By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
This trip dates from last fall, but took us this long to post in part because we wanted to include a lot of detail to guide paddlers who might want to go to these places, which are very accessible to NYC paddlers of all skill levels.
So each photo is numbered, and the third image down is a map showing where each photo was taken, so you can associate the photo with the location. The body of the post includes only a small selection of the photos; for the rest, see the slideshow at the bottom.
And don’t miss the special bonus: A link to a GoPro video from the trip, at the very end of the post!
The currents weren’t really right for any of our usual trips, ebbing most of the day, and turning back to flood around 4:30 PM. So a long trip to points south would mean returning close to midnight, which neither of us wanted to do.
But it was an effervescent fall day, with a gusty breeze, blue skies, and sunlight sparkling over the waves. We wanted to do something a little out of the ordinary, for us, at least.
“Why not visit Port Liberté, and meander down the Jersey side of the harbor?” Vlad suggested.
What a splendid idea! Port Liberté is one of the many weird and wonderful things on the New Jersey side. Vlad calls it “the would-be Venice of New Jersey,” and it truly is: According to Wikipedia, it was designed in the 1980s as a waterfront community patterned after a similar one in Saint-Tropez, France, complete with canals lined with docks and waterfront walkways.
The idea is, to my mind at least, flawless: Imagine living right on the waterfront, with your own personal dock, just a few minutes by ferry or private boat from Manhattan! Unfortunately, though, the market crash of the late 80s ended the development plans, and what remains, though beautiful, is just a wistful indication of what might have been.
We’d last been to Port Liberté several years ago—maybe as far back as 2011. So it was time for another look. Then we’d continue down the Jersey side of the harbor, our moods and the currents permitting, until it was time to turn back. Come to think of it, despite our many years of paddling in the harbor, neither Vlad nor I had ever really properly explored all the ins and outs of the Jersey side.
So we set off on this blue, sunny, sparkly day. The trip down the Hudson and across to the Jersey side was bouncy but uneventful. Keeping an eagle eye out for ferries, we wended our way around the outside of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty (photos 2-10).
Before long we were approaching Port Liberté (photo 11). We glided past the decrepit metal bulwark guarding the entrance at Caven Point (photo 12), gawking at the graceful, now-shuttered building on the point.
And then we were there—among the canals and condos, which looked strangely abandoned on this beautiful fall Sunday. Sure, there were a few boats moored here and there, and a few teenagers on skateboards, but given the location, you’d have expected a bustling community.
We circled around the island in the center, twice (photos 13-18). All too soon, though, we’d seen everything there was to be seen in Port Liberté.
The only other water exit from Port Liberté, to the southwest, passes under a bridge with a large pipe crossing under it that blocks the channel—but not to kayaks, at low tide (photo 19). And we were in luck: the tide was low. So we scooted under the pipe, paddled past the Port Liberté ferry terminal, and found ourselves in a picturesque industrial embayment.
A number of tugboats were moored there, seeming to slumber in the early-afternoon sun. There were barges and scows, dredges, and all sorts of interesting industrial semi-ruins (photos 20-26).
We explored the embayment, watching a tug-and-barge go through its maneuvers, then paddled out of the embayment toward the open harbor. Suddenly, to our surprise, we came across barges heaped with fiberglass motorboats (photos 27, 28), some seemingly intact but some broken and overgrown with marine growth—presumably some of those that, even now several years later, are still being pulled out of the harbor in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. We realized that we had stumbled across the home of the Federal vessels that we often encounter in the harbor: the Army Corps of Engineers’ Driftmaster, which pulls such debris out of the harbor, the Hayward… (photos 29-32). So that’s where they all went during their time off!
We turned into the next deep embayment to the south, and caught sight of a… well, what the heck was it? (Photo 35)
From a distance it looked like a space station. Or maybe a giant metal Habitrail, with curving towers and tubes (photos 36-38, 48, 49). And the closer we got, the more mysterious it was. It was clearly industrial, with a system of trolleys and lifts. But what sort of industry?
