by Jonathan Rubinstein (firstname.lastname@example.org)
|Mill Rock Map|
| Jonathan wanted me
to add a few word to the beginning of his article because he felt the tone
towards the end might scare off those who have never paddled around
Manhattan. But frankly, I felt no need as the article is done with
such love and reverence for its subject that no disclaimer is necessary.
The fact that Jonathan has done the trip six times since merely corroborates
I will add, however, that due to the length of the article, I would recommend saving it to your hard drive as plain text (double spaced), so your can print it out and read it at your leisure — savoring every morsel.
Thanks again, Jonathan.
| From Pier 60,
at the foot of West 19th Street, the Hudson looks calm, almost stately.
A scrim of high thin cloud screens the sun, promising comfortable kayaking.
In ideal conditions, a circumnavigation of Manhattan is challenging.
It is more than twenty- eight miles. Looking at a map, you might
think no problem; it's an island, three rivers, a very large harbor, you
go down one and up the other. While little in New York is quite what
it seems, this is particularly true regarding its rivers. Even the
Hudson, the only real river in New York, is an estuary, its movements commanded
by the sea. The Harlem and the East Rivers are channels ruled by
the Atlantic, each dutifully carrying its water.
When the last glacier finished carving, grinding, scouring and pushing the land about, the Hudson River created New York Harbor, the remnant of its once immense outlet to the sea. The broad estuary, ebbing and flowing two times each day to the command of the lunar tide, back and forth between granite cliffs at West Point to the devastated marshland still fringing the Statue of Liberty, is the mature successor of a mighty river that for centuries spilled the melting waters of the receding glacier into the Atlantic. Traces of that river's mouth are discernible still on the ocean floor more than a hundred miles at sea. That great outflow of water completed the work of the glacier, separating Manhattan, Randall's and Staten Islands from North America.
When the Hudson's flow is swelled by melting snow in the spring, it confines the incoming sea to the lower part of the estuary. At other times the sea surges to Westchester and beyond. As the tide turns, some of that brackish water flows south down the Harlem River which separates Manhattan from the Bronx, and then back to the Atlantic east through Hell Gate and Long Island Sound and south through the harbor to the Verrazano Narrows. Undoubtedly the Harlem River still collects some water from the Bronx in addition to sewage and drain runoff, as does the East River from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, but their source too is the tidal flow from the bays and sounds extending east and west of New York.
The ebbing and flooding ocean moving through New York from three directions -- east, north and south -- creates a complexity that sometimes aids, sometimes impedes, and sometimes makes passage by sail or paddle simply not possible. Although elaborate, these movements are not unfathomable. Their precision would be the envy of every schedule maker but for the fact that they were not drawn up with the convenience of man in mind. Even under diesel power and steam, disregarding the current and tides is hazardous. When New York's trade and traffic moved by sail and oar, particularly before Hell Gate was tamed with vast quantities of dynamite, exact knowledge of the tides and their interaction was a matter of life and death. Their operation was unraveled more than a century ago by Captain Eldridge whose exacting observations over many years resulted in the calculation of ebb and flood for each point of interest to mariners from the Bay of Fundy to Barnagat Light in New Jersey. With adjustment for the slowly rising level of the sea, Eldredge's Pilot remains the essential guide for anyone venturing on these waters.
Swabbed in sunblock, spray skirts hanging about our knees, wearing clothes as different one from the other, as are the boats rocking quietly at our feet, we are six setting out. Quiet, we are staring into the Hudson, anxious to get under way. Our leader, Eric Stiller, has called us for 8.30, now well past, but he cheerfully says when paddling Manhattan, you always leave plenty of margin. "We are good to go up to 10 AM", he offers, without explanation. But I know that Eric, an experienced paddler who has made this trip many times, has consulted his Eldridge's Pilot.
