Monday, November 23, 2009

Kayaking on the Hudson

Ready for some adventures closer to home--a readiness dictated by the increasingly cold weather and shorter days--NCT and I decided to follow our Cold Spring hike with a morning spent kayaking on the Hudson. One of the happy accidents of 2009 is that I came into partial possession of two kayaks, Salt and Pepper, this past spring; a fellow employee in my firm had planned to sell them because he couldn't afford the storage fees at the 72nd Street Boat Basin, but ultimately he decided instead to create a mini kayak co-op. As a result, twelve of us each paid about fifty dollars to cover the storage fees, created a Google calendar to track when one of us had booked the boats, and received a comically small key to the bowels of the Boat Basin.

Most of my kayaking experience has taken place in the following three places: Monterey Bay, where the kelp beds keep the rollers to a minimum while providing a glimpse into an incredible world of oceanic wildlife; Stanford's Lake Lagunitas, where I proved to be unteachable in the art of the Eskimo roll, and which, depending on the weather, would occasionally remain either unpleasantly shallow or else dry year-round; and Ithaca's Cayuga Lake, whose lake floor possesses an unchecked bounty of sharp zebra mussels. Each of these three locales ultimately taught me the same lesson; namely, that I prefer rowing shells to ocean kayaks, and that I prefer ocean kayaks to river kayaks. That said, now that I no longer live in San Francisco, where open water rowing had become a treasured part of my life, I've been ready to take what I can get when it comes to getting on the water. Enter Salt and Pepper.
NCT is my only friend in New York who possesses both the interest and the experience necessary to taking a kayak out on the Hudson, and as a result, he became my kayaking partner this summer. We weren't able to kayak nearly as often as we wanted to, but on the few occasions that we set our boats in the water, I was glad to have him by my side. And while it's true that it would have been impossible for me to roll/drag a kayak alone from the boat storage locker, across the bike/dog-walking/chaotically-running-children path of death, down the dock ramp, and across the kayak dock, I really valued his presence for one, unshakable reason: he is incredibly calm. NCT is so calm that when I see a wake the (perceived) size of a tsunami racing towards me off the back of a trash barge, and as my voice begins to take on the nervous pitch of a yapping beagle, NCT never loses his cool; instead, he paddles leisurely alongside me, pointing out the interesting detritus in the water, commenting on the beautiful sunset, and often, as a last resort before I give myself over to panic, lines his boat right up next to mine and rests his paddle across my hull while the wake rolls through. That is a good kayaking buddy.

I can't deny that the Hudson, for myriad reasons, unnerves me in a way that San Francisco Bay does not. True, I've kept to the Bay's relatively quieter reaches of Richardson Bay and Paradise Cove, but each of those sees a substantial amount of boat traffic and rough water as well. My difficulties with the Hudson can, I think, be traced to the following fundamental issues: the combined effect of the river current and incoming tides can result in one rowing against the "current" no matter which direction one is going; the traffic on the river is significant and varied, and never seems (from my perspective) to expect encounters with small, motor-less boats; river kayaks have always felt too capricious to me. Okay, that last point is not particular to the Hudson, and is also somewhat nonsensical; what I mean by "capricious" is that river kayaks respond to water in instantaneous and often unexpected ways. Such is their strength, and it's one that I've never been able to accommodate completely.

In combination with my general nervousness regarding Hudson River kayaking, however, is my love of being on the water, and for this I will suffer almost any river kayak and boat wake induced discomfort. The privilege of seeing Riverside Park from the river cannot be underscored enough, nor can the sense of tracing the City's watery boundary with a paddle. It was for these reasons that NCT and I decided to take a chance on another cold November Sunday and roll out the boats.

We walked over to the hut of the Boat Basin dockmaster (not his actual title), and rang the bell; the water surrounding the sailboats and small yachts lay flat and inviting in the cold sunshine. The dockmaster was clearly less excited than we were, but he promised to unlock the gate to the kayak dock and said he'd meet us in ten minutes. The mothballs in the boat storage locker were even more pungent in late Fall than they'd been in the Summer, and the lock stuck in the chill. We were wriggling into our spray skirts when we heard ominous footsteps...it was the dockmaster. He had come to tell us that the area around the kayak dock was undergoing maintenance, and as a result, the dock was closed until spring. No more kayaking until April. Our faces fell.
We walked glumly along the runner's path and looked at the dock floating in the placid water. "Let's go eat brunch", said NCT. "Okay", I replied. And so we assuaged our disappointment with giant popovers and apple butter, and talked about NCT's ascent of Kilimanjaro, among other athletic feats, which seemed all the more glorious from the perspective of a warm booth and a plate of eggs.

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