Urban odyssey: Kayaking around Manhattan
A powerful ebb tide, and our surging adrenaline at the start of what promised to be an exhilarating kayak adventure, propelled the four of us down the Hudson River toward the George Washington Bridge one morning last week.
Not far to our left, commuter traffic backed up on the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan; across the river in New Jersey, a comparable jam clogged the Palisades Interstate Parkway.
“Hey, look! We’re going faster than the cars!” I called out to my companions — Andy Lynn, in the bow of my 22-foot, two-person kayak; and Carl Astor and Dan Bendor, paddling together a few yards away in an identical tandem.
We had launched shortly after 8 a.m., from a tiny beach in Inwood Hill Park at Manhattan northwestern tip. Our plan: Paddle down the Hudson around the borough’s southernmost point at The Battery; then steer north up the East River to the Harlem River. There, we would head west back to our launch site on the Hudson. Total distance: about 30 miles.
It would be a long day, but not a voyage of the damned, I promised, because if we timed the tides correctly, a strong current would push us most of the way.
Rocketing down the west side of Manhattan made for a great start.
“Perfect conditions!” Dan exclaimed. No chop, no breaking waves and no boat wakes — this early in the morning, there were no other vessels in sight. Also, high clouds kept temperatures cool, making last week’s paddle far more pleasant than the first time Dan, Carl and I kayaked around Manhattan.
Back then, we baked under a scorching sun, and also got tossed by confused chop at the mouth of the Hudson.
It had been late August 2001 — only a couple weeks before 9/11. I remember glancing at the Twin Towers as we swept by, but mostly kept my eyes focused on the roiling river that threatened to dump us.
Paddling placidly toward Lower Manhattan last week, I couldn’t stop staring at the majestic structure built to replace the towers, which had been destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack.
One World Trade Center (known colloquially as the Freedom Tower), completed in 2013, rises to 1,776 feet — the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the sixth-tallest in the world.
My gaze drifted two miles to the southwest, where the Statue of Liberty stands at the entrance to New York Harbor. Is there any other spot in America that offers a better view of two extraordinary national landmarks?
“Takes your breath away,” I said.
Dan, Carl and Andy were equally transfixed.
“Twenty years,” Dan sighed.
Dan, a Waterford resident, is a psychiatrist, while Carl, formerly from New London and now living in New Haven, is a rabbi, which set me up for the perfect start to a story about a 13-day, 303-mile journey the three of us completed in 2003: “So a rabbi, a psychiatrist and a reporter are kayaking around Long Island …”
Since then, Dan, Carl and I have kayaked together on other epic excursions, including a two-week, 315-mile voyage from the Canadian border to the Statue of Liberty; many circumnavigations of Fishers Island; and several paddles from New London to Orient Point and back.
Andy, who divides his time between New London and New York, was making his first long voyage with us, and proved to be an invaluable member of the team.
Formerly executive director of the New York City Department of Planning, as well as a past director of planning for the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, he kept up a running — make that paddling — commentary on virtually every building, bridge, roadway, park and institution we passed: The Cloisters, Grant’s Tomb, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Chelsea Piers, Hudson Yards …
Andy said he used to enjoy taking in the sights while cycling to work along the Hudson — similar bike/pedestrian paths also parallel the East and Harlem rivers — and was equally pleased to view Manhattan from a river perspective.
“It’s a great way to see the city,” he said.
As we worked our way south down the West Side, Andy discoursed on how the city’s architecture has evolved over the decades — from pre-World War II masonry buildings on the Upper West Side, to Lower Manhattan’s contemporary structures, designed by some of the world’s most celebrated architects.
Among them: twisting towers designed by Bjarke Ingels at High Line Park; another Ingels’ creation that resembles a mountain slope; Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum; and Frank Gehry’s dazzling IAC Building.
Between these sections, from 72nd Street to Riverside South, “the buildings are all 30 to 40 stories, sort of bland,” Andy continued. He noted that most of those were built in the 1990s to the early 2000s, including several by a major developer who went on to become the host of a reality TV series and, more recently, president of the United States.
Manhattan has always been and continues to be one giant, chaotic construction zone. Jackhammers, bulldozers and steam shovels combined with honking horns, wailing sirens and rumbling subways to create a constant cacophony.
Although there was no escaping the din, at least the river traffic was less frenetic. We only had to veer away from a handful of ferries, barges and other power boats; I’ve encountered far more nautical congestion on the Mystic River and Long Island Sound.
While we waited for the Staten Island Ferry to cross, the noise grew even more deafening when a pair of helicopters landed a quarter-mile away at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport.
After covering about 15 miles in three hours, we took our first break at a small beach on the East River, directly beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
By this time, the tide had begun to flood, shooting us upriver at a brisk clip. We scooted alongside FDR Drive past South Street Seaport toward Midtown, where the Empire State, Chrysler and United Nations buildings came into view.
At Roosevelt Island, a tramway cable car passed directly overhead.
Next stop: Randalls Island/Wards Island.
After 21 miles of paddling, we welcomed the sight of a small, sandy beach on this conjoined island. By keeping to the west side, we avoided one of the most treacherous passages on the East Coast: Hell Gate.
“You picked a good spot,” a New York City Parks Department employee, who happened to be walking by, told us when we pulled ashore. More than 400 acres of the 520-acre island is parkland.
We had an hour to kill before a tidal current on the Harlem River would diminish, so while Dan and Andy hung out on a stone wall, Carl and I took a stroll.
Soon we found ourselves overlooking an immense athletic field: Icahn Stadium. In 2008, Jamaican Usain Bolt set a world record there, sprinting the 100-meter dash in 9.72 seconds.
Carl and I walked at a much more leisurely pace back to our kayaks. It was time to start paddling the final nine-mile leg.
Unlike the Hudson and East rivers, the Harlem — actually a tidal strait crossed by seven swing bridges, three lift bridges, and four arch bridges — has only one significant landmark along its banks: Yankee Stadium.
I remember hearing the crowd roar during our 2001 voyage, when the Bronx Bombers happened to be playing. Last week, the stadium was silent; for New York fans, the baseball season is over.
Just before reaching the Hudson, we passed a Bronx neighborhood with my favorite name: Spuyten Duyvil, which translates to “Spouting Devil” in Dutch, thanks to powerful tidal currents. As planned, it was pretty close to slack tide when we passed through.
Finally — the mighty Hudson. Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano “discovered” this river in 1524 (Native Americans had long been living there), and it wasn’t until 1609 that English explorer Henry Hudson and his crew sailed up the waterway aboard the Half Moon, all the way to what is now Albany, in a failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage.
Rather than head back to England, Hudson kept searching north, angering his crew. In 1611, after a harsh winter on the shore of James Bay, the sailors mutinied, casting Hudson, his son, and seven others adrift. They were never seen again.
Our group’s voyage ended on a much happier note. With whoops and cheers, we pulled up to the beach at Inwood Hill Park shortly after 4 p.m.
“We made it!” I exclaimed, as the four of us shook hands.
If you plan to paddle near or around Manhattan, a list of public launch sites is available on the website https://www.nycgovparks.org/facilities/kayak.
The Kayak and Canoe Club of New York (kccny.org) also has helpful information, including a member blog with advice on routes and timing the tides.