The Hudson River has always seemed like a trench filled with water, its bottom a Stygian tangle of sunken boats and discarded equipment, its water an over-steeped tea somehow brewed from the lives of 8 million people. By the same token, Manhattan seemed less an island than a moored raft covered with concrete, asphalt, steel and well-tended plants.
So when I eased myself into a kayak one day this summer to start a paddle around Manhattan Island, I was surprised to see a little beach nearby. Water came up from depths onto a patch of sand, with weeds just beyond. It was the geological past sticking its nose out from under 400 years of human occupation.
Circumnavigating New York City’s core by water combines nature’s forces with man’s work in a way that’s as dramatic as any place in America. It’s also a trip strangely poignant and evocative, even for someone with no New York roots or even much knowledge of the city’s history. And the funny thing is, it’s not even that hard.
Each year, the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club sponsors the “Manhattan Circ” — a trip around Manhattan Island in kayaks. This year, 158 people from 12 states and two foreign countries (Canada and Spain) did it. One-third were women; only one person dropped out.
To participate, you have to apply, attest to your skills, be accepted and pay $80. Of course, the logistics are considerable if you’re an out-of-towner, what with getting a kayak into the country’s most densely populated place and finding somewhere to stay. But it’s worth it.
The overcast sky hid the tops of the George Washington Bridge’s towers. We paused briefly just above the bridge and then proceeded under it. A rumbling filled the air and disappeared. White, balloon-shaped buoys — presumably for transient yachts — strained against their mooring chains, the dark water pillowing over them. They were the first of several not-so-obvious obstructions we encountered that could easily have flipped a boat. (Thankfully, none did).
On my deck I had an old National Geographic map of Manhattan that I’d cut up and had laminated and spiral bound. It helped me get a rough idea of where we were as we hurried down the West Side on an eight-knot express. I spotted Grant’s Tomb, the Riverside Church and, later, the Empire State Building peeking out from the island’s interior. As the haze cleared, the morning sun silhouetted rooftop water tanks, making them look like little party hats. In the afternoon on the East River, I recognized the United Nations headquarters, which in my 1960s childhood was second only to the Statue of Liberty in recognizable New York landmarks. (Such a hopeful time!)
Despite being surrounded by it (and partly because of that fact), water has always been a problem for Manhattan. New York City residents consume 1.3 billion gallons of clean water a day (imported from far north of the city), and dispose of 1.4 million gallons of liquid waste. The water was once notoriously polluted, and by a century ago had wiped out commercial fisheries of shad, clams and oysters while spreading cholera, typhoid fever and other fecal-oral illnesses.
Things are better now. Thousands of people swam in the Hudson the day after the Circ as part of the New York City Triathlon. The Billion Oyster Project is engaging schools (among other groups) to restore New York’s oyster grounds. There were 220,000 acres when Henry Hudson navigated the waters in 1609; the project so far has restored a little more than one acre and planted 22 million oysters. Heavy rains occasionally overwhelm the wastewater treatment capacity, spilling coliform-laden water into the rivers. We got occasional whiffs of sulfurous sewer gas on our passage.
Was everything I’d seen a disturbed landscape? Yes, except for one.
The rivers the Circ followed were pretty much where they’d been in 1600. The currents and tides were the same (and so, undoubtedly, were some of the water molecules). Flowing water was the changeless New York City, and I’d been looking at it all day.