By Johna Till Johnson
They call it “Chromium Beach”, not entirely in jest. Back in the first half of the 1900s, a company called Mutual Chemical contaminated swathes of New Jersey with hexavalent chromium. One of those areas was in Liberty State Park, the green area to the west of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where there’s a lovely sandy beach on the Hudson shore.
Chromium Beach is a popular destination for Manhattan kayakers, due to its proximity, its topology, and the scenic views it provides. It’s close enough to be an easy afternoon trip (assuming the currents are in your favor), and the beach landing is in calm, protected water.
And the views! Oh, the views!
So it was a reasonable destination for the first day of December. I hadn’t paddled from Pier 84 in months, and was missing the bustle and churn of paddling in the New York waterways.
I set south around 12:15 with no clear destination in mind. By my calculations it was almost exactly slack, so I crossed over to New Jersey shore and wound my way down, hoping to use the back-eddy to combat the anticipated adverse current. My plan, such as it was, was to keep paddling until either the current or my inclination caused me to turn around.
There was still a reasonably strong ebb, so I glided downriver at a fairly rapid clip. The maritime radio was on, with the crackle and calls of a busy day on the water: “See you on two whistles, Cap’n?” “That’ll be fine! Two whistles.” “Okay, have a good day, Cap’n!”
I zipped under the bridge connecting Ellis Island to the New Jersey mainland. It was newly re-opened to kayak traffic after the 9/11 security closures, and I savored the opportunity to go around the calmer back waters to the west of Ellis and Liberty Islands.
A ghostly memory surfaced: Early one summer morning, Vlad and I had stopped at a sandbar near the beach on the way to points south. The sun was just rising, and baby hermit crabs had left tracks on the sand. I remember saying, “Look, Vlad, crabs!” (One of his research studies used crabs as subjects, and he was fascinated by the creatures.) For a moment, the air seemed touched with the shimmering golden promise of that morning.
Then the golden memory faded, and I was back in the reality of a gray, chilly winter day. There was no wind, and the water was calm, but brisk (temperature around 42 degrees). The air wasn’t much warmer. I was glad for the wool I was wearing under the drysuit.
My stomach growled, and the thought of hot cocoa took shape. I’d brought a thermos of it, and it seemed like a delightful idea to stop on Chromium Beach for a hot drink and a look at the view.
The late-afternoon light tinged the sky peach and gilded the skyline of Manhattan. Behind me: trees, grass, and parkland. In front of me: the lapping waves and some of the most iconic images in the country.
Soon after, I was back in the boat and heading North, keeping a sharp eye out for ferries. The flood was late and a bit sluggish, but the growing momentum gave a nice assist, and soon the skylines of New York and New Jersey were streaming by.
I arrived back at Pier 84 at 3:45, happy and satisfied. It had been an ordinary trip. But no paddle is truly ordinary. Even the most prosaic is touched with magic!
Paddle Name: Chromium Beach 12-01-18
Craft: Photon (Valley Avocet)
Paddle Date: Dec 01, 2018
Paddle Launch Point: Pier 84, Manhattan Paddle
Launch Time: 12:15 PM
End Point: Pier 84, Manhattan (went down to Chromium beach behind SOL and back)
Paddle End Time: 3:40 PM
Distance Traveled: 11 nautical miles
Time Paddling: 3.25 hours
Time Stopped: 10 minutes (cocoa on beach)
Average Pace: 3.38 knots