Thursday, October 1, 2015

Camping in Gateway 2 of 3: Camping at Staten Island

Once on the island, we made camp and found things to do.

First of all there was the schlepping of the boats. The portage was at least a couple hundred yards, across the sand to a grassy path, then up a short hill and around a fence into what amounted to a paddock. This meant unloading the boats, making several trips for kit, and then trips moving the boats up. Then we pitched camp.

Once our tents were in place, we could put things away. This seems like a curious habit considering we were only staying for the night, but I have to say that for myself at least, putting things away is comforting, a running of the mental checklist, pitching what's not needed and knowing I've got all I came with.

After that we went for a walk.

Fort Wadsworth is a historic site, the western side of a fort system guarding the Narrows, which is the gap between Staten Island and Brooklyn, the southerly approach from the sea. It dates back to the Revolutionary War, when it was used primarily by the British, but for much of its history was a Federal military base, for infantry, for harbor mines, and presently as a US Coast Guard command.

The historic fort.

We walked up a long road that gained elevation behind the fort, at one point affording us tremendous views of the harbor.

Jersey City (left), New York City (right) 

Behind the fort itself is a steep slope full of weeds and other undergrowth. How does the military keep it clear?


The goats of Staten Island.

The goats are kept enclosed in an electric fence. They much on pretty much everything they can in the space, and had clearly left a swath of destruction moving from one side of the hill to another.

Back in camp, we visited with one of our camp neighbors, who owned an interesting car.

The Model A.

He was a retired sailor, and his family had bought him the model A. We're not clear how much was refurbished, how much to original spec, and so on, but it looked legit to us.

Lucky !
The talisman out the side was an old fox fur, not a giant rabbit foot. It was his good luck charm.

That night, we roared another campfire and had sausages for dinner and s'mores for dessert.

I kept my toes toasty!

Toasty Toes !

While our stay was short, it was pleasant. The facilities were cleaner and closer than at Jamaica Bay, though there were fewer spots to camp in. The firewood was free but limited in quantity - and after our walk some of our camp neighbors pointed out a man that they said had absconded with some of the bark off our logs!

There were some kids - an asian family across from us, and some young people next to them. We were certainly a novelty to these folks who, city dwellers, camped to get away from it all. For them it was enough to simply be living in a tent, in the woods, away from their neighborhoods.

Why did we go camping? Much the same reason. We could have paddled these distances separately, going home each nigh and coming back. But where's the fun in that? In kayak camping, you know you have everything you need, within limits, in your boat. Food, clothing, and shelter are there, along with paddling kit.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Camping in Gateway 1 of 3: Journey to Staten Island

This past Labor Day weekend I fulfilled a dream I've had for quite a while. Well, most of the dream. I kayak-camped with some friends in Gateway Recreation Area, a set of National Parks spread across the lower harbor of New York City.

There are three major pieces, each on Federal property that was, at various points in history, military in nature. On the easternmost point of Staten Island, just below the Verrazano Bridge, is Fort Wadsworth; in Jamaica Bay, at Bennet Field, is a set of runways that played host to the golden age of aviation before becoming a Naval Air Station; at Sandy Hook, a narrow spit pointing up into the harbor, is a former Coast Guard station, used in the distant past to defend the harbor, and during the Cold War as a missile defense station. Each site has campgrounds and facilities, with reasonable portages to the water.

My dream is to paddle there from my "home" boathouse in Inwood, Manhattan. However, that is a long trip (at least thirty miles to Jamaica Bay, twenty or so just to Staten Island), and it's difficult to find the right combination of time off, people who are capable, available, and fun to paddle with, not to mention cooperative weather. So we cheated: we cartopped our boats out to Bennet Field Saturday,  camped and paddled, then made the journey to Staten Island, where we camped and returned the next day.

My companions were EY, DR, and MM. EY and DY are mutual friends from the Appalachian Mountain Club, under whose umbrella I've taught out at Fire Island. Their experience is more on the whitewater side - EY is an amazing whitewater canoeist, and recently paddled the Colorado river in an expedition. MM is a new acquaintance, whom I met taking an instructor course this summer, and with whom I went to the Paddle for a Cure event; she's also an avid surfer (with boards) and knows the lower harbor pretty well.

We were really fortunate with the weather. The entire weekend was predicted to be sunny in the 80s F, with just a few clouds Sunday, and winds no more than 8 mph, except Monday when we had winds up to 10 with gusts to 20.

As with most of these trips, we ran a little late getting there, but were able to set up camp and go for a little trip on Jamaica Bay itself. Jamaica Bay is a large, shallow wetland, with a few channels running through it.

