Row, row, row through the ’hood: Ur­ban ca­noe­ing on New York’s Bronx River.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY JAMES F. LEE Lee is a free­lance writer liv­ing in Vir­ginia Beach. travel@wash­

Our ca­noes star­tled a great blue heron stand­ing along the bank of the river. Awk­wardly, the gi­ant bird flapped its wings, strug­gling to gain height, un­til it reached cruis­ing al­ti­tude and ma­jes­ti­cally soared over the treetops and out of view. An awe­some sight — all the more so be­cause it was in the Bronx.

With hun­dreds of acres of park­land, in­clud­ing the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den and the Bronx Zoo, the Bronx is New York’s green­est bor­ough. Anda river runs through it — the Bronx River, a 23-mile fresh­wa­ter stream that starts in Westch­ester County, me­an­ders through the city for about eight miles, then emp­ties into the East River.

My wife, Carol, and I were among 20 pad­dlers par­tic­i­pat­ing in a ca­noe and kayak trip spon­sored by the Bronx River Al­liance. We gath­ered at the Shoelace Park Boat Launch, a short walk from the 219th Street sub­way sta­tion, on a gor­geously clear and cool Satur­day morn­ing in May. In our group were peo­ple from nearby Westch­ester and from as far away as Italy. Lead­ing us were Jo­sue Gar­cia, 26, a recre­ation spe­cial­ist, and El­iz­a­beth (Alex) Sev­erino, 25, an ed­u­ca­tion in­tern for the Al­liance.

Alex and Jo­sue in­structed us on pad­dling tech­niques and proper use of life vests, ex­plain­ing thatwe would pad­dle down­river about four miles to the Mit­subishi River Walk near the en­trance of the Bronx Zoo, an easy two-hour trip. Then we put our ca­noes and kayaks — supplied as part of the tour — into the murky wa­ters and got on our way. Alex’s ca­noe took the lead, while Jo­sue stayed in the rear of our flotilla as the sweep.

The tree-lined, slowly flow­ing river me­an­dered a lot at the be­gin­ning as it passed through the neigh­bor­hoods along Bronx Boule­vard, to our left. A tone sharp bend, I mis­judged the turn and ran the ca­noe aground. Carol and I pushed off with our pad­dles with all our might, and we man­aged to get go­ing again.

Soon the roar of traf­fic from the Bronx River Park­way on our right gave­way to the calls of red-winged black­birds, car­di­nals and blue jays. We were leav­ing the built-up area in our wake and head­ing into the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den.

Like many rivers in Amer­i­can cities, the Bronx River was ne­glected and used as lit­tle more than a trash dump. By the end of the 19th cen­tury it was heav­ily pol­luted from in­dus­trial waste. Since 2001 the Bronx River Al­liance, work­ing closely with the New York City Depart­ment of Parks and Recre­ation and other groups, has ed­u­cated thou­sands about the value of the river, planted trees along the banks, pro­vided out­door class­rooms for lo­cal stu­dents and cleared the river of tons of de­bris and waste. Mus­sels and oys­ters have been in­tro­duced into the stream to help fil­ter out pol­lu­tion, and just this year a fish lad­der was opened at 180th Street that will al­low her­ring to mi­grate up the river for the first time in decades. Even eels have made a come­back in the river.

The Al­liance of­fers trips on the Bronx por­tion of the river from May to early Novem­ber, in­clud­ing an up­per river run (which is what we were on); an es­tu­ary pad­dle along the lower, more in­dus­trial por­tion of the river; and a full-river run of about eight miles.

The up­per river run re­quires one portage in­side the botan­i­cal gar­den. Alex ex­plained that we would have to exit the river on the left bank and portage around a wa­ter­fall. Each ca­noe was equipped with a set of at­tach­able wheels. It took team­work, but we got wheels on all of the ca­noes and pushed them like wheel­bar­rows around the falls.

Af­ter the portage, we found our selves in one of the more re­mote seem­ing parts of the river. The si­lence of the for­est sur­rounded us, in­ter­rupted only by wa­ter lap­ping the shore, gur­gling over rocks, and by the call of blue jays.

“The si­lence was the best,” said Gi­u­lia Par­avicini, 27, a re­cent grad­u­ate of Columbia Univer­sity’s Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism.

Her fa­ther, Luca Par­avicini, 60, of Mi­lan, who was in New York to watch her grad­u­ate, said the big­gest sur­prise was that “you could do such a thing in NewYork City. If I send a pic­ture to a friend in France and say I am in New York, no one would be­lieve it.”

The river widens con­sid­er­ably as it flows be­side the Bronx Zoo. We saw Canada geese, that blue heron and lots of song­birds. Alex told us to be on the look­out for two beavers that live in these wa­ters, but they were too shy to show them­selves.

At this point, our ca­noe trip ended, and one by one we beached on­the bank. Last a shore was Az­iza Kais­ar­bekova, who turned 24 that day.

Af­ter an im­promptu “Happy Birth­day,” we went our sep­a­rate ways, our morn­ing on the river over.

I asked Alex how she got in­volved with the river. She said her first in­tro­duc­tion was as a mem­ber of Rock­ing the Boat, an af­ter­school pro­gram that teaches sail­ing, ca­noe­ing and swimming to kids in the city, giv­ing them an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of wa­ter­ways in their midst. She said they even built their own boat. She has been with the Al­liance for about two years.

“The best part is I get to ed­u­cate peo­ple about a place near their home that they never knew. They get a sense of own­er­ship, and the river gets an other par­ent. So I know that the river is loved,” Alex said.

The river got 20 new par­ents that day.


Top, two pad­dlers on the Bronx River, with their bi­cy­cles in tow. The Bronx River Al­liance of­fers ca­noe and kayak runs on the eight-mile wa­ter­way that has been the fo­cus of a ma­jor cleanup ef­fort af­ter years of ne­glect. Above, portag­ing — or mov­ing ca­noes across land to avoid tricky river ob­sta­cles or ter­rain — is made eas­ier by wheels placed on the bot­toms.

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