|We slide our canoe, a lightweight old Town Crosslink 3, through a patch of sludge and into the water. The plan is this: paddle down to the mouth of the river, circle back up, and continue upstream until we get tired. From the start we pass the remains of cars, tires, and other urban flotsam. Gradually the view opens up: We can see Riker's Island; Hell Gate, a watery maelstrom created by the confluence of the East River and Long Island Sound, is just over yonder; and planes landing and taking off from the shortest big-airport runways in the country at La Guardia fly overhead. Approaching the mouth we come across two fishermen, Jose and another guy who won't reveal his name. Jose tells us he gets sea robins and striped bass, and holds up a footlong fish for a picture that nobody takes. Whatever he catches, we hope he doesn't eat it. The unofficial word here is catch-and-release, and fast—the fish are still quite toxic.
We circle upriver, past snapping turtles and nightwings and our put-in, and find ourselves hemmed in by the abandoned Loral plant (where parts of Patriot missiles were manufactured in the 1980s), a cement yard (Paul and Majora know the guys who work there and wave, "Yo, 'sup?"), and mountains of scrap metal that are strangely beautiful in their ugliness. It's the river as symbol of life and death, the Bronx being emphatically full of both.
Under the thunderous Hunts Point drawbridge, we get stuck. Not on submerged refuse or in sludge, but in an unruly current. We paddle, but we don't move. We're going sideways, backward. The sun is setting; no one's around. Paul stops scanning the banks for signs of wildlife and paddles with a will. Majora too. Then something—a benign wind from up Gun Hill Road, perhaps—pushes us softly home, to "our park" and the clearing that will be the start of something.
There, standing on the shore, a ponytailed Hispanic man named Eddie and his five children are taking turns skipping rocks. Eddie starts telling us what the area was like ten and 15 years ago. "They'd shoot you dead for no reason, man, for nothing," he says. "I could tell you stories. You could write a book." Eddie, who lives in a nearby housing project, now brings his kids here all the time. To play.
Give Me Liberty, in a Sea Kayak
Dodging tankers, ferries, and the occasional Circle Liner on the Hudson
Bobbing in an 18-foot seakayak off a pier in downtown Manhattan is stomach-churning exhilaration—one of those rare occasions when seasickness feels good. There you are, on the edge of the Hudson River's shipping lanes, a speck of neon plastic amidst a flotilla of steel tankers, Circle Line cruisers, speedboats, and ferries. You swoop over five-foot swells, the Manhattan skyline rising and falling with every crest and trough. Whether you're paddling north up the Hudson on a 90-minute shoreline cruise, or out into the choppy chaos of New York Harbor for a four-hour circumnavigation of the Statue of Liberty, you'll want to go with a guide—at least until you've mastered the wily currents and boat traffic. Manhattan Kayak Company leads both voyages ($45 and $75, respectively; 212-924-1788), as well as instructional clinics from Pier 63 at 23rd Street and the Hudson. —K.A.
Put In at the Dead End
And don't forget to lock up before you push off
Paddling the bronx remains a novel endeavor—no place in the borough rents canoes or kayaks for solo excursions, and only two community-group "outfitters" lead trips. If you're intent on going it alone, you'll have to bring your own boat. Regardless, since the southern reaches of the Bronx River are tidal, whether you head upstream to experience more pastoral scenes or downstream to ogle the urban dilapidation will depend on water levels and the moon's gravitational pull.
Tours: The Point Community Development Corporation (718-542-4139) conducts free three-hour canoe trips on the Bronx River from late spring through early fall, when the weather (and the water) is warmest. Another option, also gratis, is New York City's Bronx Urban Park Rangers (718-430-1832), who lead weekend canoe excursions once a month. Trips to fiddler crab colonies at feeding time are popular, and the rangers can identify most plants and waterbirds (in addition to defunct factories and rusting-car species).
Getting There: To get to Riverside Park via subway, take the number six train to Hunts Point Avenue, head four blocks south, and then make a left on Lafayette Avenue. The park is at the bottom of the hill, on the river's west bank. The Point has been planning to build a public boathouse at Riverside Park, with an eye toward expanding its touring program, but at press time there was still a lot of preliminary money-raising and bureaucratic finagling to be done.
On Your Own: Should you happen to be schlepping your own canoe or kayak, take it to Riverside Park, where you can put in and take out with no need for a shuttle. Check on the tides to make sure you're paddling against the flow on your way out and with it on your return. Southbound paddlers should turn around at the river's mouth, head up to the Hunts Point Drawbridge (that's the Bruckner Expressway rumbling overhead) and all the way to the elevated section of the number six train, which looks like it's going to topple into the river. Beyond that, you'll hit a snag in the form of a garbage catch; persevere to the small waterfall and then turn around. —M.A.