Our evenly divided crew of a dozen volunteers and a dozen new friends launched at 10PM Saturday from Hunters Point, LIC into darkness that was quickly riven by the dazzling Manhattan skyline and reflection on the East River. Cheerful hollers boosted us from COFFEED LIC Landing, Hunters Point South Park, and Gantry Plaza State Park.
The sky’s inkiness was soon diluted by the Blue Moon as it vaulted higher. We continued for ten hours and thirty miles into a brilliant Sunday morning.
Our crew performed beautifully and conditions were placid, punctuated by a few fun wakes. Most of us used HarborLAB’s core public fleet of bright green Ocean Kayak Malibu 2 XL tandems, with four solo guideboats. A passing sightseeing boat sent breakers into us as we crossed to Manhattan from Roosevelt Island’s northern stake, Blackwell Lighthouse. We replied with hoots and hollers that bounced through Hell Gate. The Circle Line captain kindly relayed our presence to others due to pass through, far beyond the range of our handheld radios.
The hardest work, as always, was muscling through the slack at the eastern end of the Harlem River, but by the time we passed Yankee Stadium the current was sweeping us along. Crackling voices over our marine radios subsided as the chatter of our own bonhomie rose. Shouts of greeting poured over the bulkheads of East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Inwood. Fireworks burst and sparkled over us as we approached the newly restored High Bridge. The bridge’s illumination rippled milky white down the Harlem River’s aisle like a bridal train in ribbons. Shortly after we took a rest at the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse dock. From there, we saw Mannahatta rise before us “Forever Wild” and alive at Inwood Hill Park forest, which was never felled. The other bank was the 1.1-billion-year old Nipnichsen (“two waters” is one translation) Fordham Gneiss rock face, where sometimes you can see Bronx youth test their courage by cliff diving.
The Harlem River empties into the Hudson River at a sharp perpendicular. The expansiveness of the Hudson River stretching away from each paddle blade always startles. Some paddlers gasped to emerge from the snugness of the Harlem River strait at Spuyten Duyvil into the mainstem of the estuary. The Palisades’ 200-million years-stilled lava was a black wall a half mile before us, while we barely spied upriver the vague humps of the Hudson Valley’s old, worn ranges. Or did we conjure them from memory? One long squiggle of a cloud looked like a comet as it caught the moonlight above the river. Downriver our distant skyline still coolly blazed, with the spires above Times Square changing colors.
Before 4AM we landed at the 79th Street Boat Basin. We radioed ahead to the dockmaster on duty, who is an exceedingly gracious and helpful young man. He makes our visits every year easier and more pleasant. After a pit stop for the necessaries, our group scaled the hills overlooking Riverside Park to eat at a welcoming 24-hour pizzeria and deli. In a truly New York chance encounter, a pitchman for PickleAde (a pickle juice solution for muscle cramps) loved our cause and spirit of adventure. The pickle man distributed free samples of the briny elixir and HarborLAB operations chief EJ Lee guzzled them to sluice down Oreo cookie-topped chocolate cake, igniting jesting rumors of pregnancy.
We tucked into the Manhattan Kayak Company paddling embayment next to the USS Intrepid after we safely scooted past the cruise ship terminals in midtown. We were glad that our plan to be gone before the brobdingnagian boats berthed worked out so well. We saw their procession from The Narrows, with the lead ship passing us near The Battery.
The sun gleamed off the World Trade Center in the first minutes of full daylight, washing our little armada in reflected vermeil light. The Battery’s bulkheads reflect all wakes and waves, but there were none to strike them that quiet morning. Only fishing lines and huffing joggers above. We glided on even after the ebb tide had faded, nudged out of the Hudson at last by downflow that started from Lake Tear in the Clouds. We coordinated rounding The Battery with friendly Governors Island and Staten Island Ferry captains by marine radio.
HarborLAB’s overnight circumnavigation of Manhattan for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Photo by Erik Baard.
We peered down Buttermilk Channel for tugs and barges and the Sea Streak ferry from Sandy Hook, NJ. Nothing was moving. No silhouettes of larger vessels eclipsed the sun glare up the East River either, even as spots. Scouting was much easier in the morning and along straighter passes than at the darkened bends of Hell Gate hours back, We crossed directly to Brooklyn from the Financial District heliport. Passing under the Brooklyn Bridge was breathtaking, and through its stitchwork of cables we last saw the last of the moon. The flood tidal currents were burgeoning, and swiftly dropped us at Dumbo Cove. Some hopped ashore for relief while most bobbed before the glass cube-encased carousel.
We were ahead of schedule and had earned some rest, so we drifted and chatted for much of our final leg. The Manhattan skyline was softly glowing in natural light, and seemed renewed. Brick buildings and stone bridge stanchions exuded warmth. Early risers greeted us from the new piers along the Williamsburg and Greenpoint reaches until we swung out past Greenpoint’s longest dilapidated pier. The shoreline then curled into the Newtown Creek and we were home.
Many thanks to all who participated and supported this wonderful event, and who helped us with the chore of stowing gear away after. The work was made light by laughter. Before long the crew dispersed to their beds across boroughs and states. One volunteer stayed behind to water our trees in blissful solitude.