Urban Canoe Tripping

If you think canoe adventures can only be had in the wilderness, this story will set you straight. Or may be you consider New York just another kind of wilderness. In any case, I think you will enjoy this tale! The PakCanoe used in the story is well traveled. A couple of years ago, the owner sent me a picture from a river trip in Sweden, and we recently shipped a spare part to Africa. And then there is New York:
I have a souvenir in my wallet from a canoe trip on April 25, 2005. It is a yellow square of water-resistant paper, stationery of the U.S. Coast Guard, with information regarding film from my camera. It is in fact “Seized Property Receipt No. 84098.” Every so often I look at the receipt and wonder if my slides are ever coming back. I keep meaning to pester the Coast Guard about them and call my co-conspirator Derek to see if he’s heard about his film. I called the Coast Guard the other day to check on my seized property. They took my number and said they’d look into it. Our conspiracy was to take a leisurely paddle upstream from the northern tip of Manhattan on the Harlem River towards Roosevelt Island, disembarking on the East River somewhere in Queens or Brooklyn.

Actually, it was the tide that conspired against us, as did the notion that it is apparently rare to see canoeists on New York’s Upper East Side. The canoe, a folding model manufactured by Pakboats, was no stranger to adventure, nor to police pursuit. My brother once paddled it the length of the Reflecting Pool in Washington – on his return to Washington’s monument from the Lincoln Memorial, a couple oflaw-enforcement types came tearing across the lawn to interrogate him. (“What are you doing!” “Canoeing…” “If this were legal, don’t you think you’d see a few more canoes out here?” “Well, it’s only two feet deep, and you can’t go anywhere…”)

Derek and I had our own exciting tales of minor run-ins with the law, but those are different stories. Derek is a friendly, church-going fellow who happens to look like a hippie with few qualms about irregular bathing or sleeping outside in public places. He’s one of the only people I’ve met, actually the only person, who’s taken a swim in the sparkling, industrial waters of the East River below the Williamsburg Bridge, which impressed me much.

We were nearing the end of our trip, paddling hard to get across the confluence of the Harlem River, the East River and Long Island Sound known as Hell’s Gate. The current, based on the tide, was finally starting to stall and preparing to switch directions in our favor. We were crossing the gate and ascending into Purgatory. But it’s a big expanse of wavy water, more familiar to barges and tour boats than to 16-foot canoes. Derek was in the front, shouting out a story about how last week he was on top of a building, watching the night and talking to a friend, only to be interrupted by policemen with flashlights, badgering them about what kind of no-good they were up to. I turned my head between strokes to check our progress and discovered we were being followed by a large boat. White with blue letters: NYPD.

Our trip started out with a bit of research, checking the tide tables, the weather, the launching sites. Before that, with some nostalgia – I moved to a big city with lots of water and no way to navigate it. Growing up, we went on canoe trips every year in northern Minnesota. Between my dad and my brother, there’s about a three-to-one ratio of canoes to people in our family. My brother came to visit in January and left me his portable canoe. You unroll it like a giant tent, but the skin is thicker. Aluminum poles piece together lengthwise and snap into cross-bracing ribs. You can check it on an airplane, or, if need be, take it on a New York subway.

On a wintery night a few months prior to our trip, I was in a Manhattan sporting goods store, reading an article in a kayaking magazine that extolled the pleasures of circumnavigating America’s most urban island. They did it in a day, counter-clockwise, timing the currents to go up the east side in the morning and ride down the powerful Hudson River in the afternoon. I figured the most interesting part would be the Harlem and East Rivers, which are narrow enough to make to feel like you’re really snaking through a city.

I met Derek at 14th Street and 8th Avenue; we rode the A train to 59th Street, switched to the 1 and took it up to 215th Street – last stop in Manhattan. No problems with our canoe, which still looked like a big duffle bag. (Derek thought we were going to haul around a fully assembled canoe, which he was prepared and excited to sneak onto the subway.) We carried our gear several blocks over to Inwood Hills Park, near the Henry Hudson Bridge and the Columbia University boathouse. It took us about half an hour to put the canoe together and launch it into the Harlem River, with a handful of senior citizens cheering us on and offering advice.

