Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Weekend Paddle 2013

"On Easter, I paddled to the Gates of Hell."

That was the line I wanted to use, the joke I wanted to make. I also wanted to try going through Hell Gate, the straight of water between Randalls Island and Queens. It is a narrow spot, where the current typically clocks at 5 knots, sometimes a little higher. It is a rocky area, with multiple islands, resulting in multiple eddies and vortices. I used the word squirrelly a lot yesterday.

Two friends came along, folks I've paddled with several times before. AW is an experienced woman, not much older than I am; AA is a guy, about my age, and while relatively new he'd picked up a lot of skills fairly quickly. We've all gone on long trips, and agreed a trip to Hell Gate would be a great way to kill a day.

I timed the trip to leave at a hour before max flood at Edgewater. Ideally, we would have left wo hours before, but it's hard to get people together that early. In such a small group it was easy to press forward and make up for lost time. After paddling up and into the Harlem, we were approaching the Broadway Bridge within fifteen minutes, Peter Sharp fifteen minutes later, and ultimately got to the Triborough/RFK Jr bridge abou an hour and a half after we started.
A cruise vessel passes on the Harlem.

We talked briefly about exploring the Bronx Kill, but since we have all been there before, we decided to proceed down along the edge of Randalls Island. This was an interesting series of sites. Randalls is a sort of sports and concert park for the city, with los of fields and greenways. There was some sort of sporting event going on at Icahn Stadium. There were people walking and biking on a path at the edge. On the Manhattan side, we saw the Harlem Costco, and worked out that the pedestrian bridge to Randalls is at about 110th street.

Costco on the right; about 110th Street.

As we approached the lower edge of Randalls, in short order we found ourselves at Mill Rock, an island that is essentially a big pile of rocks populated by birds, used as a bathroom by birds and passing kayakers alike. We held position for a bit, deciding what to do: go through Hell Gate, go across to Hallets Cove, or go down and around Roosevelt Island, a long, narrow island that splits the East River into two for about two miles?

Roosevelt Island
We decided to circmnavigate Roosevelt. It's pretty, it's interesting, and while the current would be against us slightly as we went south, we figured it would be with us as we rounded the lower tip and came north again.

I recall when planning this trip, thinking this would be an interesting idea, but that also it would eat a lot of time. Once we were there, however, a quick head check made me think we'd just be losing shore time when we stopped for lunch - that is, we'd get out, eat, and leave sooner than planned.

As we made our way down Roosevelt, we saw interesting things on both sides of the river. People were walking and biking, and sometimes wave at us. There were these interesting metal sculptures in the water; made to face the island, we couldn't make out what they were, but they seemed to be metal cartoon figures, similar to what's at the 14th street station on the A train. We saw the bow of a ship protruding from the island, sculpted as part of the land. And, of course, on the Manhattan side we saw Midtown East, most notably the UN. We could see as far south as the Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan.

AW paddles past sculptures.

AA along the Roosevelt shore.

At the southern end of Roosevelt Island are two incongruous sights. One is the old hospital complex, a charred-looking empty shell of buildings abandoned long ago and cordoned off from the public. The other is a memorial complex, fairly new, to FDR; an eight-foot statue of his head is in a walled chamber. We caught a glimpse from the water. As we rounded the tip, we saw tourists and day trippers taking photos of the city vistas to the south.

We paddled up the eastern channel, but after about a quarter mile we realized the current had changed sooner than we expected. It have been against us, flowing north, on the way down; now it would be against us, flowing south, as we paddled north. This was a problem that would only get worse.

We performed a ferry crossing - paddling up river as we crossed, in order to counter the current's effect. That was challenging, and then once across, we have to hug he coast of Queens in order to get to Hallet's Cove, where we stopped for lunch. We passed over and along many large rocks, and as the water drained, we got more careful about avoiding them. At one point a wave dropped my boat onto a couple of rocks, and I teetered, but was able to move off when the water picked me up again.

Hallets Cove is a small beach in Queens, next to an outdoor sculpture museum. It's immediately around the corner from Hell Gate, across from Roosevelt Island. It's a common rest stop for waterborne adventurers, and after beaching, we had a quick lunch and chatted with a woman who had brought her kids down to play at the water's edge.

Loading Dock in Hallet's Cove.

AW and Kayak Cowgirl.

AW and AA

"I don't like the looks of that," said AA. He indicated whitecaps hitting the Manhattan shore in the distance.

