The Day – Urban Odyssey: Kayaking around Manhattan
A mighty ebb tide and our adrenaline rush at the start of what promised to be an exhilarating kayaking adventure propelled the four of us down the Hudson River towards the George Washington Bridge one morning last week.
Not far to our left, commuter traffic has receded on the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan; across the river in New Jersey, a comparable traffic jam blocked the Palisades Interstate Parkway.
“Hey look! We’re going faster than cars! I called my mates – Andy Lynn, at the front of my 22-foot two-person kayak; and Carl Astor and Dan Bendor, paddling together a few yards down the road in an identical tandem.
We had launched shortly after 8 a.m., from a small beach in Inwood Hill Park at the northwestern tip of Manhattan. Our plan: Paddle down the Hudson around the borough’s most southerly point at The Battery; then head north up the East River to the Harlem River. There we would head west to our launch site on the Hudson. Total distance: approximately 30 miles.
It would be a long day, but not a trip of the damned, I promised, because if we timed the tides correctly, a strong current would push us almost the entire way.
Going down the west side of Manhattan was a good start.
âPerfect conditions! Dan exclaimed. No choppy water, no breaking waves, and no boat wake – so early in the morning there was no other ship in sight. Plus, the high clouds kept the temperatures cool, making last week’s paddling much more enjoyable than the first time Dan, Carl and I kayaked around Manhattan.
Back then, we were cooking under the blazing sun and we also got carried away by a confusing chop at the mouth of the Hudson.
It was at the end of August 2001, just a few weeks before September 11. I remember glancing at the Twin Towers as we passed, but mostly kept my eyes fixed on the bubbling river that threatened to throw us away.
As I paddled quietly to Lower Manhattan last week, I couldn’t help but gaze at the majestic structure built to replace the towers, which had been destroyed in the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.
One World Trade Center (known colloquially as Freedom Tower), completed in 2013, stands 1,776 feet – the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the sixth tallest in the world.
My gaze drifted two miles southwest to where the Statue of Liberty stands at the entrance to New York Harbor. Is there another place in America that offers a better view of two amazing national monuments?
“Breathtaking,” I said.
Dan, Carl and Andy were also fascinated.
“Twenty,” Dan sighed.
Dan, a Waterford resident, is a psychiatrist, while Carl, formerly from New London and now living in New Haven, is a rabbi, which set me up for the perfect start to a story on a 13-day trip and 303 miles the three of us finished in 2003: “So a rabbi, a psychiatrist and a reporter are kayaking around Long Island …”
Since then Dan, Carl, and I have kayaked together on other epic tours including a two-week, 315-mile trip from the Canadian border to the Statue of Liberty; numerous circumnavigations of Fishers Island; and several paddles from New London to Orient Point and back.
Andy, who divides his time between New London and New York, was on his first long trip with us and has proven to be an invaluable member of the team.
Former executive director of the New York City Department of Planning, as well as the former director of planning for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he continued to comment – just paddle – on virtually every building. , bridges, causeways, park and institution that we crossed: The Cloisters, Grant’s Tomb, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Chelsea Piers, Hudson Yards …
Andy said he enjoyed taking in the views while biking to work along the Hudson – similar bike / pedestrian paths parallel to the East and Harlem rivers – and was also excited to see Manhattan from the point of view. view of the river.
âIt’s a great way to see the city,â he said.
As we made our way south on the West Side, Andy explained how the city’s architecture has evolved over the decades – from pre-WWII masonry buildings on the Upper West Side to contemporary structures in the Lower Manhattan, designed by some of the most famous architects.
Among them: the twisted towers designed by Bjarke Ingels at the High Line Park; another creation from Ingels that looks like a mountain slope; the new Whitney Museum by Renzo Piano; and the dazzling IAC Building by Frank Gehry.
Between these sections, from 72nd Street to Riverside South, “the buildings are all 30 to 40 stories tall, a bit bland,” Andy continued. He noted that most of them were built in the 1990s to early 2000s, including several by a major developer who became the host of a reality TV series and, more recently, chairman of the United States.
Manhattan has always been and continues to be a giant and chaotic construction zone. Jackhammers, bulldozers and steam shovels combined with honking horns, howling sirens and rumbling subways to create a constant cacophony.
Even if there was no escaping the din, at least the river traffic was less frantic. We only had to get away from a handful of ferries, barges and other motor boats; I have encountered a lot more boating congestion on the Mystic River and the Long Island Strait.
As we waited for the Staten Island ferry to pass, the noise became even more deafening as a pair of helicopters landed a quarter-mile from the downtown Manhattan helipad.
After covering about 15 miles in three hours, we took our first break at a small beach in the East River, directly under the Brooklyn Bridge.
By this time the tide had started to rise, pulling us upriver at a steady rate. We sped along FDR Drive past South Street Seaport towards Midtown, where the Empire State, Chrysler and United Nations buildings appeared.
At Roosevelt Island, a tram cable car passed directly overhead.
Next stop: Randalls Island / Wards Island.
After 21 miles of paddling, we greeted the sight of a small sandy beach on this united island. By staying on the west side, we avoided one of the most dangerous passages on the east coast: Hell Gate.
âYou’ve picked a good spot,â a passing New York City Parks Department employee told us when we disembarked. Over 400 acres of the 520-acre island are parks.
We had an hour to kill before a tidal current on the Harlem River subsided, so while Dan and Andy were hanging out on a stone wall, Carl and I took a stroll.
Soon we found ourselves facing a huge sports field: the Icahn stadium. In 2008, Jamaican Usain Bolt set a world record there, sprinting the 100 meters in 9.72 seconds.
Carl and I walked at a much more leisurely pace to our kayaks. It was time to start paddling the last nine mile stage.
Unlike the Hudson and East Rivers, the Harlem – actually a tidal strait crossed by seven swing bridges, three lift bridges, and four arch bridges – has only one significant landmark along its shores: the Yankee. Stadium.
I remember hearing the crowd roaring on our trip to 2001 when the Bronx Bombers were playing. Last week the stadium was silent; for New York fans, baseball season is over.
Just before reaching the Hudson, we passed through a neighborhood in the Bronx with my favorite name: Spuyten Duyvil, which translates to âSpouting Devilâ in Dutch, thanks to strong tidal currents. As expected, it was pretty close to dead tide when we passed.
Finally, the mighty Hudson. The Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano “discovered” this river in 1524 (the Amerindians had lived there for a long time), and it was not until 1609 that the English explorer Henry Hudson and his crew sailed up the waterway aboard the Half Moon, until what is now Albany, in a failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage.
Rather than return to England, Hudson continued to search north, angering his crew. In 1611, after a harsh winter on the shores of James Bay, sailors mutinied, throwing out Hudson, his son, and seven others adrift. They were never seen again.
Our group’s trip ended on a much happier note. With screams and cheers, we pulled up to Inwood Hill Park Beach shortly after 4pm.
“We did it!” I exclaimed as the four of us shook hands.
If you plan on paddling near or around Manhattan, a list of public launch sites is available on the website https://www.nycgovparks.org/facilities/kayak.
The New York Kayak and Canoe Club (kccny.org) also has helpful information, including a member’s blog with tips on routes and tide timing.