Bronx River

Canoeing the Bronx River is sheer metro adventure

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Toxic? Maybe. Wild? You Bet.

“We’ve got the wind at our backs, but the sea is angry,” says my melodramatic guide, Paul Lipson. The sea is not really angry—besides, we’re on a river—nor is it windy, but the day sure is something else: 65 degrees, high clouds, a rising barometer that would make a fat weatherman jollier still, the riverbanks verdant, the sky blue. We glide downstream, our canoe skimming along the placid water past willows, box elders, birches, oaks, mulberries, silver maples, rosebushes, spotted jewelweed, and arrowheads so thick that you can see why this is a hot spot for Lyme disease and encephalitis. Now we watch ducks, seagulls, sandpipers, graceful black cormorants, and ungainly, spindly-legged plovers. Herons and egrets also turn up; there are families of fiddler crabs colonizing the muddy banks. Though he paddles this waterway often, Paul, a stocky amateur naturalist of 35, acts like he has never seen such beauty. “My God, look at all this!” he exclaims, soaking it all in, breathing deeply as if he were in the Canadian Rockies. “This is undiscovered treasure. Look. Wow!” But we’re not in Banff, we’re in the Bronx. And at the moment it stinks to high heaven.

We’re here to canoe the southernmost stretch of the Bronx River in all its ecological wonder and industrial despair. The river’s source is Davis Brook in Westchester County, just north of White Plains. From there, it winds down through grassy expanses for 15 miles and then flows for eight miles through the middle of the Bronx before emptying into the upper East River. To be plopped in the river’s midst, in a canoe, on a spectacular day, is tranquilizing. This despite the bobbing tires, the submerged cars, gutted and smashed, and the potent smells.

Paul, my other guide, Majora Carter, and I drove, canoe strapped to the roof, from Garrison Avenue, deep in the South Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood, to the put-in spot on the river’s west bank. Majora, an athletic woman of 33, is a part-time canoeist and, like Paul, a full-time employee of The Point Community Development Corporation, one of three groups in the South Bronx dedicated to the economic and environmental revitalization of the area. “We want to showcase the river’s miraculous return from the dead,” Paul tells me. The groups have been slowly gaining success. And last fall, the City of New York announced plans to pour $60 million into a ten-year effort to restore the Bronx River. By February, cranes had hauled many of the junked cars out of the river’s southernmost reaches, and meetings are currently being held to reduce the number of sewage outfalls upstream. (The money will also eventually pay for hiking and cycling trails along the banks and throughout the borough.) The restored river, it is hoped, will be the centerpiece of a Bronx renaissance. It will flow proudly and freely past the original homes of White Castle and Colin Powell, Cynthia Ozick and Grandmaster Flash, Don DeLillo and Yankee Stadium.

With private funds, The Point, now in its eighth year, has created access to the river about two miles north of its mouth. But not without considerable effort: It first had to change the designation of a city street, Lafayette Avenue, to the Hunts Point Riverside Park and then engage in a lot of heavy lifting—literally—to convert the road’s dead end from a dumping ground to a put-in. The nearby half-submerged wreck of a Chrysler minivan serves as a reminder of the past.

To share its love for Bronx River ecology, The Point launched 12 canoe trips from this space last year, which it proudly calls “our park.” The park runs for a sixty yards along the southwestern bank. It’s really just a clearing, but it’s a start, a portal to the river where, impossibly, tragically, none existed before.

Subway to Swell
Surfing Rockaway’s 88th Street wave

Shoddy umbrellas and whipping winds drive most New Yorkers indoors during stormy weather. But an enlightened few have developed a more daring response: They call Tom Sena at the Rockaway Beach Surf Shop (718-474-9345) to check on the waves—and when the surf’s up they head for the beach. Stretching over the last ten stops on the Brooklyn A train line, Rockaway’s astroturf “lawns” and hivelike apartment buildings belie its 7.5-mile beach and bona fide surfable Atlantic swell—the only decent break accessible by subway. And during hurricane season, from August to November, the swell swells—up to ten feet, according to Sena. The legal break is at the 88th Street jetties, where you’ll get a fine glimpse of the Twin Towers while waiting for a good set. A good board, however, is harder to come by. Renting isn’t an option, but Sena will sell you a used one for about a hundred bucks. —JILL DAVIS

Jersey Whirl
Pedaling the Palisades

There’s cabbie-free cycling within spitting distance of Manhattan. To get to it, ride north along the Hudson River Drive bike path and loop up onto the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge at 178th Street, where you’ll be treated to one of the wildest views in all of New York City: a long, blurry smudge of woods and rocks that rise 500 feet from the banks of the Hudson like a mirage of wilderness. Happily, the Palisades are real—preserved by the 144-square-mile Palisades Interstate Park—and five minutes past the bridge you can be screaming through the leafy expanse. Exit onto Hudson Terrace and pedal a half mile south to the park entrance and the start of the Henry Hudson Drive. Usually quiet, the Henry Hudson is a two-lane road that dips and climbs for seven miles along the river, underneath a canopy of oaks and maples so thick it makes midday feel like dusk. For more information, call the park headquarters at 201-768-1360. Bike rentals are available for $25 a day at TOGA Bike Shop (212-799-9625) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. —KATIE ARNOLD

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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.