724 Klicks Ca­noe By


Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Travel Gear - BY JAMES LYNCH


the tex­ture of mashed pota­toes, hos­tile, un­con­quer­able, buck­ing my sev­en­teen-foot ca­noe and shoot­ing up fre­quent, un­pre­dictable spires of wa­ter where criss­cross­ing waves con­verged. A few weeks’ worth of sweat lived in the thread­bare Hawai­ian shirt that hung from my shoul­ders, and my palms ached red and raw. Thou­sands of peo­ple cross the Tap­pan Zee Bridge, fourty kilo­me­tres up the Hud­son River from New York City, ev­ery day. But most of them use the road deck, not the ac­tual river, 42 me­tres be­low. I was learn­ing why. The fact that the hull of my poly­eth­yl­ene ca­noe had gone soft two days be­fore, mak­ing it bend and warp in even the tini­est waves, didn’t make me feel any bet­ter. Rather than com­ing from the Catskills or a pleas­ant New Jersey county, my friend and I were in the midst of a nine­teen- day, 724 kilo­me­tre trip from Buf­falo to New York via the Erie Canal and the lower half of the Hud­son. And whether you travel on I- 87 or on the Hud­son, you have to deal with the Tap­pan Zee. This choke point can put com­muters into a cold sweat of dash­board­pound­ing rage. Orig­i­nally opened in 1955, the bridge was never de­signed for the 140 000 cars that would cross it ev­ery day by 2016. As a re­sult, the ac­ci­dent rate is twice that of the rest of the state’s through­way sys­tem, a re­al­ity that can cause traf­fic jams like you’ve never seen. In 2013, the state set about build­ing a new one right next to the old one. It would be im­pos­si­ble to shut down the artery in order to re­pair or re­build it – there is no river cross­ing for more than 32 kilo­me­tres in ei­ther di­rec­tion – so the orig­i­nal stayed open through­out con­struc­tion. The five kilo­me­tre twin-span ca­ble-stayed bridge used more than 22 kilo­me­tres

of span ca­ble, 998 mil­lion kilo­grams of steel, and two hun­dred and twenty nine thou­sand cu­bic me­tres of con­crete to re­place its el­der brother in a Cain-like act of frat­ri­cide. It opened on Oc­to­ber 6, 2017, re­named the Mario Cuomo Bridge.

But when I was pad­dling through it in col­lege, the river was an ac­tive con­struc­tion site. From inside tiny wheel­houses atop spindly stair­cases that let them see over their loads, tug­boat cap­tains steered enor­mous pieces of metal, bones for the skele­ton of the new bridge, to the foot of tow­er­ing abut­ments. Cu­ri­ous fore­men who zipped be­tween the new and old bridge in a fleet of gray alu­minium mo­tor­boats changed their course to see what a bright red ca­noe was do­ing so far from a Boy Scout camp. Cut­ting through the wa­ter a stone’s throw from our bow, men in bright or­ange and yel­low shirts leaned out to get a bet­ter view. The two-foot wakes that fol­lowed crashed over our boat, spray­ing us with wa­ter that pooled at our feet.

It was al­most im­pos­si­ble to keep the ca­noe mov­ing straight, or mov­ing at all, with the ac­tiv­ity, but we kept go­ing. My fin­gers grew sore with the ner­vous clench of my

pad­dle. The Coast Guard re­stricted pas­sage be­neath the old bridge to the space be­tween the two cen­tre abut­ments, a span of a few hun­dred me­tres. It ap­peared plenty big – un­til it was nearly dwarfed by the con­tainer ship that ap­proached us from the other side. (It may seem un­be­liev­able that a con­tainer ship could ap­pear sud­denly. But they do.) The gap be­tween the ship and the bridge struc­ture was too small. We had passed many of th­ese enor­mous ships be­fore, but when we saw them com­ing we usu­ally scam­pered to the out­side of the chan­nel to give them a four hun­dred me­tre berth, some­thing that wasn’t an op­tion on the wa­ter­ways of Westch­ester County. From afar, the ships don’t ap­pear to move. They blot out the land­scape be­hind them, the only thing that can give them scale or a sense of mo­tion. Up close, the boat moved at a speed un­nat­u­ral for some­thing so large.

It moved as close to one of the abut­ments as it could to give us room, and we obliged by hug­ging the other, pad­dle blades scrap­ing the aging con­crete. A football field of steel loomed over us, scram­bling our al­ready warped sense of scale with high walls and the low grum­ble of enor­mous en­gines whose power, in prox­im­ity, seemed ma­li­cious. As the stern of the ship came even with ours, and even­tu­ally moved past, it grew only louder. This bark was fol­lowed by a very real bite, the enor­mous waves made by thou­sands of litres of dis­placed wa­ter. I fran­ti­cally J-stroked in the un­co­op­er­a­tive tur­bu­lence, try­ing to get the ca­noe to face the com­ing wake. At first our boat dipped, bow­ing to the mass of wa­ter be­fore turn­ing up sharply to climb. Any­thing not wedged in tight rolled to the back, bang­ing an­kles, be­fore chang­ing di­rec­tion sharply and bounc­ing to the front. Two me­tres up, two me­tres down, with six me­tres be­tween peaks. If it were not so ter­ri­fy­ing it might have been en­joy­able, a cheap theme-park thrill.

I leaned far out of the boat, lever­ag­ing the wa­ter to keep us pointed into the waves. A few times the ca­noe’s gun­wale dipped dan­ger­ously close to the sur­face of the wa­ter, threat­en­ing to throw us out and pro­duc­ing short, un­manly yips of fear from inside the boat. As we rode down the last peak of wake and the wa­ter calmed to its more sub­dued chaos, we pad­dled away from the work­site quickly, mea­sur­ing our dis­tance by how far we had to crane our necks to see the com­muters on the road deck. I kept check­ing be­hind us, feel­ing lucky and on edge, wor­ried that an­other con­tainer ship would sneak up on us. For the mo­ment, we were safe. The boat traf­fic was con­cen­trated around the thin legs of the new bridge that poked out of the wa­ter like sticks in the mud. Only slightly de­layed by the Tap­pan Zee, we pushed on for the last few miles to Man­hat­tan.

From top: the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge in sight; a float­ing crane com­pletes work on the Mario Cuomo Bridge, March 2017; the au­thor, left, and friend Tim Harper, on dry land again.

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