Touched By Fire: An Early-Autumn Kayak Trip Along the Palisades

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Autumn is a time of melancholy, of dreams and mists. It’s also a time of intense beauty—and a reminder that everything in life is transient.

That’s particularly true when it comes to catching the leaves turning along the Hudson: Bare hints of color one day, blazing the next, and then fading—all in the space of a week or two.

For New York City kayakers with day jobs, the challenge is that the currents are right for a weekend trip up the Hudson only once every two weeks—which means there are only two October weekends to catch this ephemeral color.

The first weekend with a daytime flood current was October 15-16. Either weekend day would have worked, but since I’d just gotten back from an intense week of traveling, Sunday was the better fit. Plus, Saturday’s winds were pretty severe—predicted and ultimately proving to be over 20 knots. So we agreed to go Sunday.

By then, the winds had calmed somewhat. Vlad and I set off on a crystalline, perfect, early-autumn day.

Our 10 AM launch is uneventful; the wind brisk but warm, and at our backs. With a strong flood current and the wind pushing us, we cruise along at 6-7 miles per hour.

We make several stops for photos, including at the Binghamton, a 1905 steam ferryboat—the last of many—now permanently moored on the New Jersey side at Edgewater. The Binghamton was severely damaged by Hurricane Irene this summer, and I see that it has deteriorated even more since my last trip past it, in September. Now an entire side of the boat is down, giving us dramatic views into the inlaid wood and stained glass of the interior—all ruined now.  (See Tugster’s great photo sequence here, here, and here.) Another reminder of the transience of beauty…

We continue north on the Jersey side, passing under the George Washington Bridge around noon. With wind and current behind us, we pick up some wonderful surfing waves—at one point I clock myself the fastest I’ve ever gone, at 10.5 miles per hour. Wheee!

Before the bridge, the leaves are largely green, but as we head farther north along the Palisades we start seeing individual trees and whole copses that are scarlet, orange, and gold. The sun touches them and they appear to be alight: “Touched by fire,” I think, remembering the Black 47 song.

We agree to go no farther than Alpine, New Jersey—roughly opposite the Blue Cube at Yonkers. The wind and current are still strong, and we could easily go much farther—but we keep in mind that we’ll be returning against the wind. So instead, we pull into the beach at Alpine around 1 PM.

From the water, we notice a surprising number of people in the little park next to the marina, given how late in the season it is. As we draw closer, the noise level rises dramatically. Vlad and I think the same thing, but he says it first: “There must be like a million people here!”

Closer in, we notice a lot of children. Young families, clearly. Barbecue smoke rises from grills. And a lot of the people seem to be Asian…Vlad guesses that it’s a group of Chinese folks on a church outing. Turns out he’s right on both counts, but we don’t find that out until later.

We have a leisurely picnic on the beach, enjoying the relative luxury of warm sunshine and nearby indoor plumbing. After lunch, Vlad takes a stroll along the grassy pathway to take photos. I sit on the seawall and look at the river. Butterflies flutter and dragonflies dart about in the sunshine, and the water curls into tiny wavelets on the shore.


A pretty girl comes up beside me. “May I sit here?” she asks, in excellent but accented English. She sits down and we begin to talk. Turns out she’s named Ella (her American name). She’s Mandarin-speaking Chinese and has been in the US since May, studying for her MBA at NYU. She bemoans the difficulty of learning English and studying in a foreign culture—“English is hard!” I agree that it is difficult to live and study in a new place. She asks why so few Americans know Chinese. I smile and say, “Because Chinese is HARD!”. We laugh.

Vlad takes a couple of photographs of the two of us and she says goodbye.

As we prepare to launch again, a small crowd of children gathers. They keep their distance while I’m on land—perhaps the platinum hair scares them. Or maybe it’s my fierce demeanor :-).

But after I’ve launched they cluster around Vlad, chattering excitedly. One little boy wearing rolled-up sweatpants and a green fleece asks if he can go with us… We’re tempted.

We paddle back. At first we keep in the wind shadow of the Palisades. But then we head out into the river where the wind is blowing against the current—my favorite conditions. The waves aren’t huge, but they’re nontrivial—two-and-a-half to three feet. Even though it’s barely 3 PM, the sun has already dipped below the Palisades. The woods, so colorful earlier, now seem shadowy and cold. The transience of beauty…

Past the George Washington Bridge, the sun drops lower, clouds begin to gather, and the wind and waves pick up. With the current, we’re still making good progress—around 5 miles per hour even against the wind—but the waves are getting sizable. They’re at least three feet high, over my head. Vlad suggests we cross over to the Manhattan side before dusk. Almost as an aside, he mentions that the waves will be bigger in the channel.

Sure enough, as we cut across in the fading light, the waves get sharper, taller, and more intense. Now a few are over four feet, and they seem to rotate—so one that appears to be coming head-on will swerve and hit the side of the boat. I’m getting nervous until I remember to high-brace and edge into the wave. Even so, I almost get tossed a few times.

This isn’t a good place to capsize—although we’re now south of the Midtown ferry terminals, there’s still a lot of traffic, and in the twilight things could get hairy. But fortunately nothing happens—and after a while, my nervousness gives way to exhilaration.

We pull into an embayment on the Manhattan side and raft up to switch on our lights. Out of the strong current in the embayment, the wind is dominant and we drift north at an alarming rate.

The rest of the trip is straightforward, and we pull into Pier 40 at about 7 PM, in the last of the fading light. It’s still warm as we put the boats and gear away—but soon the colder days will set in for good. It’s been a day of transient, but radiant beauty… touched by fire.

Sister, the night is come the stars are aching

for you and me and all our dreams touched by fire

—Black 47, Touched by Fire

(All of Vlad’s photos from the trip are here.)

5 responses to “Touched By Fire: An Early-Autumn Kayak Trip Along the Palisades

  1. LOvely trip. I’ve been sidelined this summer from kayaking, and you made the trip I made at this time last year. So, I get to experience it vicariously. Wonderful photos and description.


  2. ADDENDUM: I mean to mention that I did get out on the river over the Columbus Day weekend (twice!) and noticed the wreck that the Binghamton has become. It didn’t dawn on me that the hurricane might have been responsible.


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