Tag Archives: Manhattan Circumnavigation

Snowfall by the River

East River in snow

By Johna Till Johnson

I’ve always loved the East River.

She’s not really a river at all, but rather a connector between Long Island Sound and New York Harbor.  That topography accounts for her rapid currents, which are slightly out of sync with those of the Hudson (a tidal estuary). And it also accounts for much of her charm. To me, the East River has always been beautiful, mysterious, and slightly dangerous, with an allure that’s impossible to resist.

Before I learned to kayak, I’d walk along the river and think, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to go into the water?” Crazy thought! In addition to the swift currents, the East River was known in decades past for pollution and the occasional dead body. (These days, the water is much cleaner. There are even dolphins!)

After I took up paddling, I ended up actually in the East River more than once, usually by design (practicing capsizing in current) but one memorable time entirely by accident. And I’ve paddled its length many more times than that—my best count is that I’ve circumnavigated Manhattan around 40 times, and I’ve paddled out to Long Island Sound a handful of times as well.

But as is the case with most true loves, knowing the East River better only increases her allure.

It was natural, then, when a blizzard rolled in, for me to make time to go down to the East River and see what she looked like in snow.  I’m biased, but isn’t she gorgeous?

Manhattan Circumnavigation at the Edge of Fall

 By Vladimir Brezina

Midtown Manhattan

Under the Brooklyn BridgeOn Sunday, the weather broke. After weeks of hot humid weather, there was suddenly a chill in the air. Morning mist shrouded the higher towers of Manhattan, and later when the sun broke through, the air remained crisp and cool. Here and there, leaves were already turning. Fall had unmistakably arrived.

Perfect weather for a Manhattan circumnavigation!

A look back at downtown Manhattan

Here are some photos:

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By Vladimir Brezina

As a reward for setting out in our kayaks on a cold, snowy Manhattan circumnavigation, we raft up in the shelter of our favorite barge…

Reward 1
Reward 2

… and get out the cheese, apples, and hot tea!

Reward 3

A contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge, Reward.

Travel Theme: Fresh

By Vladimir Brezina

Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge this week is Fresh.

Yesterday I saw that the ground under the mulberry tree on the corner is littered with fallen mulberries. It’s that time of the year!

And that means that, on our next Manhattan circumnavigation, at a certain spot we know, we’ll be able to pick fresh ripe mulberries right from our kayaks!

Right from our kayaks
These are red
And some are already ripe

Finally, Liquid Water!

By Vladimir Brezina

We’ve been ice-bound for the last month. No paddling—and we were beginning to feel it! But this weekend, finally, winter seems to have released its grip.

Here are a few photos from Saturday’s Manhattan circumnavigation (click on any photo to start slideshow):

A Winter Manhattan Circumnavigation

By Vladimir Brezina

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The calendar says that winter hasn’t started yet.

But what does the calendar know? Paddling-wise, it’s already deep winter here in the US Northeast. The days are short, and once the sun sets, the temperature plummets dramatically. It’s not the season for loitering on the water after dark, and even more so, for landing after dark, unavoidable as that often is. Putting away the boats in the dark, with wet fingers frozen by the cold wind, can be a distinctly unpleasant experience.

So, it’s the season for shorter trips suited to the shorter days—such as the old standby, the Manhattan circumnavigation.

Here are some photos from Saturday’s circumnavigation (click on any photo to start slideshow).

The individual photos are here.


By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

IMGP4390 cropped smallI looked behind me.

Vlad had disappeared.

Both those things were somewhat unexpected. Normally Vlad paddles slightly ahead of me, or we keep pace. But the sun was high and he was uncharacteristically lagging behind, and I thought maybe the  heat was getting to him.

He was on the far side of the Harlem River, over to the East.  And last I’d checked, he’d been paddling away from me, towards the low, almost insignificant, pedestrian bridge that connects Wards and Randalls Islands.

Now he’d disappeared under the bridge. I followed across the Harlem River to see where he was headed. In the several dozen times we’ve circumnavigated Manhattan together, we’ve never gone under that bridge. Never even discussed it. I wondered what had prompted him to do so today.

When I caught up with him, he was stopped, looking curiously at the reeds and marshland in the little cove that opened up past the bridge.

“What made you decide to come in here?” I asked.

“There’s a place where mulberry trees grow right down to the water. You can pick mulberries right from a kayak,” he said. “Erik Baard has been writing about it for years.” (Most recently here.)

Mulberries? From a kayak?

I looked around. Sure enough, I’d passed several green trees whose branches nearly touched the water. But none of them looked like berry trees.

I paddled closer to Vlad. He explained that we were in the remnants of what used to be Little Hell Gate. It was the strait between Wards and Randalls Islands that, just like “big” Hell Gate still is today, was once an open passage, with fierce tidal currents. But when Robert Moses built the Triborough—now the RFK—Bridge in the 1930s, he joined Wards and Randalls Islands together by blocking off Little Hell Gate at one end to turn it into the placid backwater that we’d entered today.

