Joe Link and I have had some great paddling adventures in the past four years; this one is in the top three. We heard about the event from the JSSKAbulletin board a couple of months ago. We were led to a very informative website, run by Bruce Taterka of the Delaware & Hudson Canoe & Kayak Club. I emailed Bruce asking if Joe and I could take part in the planned circumnavigation, he said, "Sure.", and we decided to make the trip. My biggest concern, two-thirds realized, was that Joe would paddle out front, mistake the Verazanno Narrows Bridge for the Brooklyn Bridge, and be halfway to Ireland before he could be turned back. As it happened, I should have been more concerned about running out of gas on the stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike near the Hackensack Meadows.
The circumnavigation was scheduled to begin at 10:30 AM at the Englewood Basin, two miles north of the George Washington Bridge, so Joe and I decided to leave Town Bank at 6:30 AM. Joe's child-bride, Maria, was set to retire before she was even eligible to join AARP that very day, so Joe decorated their house and property to welcome Maria to the world of non-work. We put our kayaks on top of Joe's truck and we were off up the Garden State Parkway. I had decided to bring my "fishing" kayak instead of my touring kayak because of unknown conditions at the various launching and landing sites along the way. I hoped nobody would notice the 61 year-old fart on the wimpy sit-on-top kayak among all of the young, athletic paddlers and their sleek watercraft. The drive up the Parkway was uneventful except for the point near the end of the trip when we learned that if one enters Palisades Parkway at Exit 1, then one will not come upon Exit 1 up the road. This was a valuable lesson that I'm sure we'll remember and, perhaps, even generalize.
There was a good group forming at the beach at Englewood Basin when we finally arrived there. There were about 22 kayaks, including two tandems, and two canoes in the fleet. Bruce made some brief remarks about the voyage, mentioning two rest stops along the way. I had spent some hours the night before printing charts of the course and putting waypoints into my new etrex GPS, so I felt ready to navigate the course. Actually, all that was needed was to keep Manhattan Island about 100 yards to the left and just go around, but I liked the high-tech way. I also carried a marine radio, cell phone, and back-up compass.
We launched very close to the scheduled time and headed south down the Hudson River. Joe headed straight toward the Verazanno Narrows Bridge like a cruise missile. We were to cross under 17 bridges on the journey; the first one was the George Washington Bridge, two miles south of our launch site. It was easy paddling as we had the current with us and the wind at our backs. It was also a most gorgeous day with bright sunshine and cool temperatures for the most part. As we moved downriver, Harlem was on our left. I was chasing Joe like a puppy chasing a car, tongue hanging out and puffing away, but I also was trying to take some photos along the way. Although I have some familiarity with Manhattan, I was at a loss to identify many of the sights as we passed by. If any reader of this report can add to or correct any of my commentary, please email me. Also, if any others on the trip have additional photos I can use, I'll be very grateful and will give the photographer credit for the work.
We passed close by the sewage treatment plant in Harlem and the nearby St. John's Cathedral, which looked very imposing from the water. In the previous photo are shown the two tandem kayaks owned and operated with power and grace by two couples from Red Bank, Mary and Pat Breslin and Chuck and Joyce Allison. I think that the next photo shows the Manhattan terminus of the Lincoln Tunnel. We had ample opportunities for viewing the Empire State Building from various angles. I found out that Mary (shown in the previous photo) is a Hokie (Virginia Tech student or alum) as are my daughter Katie and her husband Tom.
Encountering the U.S.S. Intrepid Museum fleet, we took a brief side trip into a cove-like area among the ships. Viewing an aircraft carrier from a kayak is a unique experience of scale. On the lower Hudson we passed pier after pier holding tour boats, ferries, cruise ships, and other sorts of vessels. As we neared the tip of Manhattan, the World Trade Center loomed into view. The river was getting very choppy due to boat wakes, the wind, and the reflection of waves from the sea wall forming the shoreline. We got a nice open view of the Statue of Liberty to the south as we got close to Battery Park. I spotted the Hotel New Yorker as we moved by; this old hotel was the site of some rowdy adventures in my youth. A large ship sailed by us as it came down the Hudson. I had found previously that big ships are so efficiently designed that they don't put out much of a wake; I discovered this when I was out fishing in my former boat near the Fourteen Foot Lighthouse on the Delaware Bay.
