The Hudson River has always seemed like a trench filled with water, its bottom a Stygian tangle of sunken boats and discarded equipment, its water an over-steeped tea somehow brewed from the lives of 8 million people. By the same token, Manhattan seemed less an island than a moored raft covered with concrete, asphalt, steel and well-tended plants.
So when I eased myself into a kayak one day this summer to start a paddle around Manhattan Island, I was surprised to see a little beach nearby. Water came up from depths onto a patch of sand, with weeds just beyond. It was the geological past sticking its nose out from under 400 years of human occupation.
Circumnavigating New York City’s core by water combines nature’s forces with man’s work in a way that’s as dramatic as any place in America. It’s also a trip strangely poignant and evocative, even for someone with no New York roots or even much knowledge of the city’s history. And the funny thing is, it’s not even that hard.
Each year, the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club sponsors the “Manhattan Circ”— a trip around Manhattan Island in kayaks. This year, 158 people from 12 states and two foreign countries (Canada and Spain) did it. One-third were women; only one person dropped out.
To participate, you have to apply, attest to your skills, be accepted, and pay $80. Of course, the logistics are considerable if you’re an out-of-towner, what with getting a kayak into the country’s most densely populated place and finding somewhere to stay. But it’s worth it.
I went with a group of people affiliated with an Annapolis nonprofit organization called Upstream Alliance. The Inwood Canoe Club, on the Hudson in far northern Manhattan, kindly allowed us to store the boats overnight and launch from its docks. The Circ’s organizers had divided the fleet into three groups based on anticipated speed; two of the groups launched a few hundred yards from us at a public beach on Dyckman Street.
The Inwood is the only survivor of a string of boat clubs that once lined that part of the island’s shore. Founded in 1902, and the home of seven Olympic canoeists in the middle of the last century, it recalled an era when New York’s waterways were more recreational than they are today, and perhaps cleaner and less intimidating.
The day and hour of the Circ are chosen so that tidal flow will assist participants as much as possible. As we paddled into the eastern edge of the Hudson’s channel, it was immediately clear this would not be a trip for the inattentive. The flow was swift. The river was in full ebb, doubling our paddling speed toward the Battery, the southern tip of island, where we would catch the flood tide that would carry us up the East River.
The group I was in would, in theory, be the fastest of the three. A motor launch appeared on our right. It accompanied us the whole way around, keeping us from straying into the all-business middle of the channel, like a border collie herding a flock of aquatic sheep.
The overcast sky hid the tops of the George Washington Bridge’s towers. We paused briefly just above the bridge and then proceeded under it. A rumbling filled the air and disappeared. White, balloon-shaped buoys — presumably for transient yachts — strained against their mooring chains, the dark water pillowing over them. They were the first of several not-so-obvious obstructions we encountered that could easily have flipped a boat. (Thankfully, none did).
On my deck I had an old National Geographic map of Manhattan that I’d cut up and had laminated and spiral bound. It helped me get a rough idea of where we were as we hurried down the West Side on an eight-knot express. I spotted Grant’s Tomb, the Riverside Church, and later the Empire State Building peeking out from the island’s interior. As the haze cleared, the morning sun silhouetted rooftop water tanks, making them look like little party hats. In the afternoon on the East River, I recognized the United Nations headquarters, which in my 1960s childhood was second only to the Statue of Liberty in recognizable New York landmarks. (Such a hopeful time!)
Early on we passed a gigantic concrete structure with half-moon fenestrations lining its waterside front. I asked a fellow paddler what it was and he said it was a sewage plant. To be precise, it was the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which processes 125 million gallons of sewage a day and stretches from 145th Street to 137th Street.
Despite being surrounded by it (and partly because of that fact), water has always been a problem for Manhattan. New York City residents consume 1.3 billion gallons of clean water a day (imported from far north of the city), and dispose of 1.4 million gallons of liquid waste. The water was once notoriously polluted, and by a century ago had wiped out commercial fisheries of shad, clams and oysters while spreading cholera, typhoid fever and other fecal-oral illnesses.
Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker magazine’s famous chronicler of the city, started a 1951 article called “The Bottom of the Harbor” this way: “The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty, and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say that you could bottle it and sell it for poison.”
Things are better now. Thousands of people swam in the Hudson the day after the Circ as part of the New York City Triathlon. The Billion Oyster Project is engaging schools (among other groups) to restore New York’s oyster grounds. There were 220,000 acres when Henry Hudson navigated the waters in 1609; the project so far has restored a little more than one acre and planted 22 million oysters. Heavy rains occasionally overwhelm the wastewater treatment capacity, spilling coliform-laden water into the rivers. We got occasional whiffs of sulfurous sewer gas on our passage.
We stopped at Pier 40, at West and Houston streets, in Greenwich Village, where people looking for a bathroom could admire the watercraft in the Village Community Boathouse. It promotes the construction and rowing of dory-like boats of a century-old design called “Whitehall gigs”— one of many examples of how New Yorkers are again turning to the water for recreation.