Ten years ago, I first thought of making this trip. Before I had ever been in a kayak. Since learning to kayak I knew I could and would do it. Walking along the Hudson, I keep an eye out for places to launch a folding kayak. (It is possible to backpack one.) Now, finally, I am going to do it. I have not paddled regularly in more than three years. In July I had two excellent days of paddling about the islands of Casco Bay in Maine that revealed undiminished enthusiasm, then a shakedown paddle with Eric several days earlier. A second, longer run was canceled when a powerful thunderstorm kept us on the dock, well away from the towering steel mesh cage of the golf driving range on Pier 59, a very large lightning rod. Disappointed, I asked Eric if he thought I could "do Manhattan". He did.
Time to go. Before putting it in the water, I climb into the fifteen foot, fifty pound Klepper, a folding marvel of varnished Mountain Ash with aluminum fittings and a rubberized skin, and adjust the rudder pedals which are operated by feet pressure. Sitting for hours with extended legs pressing their feet (gently) against the pedals for traction, thighs against either side of the boat which has a 21" beam at the waterline, it is important to get the setting right. (You can make some adjustment on the water but being out of practice, anxiety about tipping will limit me.)
Zipping my Mae West, now sadly called a Personal Flotation Device, I push off the dock to do a few warm-up laps in the quiet waters of the berth. Three other paddlers join me-- Moira, paddling a yellow plastic, 17 foot kayak, to make her "climax paddle" of a summer's training with Eric; David, young and strong, a trainer at a nearby gym, also in a one piece roto-moulded plastic boat; and Vera, paddling a sleek, fire-engine red nineteen foot Kevlar racing kayak that she has just bought.
Rocking gently in the mouth of the 19th Street pier, paddles lying across cockpits, watching the river's deep swells moving in procession toward the sea; the broad estuary beckoning, a sliver of the Colgate Clock and the Statue of Liberty visible. Finally, Eric and his paddling partner, Josie, emerge in a 17 foot double Klepper, moving smoothly, easily. He greets us, says we are in plenty of time. It is about 9.30, the cloud cover is thinner now, the wind from the southwest has picked up but it is not strong. He tells us to go at our own pace, to keep an eye on one another, and remember, as his paddle bites the water, "only 24,000 strokes to go."
In my view, if Jesus had a kayak, he would not have bothered to walk on the Sea of Galilee. The first time I sat in a kayak and dipped the paddle, I felt a quickening, an excitement that repeats itself each time. In most kayaks you sit with legs extended, well below the water line, kept more or less dry by the spray skirt that fits snugly (sometimes) around the combing of the cockpit. In a kayak, you are somewhere between on and in the water. (You can spend a lot of time in the water too, either deliberately or not because kayaks are tippy and quite responsive.) A paddler's involvement with the water is intimate because while you can vary speed, mostly you are going at a strolling pace. Being half submerged while remaining upright, you are as close to the viewing point of a sea mammal as is possible without joining it. Sitting just above the horizon line limits the distance you can see, but what you do see is experienced in an intense, involving and personal way. Influenced by each movement of the water and wind, the horizon in perpetual motion, constantly reminded that you are forever a guest, each time I embark I am reminded that it is a privilege to be a part of creation.
The steady southwest breeze does not disturb the water flowing downriver, maybe one knot in our favor. It is easy paddling in these swells, my boat tracking effortlessly in the headwind. Ten years wanting to see this, I head for the middle of the estuary and a big view of Manhattan. I am not disappointed. Almost immediately we string out, each finding a comfortable rhythm. This is pleasure paddling. Except for a few tugs pushing oil bunkers, a Circle Liner and a lone Jetski whining past, there is only swelling water streaming towards the Atlantic, bounded by New Jersey's retreating shore. Remembering how filthy these waters looked in the early 80s when occasionally I rode over them in a friend's power launch, I see immediately the positive impact that the treatment facility located upstream is exerting. The Pulaski Highway is barely visible through the permanent haze of the oil refineries that fuel the 25 million people held at bay by this great and grand watery margin.