We couldn’t figure it out, so we had to look it up later at home. Turns out it’s a “scrap metal factory” that reprocesses scrap metal into usable metal. That whole point of land is occupied by the Sims Scrap Metal Yard. And for my fellow grammar nuts, please note the correct use of the word “complementary” in the following description of its services: “Complementary services offered by our scrap yard include stevedoring, barge loading, container loading, overseas container loading, rail car loading, bulk/container ship loading, truck loading and vessel loading.” Many people misspell “complimentary” as “complementary”, so I was chuckling at the concept of picking up some free stevedoring along with my delivery of scrap metal…
We spent a long time looking and wondering at the scrap metal yard (photos 39-47). When we’d looked our fill, we paddled back out of the embayment and turned south. I was in the lead, as Vlad lagged behind to take pictures in what turned out to be the Weeks Marine shipyard (photos 56-72). As with the Federal vessels that we came across earlier, we’d always seen Weeks barges and construction equipment on our trips around the harbor, but never knew where they all came from!
My attention was caught by a forest of cranes engaged in the choreographed dance of loading and unloading shipping containers. I’m completely fascinated by shipping containers, as I’ve written about before, so I paddled to where I could get the best view. Then I stopped paddling and simply watched, transfixed.
Luckily it was close to slack, so I just bobbed up and down in the water. Off in the distance, I could see Vlad making his way unhurriedly towards me across the water, but for me time seemed stopped while I watched the graceful motions, the swoop and glide of the cranes, and the nearly magical rise and fall of the containers themselves. As it was downwind from me, the activity was almost perfectly soundless, adding to my sense of being suspended outside time.
In the foreground, I idly noticed some black and white cars drive slowly down the road. They stopped, then drove back more rapidly. A few figures got out. They were dressed in back, and seemed to be very interested in the waterfront, but I paid little attention.
After more than half an hour, Vlad paddled up. “Did you hear that?” he asked.
“Bullhorns. Those are police. They were shouting something at us.” I hadn’t heard it, and was glad I hadn’t.
Just then a small boat appeared, moving at high speed, churning up a white bow wave, making right for us. Damn! It was a police boat. We were about to get busted… for suspiciously watching shipping operations. (The cranes were at Bayonne’s Military Ocean Terminal, which has a security zone inside it—which we were careful not to enter—but probably any small vessel loitering near is suspect these days…)
But the police boat continued past us without stopping. And shortly thereafter, the police on land got back into their cars and left. Presumably the marine police had advised the officers on land that we were just ordinary kayakers, nothing to see here.
The um, what?
Yes, you read that right!
Apparently the powers that be—or developers, at least—had decided in years past that Bayonne, New Jersey, was the perfect location for what its marketing brochure calls “a club for the passionate golfer who enjoys the timeless joy of playing golf on a windswept links.”
Perfect, that is, if the passionate golfer also enjoys the “timeless joy” of watching industrial shipping and manufacturing, as well as stunning views of toxic wastelands. I’m not a golfer, so far be it from me to judge—in fact, we paddlers tend to appreciate these things.
So we padded toward the golf course, with its rolling green hills surmounted by a white lighthouse-like building and giant American flag, all backed by the slowly-descending sun (photo 76). We passed an interesting square of cordoned-off water (a wildlife preservation area, apparently). And after a few more minutes, we landed on a sandy, trash-strewn beach.
We rested, had a snack, and took care of the calls of Nature, hoping to stay out of sight of the golfers on the hills above us. “Now you can say you peed on the grounds of the Bayonne Golf Club,” Vlad said to me, amused.
After a short while it was time to launch again for home. The current had turned in our favor, the sun was low on the horizon, and we headed towards the Statue of Liberty and, beyond it, Manhattan (photos 77-91). As we passed by the places we had visited that day, now bathed in the late-afternoon light, I was struck again by how weird New Jersey can be.
And how utterly wonderful!
Here are all the photos referred to in this post, and a few extra ones (click on any photo to start slideshow):