I went kayaking the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. I had an ambitious agenda, in hindsight a bit too ambitious. I also went alone, which probably wasn’t wise, but I felt confident in my abilities, and I wanted to get some more experience north of the George Washington Bridge. I set that as my destination, and figured if that went well, I might go up to the Inwood Canoe Club, and possibly into the Harlem River.
I misplaced my camera’s waterproof housing, so unfortunately just the one photo, taken while ashore.
I studied the tides ahead of time. The Hudson River is, essentially, a long tidal estuary. Going with the tide is twice as fast as paddling at slack (that is, no tide). Paddling against the current is tiring and almost pointless at the high ends. I have had days where paddling against the current resulted in basically staying in place; if I stopped, I went backwards.
Low tide was 6:45 in the morning. From West 56th street, where I launch, the tide starts to turn about four hours later, with some light current north that strengthens until about six hours after low. So, my plan was to leave around 1030 or 1100, catch the current up past the George Washington Bridge making stops along the way, and then noodle around until the tide turned south again at 1630 to come back. It would be a long day, but one of my goals this year is to increase my endurance – not just distance, but time-in-boat.
I set out while the sun was shining in hazy skies. It wasn’t overcast; the air was very humid. Colors everywhere seemed more vibrant than usual. I proceeded north, past a sanitation pier, past an embayment that used to be home to railroad loading docks, and past a long pedestrian pier the city built a few years ago as part of a beautification project. I stopped at 72nd street, a little floating platform my club uses to run a program out of. I said hi to one of my friends there, then kept going north, past the 79th street boat basin and the mooring field just beyond it that stretches for about 25 blocks.
Here was my first decision: to cross the river or not. On the Jersey side was Mitsuwa, a Japanese supermarket (owned by Koreans, I’m told) with a food court. On the Manhattan side was a floating platform across the street from Fairway, a local grocery chain in New York City. I decided on Mitsuwa because I was craving sushi, and because Fairway’s lines are notoriously long.
Crossing the river isn’t hard; it just requires paying attention. It’s like crossing a very wide street: you look both ways, make sure you know where all the other boats are, as well as their intentions, and then go. Where it’s different from crossing a street is with the current. In that regard, it’s like crossing a very wide, flat escalator that slowly moves you in one direction.
So, I looked. Traffic was light: sailboat, sailboat, motorboat, motorboat, sailboat, all far enough away that I was in no danger of getting hit, and they would have plenty of time to see me. I picked a set of buildings to aim for and started paddling. A few minutes later, I was on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
I took a drink of water and continued north. From there, I had a better view of New York City landmarks. The George Washington Bridge was much closer now. I could make out the Church of St. John the Divine (that, or Riverside Church – I always get them mixed up). I could make out the rotunda of Grant’s Tomb. Grant’s Tomb! Does anyone ever go there? I think I’ll have to. It’s so weird, having such an opulent mausoleum for a US President.
The Jersey side is a bit more hit-and-miss in terms of landmarks. There is a lot of residential development, long apartment buildings sticking out on piers, interspersed with far more industrial components – more than a couple of gas storage facilities, for example. So, yeah, if living on top of a tidal estuary where the water level changes by up to eight feet twice a day, and next to office building-size containers of combustible petrochemicals is your thing, then New Jersey is the place to do it.
Mitsuwa is a bit north of all that – still next to some kind of fuel transfer facility, but with the added bonus of a parking lot. There is a small beach next to a sidewalk that looks over the river. Many times, I’ve come here with friends, or with the public. Launching can be difficult at low tide because it stretches out into a mud flat, but that wouldn’t be a problem today.
One very nice discovery was that a giant log, apparently an old tree that washed up and is used as a bench when we visit, had a donut shaped knot protruding out of it. I had brought my cable lock, and this turned out to be a perfect, easy way to secure my boat while I went in to buy food (eel and avocado roll, a red bean curd dessert bun, and some sort of peach-milk drink, mmm mmm good). I knew I’d need food to fuel the rest of my journey.
Once I was done, I re-packed my boat, pulled it out in the water, climbed in and got away from the shore. I sealed myself back in with the spray skirt – the tupperware-like cover that keeps water out of the cockpit – and waved goodbye to a couple of families who had watched. I went back out into the current and kept going north, sunny skies with puffs of white cumulous.
A couple of things to know about the George Washington Bridge (GWB): It’s very large, especially when you’re sitting just a foot or so above the water, and conditions get strange near it.