Deliberately I have no watch with me. I am just paddling, one stroke at a time I remind myself. We move easily toward the Battery, past the now mostly empty Village piers, silent, in mourning, I think, for those who contracted AIDS on them in the 70s, toward the graceful Embankment ringing Battery Park City where a paddler can see strolling families and speeding roller-bladers from five continents. Silently I thank all the people who worked so hard to prevent Westway from happening. They made it possible for New Yorkers to have a share in this water and shoreline. Approaching the Fire Boat Station, a police launch passes, Eric calls out "Paddle Police" and motions us to follow him toward the shoreline where a dozen people have fishing lines in the water.
At the mouth of a concrete inlet, Eric urges everyone to take a look inside. He wants us to view the dramatic frieze, a memorial to the merchant seamen who risked their lives in aid of the defeat of the Axis powers. It is conceived as an active memorial, the sculpture, drowning seamen, one with his arm raised in a last effort to reach the approaching rescue boat, is positioned to interact with the changing tide, perpetually repeating the dramatic events that it commemorates. Beyond it, squat and glum, is New York's Holocaust Memorial.
We are all happy paddlers. From here, the Battery is only a few hundred yards to the southeast. Everything is big, very big -- but New York's vast harbor puts it all in pleasing perspective, the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center merging into the even more massive World Financial Center adjacent to the still larger city in Battery Park, and across the river the huge, ugly Colgate Clock. The Battery is jammed with people waiting patiently to go to Ellis Island and the Statue. Boats constantly arrive and depart, their wakes seeming to curtsey to my bow.
Coming down the river I have seen several Staten Island ferries making the passage back and forth. How many dozens of times have I feasted on this waterscape from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade? Making the broad turn into the harbor, familiarity intensifies the wonder I feel always seeing this great creation. Paddling across the Battery, framed by the beautiful ironwork of the Ferry Terminal, New York harbor's panoramic grandeur unfolds. Directly ahead are Brooklyn's defunct sugar piers (where America's heroin was unloaded in the 1950s), now a container facility, its massive blue cranes looking like they are exhibits on loan from the Dinosaur Hall of the Museum of Natural History. Only a part of Brooklyn's reviving waterfront is visible from here. In the distance, the graceful Verrazano bridge spans the Narrows, linking Brooklyn's Gravesend with Staten Island. Together these form the Outer Harbor, one of the largest roadsteads in the world.
Passing the ferry slips, the skyscrapers loom so close to the water's edge it seems they are about to jump us. I think with satisfaction that, despite the vast engineering projects orchestrated by Robert Moses, Manhattan remains an island. Like Hong Kong, a great island port at the edge of a vast continent. What a fortunate man Henry Hudson was to have seen this in its natural state. What a fortunate man am I to be paddling across these now surging waters as the rising tide of the Atlantic Ocean mixes with the Atlantic's waters from Long Island Sound.
Somewhere between the last ferry slip and the great opening of the East River the water changes. Blocked by Manhattan, the prevailing southwest wind no longer roils the surface. Instead, the waters merging from east and west create long wide swirls, large patches of smooth and sinuous motion. Now it looks and feels like ocean, grey green Atlantic water. It is saltier. One of kayaking's many joys is to rest your paddle across the boat and dip your hands into the cool sea, one at a time. The instant I feel this water I know it is the Atlantic Ocean. It is cleaner than the Hudson, proven several minutes later when I see seaweed floating past. Hardly believing my eyes, I spear it with my paddle, bring it aboard and squeeze the greenish brown pods. They actually squeak. Its alive! Spotting me spearing the weed, Eric calls across the water to take it along as "proof to the unbelievers."
Paddling north easily on the long swells of incoming tide, the shoreline shorn now of all evidence of the original port, it is still easy to see why this was already a great port two centuries ago, poised to eclipse Boston and Philadelphia. Sheltered from the open sea, a broad expanse of deep water in front, from here it is a straight, clean run to open ocean. The water is so wide that even the massive piers of its three bridges have no effect on the current. The long reverse curve in the river makes it possible mostly to ignore the constantly changing Manhattan shoreline: towers of finance, the bedraggled South Street Seaport, that caricature of what once was, Chinatown's lowrise merging into the lower East Side, my first sightings of capitalism's dormitories, followed closely by their much improved successor, Stuyvesant Town. Easier and happier to follow the water's course, the bow riding on swelling crests, to view the remains of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, dead almost a half century now. There, naval warfare was changed forever. A thousand years from now or two or three thousand, the Monitor, iron clad and steam-driven, will be remembered still or rediscovered. On both banks stand the thankfully stifled chimneys of Con Edison plants that helped power New York for much of this century.
