Sunday, September 9, 2007

Clear Waters in New York Harbor

Standing at the water’s edge, ready to launch my kayak, I looked at the mottled brown, black and grey stones beneath my feet. The cold water swirling over them had the crystal clarity you associate with the coast of Maine—even though I was standing by the East River in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The cleanup of the Hudson River and New York Harbor is one of the great environmental success stories of recent times. But to fully appreciate it, you have to get close enough to the water to see it, feel it and maybe even taste it. I did that today on a kayak trip on Upper New York Bay.

I’ve canoed and kayaked on the Hudson River for decades, but I’ve done very little paddling on the Bay. Despite a long-standing desire to paddle to the Statue of Liberty, the frantic ferry and outboard traffic around the Battery that I once met circumnavigating Manhattan by canoe made me wary.

But when a Brooklyn sea kayaker of 18 years’ experience, Tanny Sasson, proposed the trip, I grabbed at the opportunity. It was already September, and I thought it might be the last trip of the fading summer.

We put in at Brooklyn Bridge Park on the East River, one of the new waterside parks with launching facilities that is part of the great growth of kayaking in New York City. Tanny paddled a Perception Shadow, while I borrowed his Aquaterra Sea Lion. We paddled north to the Manhattan Bridge, then turned around and headed back down the East River. Our goal: the Statue of Liberty.

Tanny explained that he finds the waters of the Bay more “interesting” than those of the Hudson. By that he meant that the combination of East River and Hudson River currents, shoals, islands, and winds make for paddling conditions more varied than you find on the Hudson. At first, I was skeptical: the three-foot swells that we met in the East River made me dubious about the prospect of bigger water in the middle of the bay. But Tanny said that up ahead the waters would be calmer. He was right, and we paddled on.

After passing Ellis, a Coast Guard boat approached to warn us of a powerboat race passing through 40 minutes. Forewarned, we paddled past the Statue of Liberty, and scooted back across to Governor’s Island. We then paddled north along Governor’s Island, rounded its tip, and then zipped down Buttermilk Channel, which runs between Governor’s and Brooklyn, to our takeout in Red Hook.

In about 2 ½ hours of paddling, we paddled three foot swells, two small whirlpools, smooth waters that coursed over shoals, choppy waters where the currents of the Hudson and East River meet, waves reflecting off the seawalls of Governor’s Island, and the fast water of the outgoing tide in Buttermilk Channel. It was indeed interesting.

We put out at the Louis J. Valentino, Jr. Park and Pier in Red Hook, named for a New York City firefighter who died searching for wounded comrades. The beach was a little murkier than at our put-in place, but the squeals of kids excited by fisherman reeling in bluefish snappers convinced me that I was still in good waters.

I’m not giving up the Hudson—I’m too in love with its hidden beaches, the views of the Palisades, and the sight of the George Washington Bridge in a setting sun at the end of a day of paddling. But I’ll be back on the Bay. The water is clean and interesting. And the old Brooklyn piers, witnesses to the history of seagoing New York, offer plenty of enticement for a return trip on another day.

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