“On Easter, I paddled to the Gates of Hell.”
That was the line I wanted to use, the joke I wanted to make. I also wanted to try going through Hell Gate, the straight of water between Randalls Island and Queens. It is a narrow spot, where the current typically clocks at 5 knots, sometimes a little higher. It is a rocky area, with multiple islands, resulting in multiple eddies and vortices. I used the word squirrelly a lot yesterday.
Two friends came along, folks I’ve paddled with several times before. AW is an experienced female paddler; AA is a guy, about my age, and while relatively new he’d picked up a lot of skills fairly quickly. We’ve all gone on long trips, and agreed a trip to Hell Gate would be a great way to kill a day.
I timed the trip to leave at a hour before max flood at Edgewater. Ideally, we would have left two hours before, but it’s hard to get people together that early. In such a small group it was easy to press forward and make up for lost time. After paddling up and into the Harlem, we were approaching the Broadway Bridge within fifteen minutes, Peter Sharp fifteen minutes later, and ultimately got to the Triborough/RFK Jr bridge about an hour and a half after we started.
We talked briefly about exploring the Bronx Kill, but since we have all been there before, we decided to proceed down along the edge of Randalls Island. This was an interesting series of sights. Randalls is a sort of sports and concert park for the city, with lots of fields and greenways. There was some sort of sporting event going on at Icahn Stadium. There were people walking and biking on a path at the edge. On the Manhattan side, we saw the Harlem Costco, and worked out that the pedestrian bridge to Randalls is at about 110th street.
As we approached the lower edge of Randalls, in short order we found ourselves at Mill Rock, an island that is essentially a big pile of rocks populated by birds, used as a bathroom by birds and passing kayakers alike. We held position for a bit, deciding what to do: go through Hell Gate, go across to Hallets Cove, or go down and around Roosevelt Island, a long, narrow island that splits the East River into two for about two miles?
We decided to circmnavigate Roosevelt. It’s pretty, it’s interesting, and while the current would be against us slightly as we went south, we figured it would be with us as we rounded the lower tip and came north again.
I recall when planning this trip, thinking this would be an interesting idea, but that also it would eat a lot of time. Once we were there, however, a quick head check made me think we’d just be losing shore time when we stopped for lunch – that is, we’d get out, eat, and leave sooner than planned.
As we made our way down Roosevelt, we saw interesting things on both sides of the river. People were walking and biking, and sometimes waved at us. There were these interesting metal sculptures in the water; made to face the island, we couldn’t make out what they were, but they seemed to be metal cartoon figures, similar to what’s at the 14th street station on the A train. We saw the bow of a ship protruding from the island, sculpted as part of the land. And, of course, on the Manhattan side we saw Midtown East, most notably the UN. We could see as far south as the Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan.
At the southern end of Roosevelt Island are two incongruous sights. One is the old hospital complex, a charred-looking empty shell of buildings abandoned long ago and cordoned off from the public. The other is a memorial complex, fairly new, to Franklin Delano Rooselvet; an eight-foot statue of his head is in a walled chamber. We caught a glimpse from the water. As we rounded the tip, we saw tourists and day trippers taking photos of the city vistas to the south.
We paddled up the eastern channel, but after about a quarter mile we realized the current had changed sooner than we expected. It had been against us, flowing north, on the way down; now it would be against us, flowing south, as we paddled north. This was a problem that would only get worse.
We performed a ferry crossing – paddling up river as we crossed, in order to counter the current’s effect. That was challenging, and then once across, we had to hug the coast of Queens in order to get to Hallet’s Cove, where we stopped for lunch. We passed over and along many large rocks, and closer to shore, we got more careful about avoiding them. At one point a wave dropped my boat onto a couple of rocks, and I teetered, but was able to move off when the water picked me up again.
Hallets Cove is a small beach in Queens, next to an outdoor sculpture museum. It’s immediately around the corner from Hell Gate, across from Roosevelt Island. It’s a common rest stop for waterborne adventurers, and after beaching, we had a quick lunch and chatted with a woman who had brought her kids down to play at the water’s edge.
“I don’t like the looks of that,” said AA. He indicated whitecaps hitting the Manhattan shore in the distance.