At 23d Street the oceanic idyll ends abruptly. Much of Manhattan's shoreline to this point is drowned marshland recovered by Dutch and English settlers whose ancestors were draining the Fens and the Zuiderzee at the last Millennium. From here the river runs straight to Randall's Island, divided by the sliver called Roosevelt Island that stretches from 48th Street to 86th. At 23d the grim brick pile of Bellevue Hospital gives an emphatic reminder that you are paddling in the city. Its density now inescapable, skyscrapers towering ahead, the Chrysler Building, clearly the pick of the litter, has been in my eye on and off since 14th Street.
Urban noises of the familiar kinds are constant companions now: fire sirens, police wails, angry horns, the susurrus of rubber on the road, punctuated by anxious squealing. Does passing over water change the harmonic? It could be a soundtrack laid down on my movie. Yacht traffic has picked up, squat, diesel-powered plastic condos roll past in both directions, a pod of jetskis growl and spit.
As if affronted by all of this, the river acts up too. Waves and surface current appear, eddies and rills moving in different directions bounce off each other, spraying water on the boat and, happily, me. A pleasant reminder that kayaking is a wet sport. Approaching Roosevelt Island, the compressed river quickens. The waters from the Harlem (Not A) River and Hell Gate, neither yet visible, are announcing their presence. The river is still flowing north and Eric indicates that we should take the wider, Manhattan side of Roosevelt Island. Later he tells us that along this stretch the water can move as fast as seven knots, faster than anyone can kayak. Under the powerful influence of Hell Gate, it changes direction abruptly several times daily. Using the wider and therefore slower channel is preferred, in the event it shifts while you are making the passage. Approaching the island the turbulence strengthens considerably, eddies changing direction unpredictably. As the bow slaps the cascading water, I am pleased to make this first acquaintance on a placid Sunday in August. I feel my thighs pressing harder to assure the stability of the kayak.
Vera, paddling close to Roosevelt Island, is several hundred yards ahead of me. Suddenly her boat turns and I know she has gone into the water. Paddling toward her I see the boat is upright and a hand has hold of the cockpit combing. David is nearby, talking to her. I know she is in control seeing her work her way toward the stern, because it is from there that you may readily board a free-floating kayak Using a maneuver called a wet entry, what else? When she straddles the boat and begins working her way forward, I turn my bow upstream. As I pass her, she is already pumping. Passing me on his way to Vera, Eric says to stay close to the island, avoid the large wakes being made in the narrow waters by the cabin cruisers. Despite its massive apartment blocks and abandoned hospitals, Roosevelt Island has a suburban look. The waterside promenade is filled with strollers, bikers and walkers, kids playing basketball.
Clearing the island, the view ahead is dominated by the Triboro Bridge whose squat piers and ungainly spans disfigure and obscure Randall's Island. The short run north of Roosevelt to Mill Rock is filled with disordered currents, tide races, rills and even small whitecaps moving in all directions -- Hell Gate's calling card. Josie and Eric push ahead, leading the way to the north side of this hunk of granite revealing a cove whose stony entrance is covered with sea weed to the high water mark. We have arrived at our first scheduled stop, two hours into our paddle.
on pieces of broken concrete strewn about the inlet, enjoying lunch and
each other's company, Eric pulls out his tattered copy of Eldredge's Pilot
to explain the timing of our departure. When planning a trip around
Manhattan, he tells us, you look for dead low tide. Then the south
flowing current of the Hudson River is strongest -- almost three knots
in your favor. If you leave at dead low, 7 AM on August 10th,
you will arrive at the Battery quickly. This is excellent if you are paddling
toward the Verrazano because the East River too is then flowing south at
almost three knots. But if you are planning to go north as we have,
it is best to wait for the East River to flood. Between two and three hours
after dead low, when we left 19th Street, the Hudson was still flowing
one knot in our favor while the East River had reversed direction as the
rising tide pushing through the Narrows took control. Those two knots in
our favor made paddling easy.