But what about those mulberries?

We paddled closer to the green trees and inspected them. It didn’t seem like there was anything much… but wait…  what was that?

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A splotch of white against the foliage. Sure enough: White mulberries!

And ripe, too. And surprisingly sweet.

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Laughing with delight, we plucked and ate the berries. There were plenty of them—because who else could reach those berries except for kayakers?

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“Erik mentioned there were some red ones, too,” Vlad said. We looked at some of the other trees. Wait… what was that? A flash of pink?

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We paddled closer, and sure enough, caught sight of some dark-purple mulberries against the green. (The pink ones were semi-ripe).

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More mulberries!

And there are more to come, judging from the quantities of unripe and semi-ripe berries. We hope to be back in the next few weeks to repeat the experience, when the tides are once again right.


A Magical Maiden Voyage

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

“This will be your best circumnav ever,” said Randy, smiling.

I smiled back, a bit dubiously.

Randy’s a friend and the owner of the New York Kayak Company.  I’d just bought a new kayak from him—a red-and-black-and-white Tiderace Xplore-S Carbon Pro, a long, lean, lightweight boat designed for expedition sea kayaking.

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I loved the new boat—which I promptly named Solstice—but I was feeling a bit squeamish about taking her for a maiden voyage on a Manhattan circumnavigation. It’s always a bit tricky paddling a new boat, particularly one that handles considerably differently than your previous one.

Solstice is a good 15 inches longer than Photon, my old Valley Avocet, and an inch or two narrower.  That design makes for a boat that’s faster and more powerful, but also potentially harder to control. And although circumnavigating Manhattan isn’t an inherently challenging proposition, there are some tricky bits, even in calm conditions.

The  swirling eddies at Hell Gate can almost always be counted on to provide some excitement, for instance, as can the ferries at the Battery (and their wakes).  Being unable to handle your boat  in such situations is not a good thing—even less so in winter, when a capsize can lead to hypothermia, even if the rescue or self-rescue is effective. So taking a brand-new boat out for a 6-hour trip seemed, under the circumstances, slightly risky.

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In the water for the first time!

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A longer, narrower boat…

But Randy’s confidence was contagious, and I tried my best to shelve the worries.  And as Vlad and I launched a bit later that day, we were both looking forward to the outing, our first longer paddle in the NYC area since before Hurricane Sandy.  I hoped Randy was right.

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First strokes

I had no idea how right he’d turn out to be. The trip was… well, “magical” is the best way I can describe it. Or maybe “enchanted”…

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Last Manhattan Circumnavigation of 2012

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal: On a sunny weekend in late October, we decided to circumnavigate Manhattan.

We didn’t anticipate, though, that, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, it would be our last circumnavigation of the year, indeed our last major trip in New York waters. And so this trip has a special resonance in our memories.

A Manhattan circumnavigation is usually a pretty predictable trip, though always a treat. It’s not particularly long by our standards, but packed with variety. The scenery ranges from the urban…

Midtown Manhattan from the East River

In the East River: the Empire State Building, with Vlad in the foreground (photo by Johna)








to the bucolic…

Fall colors in the Harlem River

Fall colors in the Harlem River







Ferries in the East River

Riding the chop and keeping an eye on the ferries down by the Battery

and the paddling conditions vary nearly as much: The water down by the Battery is often exciting (enhanced by ferry and other shipping traffic)…



Up the Harlem River

Heading up the Harlem River

but  the  long glide up the Harlem River is usually tranquil.





All in all, we looked forward to a lovely, if unexceptional trip.

Unexceptional except for being our last long trip of the year.  The following weekend, we toured the Gowanus Canal—a scenic, but short, excursion.

And the Monday after that, Sandy arrived.

Our Manhattan paddling home at Pier 40 was shut down, and the pier itself remains closed (though we’re hopeful it will reopen soon). In addition, there continue to be some restrictions on paddling in New York Harbor. So we haven’t been out (in New York waterways, at least) since.

Which made this “unexceptional” trip rather exceptional, after all.

So our recollection of this circumnavigation is tinged with a bit of melancholy and a sense of loss. As the graffiti has it:

Poetic graffiti in the East River

“Alas this bitter life filled with sweet dreams” — Poetic graffiti in the East River

But even an “ordinary” trip has moments of incandescent beauty, which will live on in our memories…

Yellow and blue nocturne

The George Washington Bridge: Yellow and blue nocturne

We hope to be back on the waters around Manhattan in 2013!

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The individual photos are here.

Once More Round Manhattan

By Vladimir Brezina

When the tide or the weather doesn’t cooperate or we simply can’t think of any other trip we’d rather do, we default to paddling round Manhattan. It’s our version of the run round the park. Yet no matter how many times we repeat it, each time we see something new. Manhattan and its waterways look different on a cold, dark day in January and on a mild gray day in March. And they look different again on a beautiful, bright blue sunny day at the end of April: here is a slideshow from yesterday’s Manhattan circumnavigation.

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