It was a beautiful day; the sky was clear and the air relatively warm – in the fifties. However, by now we knew the current had changed, and a steady stream of water would be flowing in from Long Island Sound, running at a quickening pace to the NYC harbor. This would only get worse for us, because we wanted to get north of that southbound ebb.
We tried to figure it out. Could we ferry? Ferry crossing to Roosevelt, and from here to a spot on Manhattan that jutted out and offered shelter against the current? Or, maybe we could follow an eddy up towards Hell Gate, and ferry cross to Randalls, or Mill Rock?
We finished lunch and launched our boats. Full, rested, we were ready to take it on.
Hell Gate, and the Currents Thereof
The current flowing through Hell Gate peaks at over 5 knots. To put that in perspective, the most current we see on the Hudson is between 2.5 and 3 knots. A typical paddler can paddle about 3 knots. Do the math: at best effort, a typical paddler will be going backwards when paddling against the current at Hell Gate’s highest velocities.
Moreover, the current is not the same speed across the entire channel. There is a nice viewing spot at a park in Manhattan, in the 60s/70s, overlooking Hell Gate. You will be able to see areas where the current flows faster, or where the water is apparently flat. The underwater topography twists and shapes the currents into a maze of eddies and vortices that will spin the boat sixty degrees in a moment. These challenges must be navigated while trying to propel the boat in a given direction.
It’s not for nothing that they call this Hell Gate.
The only good news was that those whitecaps were simply wind against current. When the wind died down, the whitecaps went away. The first thing we tried was to paddle northeast along the Queens side to see if we might be able to ferry there to Randalls Island. The main current was just yards away, and we could see it moving like an express train. While we were nervous about it, I think all of us would have been capable of paddling into it and riding the current.
One idea was to basically stern rudder our way towards Mill Rock, which in hindsight I still think could have worked. It would have been like climbing up a hill and skiing down to one side. However, we weren’t sure what the overall picture would be like. We heading back a ways, to about the corner below Randalls on the Queens side.
At this point, I was nudging out to test the waters, and very rapidly had to decide whether or not to go. I wasn’t far from Mill Rock. “I’m going! Watch me!” I shouted, or something to that effect.
Now I was in it. I was swept by the current but rapidly turned my boat towards it. I paddled. I paddled hard, and felt myself making some progress. Then I looked at the far shore. It didn’t look like I was going anywhere except sideways.
I fount a flat spot, and began to realize that I was in a field of eddies and variable current. I could hop from one smooth place to another. Now, the smooth areas still had current against me, but less so than the more ruffled areas. I focused on Mill Rock. Slowly, ever so slowly, I made my way to it. I saw a small eddy on the west end, and made for that. In short order, I was tucked in close to Mill Rock, holding on to a rock so I could survey the path I’d just crossed, and spot my friends.
They were specks on the horizon. Thanks to bight clothes, and clear weather, I could make them out. I raised my paddle to signal, and a few minutes later I saw them start.
At first, progress was good. They weren’t getting any closer, but they weren’t getting father away either. The crossed ever so slowly to Roosevelt. However, just before they got there, they started to recede, moving backwards. I couldn’t see signs of distress, but they were getting farther away.
Come on, I thought. Just a little further. You can do it. I knew the conditions were already stronger than when I had paddled.
I spotted them again. They were in front of Roosevelt, but not getting any closer to me. I realized they were heading to the Manhattan side. They disappeared around a small wall that extends into the river. After waiting a few more minutes, I realized they weren’t peeking back out.
I set out after them. We all hid behind that wall, holding on to a nook, lined up like a series of feathers.
We talked about the conditions. “It was really enlightening how quickly you just flew down here,” said AW. We talked about their crossing, and mine. I knew that all that current had to split north and south nearby – water coming in from the sound basically hits Manhattan, and flows north up the Harlem and south down the East River. If we could only get past this massive spout of current, I was certain we’d be on our way home. “Let me take a look,” I said.
I nudged out from behind the wall. A large rock further up provided another eddy, and I was able to work my way up the wall. After that rock, the Manhattan seawall turned northwest, and I could see a wide expanse of smooth water. If only I could get around this rock, I thought t myself.
The rock, however protective, also made things worse. The current rushing past it was incredibly strong. I tried it. I was, literally, moving backwards. I’ve been in some tough spots before, but this one, I knew I could not make it.