Rested, happy, diverted by the cheerful taunts of a half dozen Latino fishermen hanging over the tree-draped iron railing of Randall's Island, I pay no attention to the drag the paddle is communicating to my shoulders. Whether a river or a channel, the Harlem is eight miles of water constricted by two masses of granite wrenched apart by forces too great for humans to witness and report. Obscured either by the Triboro or the first turning of the eye inward in response to the heavy feel of the paddle, I do not see the Kill that separates Randall's from the Bronx. Eric has warned us that the many bridges over the Harlem further constrict the current. Stay out of the middle where it is strongest, he urges. I hug Manhattan except where it widens. Several times the stony stares and body language of some teenagers signal me to move off. Street knowledge in the river. After passing the Triboro at 125th Street, it feels like paddling uphill. It turns out that it is.
The Manhattan shoreline is ravaged with blasted public housing and abandoned industrial sites, the wounds of bewildered capitalism. Both banks look like one Superfund site. Every few hundred yards, someone has set up a fishing spot, in the midst of rubbish heaps, piles of creosote-soaked railroad ties that leach arsenic, and car dumps. A woman sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella waves cheerfully to me as her pot-bellied husband makes a beautiful, practiced cast. Kids play rap and salsa while their fathers and brothers search for something to grill. These are the only distractions I have from the growing awareness that this is becoming work.
By the third or fourth bridge -- I have lost count around 138th street -- I am far behind the others. It does not bother me, I like paddling alone and I cannot go much faster without jeopardizing my strength. I see David -- later he tells me he played varsity football at Tennessee State -- paddling toward me. I am touched by his consideration, it gives me a lift even when I detect embarrassment as he searches for something to talk about, to distract me from paddling. Asking what kind of cigars I smoke, he makes me aware that I have a stump clenched in my teeth. Laughing, I throw it in the water, tell him, "cheap". After staying with me about fifteen minutes, he paddles off, evidently convinced that I am all right. I take note of the swiftness of his departure and tell myself that I must get with Eric and work on my technique. I am happy, have no fear of the water, and dismiss doubt that I am holding them up. I know Eric would say something to me if I was.
I do not doubt that I am going to make it but I know that I am in trouble. My left hand is in spasm, its second finger does not grip the paddle. My left leg from knee to hip is numbing. My feet are on fire, caused by pressing too hard to create power in my stroke. All of this is bad technique, increasing fatigue. The only danger I foresee is that pain and weariness may make me careless, not pay attention to the sometimes large backwash of wakes rebounding off the retaining wall. There are a lot of cruisers passing now. It seems they are going much faster. Is it because I am struggling or is it later in the day and their drivers have had many more beers? Is this sour grapes? Possibly it is and I remind myself about self-pity.
I decide to rest. I think about going over the side for a good soak but I realize that will bring Eric and everyone else. Carefully controlling the paddle with my right hand, I ease first my right leg out of the cockpit, then the left. Wiggling my toes is excruciating but finally gives relief. Just a few minutes, then carefully I return my feet to the paddling position. Only then do I let my hands, first the left then the right, have a good soak. I feel better but not for long. Both shorelines mirror my mood: grim. Suddenly, around a bend Yankee Stadium looms on the right, bringing my first smile since pitching the cigar butt. But it is enough. I do not remember how much longer I paddle after the Stadium before I arrive at a broad stretch of water where a large sign in red and blue is painted on the Manhattan retaining wall, START. Start?
We have paddled more than fifteen miles, I think. The sign must mark the beginning of the Columbia College crew racing course. We are going to take our second rest stop at the Columbia Boat House. It cannot be too far ahead. This passage is marked on the granite wall in five hundred meter intervals, each one a measure of how much the Harlem is extracting from me. At 2000 it says FINISH but there is no sign of either the Boat House or the great pool, Sputyn Divel, where the Harlem and the Hudson meet.