Day Marker, Jamaica Bay

Bennet Field is a surreal place. In the distance, we could make out lower Manhattan. After a lengthy drive along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and then down Flatbush Avenue, we entered the grounds past unmanned guard posts, then drove up long streets to the visitor's center, which was the original control center, a squat Art Deco building overlooking a giant parking lot. After checking in, we drove down a long taxiway to the campsites - Wiley Post A and B, which were no more than extended yards of grass and trees a two minute drive from the water.

Over cracked asphalt we could make out the Bay, Queens, Brooklyn, even Manhattan, and Coney Island. On the far side of the bay was JFK airport, its tower an easy landmark.

Paddling in Jamaica Bay

We paddled east from an old seaplane launch, past Ruffle Bar, along a channel until we turned north-ish to the Cross Bay Boulevard bridge, and then westward with the current, around Canarsie Pol and back to our destination. It was dusk when we got back, and two rushed ahead to start dinner. We had some roast chicken, salad, rice, and s'mores. EY and DR turned in early, having been up late for work the night before. MM and I walked out to a wide spot and tried to spot planets, stars, and constellations - all while the NYPD took off and landed their helicopters at their base nearby.

The next morning, we packed up everything: tents, pads, sleeping bags, cooking stoves, food, clothes - into our boats and launched off the beach by the seaplane launch. This would be our first full day at sea!

Heading out of Rockaway Inlet.

First Waypoint: Red Number 6.

I'd charted a course to take advantage of the current. One of the challenges is that the water is coming in to Jamaica Bay at a time when you need to leave to be in the right place for it to help carry in to the harbor. So, the first hour and a half was spent paddling against a small but growing amount of current, as we left the bay and headed out of Rockaway Inlet.

EY paddling past Sheepshead Bay.

Onwards we paddled, on a beautiful early September morning.

Along Coney Island.

 Little Odessa.

We took a short snack break before passing by Coney Island. All along the way we stayed out from the swim beaches, though occasionally we found an intrepid swimmer out near us. Generally we were able to find a lifeguard on a surfboard and go about 40 yards out farther. Private beaches, public beaches - we passed several.

All along the way, the Parachute Jump at Coney Island was our main landmark. This was a little nostalgic for me because when I first moved to NYC eighteen years ago, I lived on Ocean Parkway, much closer to Coney than to Manhattan, and in my first few summers it was easier to head to the beach than into the city. Quite a bit has changed, but the landmarks, for the most part, have not.

Luna Park.

Wonder Wheel.

We stopped for lunch shortly after passing the pier at Coney Island. This is not the pier I remember from when I lived here - this was modern, concrete and steel, not a rickety old wooden contraption. It was still filled with fishermen though.

By this point we were catching a little current carrying us westward - which meant that we were gaining ground while we ate. That was a welcome relief. The idea was, we would head to Norton Point, then turn north with the current, paddle up along Gravesend Bay, and look for a good time to cross the Ambrose Channel - the major shipping channel used by cruise ships, container ships, ferries, and barges.

Norton Point and Verazzano in sight.

Norton Point can be a bit bouncy, as the current makes a relatively sharp turn and the depth changes. We surfed through some fun little waves and began looking for markers - Norton Point Light, and some private yellow buoys in the bay.

Towards the north end of the bay we moved towards a yellow buoy and looked both waves. We also listened to channel 13 for announcements of outbound traffic. Nothing was on the horizon. There weren't any good markers to line up a transit, so I decided we would just head straight at Staten Island, knowing the current would carry us north about a quarter-mile.

"Ready, let's go!" We set out, moving steadily, until we were well westward of the nearest channel marker I could make, a green buoy about half a mile south of us. The water was shallow, and the incoming current was forming little baby surf waves.

Most of our group simply surfed right in. I decided to try, "landing in surf", backpaddling on the receding water to get momentum against the next wave coming in. This failed miserably. I was off-angle and got pushed in at a quarter, skidding in to the beach like a bad car racing movie. Better luck next time.

Once landed, one of our group walked to the registration office, which turned out to be over a mile away. Meantime, the rest of us unpacked, scoped out the campgrounds (which were only three hundred feet away), and used the facilities. Once MM came back, we moved our gear up, and later our boats. EY stowed hers on her truck - she had to do some work on Monday, so she'd staged her truck ahead of time.

Camp at Fort Wadsworth.

We were immediately south of the Verazzano Bridge, looking directly out over the Narrows to Brooklyn. This led to the surreal site above - the Norwegian Breakaway, a "cruise to nowhere", music blaring, en route to party at sea. Mind you this ship is three times the size of the Titanic, one of the ten largest cruise ships in service today, and the largest such ship to operate out of the Port of New York.