It was a beautiful day; the sky was clear and the air relatively warm - in the fifties. However, by now we knew the current had changed, and a steady stream of water would be flowing in from Long Island Sound, running at a quickening pace to the NYC harbor. This would only get worse.

We tried to figure it out. Could we ferry? Ferry crossing to Roosevelt, and from here to a spot on Manhattan that jutted out and offered shelter against the current? Or, maybe we could follow an eddy up towards Hell Gate, and ferry cross to Randalls, or Mill Rock?

We finished lunch and launched our boats. Full, rested, we were ready to take it on.

Hell Gate, and the Currents Thereof
The current flowing through Hell Gate peaks at over 5 knots. To put that in perspective, the most current we see on the Hudson is between 2.5 and 3 knots. A typical paddler can paddle about 3 knots. Do the math: at best effort, a typical paddler will be going backwards when paddling against the current.

Moreover, the current is not even in the area  There is a nice viewing spot at a park in Manhattan, in the 60s/70s, overlooking Hell Gate. You will be able to see areas where the current flows faster, or where the water is apparently flat. The underwater topography twists and shapes the currents into a maze of eddies and vortices that will spin the boat sixty degrees in a moment. These challenges must be navigated while trying to propel the boat in a given direction.

It's not for nothing that they call this Hell Gate.

The only good news was that those whitecaps were simply wind against current. When the weind died down, the whitecaps went away. The first thing we tries was to paddle northeast along the Queens side to see if we might be able to ferry there to Randalls Island. The main current was just yards away, and we could see it moving like na express train. While we were nervous about it, I think all of us would have been capable of paddling into it and riding the current.

One idea was to basically stern rudder our way towards Mill Rock, which in hindsight I still think could have worked. It would have been like climbing up a hill and skiing down to one side. However, we weren't sure what the overall picture would be like. We heading back a ways, to about the corner below Randalls on the Queens side.

At this point, I was nudging out to test the waters, and very rapidly had to decide whether or not to go. I wasn't far from Mill Rock. "I'm going! Watch me!" I shouted, or something to that effect.

Now I was in it. I was swept by the current but rapidly turned my boat towards i. I paddled. I paddled hard, and felt myself making some progress. Then I looked at the far shore. It didn't look like I was going anywhere except sideways.

I fount a flat spot, and began to realize that I was in a field of eddies and variable current. I could hop from one smooth place to another. Now, the smooth areas still had current against me, but less so than the more obvious areas. I focused on Mill Rock. Slowly, ever so slowly, I made way way to it. I saw a small eddy on the west end, and made for that. In short order, I was tucked in close to Mill Rock, holding on to a rock so I could survey the path I'd just crossed, and spot my friends.

They were specks on the horizon. Thanks to bight clothes, and clear weather, I could make them out. I raised my paddle to signal, and a few minutes later I saw them start.

At first, progress was good. They weren't getting any closer, but they weren't getting father away either. The crossed ever so slowly to Roosevelt. However, just before they got there, they started to recede, moving backwards. I couldn't see signs of distress, but they were getting farther away.

Come on, I thought. Just a little further. You can do it. I knew the conditions were already stronger than when I had paddled.

I spotted them again. They were in front of Roosevelt, but not getting any closer to me. I realized they were heading to the Manhattan side. They disappeared around a small wall that extends into the river. After waiting a few more minutes, I realized they weren't peeking back out.

I set out after them. We all hid behind that wall, holding on to a nook, lined up like a series of feathers.

Closeup of our attempts to paddle upstream. The yellow line ending at Mill Rock is my first attempt; the line that loops down by Roosevelt is AW and AA. The green line is the final sprint we accomplished to get on the other side of the current.

We talked about the conditions. "It was really enlightening how quickly you just flew down here," said AW. We talked about their crossing, and mine. I knew that all that current had to split north and south nearby - water coming in from the sound basically hits Manhattan, and flows north up the Harlem and south down the East River. If we could only get past this massive spout of current, I was certain we'd be on our way home. "Let me take a look," I said.

I nudged out from behind the wall. A large rock further up provided another eddy, and I was able to work my way up the wall. After that rock, the Manhattan seawall turned northwest, and I could see a wide expanse of smooth water. If only I could get around this rock, I thought t myself.

The rock, however protective, also made things worse. The current rushing past it was incredibly strong. I tried it. I was, literally, moving backwards. I've been in some tough spots before, but this one, I knew I could not make it.

I tried this a couple more times, but to no avail. By this time, people in the park were starting to watch us. No waving, no hello, just watching us figure out a problem.

