Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Pelham Islands

A couple of weeks ago I was joined by a couple of friends for a nice paddle in one of the farther reaches of New York City: the Pelham Islands.

What the heck are the Pelham Islands?

These are a set of rocky, irregularly shaped dots of land stretching from City Island in the Bronx towards New Rochelle, NY. These lie past the Throgs Neck bridge, open to Long Island Sound. There's tons of history here. They're all worth reading up on. I'm only going to offer some highlights here.

I was joined by AA (in the green Delphin) and MM (in the yellow Avocet). AA and I keep our boats in the same clubhouse, so we met there and cartopped up to Pelham Bay Park, where we launched near the northwest corner of the parking lot into sheltered water. The weather was predicted to be a slight breeze and a gloomy, overcast day. It started out nice and got to be less so.

We saw swans - big, huge, beautiful swans.

And came out around Hog Island, right around where these floating houses were.

None of us had paddled here before, so this was a good orienteering exercise. After we came out into full view of the Sound, we headed up and around Davids Island. For the first couple of centuries of non-Native American use, the island was a getaway for mainlanders, but during the Civil War became a military hospital, later made into a defensive fort; as late as the 1960s it was home to Nike defense missiles, much like Sandy Hook. Somewhere there is a themed paddling excursion from Davids Island to Sandy Hook, methinks.

As we came round Davids, we headed out a bit to round Huckleberry Island, a much smaller island that is owned by a boating club. There's an old saw that Captain Kidd buried treasure there. In less fanciful circles, it's regarded as a major bird sanctuary.

We tried a little rock-hopping, but there wasn't much tidal current to play with.

Plenty of mussels - and a clear distinction of which parts the birds had a hard time getting at !

Far in the distance, we could make out Manhattan. If you zoom and squint, you can make out the Empire State Building.

The club that owns the island also has a gazebo on it. Pity they're not into letting random paddlers camp there.

Onwards we went. Our next sight was Columbia Island. Formerly home to a broadcast tower, complete with living and workspace for a husband-and-wife broadcast team, the tower's since been knocked down and replaced with solar panels by the present owner. It's a pity. Towers are cool. Why wouldn't you put panels up on the tower? It's a rhetorical question, science friends.

It took us a while to figure out this long, lonely island was Pea Island.

After these was the island with perhaps the most ominous backstory: Hart Island.

Hart Island has been variously employed as a prison, a workhouse, and currently as NYC's potter's field. The work is done by prisoners from Rikers Island. Otherwise, access is limited to the family of those who are buried there and by special appointment. In the past few years, there's been considerable movement on multiple fronts to open the island up, both to family and friends who may have a loved one there, as well as to the public as a park and important part of New York City's past.

Thing was, not everyone in my group knew its history as we paddled past. The weather was gloomy. We saw white stones laid out in a cross pattern on a hillock. The chimney of the old power plant (or crematorium) stood out in the middle.

"This place is creepy," said MM, after we'd paddled nearly half a mile in silence.

At the southern tip of the island was a marker, "Marker 46", which we'd identified earlier on the chart in our pre-float briefing.

We took a little rest, and noted that the current was still flowing northwards considerably - a flood tide from the city.

We were about halfway through our plan. Little did we know how weird things would get - weirder than paddling past a graveyard of unclaimed dead.

As we paddled north up the channel between City Island and Hart Island, we spotted some figures walking on a large pile of rocks, which turned out to be Rat Island. Rat Island is the only privately owned island in New York City, purchased a few years ago by someone, apparently a Swiss man.

On Rat Island was a news crew from Switzerland shooting some sort of interview of the man. We talked with his friends while they wrapped up. They were impressed we we out paddling, and invited us to land on the beach in front of their house, just across the water. It wasn't clear which house was theirs, but we aimed in the general direction.

As we approached, we saw flickers of water splashing, and little heads . . .and big orange floats. There was some kind of SCUBA class going here, in 54F water.

We landed at the beach and walked up to talk to the guys on shore running the SCUBA class. There was Mike, and "Uncle Vinnie", and a couple of other guys. Mike was a former NYPD diver who, after the tragedy of 9/11, had moved out of New York City for a more peaceful life . . .in Newtown, CT. These kids were in the Boy Scout troop there, and he'd talked to an old diving buddy with a shop in the Bronx and put together the class.

They had a pit fire going on the beach, and a hot water kettle for hot chocolate. They shared their hospitality and it was most welcome. We weren't cold but we weren't warm either. A couple of hours in cool, gloomy air had taken its toll.

After eating a small lunch and warming up at the fire, we said our farewells and headed back. MM took a couple of rolls using her Greenland paddle, partly to practice rolling in a drysuit. Onwards we went.

The tide was much lower now and I checked out a couple of passages that were closed now.

We saw those swans - and a bunch of juveniles. They perked up at our approach, slightly territorial. Darn Rock-Roll music! Bunch of punks.

I blame the parents. Kidding!

At the end of the day, once we'd packed up and got into dry clothes, the puffy gray sky suddenly lit up, like a light switch. As far as we could tell, the sun had finally dropped below the cloud layer, and now instead of being blocked it was reflected all over the city. A fierce orange glow overtook us. 

I have to say, this cowgirl is of an age when glowing orange clouds were the stuff of atomic nightmares, but all the same, it sure was pretty, and a great way to end the day.

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