Travel The kayak tour of Man­hat­tan

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The Prince George Citizen - - SCIENCE - David BROWN Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

he Hudson River has al­ways seemed like a trench filled with wa­ter, its bot­tom a Sty­gian tan­gle of sunken boats and dis­carded equip­ment, its wa­ter an over-steeped tea some­how brewed from the lives of 8 mil­lion peo­ple. By the same to­ken, Man­hat­tan seemed less an is­land than a moored raft cov­ered with con­crete, as­phalt, steel and well-tended plants.

So when I eased my­self into a kayak one day this sum­mer to start a pad­dle around Man­hat­tan Is­land, I was sur­prised to see a lit­tle beach nearby. Wa­ter came up from depths onto a patch of sand, with weeds just be­yond. It was the ge­o­log­i­cal past stick­ing its nose out from un­der 400 years of hu­man oc­cu­pa­tion.

Cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing New York City’s core by wa­ter com­bines na­ture’s forces with man’s work in a way that’s as dra­matic as any place in Amer­ica. It’s also a trip strangely poignant and evoca­tive, even for some­one with no New York roots or even much knowl­edge of the city’s his­tory. And the funny thing is, it’s not even that hard.

Each year, the Yonkers Pad­dling and Row­ing Club spon­sors the Man­hat­tan Circ – a trip around Man­hat­tan Is­land in kayaks. This year, 158 peo­ple from 12 states and two for­eign coun­tries (Canada and Spain) did it. One-third were women; only one per­son dropped out.

To par­tic­i­pate, you have to ap­ply, at­test to your skills, be ac­cepted, and pay $80. Of course, the lo­gis­tics are con­sid­er­able if you’re an out-of-towner, what with get­ting a kayak into the coun­try’s most densely pop­u­lated place and find­ing some­where to stay. But it’s worth it.

I went with a group of peo­ple af­fil­i­ated with an An­napo­lis, Mary­land, non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called Upstream Al­liance. The In­wood Ca­noe Club, on the Hudson in far north­ern Man­hat­tan, kindly al­lowed us to store the boats overnight and launch from its docks. The Circ’s or­ga­niz­ers had di­vided the fleet into three groups based on an­tic­i­pated speed; two of the groups launched a few hun­dred yards from us at a pub­lic beach on Dy­ck­man Street.

The In­wood is the only sur­vivor of a string of boat clubs that once lined that part of the is­land’s shore. Founded in 1902, and the home of seven Olympic ca­noeists in the mid­dle of the last cen­tury, it re­called an era when New York’s wa­ter­ways were more recre­ational than they are to­day, and per­haps cleaner and less in­tim­i­dat­ing.

The day and hour of the Circ are cho­sen so that ti­dal flow will as­sist par­tic­i­pants as much as pos­si­ble. As we pad­dled into the east­ern edge of the Hudson’s chan­nel, it was im­me­di­ately clear this would not be a trip for the inat­ten­tive. The flow was swift. The river was in full ebb, dou­bling our pad­dling speed to­ward the Bat­tery, the south­ern tip of is­land, where we would catch the flood tide that would carry us up the East River.

The group I was in would, in the­ory, be the fastest of the three. A mo­tor launch ap­peared on our right. It ac­com­pa­nied us the whole way around, keep­ing us from stray­ing into the all-business mid­dle of the chan­nel, like a bor­der col­lie herd­ing a flock of aquatic sheep.

The over­cast sky hid the tops of the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge’s tow­ers. We paused briefly just above the bridge and then pro­ceeded un­der it. A rum­bling filled the air and dis­ap­peared. White, bal­loon-shaped buoys – pre­sum­ably for tran­sient yachts – strained against their moor­ing chains, the dark wa­ter pil­low­ing over them. They were the first of sev­eral not-so-ob­vi­ous ob­struc­tions we en­coun­tered that could eas­ily have flipped a boat. (Thank­fully, none did).

On my deck I had an old Na­tional Ge­o­graphic map of Man­hat­tan that I’d cut up and had lam­i­nated and spi­ral bound. It helped me get a rough idea of where we were as we hur­ried down the West Side on an eight-knot ex­press. I spot­ted Grant’s Tomb, the River­side Church, and later the Empire State Build­ing peek­ing out from the is­land’s in­te­rior. As the haze cleared, the morn­ing sun sil­hou­et­ted rooftop wa­ter tanks, mak­ing them look like lit­tle party hats. In the af­ter­noon on the East River, I rec­og­nized the United Na­tions head­quar­ters, which in my 1960s child­hood was sec­ond only to the Statue of Lib­erty in rec­og­niz­able New York land­marks. (Such a hope­ful time!)

