I've mentioned the public trips run by the Downtown Boathouse before; the Inwood Canoe Club runs a similar program called Open House. In both cases, members of each club escort members of the public, sometimes called guests, up or down the river, according to conditions. While the details of each program - and similar programs run by commercial operators in the area - may vary, they do have a few elements in common.
Having started off as a "dude" on these trail rides, and worked my way up to formally leading these trips, I thought I might share the range of experiences that are going on during these trips.
First of all, for the public - your first trip is generally amazing. If you have never been on the water, or only done so for practical purposes, you will see the city in a whole new light. Especially for Manhattanites accustomed to seeing the city from the inside, the sight of this little sliver of rock surrounded by water offers an entirely new perspective of landmarks and geography.
From locations in midtown, it's easy to spot familiar landmarks: the Empire State Building, Conde Nast Building, NY Times and Bank of America buildings.
Further up the river, newcomers to the waterfront may be astonished at just how much parkland extended from midtown to Harlem, and after a short break, from Harlem on up to the northern tip of the island. It isn't called the Greenway for nothing.
North of the George Washington Bridge, a greenhorn paddler will be surrounded by park. With the Palisades across the river and Inwood Hill park rising on the Manhattan side, it's a green river valley. Landings are possible on Ross Dock and Bloomers Beach in New Jersey, and at Inwood Canoe Club in Manhattan.
Now for the guides - called variously volunteers, assistants, Turtles, hosts - there is a slightly different experience. It's likely not their first time out, so their attention turns to details the public might miss. Things like the wind, and the current, and the overall condition of the group. A good guide is watching out for problems before they occur, directing people where to go to avoid problems. Guides typically offer advice on how to paddle better as well. No one likes to see someone else struggle, and a struggling paddler can hold the whole group behind.
Guides are also communicating with the trip leader, or someone else who is in charge. Trip leaders make decisions about the trip, such as the destination, and whether or not to turn around due to conditions, generally in consultation with the guides. Trip leaders are also the de facto rodeo clowns - the center of attention and the voice of authority to the public. Every trip leader has a different style, but broadly, they set direction and are the face of the trip to the public.
Guides and trip leaders are responsible for the well-being of the public. So what can go wrong? The weather is the leading culprit. Generally, the weather is predictable enough that really bad weather can be avoided. High winds, thunder and lightning, or heavy rain or non-starters. If for some reason these conditions arise while a trip is out, leaders and guides should be able to get the group to a sheltered spot to wait it out. If lightning is spotted, you want to get off the water fast.
Accidents and medical emergencies can happen as well. While rare, it is possible for people to fall off their boats. Every club I paddle with practices rescuing both the public and themselves. In a medical emergency, alerting the authorities is the best first step. I've never seen this needed, but it could happen - a heart attack, a seizure, what have you. Generally, a given trip is never more than a few minutes paddle from land, everyone carries a cel phone, and lately, every trip has at least one marine radio on it.
However, most trips are uneventful, and are simply opportunities for guides to practice being prepared. Did we bring enough spare paddles and tow ropes? What's the collective skill level of the public? What are conditions like? Are we going someplace fun, or is this another boring paddle-to-nowhere ?
I kid - as I've said before, no trip on the river is ever routine - but for experienced guides, public trips can feel like working on a dude ranch.
But at that point, if all safety and instruction skills have been mastered, entertainment becomes the next step. Rediscovering what makes these trips interesting to the public can rekindle interest on the part of those more experienced. The river is long, and there is always something new to see.