, forest-clad cliffs—a sight usually reserved for the enchanting landscapes of Scandinavia, Iceland, or Alaska. Yet, here in Nyack, where the Muhheakantuck (or the “river that flows both ways,” as named by the Lenape) holds sway, the definition takes an unexpected twist. The grandeur of Nyack’s waters, widened by the Tappan Zee, challenges the typical fjord narrative. How, then, can a vast bay be likened to a fjord?
Unraveling the Fjord’s Origins
Fjords are generally defined as valleys eroded well below sea level by glaciers, and then filled by the sea after the glaciers melt. They are deepest upstream of their mouths, where the erosive power of the glacier was greatest.
The Genesis of the Hudson River
In epochs long past, run-off from an inland sea drove a deep groove directly south between ancient mountains. The river etched ever deeper over time. It can be seen as a channel in the depths of today’s submerged continental shelf.
During the last great glaciation, some 13,000 to 20,000 years ago, the original Hudson River served as a frozen guidepost, allowing glaciers to venture farther south than the surrounding terrain. Geological sketches portray a wintry barrier shrouding the Northeast, with an icy finger tracing the river’s ancient course.
The relentless force of glaciers propelled rocks and gravel southward, birthing the landmass we now know as Long Island. As the glaciers receded, the Hudson’s waters surged south, only to be held at bay by Long Island’s burgeoning presence. Water, finding passage through the Sparkill gap at Piermont, flowed into the lowlands of North Jersey. Over time, Long Island’s barrier crumbled, granting the Hudson direct passage to the Atlantic.
Thus, the Hudson’s narrative unfolds within the embrace of glaciers—a fundamental fjord hallmark.
A Symphony of Tides
With a warming climate and rising sea level, the Hudson’s mouth transformed into an expansive estuary, gradually ushering briny waters on tides that ventured inland. The curious phenomenon of a river flowing both ways was birthed, with salty surges stretching as far as Troy. In Nyack, tides rise and fall by about 3.5 feet—a subtle yet undeniable testament to the Hudson’s ongoing courtship with the ocean.
Our Deepest River
The Hudson proudly boasts its status as the continental United States’ deepest river, averaging a depth of around 30 feet. Yet, upstream, the water is much deeper. Near West Point’s Constitution Island, the river plunges to a staggering 203 feet—an ode to the glacier’s formidable erosive might. In fact, the riverbed is even much deeper in most places but has slowly been filled with silt and rocks.
Fjords & Cliffs
Fjords are often depicted as narrow passages, cradled by towering cliffs—a tableau that finds a home in the heart of the Hudson’s geology. This river, carved by the slow, patient erosion of ancient mountains, once possessed steeper slopes. Glimpses of this fjord-like aesthetic emerge at select vantage points.
From Bear Mountain to Newburgh, the Hudson Highlands, framed by the imposing Storm King and Breakneck Ridge—both towering at 1,300 feet—paint a portrait reminiscent of classic fjord landscapes. Whether gazing from the heights of Bear Mountain or tracing the river’s narrowing at Hook Mountain or the Palisades in New Jersey, the very essence of a fjord reveals itself.
While the fjords of distant lands—Norway, Iceland, and Alaska—enjoy global acclaim, the Hudson River’s fjord narrative boasts its own unique charm. Nyack-on-Fjord beckons with its own allure.
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.