724 Klicks Canoe By
THE HUDSON RI VER IS A LOVELY PL ACE FOR A BOAT RIDE. BUT THE TRAFFIC NEAR THE BRIDGE CAN BE A NIGHTMARE.
THE WATER ROILED,
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.