We decided to wait. The curent had to die down at some point, didn't it? I tried, and ried again. We waited about fifteen minutes, checked some online references. The current was still building to its max over the next half hour or so. We were going to be hear a long time. We texted a friend. We talked about going downstream to see if we could portage our boats. We only half-joked about turning the trip into a clockwise circumnavigation of Manhattan.

I decided to give it one more shot. If the problem was the current stripping past that rock, maybe I would have more luck past it - counterintuitively, in the main current. I dashed out past the rapid jet of water and began to paddle north. I paddled, I paddled . . . I was making progress. I passed the rock. I slowly nudged over north of the seawall promontory and towards a barge. I was looking for a ladder, a platform - anything to get out, or at least hang on to, to tell me friends what to do. No landing to be found, I called out to a man on the pathway.

"Can I ask a huge favor?" I gave brief instructions, and waited while he went and told my friends what I had figured out. I was in a good spot.There was some current, but it was manageable.The roar of Hell Gate was the the south. I had only mild current flowing down from the Harlem.

It took a while, but about twenty minutes later I saw AA and AW peeking around the corner. They were set back slighting when a Circle Line boat passed and gave off wake, but they managed to make it to me. Slowly, they made their way to me. We rafted up, and in a few minutes realized we were staying in place. No current. Perfect.

And Back Again
We rested quite a while. We were exhausted from fighting all that current. We all recognized how far we pushed out abilities, or at least our endurance. Our technical skills had not been especially challenged, but sheer strength, endurance, and fortitude certainly had been.

We started up the Harlem river, staying on the Manhattan side. The water was slackish, but as we progressed, we gained current - a good thing considering we would only gro more tired. We ook more frequent rest breaks than usual. As we approached High Bridge, our psychology changed. Beyond hat point, we were on familiar ground. We drifted a couple hundred yards. we paddled easy as we came to familiar sights: Peter Sharp, the 207th street railyard.

Well, almost familiar. The water level was unusually low - attributed, I think, to a recent Full Moon. The entire cove between Peter Sharp and the shore was a mud flat, something I have never seen. A wrecked old marine just north of there was so depleted that we saw parts of wreckage we'd never seen. Even a marsh that we know becomes a mud flat at low tide was astonishing because it was practically at eye level for us. Again, never before seen by our eyes.

As we rounded the corner past Broadway Bridge, we felt the current turn against us slightly, and so picked up the pace. As we came up under the Henry Hudson, we spotted another club member, MH, also an experienced paddler, in his canoe. "You'll be happy to know the Hudson current is strongly in your favor," he said. After chatting a bit, we made our way home.

He was right. By now we were coming up on max ebb, and once in the main current, we flew home. It was sundown, and we were on the dock just as the sun dropped below the palisades. We unpacked our boats and washed them in the twilight, noting that washing the boats after a paddle wasn't so bad now that the air temperature wasn't freezing. With Easter, spring is here, and what I used to think of as the paddling season is right around the corner.

After-Action Report
We all agreed we learned a lot on this trip. We also worked well together as a group. We were all concerned for our overall safety, communicated well, and settling on plans. There were a lot of ways that things could have gone wrong, and they didn't. Even unexpected events were handled well.

We agreed that a fuller understanding of the overall conditions would be better. There's a tendency in paddling groups to assume the person suggesting the trip does all of the planning and leading. While that's necessary in trips with "the public", it isn't so in group of experienced paddlers. We all know how to head charts, and currents, and there is no reason for only one or two people to look ahead of time at what the plan is.

My own add to all of this would be that Roosevelt Island, while worth seeing, probably ought to have been skipped. It added at least four miles and an hour to our total trip, and if not for that, we might have turned around before getting trapped behind Hell Gate. If I were to do this trip again, I would either go straight to Hallets, or through Hell Gate along Randalls Island with the current, or land at Mill Rock or Randalls.

View Easter Paddle 2013 in a larger map End
One of my goals this year has been to learn more about the Harlem and its interactions with the East River. I learned a lot on this trip. I have a newfound respect for the area and the challenges it poses. I think there are plenty of interesting things to do down there, and I would go again. I don't know I would do this particular trip again, and if so, I would time it very differently.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

St. Paddy's Paddle 2013

I went out for a short paddle the Saturday of Saint Patrick's Day weekend. It was about as impromptu as these things get for me, especially in the off-season. With so much more gear required, and conditions being a little more challenging, I usually plan in advance whether I will paddle.