We had the better part of a day, and my deciphering of the tide table said we should start north and come back down (clockwise). In my mind, if we launched just after high tide, the Harlem River (between upper Manhattan – Harlem – and the Bronx) would be draining back to the sea, sweeping us along with it. I failed to realize that part of Long Island Sound’s path back to the sea is northbound via the Harlem River, dumping into the Hudson to come back south (counter-clockwise). When I realized our problem it was too late, and we were struggling south at about the same speed as the traffic stuck on I-87, which was directly on our left.

Closing our eyes to ignore the progress we weren’t making, we continued against the treadmill, at times grabbing hold of the riverbank to rest without being pulled backwards. We started counting milestones, like the George Washington Bridge (approximately 180th Street). We stopped once to investigate the sound of baying hounds – a conglomeration of shacks on the Bronx side of the river were indeed home to various hounds, in various modes of song. We poked around until we found a human, who was fixing a car. He said these were the grounds of a hunting and fishing club. We didn’t ask questions.

Back on the river, the bridges were coming, slow and steady. By the seventh one, maybe about noon, we passed Yankee Stadium (about 155th Street). Less than 70 blocks to Roosevelt Island! We could catch a subway there within easy portage of an improvised beach, so that began to be our destination. Meanwhile, we stopped for lunch under the Willis Avenue Bridge (about 130th Street). From what the police told us later, more than one observer called into 911 to report suspicious activity – suspicious people in a suspicious location, taking pictures of a bridge. In a canoe.

Was that why a police helicopter seemed to circle overhead? Does Derek have a magnetic attraction to New York’s finest? What did we photograph? The short story is that after another short break on Randall’s Island (between the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan), in the midst of our fierce paddle across Hell’s Gate, we were pulled over. They had a familiar set of questions, to the canoe at least: “What are you doing?”

I insisted that they allow us to cross over to Roosevelt Island before further questioning, lest we be sucked out into Long Island Sound. They conceded, but herded us east of the island and set us adrift while they researched our documents, which always seems to take forever when you’re drifting away from your destination in a small boat on a New York waterway. Finally, they lectured us on the dangers of canoeing in New York City and set us free, with tones of frustration that there was nothing illegal about doing what we were doing.

By this time the current had reversed, and Derek wanted to ride it in style, past the big buildings of midtown Manhattan. So we fought our way back to the top of Roosevelt Island and paddled over the tip to its western shores. The island is about a block wide and two miles long. Our subway stop was about halfway down it, which we were approaching when another boat started trailing us. The U.S. Coast Guard. They pulled alongside and initiated a friendly dialogue, cordially explaining how it’s illegal to land on the island – all of the shores of New York City are under security restrictions (no boats within 25 feet), except for official docks and boat-launching sites.

“Get away from the shore,” they kept saying. “But it’s too wavy in the middle,” we’d reply. It was getting dark. They offered us a ride to the 35th Street Marina, which we begrudgingly accepted. We climbed onto their boat and tied ours behind. It was a fairly pleasant cruise; under the 59th Street Bridge and past the United Nations building, but when we arrived at the marina, there were detectives waiting for us. Detectives, uniformed police, Coast Guard sailors, marina staff… It took a few more hours and a couple radio calls to the Coast Guard’s Eastern Seaboard headquarters (Boston) to determine that Derek and I were more or less harmless, but there could be sensitive information on our cameras.

“The good part,” they said, “is that we’ll develop your film and send you the pictures; save you a few bucks.” We rolled up our canoe and got a ride from the marina’s manager down to 14th Street, where I caught an L train – underneath the East River – back to my Brooklyn apartment.

On the morning of Feb. 1, 2006, my wife and I got two phone calls from New York. The first, at 3:45, was Grandma Iris, a friend of ours from Brooklyn who pays no heed to time zones (she just wanted to chat). Then, at 7:05 the U.S. Coast Guard called – they looked into my seized property and would send it at their first convenience: two rolls of film, undeveloped.

Paul Brohaugh

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