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The Harlem in December

I had an afternoon off from work last Friday – the 10th, not the 17th – and with relatively warm weather, I decided to take a long solo paddle for the afternoon. After looking at the tidal currents, I decided it’d be a good time to paddle down the Harlem and back.

I didn’t go as far, or paddle as long, as I originally intended to. The timing of the currents would make it a harder trip back, and along the way I felt more creaky than usual for this time of year.

I also thought it’d be nice to take some updated pictures of the Harlem. I have paddled this way a lot, but it’s been a while, and in any case what I expected to be a simple, kinda boring trail paddle turned out to be a bit more interesting.

For starters, there was some pretty serious crane work at the Spuyten Duyvil railroad bridge.

Bridge Work, Spuyten Duyvil
Working at Spuyten Duyvil.

There was also some work going on at the Columbia boathouse docks. I paddled around the northern tip of Manhattan, past the train yards at 207th street, and came to this familiar view.

The towers on the left are River Park Towers; affordable housing completed in 1975, they are the tallest buildings in the Bronx.

Peter Sharp and High Bridge
Peter Sharp and High Bridge.

I continued on down, using my wing paddle for practice, but not really hitting a good cadence until I passed High Bridge. The current was with me, though slowing down. The overcast skies made for interesting lighting as the afternoon waned.

Macombs Dam Bridge
Macombs Dam Bridge.

Along the Harlem
Along the Harlem.

By the time I reached the railroad lift bridge, between the Madison and Third avenue road bridges, I was beginning to feel both energized and slumped. A headwind had picked up and it all felt like a bit more effort than I had anticipated.

On the other hand, thinking about all the various conditions I’ve paddled in, I decided I was being a bit whiny. The compromise I made with myself was that I wouldn’t paddle out to the Brother Islands, but instead would stop at the northwest corner of Randalls Island, at a little kayak launch point that I’d heard of but never used.

Nearby was the site of what used to be known as “Mike’s H”. Many years ago, there was a paddler who worked as a graphic artist, and among other things he had designed the “H” logo used by the History Channel. For a very long time, that H logo was on the sign that now says “Uber”. It’s also been an ad spot for iHeart/ClearChannel.

Old H Sign
Uber Alles.

I managed to climb out without getting my feet or legs wet, important since I considered driving home in my drysuit, in order to rinse it by wearing it into the shower. I ate a couple of oat bars and had some tea, then set out once more, this time back the way I’d come.

I’d never seen the following; it looked like an old conception of a robot, a rusty sentinel left to decay on the waterfront. However, I noticed several as I paddled north; presumably new, or newly revealed, ship-size cleats or mooring points.

Along the Harlem - Not a Robot
Not a Robot.

The waters were smoother on the way back, and the sky lightened up even though the sun dimmed.

My cadence picked up. I knew I’d be working hard, first against the last of the flood current, and then as the water slackened. I set a goal to be back before four; it’d be dark before five, and I hadn’t brought my lights. It wouldn’t have been a big deal to get caught out without them, but all the same, I wanted to be home, warm and cozy by dark.

So I paddled.

Looking North
Looking North on the Harlem.

Eventually I came to familiar waters, and caught a cloudy sun preparing to set.

Sunset at GWB
Sunset at the GWB.

Then, the most interesting thing happened. The water had been glassy smooth for quite a while; even now, on the Hudson, the stillness and reflectivity was uncanny.

Then I noticed waves. Not breaking, no whitecaps or texture at all. I saw a Classic Harbor Line boat passing; it must have come through the railroad bridge not long after I had. The water was undulating in the rhythm of the wake, but not breaking; a simple wave of glass pulsing towards me.

In the light, it was both mesmerizing and hard to gauge the speed and strength. I tried surfing a bit, but I felt hypnotized; I could not get a handle on the speed and direction of the waves. Eventually they passed, but it was a deeply weird experience.

Shortly, I landed, unloaded and cleaned up. I’d been out about four hours, and it was wonderful. In years past I’d be paddling in snow by this time of year; surely that awaits.

Published in Inwood Canoe Club Kayaking


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