Small Boat, Big City: Kayaking New York Harbor

Pushing off from the dock, our Amaruk moves slowly at first, like a clownishly scaled-down version of the ocean-going ships that used to sail from here. When Bill barks at me from his seat directly behind, I realize our slow progress is because I’m drenching him with river water instead of digging in with my blades as I dip each down and backward.

I can see this is not the Hudson that I knew as a kid — a swirling mass of yellow bubbles, empty boxes of Cracker Jacks, and bobbing bottles and cans. I don’t see any fish, but according to Stiller, shad and striped bass started coming back after the Federal Clean Water Act of 1976, and someone he knows is trying to grow oysters by hanging a net off one of the Manhattan piers.

As we bounce around, trying to get used to the chop, I am staring into the haze to see if I can get a look at our famous destination. “There she is!,” shouts Fusco, who is leading the flotilla. When I follow his finger, I can just make out a sculptural smudge in the direction of Jersey City.

Fusco herds us expertly, like seagoing broncos, and we buck and wobble south past Manhattan’s Chelsea Pier. Five avenues east into Manhattan, I find the turreted brick building where I grew up. Once, when I left the city aboard a ship, my mom waved goodbye by flapping a red-white-and-blue sweater from up there.

Fusco is yelling orders all of a sudden, and we turn to see a Circle Line ferry bearing down hard to starboard. We’ve got the right of way, but sometimes boats can’t see kayaks and we paddle furiously toward shore. It misses us, but we get the wake, full blast, and as I’m shaking water off my sunglasses, and out of my ears, my friends, John and Adam, are laughing in their kayaks just behind.

We’re at the place where we will have to power across the busy Hudson to New Jersey, and I am impressed to find that my partner, Bill, is ready. “Fifteen strips of bacon,” he keeps saying, referring, I guess, to breakfast, and the bacon must be working since we are moving fast.

Fusco instructs us to aim for Jersey’s Lackawanna Ferry Terminal, but we can barely see the thing, and now we are keenly concerned with other boats. Fighting the current, our kayaks snake between garbage barges, tugboats, sailboats, cigarette boats, another Circle Line, and, looming out of the smog, a ghost-pale cruise ship: the Nordic Empress.

Making it to the Jersey side of the river gives us a sense of accomplishment and since we’re out of the two-lane nautical highway, we take a break. Our CVS cameras come out for snapshots of the Manhattan skyline just across the water. There is the Woolworth Building. Here is City Hall. And right at the tip, near Battery Park, the Staten Island Ferry steaming for port.

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