Right there, near camp. No big deal. Also crossing the waters we'd paddled just two hours earlier.

View of the Harbor.

Once we had the camp set up, we took a little walk to enjoy Fort Wadsworth. I'll give more detail in a separate post on the sights we saw, but suffice it to say, Fort Wadsworth has defended NYC for centuries, and has a lot of amazing history to it.

Also, goats. More about that later.

Tanker Entering.

Lower on the ground, we saw more large vessels entering and exiting the harbor.

Once EY left, the three of us were left to cook and share stories and enjoy the view. One curious outcome was that all three of us were paddling Valley boats. If you're a Valley fan, here's three boats in progressively smaller sizes: the Argonaut, An LV Avocet, and a Gemini SP.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Circumnavigation 2015

"It's on my bucket list," she said.

The client, L, was was born on Coney Island and now works in another city. She'd come back this particular weekend to do this specifically. The other client, P, was a member of our club, someone who'd had a few lessons and trips, but nothing like this.

We were going to circumnavigate Manhattan.

Leading into it, it wasn't clear we'd even run this trip. Only L was signed up until two days before, and there was a large group event run by a coalition of local clubs scheduled for the following weekend.

Well here we were. A full Sunday ahead of us.

I'd gotten in early to check weather and conditions - low wind, would be very hot later, tides - well, they weren't predicted to be any different than we'd already looked up. I worked out a plan with some options for takeouts, diversions, emergencies, depending on how we performed as a group.

When the clients arrived, we did a quick bit of introductions and pulled boats. "We're going to be together all day," I said. "Let's get to know each other." She worked in renewable energy. He was French, but had lived in NYC for fifteen years, and only recently came to sea kayaking.

I put them through a quick bit of paces and coaching before we left, and showed them a low brace, just in case something knocked them off the saddle. With that, we set off on our way.

Leaving Pier 40.

The first part of our journey was to leave Pier 40 and head south, counter-clockwise around the island. We had a little bit of current against us, but the East River was already flowing north. With this timing, we wouldn't have to wait long at Hell Gate to cross past its maw.

Waiting for a Statue Cruise to leave.

The next step was to round Battery, the southernmost tip of Manhattan. I remember on my first couple of circumnavs, this was the most frightening place - there are many large ferry boats of various liveries moving around, as well as commercial traffic rounding one way or the other. But you know what? Most of it is very simple.

The Statute cruises pull in and depart just east of Pier A. They take a while to load and unload. Watch them, and time your move when they've just left and just arrived. Granted we were early in the morning, but these ferries follow a predictable path. Also, on the radio, they're generally friendly and response. You can always ask the captain if he minds you moving past.

Paddling past a loading Statue Cruise.

As we paddled past the Statue Cruises, we were no longer being pushed up the Hudson, but pulled towards the East River. With no wind, and little traffic, conditions could not have been more ideal for our little band.

On around Battery, Clipper City in the background.

Smiles, everyone!
Not pictured: passing the Staten Island ferry and the Governors Island ferry. The former is large and orange, and very difficult to miss. It also leaves on a pretty regular schedule of five minutes after the top and bottom of the hour (as in, xx:05 and xx:35). So one, you can see it coming and going from far off, and two, if you arrive anywhere near the top or bottom of the hour, just wait. There's a nice little nook. Bide your time.

Governors is a little trickier because when in Whitehall station (Manhattan) it's occluded by the slip walls of the State Island ferry. You can take a peek, and radio if needed. You can also just keep your eye out earlier, and make sure you know where it's at.

In our case we saw its radio mast and bridge slipping out as we crossed the empty Staten Island ferry nest. We waited, she pulled out, and we went on our merry way, past the heliport at Wall Street, and then across to the eastern side of the East River.

Our first water break.

"How's the boat," I asked. I always ask clients that, no matter the trip or lesson. I've put P in a Tiderace Xcape and L in an Impex Force Cat.

"It's so stable," she said. They were both comfortable.

From the East River, Below Manhattan Bridge.

The blurry witch appeared on my camera, but the above shot and others came out OK. Here we're looking at lower Manhattan from the east, with the Brooklyn Bridge arcing in from the left, and One World Trade (aka the Freedom Tower, aka the World Trade Center) in the background.

Passing Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Shortly after, we passed the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, now used fora  variety of commercial purposes. This large vessel was the "Orient Delivery". I can't imagine a more apt name for a ship like that.

Approaching the Williamsburg Bridge.

