At See Level Ten urban escapes, just a paddle stroke away
by Reed McManus
AMERICA'S GREAT CITIES were built around ports and waterways. But unless you've got a stevedore in your family, these days you may think of your nearest harbor, bay, or river as merely a scenic backdrop.
In doing so, you're missing out on a wealth of easy-to-reach and fascinating outdoor recreation possibilities. Whether you meander among an industrial waterscape of docks, cargo ships, and houseboats or discover pocket-size wetlands and wildlife habitat miraculously hidden beyond the reach of cars and concrete, you'll wind up with a new perspective on the urban environment. A hundred yards offshore, the buildings, roadways, and congestion become the backdrop, and the slosh of waves against your hull and the dip of your paddle blade become your world. Here are some ideas on where to go and how to get started:
New York City
From a kayak, Lady Liberty and Manhattan's skyline never looked more impressive. You have to contend with post-September 11 security zones, a busy harbor, and strong tides. (The Mahicans, the Hudson River valley's first residents, called the Hudson Muh-he-kun-ne-tuk, "the river that flows both ways.") But a Hudson paddling trip is still an instant antidote to concrete-canyon claustrophobia--and a quick way to remind yourself that Manhattan really is an island. The ten-mile round-trip to the Statue of Liberty is a favorite of both locals and visitors. The Big Apple's commercial paddling outfitters include the Manhattan Kayak Company and New York Kayak Company. The New York City Downtown Boathouse is an all-volunteer organization that provides free access to the Hudson, including loaner kayaks, instruction, and guided tours.
For a less urban perspective, venture an hour or so north of the city on the Hudson, where you can enjoy the miles-from-nowhere feel of Storm King Mountain and the Hudson Highlands, some of New York State's most spectacular scenery. Rental kayaks and canoes are available at Hudson Highlands State Park's Annsville Creek Paddlesport Center.
Long a sailor's haven, San Francisco Bay is a paddler's paradise too. Favorite spots include the city's busy waterfront; Angel Island State Park (reachable with a short sprint across sometimes-perilous Raccoon Strait); the colorful houseboats north of Sausalito; and Brooks Island, a 373-acre wildlife sanctuary off the East Bay shoreline (open only to guided group tours). Expert kayakers are challenged by the winds and tides of the Golden Gate, heading in calm weather under the famed bridge to secluded Kirby Cove in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Wildlife watchers love the marshlands of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge at the bay's south end. Within day-trip range of San Francisco, paddlers vie for space with pelicans and leopard sharks at Drake's Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore or head to Tomales Bay, a 22-mile-long inlet that is part of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. (The estuary's Hog Island Oyster Company is a memorable stop after--or even during--a paddling excursion.) Area outfitters include City Kayak, Sea Trek, and Cal Adventures, the University of California at Berkeley's outdoor education program, which offers classes and boat rentals to the public.
Living on an isthmus squeezed between saltwater Puget Sound to the west and freshwater Lake Washington to the east, Seattle's residents don't have far to go to get their boating fix. In fact, many start in the heart of the city, where Lake Union is a classic urban paddling spot hard by docks, bridges, and a treasure trove of industrial sights. One glimpse of outfitter-cum-Mexican- cantina Agua Verde Cafe and Paddle Club on nearby Portage Bay is enough to convince visitors that Seattleites take their recreation very seriously. From Lake Union, paddlers head east through the wetlands and bird habitat of the Washington Park Arboretum (which, alas, is threatened by plans to widen the state highway that slices through it) and into Lake Washington; head west, and they pass through the Ballard Locks and alongside the 21-step Lake Washington Ship Canal fish ladder (with an underwater viewing gallery, a must-see) before heading out into Puget Sound. One place to get started is the Northwest Outdoor Center.
The storied Charles River flows for 80 miles on its serpentine route toward Boston Harbor--covering a mere 26 miles of terrain as the crow flies--and crosses the most densely populated river basin in New England. Boston paddlers flock to the river for waterside vantages of the city, the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Charles River Esplanade, and the campuses of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (On the Fourth of July, paddlers congregate near the famous Hatch Shell to listen to the Boston Pops and watch fireworks.) Just upriver, they enjoy the Lake District, six miles of flat water between the cities of Newton and Waltham. Farther on, kayakers and canoeists encounter the quasi-wilderness of the Upper Charles: places like the 30-acre Charles River Peninsula, where the stream makes a 180-degree turn among birch, hemlock, and beech trees, and Bridge Island Meadows, a tallgrass refuge accessible only by boat. Seagoing paddlers point their bows into the harbor and tour the 34 islands of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. The easiest trips start from the park's Hingham Harbor, which is protected from the open Atlantic by the Hull Peninsula. Experienced kayakers head to the park's more remote outer islands, but they must be skilled in tidal currents and open-ocean paddling. A good source for local paddling information is Charles River Canoe & Kayak.
Perhaps politics in the nation's capital would be saner if more of our legislators worked out their aggressions and fears on the nearby Potomac River. Just 14 miles away on the Maryland-Virginia border, expert kayakers run the Class V and VI rapids at Great Falls. There are calmer spots, too, including flat water near Old Angler's Inn in Potomac, Maryland. Several sections of the restored Chesapeake and Ohio Canal offer opportunities to relax and focus on painted turtles, kingfishers, and great blue herons instead of appropriations riders and attack ads. Area outfitters include Potomac Paddlesports, the Thompson Boat Center, and Jack's Boathouse in Georgetown near the Capitol.
If you're not from Texas, you may not be aware that Houston is known as the Bayou City. Buffalo Bayou (right), the longest paddleable area in the region, runs through the center of the city, providing kayakers opportunities to spend a few hours with ospreys, jumping fish, and even alligators. Some 30 miles southeast, near NASA's Johnson Space Center and Galveston Bay, paddlers can explore coastal flatwood forest and a tallgrass prairie in 2,500-acre Armand Bayou. Visit bayoupreservation.org.
In 35-mile-long Biscayne Bay, also known as "Miami's backyard," paddlers congregate at places like Oleta River State Park, the largest urban park in Florida, where they meander among mangroves and encounter manatees and dolphins. Paddlers can also snorkel, spotting tropical fish, upside-down jellyfish, and eagle rays. Check out floridastateparks.org/oletariver and miamidade.gov/parks.
In the Windy City, kayakers enjoy the urban-canyon experience of paddling the Chicago River and viewing the city's skyline and sunsets from adjacent Lake Michigan. For a more bucolic experience, they head to the 190-acre Skokie Lagoons and the Chicago River's North Branch, where they encounter herons and turtles, or to the many forest preserves and parks along the DuPage River, approximately 30 miles from the city center. Go to chicagoriver.org.
The Mile High City's whitewater kayakers don't have to trek into the Rockies: They have Confluence Park at the junction of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek in their own backyard. Its artificial chutes are rated Class II to III for their small-to-powerful rapids (see canoecolorado.com/trips).