Early on we passed a gi­gan­tic con­crete struc­ture with half-moon fen­es­tra­tions lin­ing its wa­ter­side front. I asked a fel­low pad­dler what it was and he said it was a sewage plant. To be pre­cise, it was the North River Wastew­a­ter Treat­ment Plant, which pro­cesses 125 mil­lion gal­lons of sewage a day and stretches from 145th Street to 137th Street.

De­spite be­ing sur­rounded by it (and partly be­cause of that fact), wa­ter has al­ways been a problem for Man­hat­tan. New York City res­i­dents con­sume 1.3 bil­lion gal­lons of clean wa­ter a day (im­ported from far north of the city), and dis­pose of 1.4 mil­lion gal­lons of liq­uid waste. The wa­ter was once no­to­ri­ously pol­luted, and by a cen­tury ago had wiped out com­mer­cial fish­eries of shad, clams and oysters while spread­ing cholera, ty­phoid fever and other fe­cal-oral ill­nesses.

Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker mag­a­zine’s fa­mous chron­i­cler of the city, started a 1951 ar­ti­cle called The Bot­tom of the Har­bor this way: “The bulk of the wa­ter in New York Har­bor is oily, dirty, and germy. Men on the mud suck­ers, the big har­bor dredges, like to say that you could bot­tle it and sell it for poi­son.”

Things are bet­ter now. Thou­sands of peo­ple swam in the Hudson the day af­ter the Circ as part of the New York City Triathlon. The Bil­lion Oys­ter Project is en­gag­ing schools (among other groups) to re­store New York’s oys­ter grounds. There were 220,000 acres when Henry Hudson nav­i­gated the wa­ters in 1609; the project so far has re­stored a lit­tle more than one acre and planted 22 mil­lion oysters. Heavy rains oc­ca­sion­ally over­whelm the wastew­a­ter treat­ment ca­pac­ity, spilling co­l­iform­laden wa­ter into the rivers. We got oc­ca­sional whiffs of sul­furous sewer gas on our pas­sage.

We stopped at Pier 40, at West and Hous­ton streets, in Green­wich Vil­lage, where peo­ple look­ing for a bath­room could ad­mire the wa­ter­craft in the Vil­lage Commu- nity Boathouse. It pro­motes the con­struc­tion and row­ing of do­ry­like boats of a cen­tury-old de­sign called “White­hall gigs” – one of many ex­am­ples of how New York­ers are again turn­ing to the wa­ter for recre­ation.

We ap­proached the Bat­tery with the Statue of Lib­erty and El­lis Is­land in the dis­tance to our right, and One World Trade Cen­ter on our left. The wa­ter­way here is New York’s aor­tic out­flow – high­pres­sure, tur­bu­lent, es­sen­tial. The Circ or­ga­niz­ers ar­ranged for us to cross it in 15-minute win­dows that would keep us safe from the gi­gan­tic, orange Staten Is­land ferry and its wake. By then, our group had caught up with the sec­ond-fastest one. We watched its pad­dlers cross as we milled around near a barge in a man-made cove – in this part of Man­hat­tan, ev­ery­thing is man-made – wav­ing to pedes­tri­ans on the wa­ter­side prom­e­nade.

Even­tu­ally, we got the sig­nal to cross. This re­quired hard, no-non­sense pad­dling. (I was chas­tised by one of our chap­er­ons for paus­ing to take a pic­ture.) At one point, we had to hold up un­ex­pect­edly to avoid a tour boat. As we headed into the East River, the wa­ter be­came a hec­tic mix of stand­ing waves, wakes and clash­ing cur­rents. No­body ap­peared to be giv­ing us much quar­ter. We were like mice cross­ing a crusty field of snow, hop­ing not to be picked off by preda­tors.

Safe on the Brook­lyn side, we caught our breath and headed up the East River un­der the Brook­lyn, Man­hat­tan and Wil­liams­burg bridges. We passed the black­ened stubs of old dock pil­ings, shud­der­ing in the cur­rent like loose teeth.

We pad­dled the length of Roo­sevelt Is­land and at its far end came ashore at a beach in the As­to­ria neigh­bor­hood of Queens. We tar­ried there un­til the tide be­came fa­vor­able. Be­cause the beach would flood, we car­ried the boats – the en­tire fleet, as the three groups were now to­gether – up the street to Socrates Sculp­ture Park, a fouracre out­door mu­seum built on an old land­fill.

