By Matt McKenna and Bill Barton
Jun. 7, 2017: The United States has more the 25,000 miles of navigable waterways, more than most countries in the world. Other than the Hudson River, Westchester County has one, and only barely. This is the Bronx River.
This waterway was the original boundary of the land purchased in 1639 by Jonas Bronck, who gave his name to both the borough and the river. It is the only fresh-flowing water in New York City.
Several weeks ago, Bill Barton and Matt McKenna chose to navigate the Bronx River about 10 miles from Bronxville to the East River. Their vessel of choice was a canoe. On Friday morning, May 10, they put in at Scout Field and began their paddle downriver to New York City.
They had some help. The Bronx River Alliance, a city-based nonprofit, is committed to bringing canoeing and recreation to the river. The Alliance has published terrific maps and guides to the waterway. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation also has invested resources, including cleanups, portages, and signs. And a neighbor, Tim Hurley, provided the metal canoe and paddles. Finally, Brendan Golden, a friend who works in Hunts Point Markets, came to help on the last portage, which was directly across from the famous markets at the mouth of the river.
Navigation tools are not really necessary for the trip. The natural flow of the river is south, and all you have to do is follow the current. There is one split near the Bronx Zoo where a right fork was definitely better than going left. But maintenance workers in the river gave them the heads-up as they paddled.
There are three waterfalls, and, as a result, three portages. The longest is in the middle of the Botanical Garden about one-quarter mile. But the signs are well placed, the path is paved, and the walk was a good break from paddling. There was no temptation to skip the portages and run the waterfalls. They each drop 10 feet, and swimming would not have been fun.
A few riffs give you a sense of river rapids. However, there are more low bottoms that scrape the canoe. Bill and Matt had to step out of the stream a few times to float over rocks. And a few branches got in the way. But in the middle of May, the water level was fine for a canoe. And the steadily flowing current seemed to take away the expected smell of city water.
Not surprisingly, the Bronx River Parkway was aptly named. It closely parallels the Bronx River for most of the trip. So does Metro-North. But, if you live in Bronxville, you have learned to tune out the noise from both of those improvements. And you seldom see either traffic or the train. Despite the occasional hubcap, grocery cart, and plastic bottles, what they remembered were the geese, ducks, fish, clear water, and mostly sandy bottoms.
And, of course, the highlight of the passage is the trip through the Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. You know you have entered those preserves because the surface noise disappears. The water is a little cleaner; the trees are a little better pruned; and the banks give way to parks, trees, and visitors to these two magnificent facilities. When the zoo's tram went overhead, the tourists waved as if Bill and Matt were part of the exhibit. They were probably the only specimens that waved back.
The best paddling section of the river is the mile or so south of the Bronx Zoo that is next to Starlight Park at 172nd Street and is the home of the Bronx River Alliance. The water is deep. There are no rocks or branches and the curves of the river introduce beautiful vistas at every bend. This is where the local groups want to turn the Sheridan Expressway into a tree-lined boulevard and gateway to the shores of the river.
After Starlight Park, the river and the canoe floated under the Cross Bronx Expressway, the Bruckner Expressway, the 2, 5, and 6 subway lines, and Amtrak before it came to Hunts Point Markets, where the tributary widens, deepens, and begins to form its mouth and connection to the East River.
This is where the view was the most expansive. From the water, you can see Whitestone Bridge, LaGuardia Airport, Rikers Island, and the skyline of Manhattan. It is also where Bill and Matt encountered their only real surprises, one manmade and the other quite natural.
The manmade burden was a boom stretched across the river to collect debris. It was connected by pieces of plastic that were about a foot above the water. They tried several times to speed the canoe over the plastic barrier. But the only effective method was for the paddler in the bow to put down his paddle, lean over the bow, and force the boom down under the canoe. Then as they entered the East River in sight of their target, the natural burden arose. The wind picked up and soon there were whitecaps. Their goal was Soundview Park, and they quickly pointed to the northern-most point of the park as their takeout point. They found a landing spot and ended up with one final portage to the car.
It wasn't until this last carry, about a half mile, that the team discovered the proper way of carrying the canoe. Upside down and resting on top of the shoulders was definitely the recommended choice.
From there it was easy to put the canoe back on top of the car, which had been parked earlier that morning. It felt as if we had put in a full day of manual labor with overtime, but we were smiling after completing such a fun and interesting adventure.
Pictured here (from top): Matt McKenna; Bill Barton; Bill Barton (L) and Matt McKenna.
Photos courtesy Matt McKenna