Friday, February 18, 2005

The Joys of Paddling NYC

So as I was saying…

There’s good stuff about paddling in New York City – and then there’s stuff that just sucks.

I want to talk about the good stuff now. The political idiocy only makes sense if you are coming at it from the point of view that the North River (the old name for the Hudson as it passes Manhattan) has gone from being a horrible, dead, polluted waterway to being a much healthier, cleaner river, and it’s now a real live Valuable Recreational Resource. There’s a new park being built along it, there are going to be more boathouses, maybe marinas, “get-downs” where you can get closer to the river – city folks are realizing, after a long period of collective amnesia about the fact that we live on an Island, that our waterways really are something special.

Oh, yes, when I tell people that I paddle on the Hudson (and even swim some of the shorter races, 1 mile or less I’ll do), there are always comments about “wow, hope you’ve had your shots, ha ha” & whether my hair glows in the dark – but more and more, I get “Really? COOL!” from people who are aware of the healing the river’s been able to do since the Clean Water Act was enacted. I once found a chart showing pollution in the Hudson in parts per million in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s – wish I could find it for a link. PPM were indicated by the density of blue dots on a map of the river. The chart showing measurements taken in the 90’s showed a river with a sprinkling of dots. Denser in some areas, but almost totally white out in the middle. On the chart for the 70’s, the river was solid teal. Ugh. Now that was when you really did need to get some vaccinations if you happened to get in – and if you did find yourself in there, it was probably an accident.

Now? It’s so much better. As a paddling venue, it’s unique - it’s not for a beginner out on their own, but for a person with solid skills & local knowledge? It’s fantastic.

First off, there’s the obvious. The Hudson ends in New York Harbor! There are just a lot of neat things to see & goofy or fun or beautiful destinations to go to. I posted a while ago about a paddle where we started out going for lunch on a lightship in New Jersey – that was some classic New York Harbor paddling. We literally ended up drifting along past Ellis Island on the tail end of the ebb, debating about whether or not we should head on down around the Statue, analyzing what the tides were “supposed” to do according to the tide tables vs. what they were actually doing (tide tables give you a good baseline, there's all sorts of factors can change the reality & in the end, you go with reality, not what the book said), estimating paddling speeds, sunset time, etc. Think about it – “ehhh, whaddaya think, should we go on around the Statue of Liberty or just call it a day here at Ellis Island?” Really. In some ways we’re spoiled rotten. We did around & paddled back in to Pier 63 right as the sunset was setting the Empire State Building aglow. No. Really. How cool is that?

Aside from the obvious though - the thing that always amazes me about paddling the Hudson is the sheer abruptness with which you move from an environment completely shaped & dominated by humans to an environment where natural forces are completely in charge. There’s very little real nature in New York City – there is some true original forest up at the north end of Manhattan, but the primary green spaces in NYC are our parks. Central and Prospect Parks are of course stunning – and they LOOK natural - but they were entirely designed by Olmsted & Vaux. Someday I’m going to say more about The Gates – but one curious effect all that orange has is making you notice how incredibly well designed Central Park is to give an illusion of nature…that was a very strange & unusual thing to see.

But the Hudson – that’s real. The minute you leave the dock, you are answering directly to the forces of nature. Of course there are Coast Guard regs and rules of the road with which paddlers must comply just like everyone else (got a link to ‘em on my link list in fact) – but first & foremost, it’s the tides and the weather that tell you what you can and can’t do on any given day. The Hudson is an estuary, tidal up to Troy. The currents can run around 3 knots on a strong ebb. 3 knots is considered a good cruising speed for a touring kayaker. Aye, there's the rub. So Step 1 in NYC paddle trip planning around here is a perusal of the tide tables to see which direction the river is going to let you go that day. You could even say “which way the moon is going to let you go that day” without exaggerating – moon causes tides, which cause currents, which determine which way it’ll be best to paddle…see? Talk about being subject to the forces of nature!

We plan long trips to take advantage of the fact that the water in the river swaps directions 4 times a day on a reasonably predictable schedule – timed perfectly (like the trip I just talked about turned out to be – that was a great case of being flexible and changing our plans to suit the conditions which the river was presenting to us resulting in a better-than-expected day) that means – heh heh heh – that the river helps you out both ways. Nice, huh?

For shorter trips, we tend to go out against the current, getting a good ride home. That way you do most of the work when you’re fresh, while knowing that if anything goes wrong, the river is going to help you get back home. Sometimes when it’s really strong, I’ll give up on destinations & just do laps - get right out in the current where the force of the water feels like a giant hand pushing against my bow. It almost feels like the river is playing with you. It becomes an exercise in both stamina & technique, keeping the power on while trying to find & hold optimum boat-to-current angle. After 20 minutes of clawing and sidling and bashing and cajoling my way up to the ferry terminal at 34th street, I’ll turn around and be back at the start in a minute flat. Repeat until ready to fall over and/or eat a cheeseburger. I love doing that – you really feel just how much power that water has. Plus it makes a cheeseburger taste faaaabulous.

Anyways…the whole point of this was…the Hudson is amazing. I love it, as do a lot of people – even the people who drive me the battiest at various river-related meetings. I have seen plenty of water that’s far more beautiful (I grew up in Hawaii & it’s not fair to compare), but in the 7 years since my first kayak lesson, and 3 since I first started working on the schooner – spending all of that time out on the river has been a major factor in how happy I am with my life in New York City.

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