I tried this a couple more times, but to no avail. By this time, people in the park were starting to watch us. No waving, no hello, just watching us figure out a problem.
We decided to wait. The curent had to die down at some point, didn’t it? I tried, and tried again. We waited about fifteen minutes, checked some online references. The current was still building to its max over the next half hour or so. We were going to be here a long time. We texted a friend. We talked about going downstream to see if we could portage our boats. We only half-joked about turning the trip into a clockwise circumnavigation of Manhattan.
I decided to give it one more shot. If the problem was the current stripping past that rock, maybe I would have more luck past it – counterintuitively, in the main current. I dashed out past the rapid jet of water and began to paddle north. I paddled, I paddled . . . I was making progress. I passed the rock. I slowly nudged over north of the seawall promontory and towards a barge. I was looking for a ladder, a platform – anything to get out, or at least hang on to, to tell me friends what to do. No landing to be found, I called out to a man on the pathway.
“Can I ask a huge favor?” I gave brief instructions, and waited while he went and told my friends what I had figured out. I was in a good spot.There was some current, but it was manageable.The roar of Hell Gate was to the south. I had only mild current flowing down from the Harlem.
It took a while, but about twenty minutes later I saw AA and AW peeking around the corner. They were set back slightly when a Circle Line boat passed and gave off wake, but they managed to make it to me. Slowly, they made their way to me. We rafted up, and in a few minutes realized we were staying in place. No current. Perfect.
And Back Again
We rested quite a while. We were exhausted from fighting all that current. We all recognized how far we pushed out abilities, or at least our endurance. Our technical skills had not been especially challenged, but sheer strength, endurance, and fortitude certainly had been.
We started up the Harlem river, staying on the Manhattan side. The water was slackish, but as we progressed, we gained current – a good thing considering we would only grow more tired. We took more frequent rest breaks than usual. As we approached High Bridge, our psychology changed. Beyond that point, we were on familiar ground. We drifted a couple hundred yards. We paddled easy as we came to familiar sights: Peter Sharp, the 207th street rail yard.
Well, almost familiar. The water level was unusually low – attributed, I think, to a recent Full Moon. The entire cove between Peter Sharp and the shore was a mud flat, something I have never seen. A wrecked old marina just north of there was so depleted that we saw parts of wreckage we’d never seen before. Even a marsh that we know becomes a mud flat at low tide was astonishing because it was practically at eye level for us.
As we rounded the corner past Broadway Bridge, we felt the current turn against us slightly, and so picked up the pace. As we came up under the Henry Hudson, we spotted another club member, MH, also an experienced paddler, in his canoe. “You’ll be happy to know the Hudson current is strongly in your favor,” he said. After chatting a bit, we made our way home.
He was right. By now we were coming up on max ebb, and once in the main current, we flew home. It was sundown, and we were on the dock just as the sun dropped below the palisades. We unpacked our boats and washed them in the twilight, noting that washing the boats after a paddle wasn’t so bad now that the air temperature wasn’t freezing. With Easter, spring is here, and what I used to think of as the paddling season is right around the corner.
We all agreed we learned a lot on this trip. We also worked well together as a group. We were all concerned for our overall safety, communicated well, and settling on plans. There were a lot of ways that things could have gone wrong, and they didn’t. Even unexpected events were handled well.
We agreed that a fuller understanding of the overall conditions would be better. There’s a tendency in paddling groups to assume the person suggesting the trip does all of the planning and leading. While that’s necessary in trips with “the public”, it isn’t so in group of experienced paddlers. We all know how to read charts, and look up currents, and there is no reason for only one or two people to look ahead of time at what the plan is.
My own add to all of this would be that Roosevelt Island, while worth seeing, probably ought to have been skipped. It added at least four miles and an hour to our total trip, and if not for that, we might have turned around before getting trapped behind Hell Gate. If I were to do this trip again, I would either go straight to Hallets, or through Hell Gate along Randalls Island with the current, or land at Mill Rock or Randalls.
One of my goals this year has been to learn more about the Harlem and its interactions with the East River. I learned a lot on this trip. I have a newfound respect for the area and the challenges it poses. I think there are plenty of interesting things to do down there, and I would go again. I don’t know I would do this particular trip again, and if so, I would time it very differently.