At Home on the Range (of NYC Waterways)

Guest post by Julie McCoy, aka Kayak Cowgirl

Julie McCoy

Julie McCoy the Cowgirl, in last season’s fashion, yellow Gore-Tex and a Kenneth Cole beanie

Julie is a long-time NYC kayaker who describes her adventures in the blog Kayak Cowgirl. Originally from Oklahoma, nowadays she’s a Big City girl. But she still spends as many days as she can in the saddle—only now it’s the cockpit of a kayak. 

We asked her to post to Wind Against Current on a topic of her choice, and she opted to describe her evolution as a New York City kayaker. Here goes:

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Paddling in Piermont Marsh, about 12 miles north of Manhattan


What I like about paddling around New York City is the sheer variety of experiences. There are peaceful marshes to the south and to the north; narrow tidal straits, such as Hell Gate; oceanic swells in the lower harbor, and traffic nearly everywhere. Add in the effects of tides and wind, against the varieties of urban backdrop, and it would be difficult to exhaust the possibilities.

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A replica of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon passing a bay full of novice kayakers

My first memory of paddling was as a member of “the public” in a sit-on-top near Pier 26. I was talking to someone just upstream from me, and when I turned around, the Queen Mary 2 was pulling in – an immense hotel gliding on the water, at a safe distance but filling my view. Later, a guy in a deck boat paddled by and gave me some tips on how to paddle better. I blew him off – I was having fun!

I would encounter him again, years later, as one of my coaches.

It was a couple of years before I got involved in the kayak community. I volunteered at a club in the Upper West Side, carrying boats out of shipping containers every weekend to the sidewalk overlooking the river, then helping people in and out of boats. Eventually, I started spending more time at the main location for that club, in midtown, and got more experience and training. Pretty soon I was helping shepherd trips of “the public” myself!

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Paddling with a group to Hoboken; Empire State Building in the background

A few years went on, and I got to know quite a bit of the Hudson River (at least the part near Manhattan). I paddled to grocery stores on either side of the river, to small beaches in New Jersey, and to other piers hosting other clubs. I paddled to the Statue of Liberty and beyond, and to a fairy tale boathouse on the Harlem River.

And then one day, I did it—I circumnavigated Manhattan!

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The Argonaut resting at Swindler’s Cove, near Peter Sharp Boathouse

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From South Beach, looking to the ocean, Hoffman Island in view

By then, I was hooked. I took a class, and then another, and eventually bought my own boat. Now I was in dangerous territory, with nothing to stop me but my own common sense. I went out alone, first on short trips and eventually longer ones. I started inviting other people along: I invited two women friends to paddle out to Staten Island with me, to an area near the Verrazano Bridge called South Beach just a few miles south of Manhattan.

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Amtrak on the Hudson line, near the Bridge to Nowhere, just north of Spuyten Duyvil, wintertime

I moved uptown, and started paddling out of the Inwood Canoe club in what I like to  call, “Upstate Manhattan”. It’s across the river from the New Jersey Palisades, with easy access to the Harlem River. And suddenly I was in a whole new world. Last fall, I paddled with some friends through Bronx Kill and out into the East River between Queens and the Bronx. We took another trip to Hell Gate and back. I started paddling in the winter to keep going year-round.

Since then, I’ve taken some more classes, and sharpened my skills. This past summer, I worked as a teaching assistant at a local shop while continuing to organize trips with different clubs I’m involved with. I went camping, up to Croton Point, 23 miles north of the northernmost tip of Manhattan. I’m planning more elaborate trips, inspired in part by Vlad and Johna’s adventures at home and abroad.

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Robbins Reef Light, Upper Bay of New York Harbor

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Rode hard and put away wet

So why am I a kayak cowgirl? I was born in Oklahoma, where cowhands rode the range, taking odd jobs doing everything from mending fences to herding cattle. To me, the sea is a range, and the growing number of clubs on the waterfront are like little ranches (some, more like dude ranches).  I herd clients, teach the basics, and do a little boat and fence-mending myself – especially in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

In the saddle, so to speak, I’ve got everything I need for a ride packed. I keep myself entertained with some country western songs, one of my favorites an apt contrast for modern city slickers:

Oh give me land, lots of land, with the starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride, through the wide, open country that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze,
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees!
Send me me off forever, but I ask you please,
Don’t fence me in.

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Returning to Manhattan

33 responses to “At Home on the Range (of NYC Waterways)

  1. Wow. You are so adventurous! Great post and photos. The one of South Beach looks almost tropical! Lovely.


  2. Thanks for sharing with us!


  3. What a wild adventure you’ve had in your journey into kayaking…..and what gorgeous photos filled with soft light.


  4. I should add, some more wild than others :) Some of the softness may be due to the camera housing. The camera itself isn’t waterproof, so I keep it in a dive housing, which occasionally offers up odd special effects.


  5. Nice post, I particularly like that last photo.


  6. For those interested, “the public” at pier 26 that Julie began paddling with is the Downtown Boathouse–the largest, free kayaking organization in the world, which over the last 15 years has put over half a million kayak cowgirls and cowboys on the water for free. This, as a way to open up free, public access to the NYC waters. Always nice to see where our Downtown Boathouse volunteers have ended up. Safe paddling all!


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Tatiana (and everybody): I heartily second the Downtown Boathouse endorsement. My first experience on the NYC waterways was also via DTBH, for me at Pier 40.

      I’ll never forget my sense of incredulity:
      “You guys just run this program for FREE?”
      “But.. what do you get out of it?” (This is NYC after all–doesn’t everyone have an agenda?)
      “We want to foster a community of people who appreciate the NYC waters.” (Now THAT’S an agenda I can get behind!)

      Downtown Boathouse is an amazing organization, and I thank you all very much!


  7. That’s right, that was with DTBH in their original location. I learned a lot at DTBH and the opportunities they provide the public and volunteers alike. As Johna points out, it takes most people a few moments to grok the ‘free’ part of it. I’m not sure I’d have comes as far as I have if I’d had to invest a lot of money up front.


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  9. Rode hard and put away wet! I haven’t heard that in a coon’s age!


  10. Conngratulations, Julie!


  11. Great post and congrats on your BCU 3*Sea kayak assessment. Job well done!

    Your Coach,


  12. (Also) I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
    Gaze up at the moon until I lose my senses
    I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
    Don’t fence me in.
    Cole Porter 1934 “Adios, Argentina”
    After lyrics by Robert Fletcher

    Cole Porter-New York Cowboy


    • And don’t forget, Woody Guthrie lived on Coney Island for a while. As a matter of fact I serenaded some clients with “Oklahoma Hills” the other night when I learned one currently resides in OKC.


  13. Congratulations on your achievements, Julie. :) Great photos and song.


  14. that last shot gives scale to your position from Manhattan – excellent stuff


  15. This is amazing. I had no idea that people kayaked in NYC!!! I’m from Michigan and there are lots of paddlers here…but NYC? How cool is that!!!


  16. Absolutely marvelous! I had no idea! I truly am thrilled at the possibility. Great post. Thank you for sharing your exciting life experiences. :)


  17. It’s such an amazing vantage point that you all have of the city. No one else really sees it like this.


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