We took another short break at the Williamsburg Bridge, where the river widens and straightens out a bit, and continued up, with a good amount of current with us.

Around this time a lone paddler came up behind us, paddling at a very fast pace. It was an acquaintance, T, who I know from Lake Sebago ad kayak polo. We exchanged hellos and he explained that he was catching up with some mates, so that was the extend of our conversation.

My radio has a built in GPS and according to it we were clocking 4.7-5.6 knots. To my speedier friends aware that the average paddler moves at 3 knots, let me remind you these were largely untrained beginners. We had a lot of current helping us out, though I kept them paddling.

Up the East River.

We did slow down as we approached Roosevelt Island. Shortly before, in Long Island City, we passed a ferry terminal and had an awkward bit of communication with one of the ferries. He was well out in the channel and not changing his heading as we approached the terminal, and with current, we were about to slide by it. In fact we were north of the terminal when this ferry turned directly at us and blew his horn - he seemed to want to glide in sideways to the terminal.

We moved to the side but really: signaling your intentions helps everyone.

Passing Midtown East - United Nations in background.

Passing Long Island City.

Passing the United Nations.

As we approached Roosevelt Island, we went up the eastern channel, between Roosevelt and Queens. In short order we spotted the Costco that presages Hallets Cove, and pulled in for a little break.

Here is where this circumnav plan varied from others. Crossing in front of Hell Gate is often something that requires waiting an hour or so, simply because trips run out of other locations in Manhattan usually get us here at a different time. The current that flows through Hell Gate is, on paper at least, never slower than two knots, and you have to paddle across that, in an extended ferry crossing.

In this case however, we were only about twenty minutes early, so we cooled off a bit before paddling over to the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, waited for a barge to pass, then paddled up and around Mill Rock.

We were right behind two other kayakers, out for more or less than same thing. We caught up with them a little further up, along the Randalls Island shore. It was T and his mates, having performed a pretty remarkable exit along the shore wall, as if it was a neatly-stacked set of rocks in Maine. We said hello again, but thins time we were taking off. I had something different in mind for these clients.

Little Hell Gate Park, Randalls Island.

There's a small wetland in the center of Randalls Island. It's what remains of a watery passage that used to separate Randalls Island and Wards Island, called Little Hell Gate - a smaller alternative to its larger and better-known cousin. In the twentieth century, a number of projects filled in the passage along the west side of the island, leaving only this little tidal wetland.

I've run trips from Inwood to Little Hell Gate with the club I belong to. On a circumnav, it's a bit out of the way, but with our schedule we were facing about .7 knots of currnet against us, and I thought an extended break was in order. We paddled into the marsh, and I played dumb, "how far back can we go", until we arrived at a little dirt ramp, from where we could get out, walk over to some newly-cleaned public restrooms, and top off our water bottles from a fountain.

Reviewing the Paddler's Box.

About an hour later,  we set off again, and made our way up the Harlem at a pretty good pace, until we arrived at Peter Sharp Boathouse - the halfway point, and where we'd stop for lunch.

The best part about this stop? Shade. My biggest concern on this trip was managing heat and hydration. Air temperature was in the nineties, with little wind. I made sure everyone drank up water, and stopped more frequently to let them cool off. An extended lunch break in the shade, at the halfway mark, was perfect.

Ready to go.
Here we ran into an acquaintance, H, who was setting out in his folding kayak for the 79th Street Boat Basin. I've run into him a couple of times before - he's someone who keeps his folding kayaking folded, in his apartment, heads out to a spot somewhere in the city, assembles it, and paddles it. We said our hellos and he waded into the water to launch.

Once we were rested up, and had again made use of facilities and refueled our bodies, we set out again, rounding the northern tip of Manhattan, under the 207th Street Bridge and then the Broadway Bridge. Then, something happened, which has never happened on a trip I've run.

One of the clients' mother waved to us from the shore in the park. We paddled over and said hello.

"I just ordered some chocolate chip pancakes," she said. "From the cafe over there." She pointed at Indian Road Cafe, a popular neighborhood joint. Heck I've gone to trivia nights there.

We explained that we'd just eaten, and in any case had to keep moving to stay with the current. We gave her an estimated time of completion and were on our way.

Surveying the Hudson, near Spuyten Duyvil.

We headed on out past Spuyten Duyvil, to gorgeous views of the Palisades, and then turned south, and out into the channel to catch as much current as we could get.

Looking south to the George Washington Bridge.

Another Water Break, Palisades in background.

The George Washington Bridge (and Little Red Lighthouse).

We moved on past the Little Red Lighthouse and the George Washington Bridge, and then on past Morningside Heights and Harlem, watching the skyline to our left change from parkland to apartment-land.