I am relieved to see my companions bobbing in their boats at a marina. Even at a distance, I know this dismal place cannot be Columbia. Vera is out of her boat, lying on the dock, David talking to her. (Later she tells me that paddling her new boat aggravated a leg injury to the point where the pain made it impossible to continue.) I eagerly pull into the aptly named Distressed Duck. Slowly withdrawing my legs from the cockpit, I stretch them on the kayak's deck. My paddle balanced athwart, I let my aching hands soak. As he paddles by, seemingly fresh as he was at lunch, Eric laughs and says to Moira, "This is a perfect picture opportunity." Moira, a young lawyer, is documenting our trip. Behind me apparently is the Distressed Duck Marina sign, with a bedraggled duck standing next to it, framed by my webbed feet sticking into the air. I have no doubt that my look must be giving this duck a run for its money. I smile bleakly for her camera, doff my hat for a second shot. Eric is checking on Vera, to see if she can continue in her boat, must he switch her off with David, or tow her home. She says she is all right and as she paddles past she thanks each of us for waiting for her. I tell her with sincerity, it is my pleasure. These minutes of recovery allow me to appreciate the real rest coming in another mile. It was all that I needed to dig into the great sweeping turn as the river heads west, the Henry Hudson bridge finally in sight -- in my anxiety to rest, I have misidentified it twice.
First another stretch of oppressive industrial squalor, then the Harlem broadens. Van Cortland park is dripping trees over the water, a nourishment for resolve. The Manhattan bank curves left, making a wide inlet, a piece of the Devil's Pool. Yes, the Boat House is there! The quiet pools of Hudson water are ringed by parklands filled with New York's newest immigrants—Dominicans, Salvadorans, Mexicans -- grilling, playing soccer, courting, fishing. I glide to the floating docks, noting with satisfaction that these are made to accommodate racing shells. They are almost at water level. I do not have to climb. Happily I take in the scene, regretting only that the beautiful Latinas are just a mite too far for these weakened eyes to see.
I push up from the cockpit and flop on the deck, my feet still inside, controlling the boat. I rest another minute or two. My left leg is still numb but the pain in my feet is subsiding. My left forearm is numb too and I consider asking Eric if I can tape its fingers to the paddle. I decide this sounds desperate, and work at getting them to move. When several do, including the thumb, I haul the kayak onto the dock. Slowly circulation returns to my toes and left leg as I limp toward the grass. Hundreds of Canada geese have taken up residence here, killing any hope of lying in the lush grass. They barely move as I hump past.
The boathouse is open. Inside it looks like a college dorm, good-natured chaos. But it is a pleasure to be here, to move, to walk, to pee, then to walk some more, lie on a bench, do some pelvic stretching, sharing food, candy and more of that delicious iced coffee in a rubberized container that I am shamelessly sexualizing while discussing our aches and pains. Offered Advil and Ibuprofen, I decline them. Except for Eric, who has done this circumnavigation dozens of times, this is the first time for each of us. We are happy together, witnesses for each other. We are enjoying each others company a good deal. Small boats, ones powered by hand, feet and wind, have this effect on people.
It is about 4 PM. I know that we are more than half way and I am sure that the worst is over. Discussing this trip a week earlier, I recall Eric mentioning there would be two or three stops, the third being at the 79th Street Marina. Often, I recalled him saying, by then the Hudson is running so strong that people mostly do not want to stop, the river is moving them along like an express. Even allowing for hyperbole, I am looking forward to some help from my neighborly river. By the time we are ready to leave, I feel much better. Except in my left forearm, I have no pain. All my fingers are working. I am an optimist.
From the boathouse
it's just a short hop to the railroad bridge connecting Manhattan Island
with the Hudson Valley. Digging into the river with renewed strength,
I realize just how grimly focused I was on getting relief. To the
right, polished granite cliffs cleaved by that glacial torrent rise sheer,
the mighty Palisades marking the horizon, and the Hudson filling everything
in between. This is worth the whole trip. Seeing all of this as I
made the approach to the boathouse, I had eyes only for the dock.