There, an over­worked food truck, a small farm­ers mar­ket and a per­for­mance of Ben­gali mu­sic and dance en­ter­tained us for nearly two hours.

We crossed to the Man­hat­tan side of the river at the lower end of Hell Gate, the most no­to­ri­ous strait in New York’s har­bor and the site of un­count­able ship­wrecks over the cen­turies. The wa­ter was slack; our tim­ing was right. We pad­dled right over the spot off East 90th Street where the ex­cur­sion steamer Gen­eral Slocum, car­ry­ing 1,400 peo­ple – most of them re­cent Ger­man im­mi­grants – caught fire on June 15, 1904. The death toll of at least 1,021 would not be ex­ceeded in a sin­gle dis­as­ter in New York un­til 9/11.

At the north end of Ran­dalls Is­land, we turned left into the Har­lem River, where we were fa­vored by the ti­dal quirk that makes the cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion such a win­ning propo­si­tion. The tide pushes wa­ter that is al­ready in the Har­lem River north­ward, as well as push­ing wa­ter that is not al­ready in the Har­lem River into it. One wouldn’t think it pos­si­ble! But it hap­pens twice a day.

Here, it’s worth not­ing the dis­tance around the is­land was 50 kilo­me­tres, which we cov­ered in six-and-a-half hours of pad­dling time. Our av­er­age speed was just un­der eight km/h and our max­i­mum speed an as­ton­ish­ing 14 km/h. An oceanog­ra­pher in our group cal­cu­lated we did the work of a 32-km pad­dle at 6 km/h. In other words, one third of the dis­tance we cov­ered was en­tirely thanks to tide and river flow.)

While peo­ple came from many places to do the Circ – I pad­dled on and off with two guys from Los An­ge­les – there were enough from New York to pro­vide a guided tour for the cu­ri­ous and so­cia­ble.

A pad­dler pointed out the garbage pier, the air vent for the Hol­land Tun­nel and a row of Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion-built apart­ment build­ings re­cently stripped of their builder’s name. An­other told me as we passed un­der the Queens­boro Bridge that it was also known as the 59th Street Bridge. (“Are you feel­ing groovy yet?” he asked.) I learned about Mar­ble Hill, the Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood that is no longer on Man­hat­tan Is­land, thanks to rerout­ing of the Har­lem River at the north­ern end of the is­land in 1895.

I was in­structed to note the Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Is­land City in Queens, a land­mark that’s both pop-cul­tural and nos­tal­gicin­dus­trial. From my read­ing of the afore­men­tioned Mitchell es­say, I pointed out to a fel­low cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tor that the ed­dies at the bend of the East River be­tween the Man­hat­tan and Wil­liams­burg bridges is where corpses that go into the wa­ter in the win­ter fre­quently sur­face in the spring.

We pad­dled un­der more than a dozen bridges; Man­hat­tan is an is­land, af­ter all. The old­est is High Bridge, opened in 1848 to carry the Cro­ton Aqueduct that sup­plied wa­ter to the city. Ma­combs Dam Bridge (1895), near Yan­kee Sta­dium, with its stone piers, pyra­mid-roofed shel­ter houses and steel camel­back in the mid­dle, is my new fa­vorite.

As the Har­lem River be­came nar­rower and more industrial, cul­mi­nat­ing in the ship chan­nel of Spuyten Duyvil, I was amazed to see a rocky out­crop on my left, the very north­ern tip of the is­land. I pad­dled over. It was shaded by veg­e­ta­tion grow­ing out of its face and vines hang­ing down from its top. The air was laden with the smell of moss and mold. I thought to my­self: “This, at least, is un­changed. This is some­thing the Le­nape In­di­ans and the Dutch colonists might rec­og­nize.” Then I thought about the blast­ing it took to make the ship chan­nel. “Maybe not.”

Was ev­ery­thing I’d seen a dis­turbed land­scape? Yes, ex­cept for one.

The rivers the Circ fol­lowed were pretty much where they’d been in 1600. The cur­rents and tides were the same (and so, un­doubt­edly, were some of the wa­ter mol­e­cules). Flow­ing wa­ter was the change­less New York City, and I’d been look­ing at it all day.

WASH­ING­TON POST PHOTO BY DAVID BROWN

Kayak­ers ap­proach the lower end of Man­hat­tan on the Hudson River, where One World Trade Cen­ter dom­i­nates the sky­line.

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