I was at the Inwood Canoe Club finishing up a repair on a boat I've been working on - something I will blog about later - and it started to snow. There was very little wind, and a fog was rolling over the Hudson River Valley. I dithered a about - I was going to have to be home by 1800, and it was already past 1300, and I would have to go home, grab my gear, and eat, meaning only a couple hours of paddle time.

Time on the water is time on the water, so I did it. I raced home on the subway, had a quick tunafish sandwich and chips, and then stuffed most o my gear in to one sack - mostly protective gear, leaving my PFD and paddle at home. I took only one sack because I broke out my bicycle. Rather than risk the MTA's timing, I'd take a ten minute bike ride back to the boathouse.

By the time I got there, dressed, and kitted out a boat, it was just a little short of 1500. High was at 1300 so there out to have been some current still flowing north, so I headed north, Seas were glass smooth, and the fog obscured everything, from the GWB, to the Palisades, even the marina at Edgewater was not visibile until I was further out in the channel and up by Spuyten Duyvil. It was eerie, and quiet, like the short paddle I took with MH a couple of months ago.

I expected the fog would provide some sublime photo opportunities for spots north of Spuyten Duyvil. I had one in particular: the "Bridge to Nowhere", that used to connect a rail station to a ferry landing.

Then I turned and went back in to the Harlem. The current seemed to have turned prematurely, flowing out of the Harlem into the Hudson. Knowing I had to be back home in just a couple of hours, I decided to noodle around a bit more in the area of Inwood Hill Park, not going past the Broadway Bridge.

I paddled into the estuary near Columbia University's crew boat houses. Her, the water grew very shallow. I stuck my paddle in to take a sounding. By my estimation, I had about five or six inches of draft, and I wasn't feeling it against the hull.

I turned and began to paddle back. I stopped in another estuary, one known to become a mud flat at low tide. I could already see birds standing, rather than floating, in the middle of the estuary.

With that, I turned around, and headed back, under the railroad bridge.

In short order I was back at the boathouse. By the time I cleaned and stored the boat, the snow was starting to stick. I left the door open a little bit longer, sipping my tea, and enjoying the view.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Good Fortune of the Sea

Almost every weekend for the past two months, members of the Inwood Canoe Club, including yours truly, have met at the boathouse to make repairs and prepare for the winter season. Members who don't work regular 9-5s have also met during the week to do what they can. This is all in addition to the initial cleanup and makeshift repairs completed in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

A lot of what we've focused on is rebuilding the retaining wall on northern shoreline Without it, there is a real danger that it would erode away, making our boathouse inaccessible by land. Sandy washed away hundreds of cubic feet of dirt and rock, and what we've done is use 8x8 timbers layered together to form a new wall. It's almost done, and we're already making plans to turn it into usable deck space for entertaining guests.

There's plenty of work to do inside as well. We've added new racks, and are repainting our offices and changing rooms now that they've dried out.

As much work as this is, we only recently realized how fortunate we are among Manhattan boathouses. Most other boathouses are located in a stretch of shoreline managed by the Hudson River Park Trust, and for a number of reasons they've been mostly inaccessible - only key custodians have access. That means most paddlers have been unable to paddle on the river, unless they were able to move their boats someplace else - Yonkers offered storage space along with a brief exception to their membership policy. 

That means that those few of us who have paddled this winter out of Inwood are among a fortunate few. Most city paddlers haven't beee able to get out. Some of the people I respect and look up to have been landlocked.

That's something. It shows the impact of the storm, the politics of water access, and the value of having dedicated club members (whether volunteers or paid membership) to come together and keep things running.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Harlem Paddle March 2013

I was fortunate to get out on the water today with at least one paddling partner. AA has been with me on a few trips, but none of our other regulars could make it, so it was just us. We paddled from Inwood Canoe Club to about 145th street in Harlem, had lunch, and returned.

Earlier, we had hoped to hook up with friends who were launching out of Yonkers, but they were starting later, and one of us had to be back by mid-afternoon to go to work. So, we opted to explore the Harlem, which is an under-documented waterway as far as I can tell. There isn't a lot of tidal data, and no one I have talked to fully understands how the Hudson and East river tidal cycles affect the Harlem. What does "ebb" and "flood" mean to a river that essentially connects two other rivers sideways? Harlem is like the horizontal line in the letter H.

The sun was exposed for a bit, and we slowed down to consider changing clothes - not an easy task when sealed up in a drysuit. We were both overheating, and the exertion from paddling made us sweaty and tired. We ultimately decided not to change, for the sake of convenience, and as the sun went away, we were oddly more comfortable.

