Fourteen Upstream Alliance representatives joined the 158 paddlers on July 15, 2017 for the annual 30 mile Manhattan Circumnavigation #ManhattanCirc2017. Our congratulations and thanks to the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club for sponsoring such a well-planned and safe circumnavigation. A big thanks to the members of the Inwood Canoe Club, which shared every inch of their venerable institution with a crew of outsiders—and for embracing us as friends.
Reflections from the Circumnavigation
The Manhattan Circumnavigation put an exclamation mark next to the Waterfront Alliance’s City of Water theme. There is no substitute for embracing a waterway than to experience it by being on it or in it. New York indeed is a city of water and by water. Now, thanks to the Waterfront Alliance, it is also a city for water.
Expeditions like this one create a visceral connection. You “own” the waterways by paddling and observing every inch. I am proud to say I now own the New York City waterways that previously were mere glimpses over guard rails. I’m even prouder knowing I own them with my new friends in New York.
I heart (symbol) New York’s remarkable waterways, its stalwart advocates for clean water, and our new comrades who connect people to them!
Groggy clouds muffle the Hudson River valley. They hang so low that their bellies scrape against the spires of the George Washington Bridge. Beneath the span congregate sixty garishly colored kayaks. The rumble of morning bridge traffic is mixed with bird song and the gargle of radio chatter between the boats. The group has assembled to circumnavigate the entirety of Manhattan Island.
In contrast to the urban and industrial features the group expects to see several miles downstream, near the put-in the river valley is steeply banked in verdant greenery. That’s not to say there are no signs of people; there is, for instance, an orange easy chair positioned in the shrubbery by an industrious fisherman.
The Hudson is many things—a vista, a sewer, a shipping highway, and also a rebounding habitat for oysters and sturgeon. The pod of kayakers slides along under the bridge, chatting excitedly as the Hudson’s ebbing current slithers seaward. We’ve come to see it all.
While crossing the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, I peered out of the van and looked down at the Hudson River. My only connection to the river was knowing about Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger heroically landing an airplane with 155 people on board there in 2009.
After circumnavigating Manhattan by kayak, I gained a whole new perspective and passion for the waterways around New York. Each paddle stroke around the island gave me an understanding of the land use, culture, history and importance of the area. This intimate adventure has gotten me to brainstorm ways to improve water quality, increase public access and increase conservation efforts on the waterways.
In less than 12 hours, I cultivated a love for New York waters. What if all New Yorkers had an experience like this?
My experience was a bit different from the circumnavigation paddlers. I had the opportunity to shadow Roland Lewis, President of the Waterfront Alliance, for the day. I received an insider’s tour of City of Water Day via a whirlwind Manhattan zodiac cruise. The sheer number of people, places and things to take in as we jetted from one City of Water neighborhood event to the next was overwhelming and unforgettable. I left with a sense of inspiration that we can bring a similar event to the Delaware River and continue to raise awareness of our regional life source.
For just over a year back in 2007-2008, I would go out on a monthly research survey cruise along the very same route we paddled, grabbing water quality samples every few miles with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s water quality monitoring program as part of the research for a master’s thesis on water pollution.
That data clearly showed the fingerprint of 8.5 million New Yorkers. But despite all those toilet flushes, the billions of dollars invested in advanced waste-water treatment technology—thanks to the federal Clean Water Act—were reaping huge returns in the reduction of pollution. Even with the significant problems that remain, it’s amazing to witness New York City’s refusal to abandon her waterways.
The Manhattan Circumnavigation reminds us of just how tied New Yorkers are to their rivers. From the active ferry terminals to the unexpected riverside clubbing scene of La Marina where we put in, the waterfront remains a destination, and a valued resource.
Let us learn from New York’s example and restore our waterways, return to our waterways, and celebrate our waterways.
Saturday’s paddle around Manhattan was a blast. The perfect timing of the tides by the coordinators allowed for a truly magical ride. We were jettisoned down the Hudson River, then slung around Battery Park and swooped up the East River before fighting through Hell Gate to get carried back up the Harlem River. Sure we paddled. But we had the tides on our side, too.
We got to paddle down smooth water and through chaotic eddies, alongside bustling piers and hustling ferries. It was completely thrilling. Apart from the maritime magic we experienced, we got to witness the energy of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. It was a great day spent celebrating our waterways.
Seeing New York is always fascinating for me because it offers a glimpse of a more heavily populated future. The city is an amazing example of human potential in art, business, and technology. Studying it from the water suggests how water quality in other parts of the country may respond to an ever-growing population.
Despite the beauty of the Hudson, the dramatic skyline, and the upwelling currents that carried us safely through Hell Gate, I couldn’t help thinking about the condition of the water. It was more green and gray than I expected; an occasional condom drifted by; and from time-to-time I noticed the sulfurous smell of mercaptans, a compound that accompanies even well-treated sewage. I knew that New York City’s water had substantially improved over the past 40 years, but I wondered if it and other heavily developed harbors could ever be substantially restored without retaining and using stormwater, which remains a major source of pollution.
It was a day to celebrate water in New York, and there were indeed thousands of people enjoying the wooded fringes along its rivers—cooking out, fishing, attending festivals, and strolling the waterfront trails. Still, there seemed to be only a small fraction of residents outside, given the number of apartments, condos, and townhouses we saw. It struck me that I had the privilege of time and money to play on the water and soak up its beauty. I was taken aback by the question of a gentleman in Queens who wondered if the beached kayaks at our lunch stop were for anyone to use. I cringed and said, “No, they are private.”
Manhattan Island has been above the water for tens of thousands of years, and yet hardly a square foot is undisturbed by man. And that’s not just true of what we can see. The underground is riven by tunnels, pipe trenches, conduits, and the roots of skyscrapers tying into bedrock.
So, when I rounded a turn at the northern end of the island in Spuyten Duyvil and saw a rock cliff on my left, I paddled over to it. It was shaded by vegetation growing out of its face, and trees and vines hanging down from its top. The air was laden with the smell of moss and mold. I thought to myself: This, at least, is unchanged. This is something the Dutch colonists might recognize.
But as I paddled on toward the turn into the Hudson River—New York City’s big water—it occurred to me I was wrong. Or at least partly wrong.
I’d been paddling all day on rivers that were pretty much where they’d been in 1600. The water was different from that which Lenape Indians, Dutch sailors, and English colonists had touched. But its location, flow, and feel were the same (and so, undoubtedly, were some of its water molecules). This was the permanent, changeless New York City. I’d been paddling on it all day.
As we rounded the battery and were buffeted by the effects of humanity and the consequential sensory overload, I mused what the paddle would have been like before New York City.