Harlem / Morningside Heights.

New Jersey to the right.

Out in the channel catching as much current as we can.

As we approached the mooring field to the north of the 79th Street Boat Basin, we moved inshore a bit because some tour boats were coming down the river behind us, and a barge was being pushed north - well out of the way, but traffic overall was about to get crowded. We took some pictures, and talked about the next two stages of our journey.

A brave man - taking his phone out of its case on the water!

She kept her phone in its case.

We stopped at the Intrepid. I considered going, but the next mile or so was going to be busy, since the next few piers were all working tour and taxi berths. Also, the Intrepid is kind of a nice place to take pictures. And I was thirsty. I wanted to take a nice gulp of water.

A brief stop at Pier 84 - and the Intrepid.

One thing that was kinda weird - so this pier is the home of another paddle shop, and there were several kayaks and paddleboards out. A small motorboat wandered in. I'm not sure what the rules are but I've never seen that happened, and in short order the dockworkers shooed him away. As far as I can tell they wanted to get close to the Intrepid for photos.

We set out, glided past the Circle Line docks, past the major water taxi dock, and then continued on the final leg of our voyage.

One World Trade in the distance.

I think I may be officially done counting how many circumnavigations I've completed. I think this is number five or six. In some ways, they aren't hard - many New York paddlers joke that it's the easiest thirty miles you'll ever do - but there are several stages, and each stage presents its own challenges.

There are the usual concerns like wind and weather, as well as group shepherding and incident management, but there's also the boat traffic, places to take out in emergency, and the duration - it's a lot of time in the boat. So, it's not a trip I would take for granted, or do "in my sleep." All the trips I've been on went well, with only one requiring that we put someone out, near the end. A lot of things can go wrong, and avoiding those things is paramount.

Home again to Pier 40 !

This was a trip I ran as a guide for New York Kayak Company. Located at Pier 40 in Manhattan, essentially Houston street and the Hudson River. Pier 40 offers very close access to the waters around lower Manhattan, putting Liberty, Staten Island, and even Sandy Hook in reach of the experienced paddler.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Paddle for a Cure

About two weeks ago I took part in the fifth annual Paddle For A Cure event, a paddle-themed fundraiser for a local cancer patient service. I did it a few years ago, and have been meaning to go back since.

The event takes place up the Hudson River from NYC. The location has varied a bit; this year it was from Newburgh down to Cold Spring.

My new friend Mary Mautner gave me and my boat a ride. We drove up the night before and stayed in a hotel (air conditioning . . .ahhhhhhh) and got there plenty early. Here we are with our boats (mine is red, hers is purple, both are Valley, hence we were, "Valley Girls").

Mary Mautner.

Kayak Cowgirl.

Of course, ours weren't the only boats there.

Our Boats.

More Boats.

And yet more boats !

After a safety briefing, off we went. The idea was, we'd all paddle down the river and pick up waterproof poker cards along the way. The winning hand(s) would get prizes. While I was the first to turn in a set and had a sixth wild card, the best I could come up with was two pair, a high-low set at that. You WON'T find this Cowgirl gambling in a saloon anytime soon.

The view of the Hudson.

Mary in her plastic Avocet.

My New Boat.
 Longtime readers may know that I've been paddling a Valley Argonaut for three years now, and while I love that boat, it's widely acknowledged as too big for me. It's essentially a high volume Aquanaut, meant for someone about five inches taller and half again as heavy. It's still around and I'll paddle it some more, but I found myself drawn to a newer Valley boat, the Gemini SP.

Now, I won't belabor what you can already look up - the Gemini is so named because there are two variants, the play version and the touring version. This is the former. It's fun, it's responsive, it loves rough water and it's plastic, which means the next time I go rock-hopping, I'm bringing it along.

Passing Bannerman's Castle.

Unlike the last time I was here, the event passed Bannerman's Castle, formerly a storage site for munitions and other goods, until an explosion wrecked it. It's an interesting place to spot along the river, whether kayaking or not.

At the finish line was a lovely yellow folding boat pointing the way in. It was a lovely color against the river valley's green!

While we waited, a themed riverboat went by - a Paddlewheeler for the cure? Nah.

Then we had lunch, and a raffle. This Cowgirl did not fare as well as the last time she was here.

A P-38? How'd that get in the race?

Like bingo, but less comfortable.

Nancy Brous.

One person worth special mention is Nancy Brous, NYC paddler, Vice President of the Hudson River Watertrail Association, and dare I say community activist. Nancy helped organize this event from the beginning, and with support from friends and associates has kept it going five years running.