The GWB is cathedral-like in stature. It’s immense; it’s tall, it’s long. Paddling under one end and looking across to the other, the repeated arches and tresses call to mind nothing short of the flying buttresses and internal arches of Renaissance cathedrals. Imagining how it was built, even how it is maintained, is boggling. It’s a big thing that people made, a sharp contrast to the more nature-focused sights that would follow.
The first thing you notice in terms of conditions is the noise. The GWB is a highway, and there is a steady buzz that fills the air. It’s not bad in itself, but as one tries to pay attention to everything else, it’s a distraction.
I took a look at something I’ve only seen from above: a landing bay just south of the bridge. It’s basically two driveways going into the water, for people who carry their boats on trailers. There is also a platform there. A boat was coming out. I thought about landing, but a large wake came by, bouncing both me and the dock up and down a few feet. I thought better of it, backed out, and kept going north.
Oh yeah, wake. Wake per se isn’t bad. It’s said you never see the boat that produces the wake that you feel. I’ve noticed that the further north on the river, you can watch a boat pass by and generate wake. You can see the waves emanating from the boat. Yet, those waves won’t get to me until five or ten minutes later. Depending on the displacement of the vessel, and the depth of the water, I can get waves up to three or four feet in height, foot to trough. Normally they’re smaller, but occasionally they can bounce me up and down like a roller coaster. This was one of those times.
There are some odd shallows on approaching the bridge, on both sides of the river, and from either direction. At low tide it starts to look like a creek in some areas, with little ripples forming that act like Magic Fingers on the boat. They weren’t too bad for me since I was on flood tide; water was coming in. I went under the bridge pretty smoothly, and came into view of the Palisades.
After the drama of the bridge, the Palisades were remarkably peaceful. There is a state park built out on the water, basically a large parking lot with facilities, and large rocks to protect against the tides. I knew from past experience that there was a small beach on the north side of the park, so I paddled past, rounded the corner, and landed on the beach. I just wanted to rest a bit.
From there I could make out the boathouse of another club I belong to, the Inwood Canoe Club. It’s a red building just south of the end of Dykman street. The sun was in full effect by now, with just a few scattered clouds. There was a large barge parked in the river. Moored boats always point into the current. To avoid getting pressed against it, I would go behind it, and on across the Hudson to the Manhattan side.
There was practically no one at Inwood; just someone sunning herself and talking on the phone. I said hi, and paddled on. The whole area north was all park, Inwood Hill Park, to be exact, with plenty of greenery, including the oldest native trees in Manhattan. I call it upstate Manhattan because it is a part of the city no one ever thinks about, so far north that it may as well be upstate. The part I live in is very suburban, if you swap out houses for apartment buildings. People drive eco-friendly cars, we compost at the local farmer’s market, and upscale grocers sell artisanal cheeses and jams. The pubs serve exotic microbrews, and Shakespeare is performed in the park.
Paddling into the Harlem River requires travelling under a rotating railroad bridge. If the bridge is open, no trains are crossing, as the middle section is swiveled so as not to connect the ends. If it’s closed, you have to duck under it. The bridge was open.
Another tricky part about entering (and exiting) the Harlem is that the Hudson current is moving you while you try to go in. It’s like trying to park in your driveway when the street carries you sideways. So, you have to turn sharply and move quickly to get out of the Hudson before it slams you into one of the walls supporting the bridge.
Once in, however, it’s very rewarding. I love paddling in the Harlem River. The initial parts are very high, and lush with trees, high rock walls, and little nooks you can’t see from the shore. Columbia has a sports complex next to the park, and a giant C painted on a cliff on the Bronx side of the river. I haven’t seen the film, but apparently this is where the boys in “Basketball Diaries” do their cliff jumping.
Onward, I passed two Metro North stations (Spuyten Duyvil and Marble Hill) and under the Broadway Bridge, waving to fishermen along the way. Motorboats came by. While there are signs that basically say “No Wake” the entire way, like poorly tended highway signs, they are partially obscured by brush. Most people slowed down when they saw me, but one guy in a boat painted with Looney Tunes characters went full throttle on his four Honda outboard motors, and I caught a little wake-surf.
I had in mind stopping at the Peter Sharp Boathouse – a little building near High Bridge that’s about halfway around Manhattan. That was not to be, however. I came within sight, but did not land.
As I crept further into the Harlem River, I could see the weather get progressively worse. What had been a sunshiny day just an hour earlier was quickly becoming cloudy in all directions, with little holes of clear sky here and there. There were black clouds to the north, and what I swear were purple clouds to the west. Yet, there was sunshine in the Bronx to the east. There was no wind to speak of, so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.