We approached the Battery with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the distance to our right, and One World Trade Center on our left. The waterway here is New York’s aortic outflow — high-pressure, turbulent, essential. The Circ organizers arranged for us to cross it in 15-minute windows that would keep us safe from the gigantic, orange Staten Island ferry and its wake. By then, our group had caught up with the second-fastest one. We watched its paddlers cross as we milled around near a barge in a man-made cove — in this part of Manhattan, everything is man-made — waving to pedestrians on the waterside promenade.
Eventually, we got the signal to cross. This required hard, no-nonsense paddling. (I was chastised by one of our chaperons for pausing to take a picture.) At one point, we had to hold up unexpectedly to avoid a tour boat. As we headed into the East River, the water became a hectic mix of standing waves, wakes and clashing currents. Nobody appeared to be giving us much quarter. We were like mice crossing a crusty field of snow, hoping not to be picked off by predators.
Safe on the Brooklyn side, we caught our breath and headed up the East River under the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. We passed the blackened stubs of old dock pilings, shuddering in the current like loose teeth.
We paddled the length of Roosevelt Island and at its far end came ashore at a beach in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens. We tarried there until the tide became favorable. Because the beach would flood, we carried the boats — the entire fleet, as the three groups were now together — up the street to Socrates Sculpture Park, a four-acre outdoor museum built on an old landfill. There, an overworked food truck, a small farmers market and a performance of Bengali music and dance entertained us for nearly two hours.
We crossed to the Manhattan side of the river at the lower end of Hell Gate, the most notorious strait in New York’s harbor and the site of uncountable shipwrecks over the centuries. The water was slack; our timing was right. We paddled right over the spot off East 90th Street where the excursion steamer General Slocum, carrying 1,400 people — most of them recent German immigrants — caught fire on June 15, 1904. The death toll of at least 1,021 would not be exceeded in a single disaster in New York until 9/11.
At the north end of Randalls Island, we turned left into the Harlem River, where we were favored by the tidal quirk that makes the circumnavigation such a winning proposition. The tide pushes water that is already in the Harlem River northward, as well as pushing water that is not already in the Harlem River into it. One wouldn’t think it possible! But it happens twice a day.
(Here, it’s worth noting the distance around the island was 30 miles, which we covered in 6½ hours of paddling time. Our average speed was just under 5 mph and our maximum speed an astonishing 8.7 mph. An oceanographer in our group calculated we did the work of a 20-mile paddle at 3½ mph. In other words, one third of the distance we covered was entirely thanks to tide and river flow.)
While people came from many places to do the Circ — I paddled on and off with two guys from Los Angeles — there were enough from New York to provide a guided tour for the curious and sociable.
A paddler pointed out the garbage pier, the air vent for the Holland Tunnel and a row of Trump Organization-built apartment buildings recently stripped of their builder’s name. Another told me as we passed under the Queensboro Bridge that it was also known as the 59th Street Bridge. (“Are you feeling groovy yet?” he asked.) I learned about Marble Hill, the Manhattan neighborhood that is no longer on Manhattan Island, thanks to rerouting of the Harlem River at the northern end of the island in 1895.
I was instructed to note the Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City in Queens, a landmark that’s both pop-cultural and nostalgic-industrial. From my reading of the aforementioned Mitchell essay, I pointed out to a fellow circumnavigator that the eddies at the bend of the East River between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges is where corpses that go into the water in the winter frequently surface in the spring.
We paddled under more than a dozen bridges; Manhattan is an island, after all. The oldest is High Bridge, opened in 1848 to carry the Croton Aqueduct that supplied water to the city. Macombs Dam Bridge (1895), near Yankee Stadium, with its stone piers, pyramid-roofed shelter houses and steel camelback in the middle, is my new favorite.
As the Harlem River got narrower and more industrial, culminating in the ship channel of Spuyten Duyvil, I was amazed to see a rocky outcrop on my left, the very northern tip of the island. I paddled over. It was shaded by vegetation growing out of its face and vines hanging down from its top. The air was laden with the smell of moss and mold. I thought to myself: “This, at least, is unchanged. This is something the Lenape Indians and the Dutch colonists might recognize.” Then I thought about the blasting it took to make the ship channel. “Maybe not.”
Was everything I’d seen a disturbed landscape? Yes, except for one.
The rivers the Circ followed were pretty much where they’d been in 1600. The currents and tides were the same (and so, undoubtedly, were some of the water molecules). Flowing water was the changeless New York City, and I’d been looking at it all day.
Brown is a writer based in Baltimore.
Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club
19 Alexander St., Yonkers, New York
The next Manhattan Circumnavigation, determined by favorable tides, is tentatively set for Aug. 4, 2018. Application details will be available after April 1 at the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club website. Entry fee is $80.
Kayakers must paddle a decked sea kayak 14 feet or longer; be experienced in open water; be able to paddle 14 miles or more; paddle with a spray skirt; and attest they can perform a “wet exit” and an assisted rescue if they capsize. A limited number of rental kayaks are available. Overnight kayak storage is available for a fee.