David Brown powers into an unusual tour in the Big Apple

The Hudson River has always seemed like a trench filled with water, its bottom a Stygian tangle of sunken boats and discarded equipment, its water an over-steeped tea somehow brewed from the lives of 8 million people. By the same token, Manhattan seemed less an island than a moored raft covered with concrete, asphalt, steel and well-tended plants.

So when I eased myself into a kayak to start a paddle around Manhattan Island, I was surprised to see a little beach nearby — the geological past sticking its nose out from under 400 years of human occupation.

Circumnavigating New York City's core by water combines nature's forces with man's work in a way that's as dramatic as any place in America. It's also a trip strangely poignant and evocative, even for someone with no New York roots. Funny thing is, it's not even that hard.

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Kayakers approach the lower end of Manhattan on the Hudson River. Photo / David Brown for The Washington Post
Kayakers approach the lower end of Manhattan on the Hudson River. Photo / David Brown for The Washington Post

Each year, the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club sponsors the "Manhattan Circ" — a trip around Manhattan Island in kayaks. This year, 158 people from 12 states and two foreign countries (Canada and Spain) did it. One-third were women; only one person dropped out.

To participate, you have to apply, attest to your skills, be accepted, and pay US$80 (NZ$114). Of course, the logistics are considerable if you're an out-of-towner, what with getting a kayak into America's most densely populated place and finding somewhere to stay. But it's worth it.

The organisers had divided the fleet into three groups based on anticipated speed; two of the groups launched near us at a public beach.

The Inwood is the only survivor of boat clubs that once lined that part of the island's shore. Founded in 1902, it recalled an era when New York's waterways were more recreational — and perhaps cleaner.

The day and hour of the Circ are chosen so that tidal flow will assist participants as much as possible. As we paddled into the eastern edge of the Hudson's channel, it was immediately clear this would not be a trip for the inattentive. The flow was swift. The river was in full ebb, doubling our paddling speed toward the Battery, the southern tip of the island, where we would catch the flood tide that would carry us up the East River.

My group would, in theory, be the fastest of the three. A launch appeared on our right. It accompanied us all the way around, keeping us from straying into the all-business middle of the channel, like a dog herding aquatic sheep.

The overcast sky hid the tops of the George Washington Bridge's towers. A rumbling filled the air and disappeared. White, balloon-shaped buoys — presumably for transient yachts — strained against mooring chains, the dark water pillowing over them. They were the first of several not-so-obvious obstructions that could easily have flipped one of our boats.

On my deck I had an old National Geographic map of Manhattan that I'd cut up and had laminated and spiral bound. It helped me get a rough idea of where we were as we hurried down the West Side on an eight-knot express. I spotted Grant's Tomb, the Riverside Church, and later the Empire State Building peeking out from the island's interior. As the haze cleared, the morning sun silhouetted rooftop water tanks, making them look like little party hats. In the afternoon on the East River, I recognised the United Nations headquarters, which in my 1960s childhood was second only to the Statue of Liberty in recognisable New York landmarks.

Water has always been a problem for Manhattan. New York City residents consume 1.3 billion gallons of clean water a day (imported from far north of the city), and dispose of 1.4 million gallons of liquid waste. The water was once notoriously polluted; a century ago this had wiped out commercial fisheries of shad, clams and oysters while spreading cholera, typhoid fever and other faecal-oral illnesses.

Joseph Mitchell, The New Yorker magazine's famous chronicler of the city, started a 1951 article called "The Bottom of the Harbor" this way: "The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty, and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say that you could bottle it and sell it for poison."

Paddlers pass under the Queensboro Bridge. Photo / David Brown for The Washington Post
Paddlers pass under the Queensboro Bridge. Photo / David Brown for The Washington Post

Things are better now. Thousands swam in the Hudson the day after the Circ as part of the New York City Triathlon. The Billion Oyster Project is engaging schools (among other groups) to restore New York's oyster grounds. There were nearly 9000ha when Henry Hudson navigated the waters in 1609; the project so far has restored less than half a hectare and planted 22 million oysters. Heavy rains occasionally overwhelm the wastewater treatment capacity, spilling coliform-laden water into the rivers. We got occasional whiffs of sulfurous sewer gas on our passage.

We approached the Battery with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the distance to our right, and One World Trade Center on our left. The waterway here is New York's aortic outflow — high-pressure, turbulent, essential. The Circ organisers arranged for us to cross it in 15-minute windows to keep us safe from the gigantic orange Staten Island ferry and its wake. By then, our group had caught up with the second-fastest one. We watched its paddlers cross as we milled around in a manmade cove — here, everything is manmade — waving to pedestrians on the waterside promenade.

Eventually, we got the signal to cross. This required hard, no-nonsense paddling. At one
point, we had to hold up unexpectedly to avoid a tour boat. As we headed into the East River, the water became a hectic mix of standing waves, wakes and clashing currents.

Safe on the Brooklyn side, we caught our breath and headed up the East River under the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. We passed blackened stubs of old dock pilings, shuddering in the current, like loose teeth.

We paddled the length of Roosevelt Island and came ashore at a beach in the Astoria neighbourhood of Queens. Then we carried the boats to nearby Socrates Sculpture Park, an outdoor museum, for a two-hour break.

We crossed to the Manhattan side of the river at the lower end of Hell Gate, the most notorious strait in the harbour and the site of uncountable shipwrecks. The water was slack; our timing was right. We paddled right over the spot off East 90th St where the excursion steamer General Slocum, carrying 1400 people, caught fire on June 15, 1904.

The death toll of 1021 would not be exceeded in a single disaster in New York until 9/11. At the north end of Randalls Island, we turned left into the Harlem River, where we were helped by the tidal quirk that makes the circumnavigation such a winning proposition. The tide pushes water that is already in the Harlem River northwards, as well as pushing water that is not already in the Harlem River into it. One wouldn't think it possible but it happens twice a day. (Here, it's worth noting the distance around the island was 48km, which we covered in 6½ hours of paddling time.)

Although the paddlers came from many places, there were enough from New York to provide a guided tour for the curious. One pointed out the garbage pier, the air vent for the Holland Tunnel and Trump-built apartment buildings recently stripped of their builder's name.

I was instructed to note the Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City in Queens, a landmark that is both pop-cultural and nostalgic-industrial. We saw the eddies at the bend of the East River between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, where corpses that go into the water in the winter frequently surface in the spring.

We paddled under more than a dozen bridges. Macombs Dam Bridge (1895), with its stone piers, pyramid-roofed shelter houses and steel camelback in the middle, is my new favourite.

As the Harlem River became narrower and more industrial, culminating in the ship channel of Spuyten Duyvil, I was amazed to see a rocky outcrop on my left, the very northern tip of the island. I paddled over. It was shaded by vegetation growing out of its face and vines hanging down from its top. The air was laden with the smell of moss and mould. I thought to myself: "This, at least, is unchanged. This is something the Lenape Indians and the Dutch colonists might recognise." Then I thought about the blasting it took to make the ships' channel. "Maybe not." Was everything I'd seen a disturbed landscape? Yes, except for one. The rivers the Circ followed were pretty much where they'd been in 1600. The currents and tides were the same. Flowing water was the changeless New York City, and I'd been looking at it all day.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

flies Auckland to New York with Economy Class return tickets on sale for $1815 until November 3.

Details: Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club
Further information: See visittheusa.com
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