I was near the MTA’s 207th street shop – the end of the line for the A and C trains. The Peter Sharp boathouse was in sight, just past a bridge. I was tempted to go there, rest, and then come back around. However, I was concerned about the weather. If it had gotten this bad this quickly, what might happen on the way back?
I had to contend with the current. It was 1500 (3 PM). The tide was not due to change for another hour and a half. I figured it would take half an hour just to work back out to the Hudson (it actually took only 20 minutes). I would be paddling against the current for an hour. I decided that as hard as that would be, better to get moving now than to wait and possibly watch the weather get worse. So, just short of my reach goal, I turned around – back past the fisherman, past the Broadway Bridge, past the giant C, and under the railroad bridge. The current was less strong than when I’d come in, but still noticeable.
What I ought to mention now is that in many ways, this was becoming a repeat of a trip I took last year that ended badly. I had gone out a similar distance with a couple of friends, only with not enough food, and inadequate protection against wind and rain. This is why I made sure to eat when I could, and brought along granola bars, just in case, along with plenty of water. It’s also why the best piece of equipment I had with me was a light paddling jacket I bought earlier this spring. With gaskets on the sleeves and a collar, I could get nice and sealed up against the elements. I stopped at Columbia’s dock in Inwood Hill Park and put on the jacket, not wanting to risk hitting rain while out on the water and unable to don it when I needed it.
The first thing I noticed was how much warmth it let me retain. My arms were already wet; I’d only been wearing a long-sleeve rashguard to that point. As I paddled, the heat generated by my body stayed in the jacket. I knew I’d need that if things got bad.
When I say the current was noticeable in the Hudson, I mean that I felt every pull. I could get some momentum, and stop paddling for a minute before coming to a complete stop. However, after a minute, I would start to drift north. If I looked at the shore, I would appear to be moving very, very slowly as I paddled. Looking towards my destination was better: things got bigger, albeit slowly. I adopted a thousand-yard-stare and pressed on. I left the railroad bridge at 1550; it would take me half an hour to go twenty blocks, and nearly an hour to go another 60 blocks after that. All in, an hour and a half from the tip of Manhattan to Fairway.
On the way south, I stopped at the Inwood Canoe Club after I recognized a couple of friends on the dock. We talked a bit, partly about my boat, and partly about the weather. My friend offered to let me store my boat overnight there, an offer I was sorely tempted to take. Thinking about it, I realized I didn’t want to have to come back for my boat, and also, people would be expecting me back where I started. Thunder was to the north, and the wind was blowing north, so I figured the worst of the weather was behind me. I decided to head south, into the current, into the wind. I would dwell on that decision for the next hour or so.
My next planned stop was the platform at 125th street. It was about halfway to my destination, and a safe place to get out, rest, and get some food if I needed it. This was the hardest part of the trip.
For one thing, it was only on this trip that I obtained a clear sense of just how far it is from the GWB to the upper tip of Manhattan. In a car, or a train, or even a bike, it’s nothing, a blur on the way to a destination. In a kayak, even with the tide it’s a good 15 minutes or more. Against the tide, it’s much longer. I paddled and paddled, then rested for a minute; paddled some more, rested, watched the Little Red Lighthouse inch ever closer; watched the water for bizarre conditions; thought about what I would have for dinner when I got back – everything from a juicy cheeseburger to broiled chicken to Pad Thai. I ended up inhaling chicken pad thai that night.
I thought about that platform at 125th street a lot. I just wanted to get out of the boat. By the time I got there, I’d been in the boat for nearly 90 minutes. The bobbing up and down was uneven and relentless. Waves, both natural and from the wakes of passing ships, would cock my boat this way and that. At one point, a solid three-footer washed over the deck. This was the other thing – not only was I working against the current, but the conditions were rough enough that half my energy was spent just keeping the boat right and on track.
Eventually, I crawled into 125th street. Just below a major water treatment facility, the embayment there is protected well against the current and I had no problem getting myself and the boat out. Once I lifted the boat out, I lay on the dock, trying to find a place amidst the goose droppings to not get myself too dirty (this may seem moot after hopping in and out of Hudson River surf, dropping pebbles in my boat, and baked in layers of sunscreen and sweat). I could see the current still flowing north. I devoured my granola bar and half my last bottle of water. Still hungry, I saw that a park ranger was watching the river. I asked her to keep an eye on my boat while I ran into Fairway and bought another granola bar. Soaked in water, without my jacket, inside the store was c-c-c-cold. I got back out as soon as I could, ate, and then waited for the current to change.
