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Safe Passage

My cab driver looked down the street incredulously, then stole a glance in the rear-view at me.

“You’re going to work?”

“No.”

“Where you going?”

We were approaching the end of Dyckman Street, basically 200th street in Manhattan, dead-ending at a large restaurant with a small marina. Overhead ran the Henry Hudson highway; behind us, the street had petered out into one-man automotive detailing and the edge of Inwood Hill Park.

It was four in the morning.

“Kayaking.”

?

“Paddling. In a boat, a small boat.”

A quizzical grimace.

“On the water, I’ll be in a boat on the water.”

“Won’t it be cold?” I think he was worried about me. Why was this woman asking to be dropped off at the end of the local “alcohol alley” in the dead of night?

Heck, I was worried about me. Despite a newly paved path and lighting, the two hundred yards from Dyckman to the boathouse can be sketchy at night. I was laden with gear; I held out my key and eyed every shadow until I was safely locked in the boathouse property. I was worried less about nautical hazards than terrestrial ones.

I was invited to escort an expedition paddler into the city. Doctor Deb Walters was paddling her boat from Maine to Guatemala to raise awareness for the Safe Passage program. A mutual friend had planned to join her and escort her in, but he fell ill, so it was on me to represent NYC expedition paddlers.

The plan was for her to paddle in from City Island, across the upper East River, and then to Pier 40. Originally they’d go through Hell Gate and then down the lower East River, rounding Battery and paddling against a knot and a half of current to Pier 40, but I put forward the idea of paddling through the Bronx Kill instead, and then up the Harlem and down the Hudson. Besides, that way she’d get to see the Inwood Canoe Club, and we picked up some other paddlers with us for the second stage.

By the nature of the tides, that meant I needed to be on the water by 0445. I made it – rousting a fellow club member who was cot-napping in the boathouse to meet someone very early in the morning – leaving in the dark, on my own, for points south and east.

Blurry Morning.
Blurry Early AM Start.

The trip down the Harlem was uneventful. There was nearly no wind, and while it was cool, my new fleece-lined paddling top and the workout of paddling warmed me up quickly. The water was glass-smooth. Even in the dark, I could make out the reflection of a lost basketball floating on the water, lit only by the ambient glow of the city.

Bridge
Passing a Bridge.

As I went along, I approached an odd hour: I could look left and see sunlight, or right and see nighttime. I came to the entrance of the Bronx Kill, and paddled through, stopping on the far end to rearrange kit and sip some coffee while I watched the sun formally rise.

Early Tea.
Tea at Sunrise.

Break over, I paddled out, between the Brothers (North Brother Island, and South Brother Island). I wasn’t in a hurry. The tide was against me a bit and Dr. Deb was paddling in. I stopped and listened to shipping traffic while sheltering from the current in a small eddy behind a marker.

Marker
Marker.

One barge was coming in, and another was going out. A small sailing vessel, Plover, about a 30 footer, went through the Brothers and on towards the Gate. They all talked to each other – including the incoming barge who overtook Plover and asked her to kindly sail aside as they passed through Hell Gate.

Once things settled down, I paddled around North Brother, then over towards Hunts Point, where I watched a DEP boat depart to the east before I paddled out towards the shallow bay that leads to the mouth of the Bronx River. It was around then I made out a shimmering in the distance, later two sticks, then two paddlers. The radio crackled.

“This is kayak Safe Passage, Safe Passage. Is that you Kayak Cowgirl?”

“Affirmative, coming to you Safe Passage.”

We paddled towards each other, meeting up about halfway between Randalls Island and the Bronx-Whitestone bridge. I met Rick, her fellow-paddler who had put in at New Rochelle to paddle with her to NYC and take out at Inwood.

After water and a brief rest, we turned back the way I had come, staying towards the Bronx side of the East River, rounding the Brothers and heading back to the Bronx Kill.

Upper East River
Upper East River. Hell Gate and Manhattan background.

We went back up the Harlem river, with me playing tour guide. I even pointed out the Harlem River Lighthouse. You’ll have to visit yourself to see it. Eventually we passed the three sisters of High, Washington, and Hamilton bridges, and then passed Peter Sharp Bout House, rounding under the Broadway Bridge to the Henry Hudson and Spuyten Duyvil.

Approaching HH.
The Henry Hudson, Spuyten Duyvil, Palisades beyond.

A mile later, we stopped at the Inwood Canoe Club, where she took an extended break and a photo. Inwood’s not far from some decent bathrooms, food, and a nice view of the Palisades. For me this would be more or less the halfway point of the day.

Break at ICC
Rick F, Dr. Deb, Cowgirl at Inwood Canoe Club.

For the route to Pier 40, we were joined by fellow Inwood club member AA, and a visitor, LB (Tahe Marine, amazing roller, something like 15 hand rolls in a row while we took a break later). In short order we set out into the ebbing current, making quick time to the GWB, Riverbank State Park, Harlem, and the Upper West Side. After that, we had ferry traffic to contend with – nothing terrible but a lot of listening on the radio and sprinting forward as needed.

We found ourselves ahead of schedule – which was bad for a dramatic entrance. The media had been alerted to an estimated arrival time, and we were early! So, for the last half mile or so, we more or less just drifted in, until we resumed paddling to make a proper entrance.

Pier 40
Dr. Deb approaching Pier 40.

Once we arrived, there were about thirty minutes of interviews – mostly Dr. Deb, but also AA, who is bilingual. Most of the media were Spanish media, and so he translated and told his version of events en Espanol.

After that, we unpacked. AA was going to paddle out to Staten Island with her after the weekend, and her boat was laden with expedition supplies and gear. Once we unloaded and stored everything, her boat went in the fleet room at New York Kayak Company (where I teach and guide), and after a quick lunch LB and I paddled north again, splitting up just after the GWB to return to our respective put-ins.

It was a remarkable paddle, both in itself and as part of her larger journey. All in I put the miles at 38, maybe 39 charted, and even with current assist that’s a lot. Factor in the early morning start and I was beat by the time we got back. I had dinner, went to work the next day, and headed out to the next adventure – but that is a tale for another post.

Published in 2014 Backpaddle Inwood Inwood Canoe Club Kayaking New York New York City NYC NYKC Sea

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