Finally we rounded the tip of Manhattan and headed up the East River toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Boat traffic was heavy as we passed by the South Street Seaport and headed to the tiny beach under the bridge which was to serve as our first rest stop. I ate a few power bars and pulled some ice cold water bottles out of the cooler I was carrying inside my kayak. I remembered my father telling me how he founded an oil recycling plant under the other side of the bridge after his graduation from Penn State in 1929 with no hope of an imminent electrical engineering job. He drove a truck to pick up used oil and when he met my mother, an Irish lass from Brooklyn, my grandmother referred to him as "that truck driver." Obviously the rest stop was too long since my mind was moving into the deep past. So we launched again into the quickly flowing East River. At this point, Manhattan was still on the left and Brooklyn was on the right. We passed under the dramatic bridges across the East River, which was becoming quite choppy and confused. I was amused at the sight of an urban marina with the Empire State Building in the background. I have become accustomed to seeing marinas at the edge of pristine salt marshes, so this was startlingly different. We had a great view of the U.N. Building rising out of the boiling river.
I had spent part of the night before rereading the section of Tamsin Venn's Sea Kayaking Along the Mid-Atlantic Coast pertaining to the Manhattan Circumnavigation. Hence, I was able to identify the aerial tramcar crossing to Roosevelt Island just behind the Queensboro Bridge. We approached the Tri-boro Bridge and Ward's Island where we were scheduled for another rest stop. The beach was even smaller than the one under the Brooklyn Bridge. One of the two perks of sit-on-top kayaks is the ability to enjoy barefoot kayaking when the temperature is warm. The beach at Ward's Island was heavily littered with glass shards and pieces of chain link fence. More remarkably, there was a small group fishing from the beach with handlines! After gulping down a power bar and getting some cold water out of the cooler, I was ready to launch and head up the Harlem River.
Tamsin Venn had promised that the current in the Harlem River would be tame compared to the Hudson and East rivers and we found it so. Most of the bridges we would encounter are short ones across this river. Most of the bridges swiveled open when necessary, but a couple of them had a section that could be lifted vertically while the section maintained its horizontal configuration. A huge powerboat full of rude people caused Joe to get stuck in front of an oncoming barge under one of the bridges. The tugboat captain let loose a barrage of salty language equaled by Joe's equally salty retorts. Joe shut up the captain and Joe stopped the barge. About this time I had a close encounter of my own. I had brought an air horn as a warning device and used it to respond to enthusiastic waving from the shoreline. On one of the bridges, an elevated train came rumbling over with the engineer waving out the window. I blasted my horn in response, thinking that the engineer was waving at me. A warning call, "Look out, Bill!" from one of the tandem kayaks alerted me to the fact that a very large Circle Lines tourboat was right behind me (obviously the target of the engineer's waves). I scooted out of the way just in time. I always tell people that if a boat hits you it will ruin their day too, but I didn't want to stretch my luck.
The scenery along the lengthy Harlem River was rather drab compared to the flash of lower Manhattan. There were lots of people fishing from shore, there were lots of rather short, dirty-looking buildings on both the Manhattan side and the Bronx side. The many bridges started looking the same and were uniformly drab. All of a sudden we passed by Yankee Stadium! I had forgotten about the Bronx Bombers. I recalled the summer of 1952 when my brother Jack and I traveled the entire city on its subway system, going to ball games at Ebbit Field, the Polo Grounds, and Yankee Stadium, and enjoying the rides at Coney Island. Another awesome sight was High Bridge, carrying I95 across the river. Unfortunately, I was almost out of film so I didn't get a shot of this magnificent structure. Finally, we passed Spuyten Duyvil and reentered the Hudson River. The northwest wind, blowing all day had a chance to really kick up the Hudson, so the one mile crossing was a rather wet one. We posed for a photo on the beach when the tandem kayaks landed shortly after we did. The mouth of the Harlem River is visible in the photo (note the bridge).
We thank Bruce Taterka for his outstanding planning and accurate information. This was a great adventure! On the way home, after Joe almost ran out of gas, I was wondering if we could be arrested for having too much fun; I hope not.
I calculated distances for various legs of the trip from the charts I used. These are calculated along straight-line segments and should be used as a lower bound for the actual distances which are slightly higher. The distances below are in statute as opposed to nautical miles.