The Road Home
The current took a little longer to change than I expected, so I got plenty of rest. By the time the water was flowing in the right direction, I was more than ready to go home. I piled everything into my boat, launched, and set out.
A long pedestrian pier extends out from the shore at 125th street, and as I paddled past it, a large man bellowed out, “Keep Kayaking! Don’t let God catch you! He’s behind you, don’t let God catch you!” I’m not sure what he meant, or even if that’s what he said. I decided at best he meant well, and at worst, he was deranged. Maybe he was talking about the weather. The weather behind me was indeed pretty scary.
Here is where the paddling got interesting. So far on this trip, I had paddled north, crossed the Hudson, surfed some boat wake, skirted the shoals near the George Washington Bridge, landed on two beaches, and fought my way against about a 1 knot current. Now, the wind shifted direction, and I had the wind and the current taking me south, where I wanted to go. This was not a bad thing, but it was not entirely a good thing. It was a weird thing.
The main effect was that for about three miles I had a steady stream of waves – long, wide, never quite cresting waves. I would feel them pick up the back of the boat and push me forward, and I would try to work a stern rudder position with my paddle. But the wave would pass under me, washing partially over the spray deck. Then, the wave would push up the front of the boat, slowing me down. Depending on the angle that the wave hit at, I would also be pushed to the right or left. Thus, while paddling forward was easy, I spent a lot of effort just trying to keep the boat straight. It was like hyrdo-planing on the river.
A friend of mine explained pretty well what was happening – as the wave passed under me, I would slide down the back of the wave. It would push me and then stop me. In a way it was like in a cartoon where someone whips a rug at an escaping mouse. In any case, it was just weird, and made for an interesting ride back.
Another obstacle was a set of mooring buoys just north of the 79th street boat basin. From shore, they look peaceful enough, giant golf balls floating in the water, held in place by lines. When you’re moving, though – and especially with current – they are to be avoided. Now the easy way to do this is to stay in the channel, but first I had to get there – I’d been paddling close to shore on the way back. As I rushed towards the mooring balls, I threaded through them, out to the channel, gliding by the boat basin, and on home.
The pier below 72nd street is a psychological point for me. Once I’m there, the boathouse is practically in sight, directly behind a sanitation pier. I’m five minutes out. All I had to do was loop out, and then in.
To my surprise, the public program was still going – regular folks who walk up, and we put them in a boat, and they paddle around the embayment. It wasn’t really a surprise – of course they were still out, since it wasn’t 1800 yet. I had made it back before my estimated return time. As I glided in, I remembered that that was how I started – paddling in an embayment, when the boathouse was located at Pier 26. I’ve come a long way from all that, learning from others as well as from my own mistakes.
I got out, pulled out my boat, and started taking my gear out to hose everything down with fresh water before putting it away. I saw that my boyfriend had texted me, asking if “the rain” had hit us yet.
I looked up, and saw droplets marching across the river, an approaching sheet of precipitation coming off the water, across the embayment, up the deck, and onto my boat. I waited inside until it abated, and then cleaned up and put everything away.
I was nervous about this trip. It’s the third time I’ve gone out alone; since I bought my own boat, I’ve taken three trips alone in fairly short order, to 72nd street, to about 86th street, and now, about halfway around Manhattan. I’m confident in my abilities, but it’s always nice to have someone else along, in case things go really, really wrong. I was also nervous about the distance – I’ve gone that far before, but not often, and certainly not on my own.
I was adequately prepared, but barely. I plan to start stocking more food, and even water in my boat – both as stock to keep around for sharing, and for long trips like this one. All in, I consumed 72 ounces of water, and another 16 of the juice I got at Mitsuwa. I had a decent sized breakfast and lunch, but still needed extra energy for the trip back. If I add it all up and account for paddling, I think I came up rather short on calories for the day.
I’d also be more definite about my plans. I wanted to go to Peter Sharp, but I didn’t look up just how far it was. I was happy enough to get into the Harlem. If there had been a place to land, I would have, and waited out the tides. If the weather had not looked so ominous, I might have done so at Inwood.
This was my first real test for planning a trip and executing it. It was also a test of the skills and local conditions knowledge that I’ve been developing for the past five years. I knew what to look for, and how to adapt my plans to changing conditions. While I will do things differently in the future, I think I did pretty well.