We set out about an hour and a half before max flood on the Hudson. We kept an eye on the time and conditions as we went. Sure enough, the flooding current from the Hudson propelled us down the Harlem once we made it past Spuyten Duyvil. In twenty minutes we were at Inwood Hill Park, and twenty minutes later, pulling up to Peter Sharp, where we saw these treasure hunters on the shore.

They had a metal detector. Their dog didn't seem to know what to make of us - half-human, half-floating log. He was friendly though, if perplexed.

Along the way we had passed some crew boats. Some little kids (as in elementary school age) were in the coxswain positions, so my guess is it was an alumni event or community thing. We were also passed by a NYPD boat, towing another NYPD boat against its side. We got a slight wave out of that.

We kept on, under the High, Hamilton, and Washington bridges. We could make out Yankee Stadium on our left, as well as the Lighthouse publishing company's building, with its faux-lighthouse on top. In this part of the river, there aren't many places for a kayak to stop. On the left are pilings protected by rubber tires, and a highway overpass that a kayak might be able to limbo under at a lower tide. We had a lot of current though, and figured we'd take our chances finding a spot downstream.

As we passed below Macombs Dam Bridge, we started to think about where to stop and eat. The trick would be to wait for the current to change. As fast as we were moving, we didn't wan to fight it on the way back!

There weren't any great places to land though. As we peered down the river, the Bronx side was covered with these crazy tire pilings, and the Manhattan side was all concrete wall shoring up the Harlem River Drive - but then we spotted a walking trail, and below it, some crumbling rocks.

Now, when we landed, the ledge you can see in the photo above was nearly a foot above the water. It formed a perfect little concrete mini-dock to step out onto. We pulled our plastic boats up and out onto the large rocks that led away from the edge, which you can see below. In the forty-five minutes or so that we spent stopped for lunch, the water came up that high - and this is on a normal day, without any storm surge.

By now, we were glad we'd kept layers on underneath our drysuits. The sun had disappeared, and we'd been paddling cold for a while. We were not getting much wind, so our hands weren't numb, but the air temperature was still in the high thirties, making us glad god our warm layers underneath.

In order to launch, we ended up walking out boats back about fifty feet, stepping carefully on the rocks and leading our boats by their carrying handles, with one end in the water. Here, AA gets ready to launch from another ledge that wasn't underwater.

In any case, we had a reference now: we had departed at about 1.5 hours before max flood at Edgewater, and it had taken us just abou an hour and a half to get to where we landed. Based on that, I think it's reasonable to assume that departing at the same time relative to the tides would get us to 125th street, or the northwest corner of Randalls Island, easily, possibly as far as Hell Gate. An earlier departure would give us loiter time near Hell Gate, or carry us out into the East River between Queens and the Bronx.

As we paddled back, there was some current against us, but it was not too bad. We stayed near the wall on the Manhattan side. We spotted a lot of little nooks and crannies that we thought would merit further exploration - on the land, but accessible only by water. We joked about CHUD.

I missed a great shot of High Bridge, but got the above shot instead.

As we paddled, the current lessened, and paddling got progressively easier. By the time we got to Peter Sharp Boathouse, it was "normal" paddling - no extra effort at all. We didn't see anyone around, but clearly, or rather hopefully, they were out and about. So we'll say that about an hour and half of max flood a Edgewater, the Harlem starts to go slack, maybe a little later.

It started to snow. It was nothing major, but some flurries that persisted for a while. Nothing was sticking, but still - if there is only one signifier of winter paddling, it's paddling while snow is falling.

The rest of the paddle back was very straightforward. The route from Inwood to Peter Sharp is a familiar one by now, enough that we notice changes over time - construction ended, graffiti scrubbed off sea walls, etc. There was a bit of a headwind from the west as we rounded the bend out towards the Hudson, but it subsided by the time we crossed out into the Hudson proper. Seas were a little squirrely, presumably due to mild wind on slack, partially flood tide, but we made it back to Inwood almost exactly of our goal of 1430.

Since part of the trip was to get to know tides in the Harlem, I'd summarize as follows: Flood and Ebb references for me mean flooding from the Hudson into the East River, and ebbing from the East River into the Hudson. From max flood at Edgewater there are about 2 to 2.5 hours of flooding to paddle with down the Harlem River. Current seems to change much more abruptly in the Harlem as well.

As cool as it is, it's March already, and spring is in the air. This trip will help better plan some summer sojourns down this underused waterway.