Paddlers and kayakers enjoy a sunny day on the Bronx River. (James F. Lee/For The Washington Post)

Our canoes startled a great blue heron standing along the bank of the river. Awkwardly, the giant bird flapped its wings, struggling to gain height, until it reached cruising altitude and majestically soared over the treetops and out of view. An awesome sight — all the more so because it was in the Bronx.

With hundreds of acres of parkland, including the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo, the Bronx is New York’s greenest borough. And a river runs through it — the Bronx River, a 23-mile freshwater stream that starts in Westchester County, meanders through the city for about eight miles, then empties into the East River.

My wife, Carol, and I were among 20 paddlers participating in a canoe and kayak trip sponsored by the Bronx River Alliance. We gathered at the Shoelace Park Boat Launch, a short walk from the 219th Street subway station, on a gorgeously clear and cool Saturday morning in May. In our group were people from nearby Westchester and from as far away as Italy. Leading us were Josue Garcia, 26, a recreation specialist, and Elizabeth (Alex) Severino, 25, an education intern for the Alliance.

Two paddlers on the Bronx River, with their bicycles in tow. The Bronx River Alliance offers canoe and kayak runs on the eight-mile waterway that has been the focus of a major cleanup after years of neglect. (James F. Lee/for The Washington Post)

Alex and Josue instructed us on paddling techniques and proper use of life vests, explaining that we would paddle downriver about four miles to the Mitsubishi River Walk near the entrance of the Bronx Zoo, an easy two-hour trip. Then we put our canoes and kayaks — supplied as part of the tour — into the murky waters and got on our way. Alex’s canoe took the lead, while Josue stayed in the rear of our flotilla as the sweep.

The tree-lined, slowly flowing river meandered a lot at the beginning as it passed through the neighborhoods along Bronx Boulevard, to our left. At one sharp bend, I misjudged the turn and ran the canoe aground. Carol and I pushed off with our paddles with all our might, and we managed to get going again.

Soon the roar of traffic from the Bronx River Parkway on our right gave way to the calls of red-winged blackbirds, cardinals and blue jays. We were leaving the built-up area in our wake and heading into the New York Botanical Garden.

Like many rivers in American cities, the Bronx River was neglected and used as little more than a trash dump. By the end of the 19th century it was heavily polluted from industrial waste. Since 2001 the Bronx River Alliance, working closely with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and other groups, has educated thousands about the value of the river, planted trees along the banks, provided outdoor classrooms for local students and cleared the river of tons of debris and waste. Mussels and oysters have been introduced into the stream to help filter out pollution, and just this year a fish ladder was opened at 180th Street that will allow herring to migrate up the river for the first time in decades. Even eels have made a comeback in the river.

The Alliance offers trips on the Bronx portion of the river from May to early November, including an upper river run (which is what we were on); an estuary paddle along the lower, more industrial portion of the river; and a full-river run of about eight miles.

The upper river run requires one portage inside the botanical garden. Alex explained that we would have to exit the river on the left bank and portage around a waterfall. Each canoe was equipped with a set of attachable wheels. It took teamwork, but we got wheels on all of the canoes and pushed them like wheelbarrows around the falls.

Portaging is a lot easier with wheels attached to the bottoms of the canoes. (James F. Lee/for The Washington Post)

After the portage, we found ourselves in one of the more remote-seeming parts of the river. The silence of the forest surrounded us, interrupted only by water lapping the shore, gurgling over rocks, and by the call of blue jays.

“The silence was the best,” said Giulia Paravicini, 27, a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Her father, Luca Paravicini, 60, of Milan, who was in New York to watch her graduate, said the biggest surprise was that “you could do such a thing in New York City. If I send a picture to a friend in France and say I am in New York, no one would believe it.”

The river widens considerably as it flows beside the Bronx Zoo. We saw Canada geese, that blue heron and lots of songbirds. Alex told us to be on the lookout for two beavers that live in these waters, but they were too shy to show themselves.

At this point, our canoe trip ended, and one by one we beached on the bank. Last ashore was Aziza Kaisarbekova, who turned 24 that day.

After an impromptu “Happy Birthday,” we went our separate ways, our morning on the river over.

I asked Alex how she got involved with the river. She said her first introduction was as a member of Rocking the Boat, an after-school program that teaches sailing, canoeing and swimming to kids in the city, giving them an appreciation of waterways in their midst. She said they even built their own boat. She has been with the Alliance for about two years.

“The best part is I get to educate people about a place near their home that they never knew. They get a sense of ownership, and the river gets another parent. So I know that the river is loved,” Alex said.

The river got 20 new parents that day.

Lee is a freelance writer living in Virginia Beach.

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The Met, they’re not: The oddest museums in New York City

At the Urban Cowboy B&B, a tumbleweed blows in Brooklyn

If you go
Where to stay

We stayed in the Upper West Side, so the hotels and restaurants listed here are in that part of New York City. To reach Shoelace Park in the Bronx, take the No. 2 train to 219th Street.

Hotel Excelsior

45 W. 81st St., Manhattan


European-style hotel in a landmark building across the street from the Natural History Museum. Closest stop on No. 2 line is 72nd Street. Rooms from $215.

Days Inn Hotel New York City-Broadway

215 W. 94th St., Manhattan


Just around the corner from the No. 2 train. Rooms from $175.

Where to eat


359 Columbus Ave., Manhattan


Mediterranean cuisine in popular neighborhood establishment across the street from American Museum of Natural History. Sidewalk dining in nice weather. Very busy; reservations recommended. Entrees from $17.

Indian Tanpura

564 Amsterdam Ave., Manhattan


Only eight tables in this tiny restaurant catering to a neighborhood crowd; very popular for takeout with local people. Friendly staff. Entrees from $9.95.

Amsterdam Ale House NYC

340 Amsterdam Ave. No. 1, Manhattan


A boisterous bar and restaurant with 31 draft beers to choose from. Lovely woodwork, Tiffany windows and tin ceiling. Pub fare. Entrees and burgers from $12.95; sandwiches from $10.95.

What to do

Bronx River Alliance

1 Bronx River Pkwy.


The Bronx River Alliance offers canoe and kayak outings on the Bronx River most weekends from May through early November. The upper river run goes from the Shoelace Park Boat Launch to the Bronx Zoo, about four miles. The estuary starts at Concrete Plant Park and covers the last four miles of the river to its mouth. Occasionally, a full-river (eight-mile) run in the Bronx is offered. All of these runs cost $30 per person; the Alliance provides canoes or kayaks and life vests. Check the Web site for dates. Note that spaces fill fast.


— J.L.