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The Norwalk Islands seemed to be our next “logical” destination. Lyn’s stories from last year’s trip to the Norwalk Islands with the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club, combined with the missed opportunity to join the YPRC trip this year due to another “first” for me, paddling to Breezie Point together with Jeff Folmsbee, put the trip to Norwalk Islands on the map. During the 1800s and early 1900s many families lived on the Norwalk Islands. One farmer raised his sheep on Sheffield Island and separated the ewes from the rams by driving the males across the sandbar at very low tide to a neighboring island, which soon became known as Ram Island. Once used by Mormon missionaries, as a place to baptize converts without being bothered by onlookers, Ram Island was also the site of one of several noxious fish-oil rendering plants. Early environmentalists protested the smoke and odor wafted from the island to the neighboring mainland, and the plants were shut down in the late 1880’s. Ram Island has been renamed to “Shea Island” in honor of Norwalk’s Vietnam soldier Daniel Shea.
Due to the fact that neither my trusted paddling and camping friend Lyn or myself own cars, we decided to paddle to Ram Island, sorry: Shea Island, all the way from pier 63. We were both curious how far we could stretch our reach for future weekend camping trips. At first glance, the distance of about 43 to 45 miles seems a lot. But compared to a 33 miles trip from pier 63 to Croton Point which I paddled a few times back and forth over the past weekends, it would be only an additional 10 to 12 miles. On the other hand, even 33 miles could be cruel. My last paddle to Croton Point on July 24th (up) and July 25th (down) felt twice as hard as usual due to strong head winds and 1-2 feet waves all the way from pier 63 to Croton Point. Hoping for good weather and that the excitement of exploring new territories (at least for us) would kill some pain of the long trip, we went ahead with the idea of going for it. Bail out options was in place: Michelle of Outdoor Adventures in Norwalk offered us to store our kayaks in her facility in case we would not feel like paddling back on Sunday. If the trip seemed too extensive for one day of paddling, we would have camped somewhere on the way, extending the one-way route trip to 2 days. Jeff Folmsbee and Julia, Jack Gilman and Mike Britnack would join us at the Norwalk Islands on Saturday, paddling over to the island from Norwalk, Jack Gilman all the way from Mamaroneck.
We met on Friday at 5:30 am at pier 63, and launched at 6.00 am, against a slight current towards the Battery. The East River’s flood brought us to Hell’s Gate, where we made a turn right towards Ryker’s Island. Passing Ryker’s Island on its Eastern side sandwiched us between Ryker’s Island and the pier-like landing strip of LaGuardia airport. The boys from Ryker’s Island responded swiftly, LaGuardia didn’t: 2 police cars of the New York Boldest escorted us, with all navigation lights illuminated, until we succeeded in rounding Ryker’s Island without being held on that island ourselves. At our breakfast stop at the College Point marina we met a marina worker who went with us over the map and asked kindly if we know what we are were into with our 45 miles+ trip. After passing the Whitestone Bridge, the SUNY Maritime University and our first lighthouse, we reached Executions Island, our second lighthouse of a total of 9 lighthouses we would pass on this day. Right before Execution Island, we passed City Island and Hart Island on our left, with its huge sign painted on an old, tall, brick wall, “PRISON – KEEP AWAY”. Another prison, but luckily, this one closed a long time ago. Hart Island looks like a great to island to pitch your tent and to have a cozy campfire going, but only if you do not feel intimidated by its scary past. Think about all disasters and illnesses of human mankind and you will find them all on Hart Island at one time in the past 200 years: Hart Island had been commandeered to confine Confederate prisoners during the Civil War. After the war, the city bought the island from the Hunter family for a public burial ground for the poor and unclaimed. Nearly two thousand bodies went into the earth in the first year alone. When a yellow fever epidemic erupted in 1869 in New Yok City, a section of Hart Island was set aside to quarantine the stricken. The island also came to house a woman’s charity hospital, an insane asylum, and a jail for prisoners working the burial detail, an old men’s home, a tuberculosis hospital for woman, and, starting in 1904, a “reformatory” for young men. Later, overflow prisoners from regular city jails were also moved in. Hart Island was considered the poorest, meanest, worst provisioned reformatory in the state, perhaps in any state. As if all this was not enough, Hart Island Reformatory was scandal plagued as well. The long gone NY paper “New York Evening Mail” had exposed brutality, depravity, and corruption on the island, where five hundred inmates lived without heat because guards were stealing the coal to sell. At Execution Island’s lighthouse, half a mile past Hart Island, Lyn’s GPS pointed out it is another 22 miles to the Norwalk Islands if we would go a straight line from Execution Rock to Shea Island at 60 degrees. We took that as good news and decided to go straight through the Long Island Sound since the weather was cooperating with a light wind from the back and very calm seas. After being on the water for 14 hours, we reached Shea Island at about 8.00 PM. As we approached the beach where our campsite is located, we could not believe there were Yonkers’ own Madeleine, Lyn’s companion from the GHRP, and her friend Michelle waiting for us at the beach. Madeleine and Michelle are both veteran paddlers who paddled the Hudson from Albany to NYC already twice together, among many other adventurous trips they shared with us over wine, pasta and Michelle’s margarita mix out of a half gallon plastic bottle at the campfire.
What a perfect timing. The next day, Saturday, Jeff, Julia, Jack and Mike joined us at our campsite number 4. The day passed (too) quickly with rolling, eating, paddling and a beautiful dinner over the open fire, prepared by Jeff and Julia. Lyn and I also took some time off from our friends to paddle together around the neighboring islands of Shea Islands. To both explore these tiny, beautiful islands, and to reflect together yesterday’s long paddling day. Sunday, everybody broke camp and we contemplated about our individual escape plans from the island. Jack paddled back to his car, parked in Mamaroneck, Julia and Jeff back to their car in Norwalk, Lyn and Mike back to Mike’s car, also parked in Norwalk, and me paddling back to pier 63. As bail out plan in case I would not feel like paddling all the way back to NYC, I could have ended the trip in Mamaroneck, since Jack offered me to take me and my boat along with his car back to Yonkers. In the end, I did not take Jack on his offer, since I found myself in a good paddle routine at the moment I passed Mamaroneck. So far the paddle was as close to an effortless gliding as I could imagine, and all I wanted to do is to hold on to that groove. Lesson learned: Marshmallows do make an excellent pre-evening paddle-fuel supply. The paddle back was surprisingly similar to the paddle 2 days earlier: Perfect conditions.
Little wind, little waves, not too hot, and only a few power boaters were out on this Sunday. And again 9 beautiful lighthouses passed by, this time on my right. I wonder why all these lighthouse-keeper houses were boarded up, except the one on Sheffield Island. Obviously, lighthouses have been automated a long time ago, but the accompanying houses to each tower look like prime real estate to me. Especially the lighthouse and lighthouse-keeper house on Execution Rock. It stood right in the middle of the LI sound and had exactly the size of the rock which it was built on. I could imagine living in this lighthouse as a retiree, and running a coffee shop catered to boaters from that lighthouse island on weekends. On the way back I passed Ryker’s Island on its North Western shore, this time without the escort mentioned earlier on. The first surprise of the evening was just around the corner: With low tide at the Battery at 3:40 PM, and me being at Hell’s Gate at 5:30 PM, I hoped to catch a weak ebb current to the Battery, and being around the Battery at 6:30 PM, and “home” at Pier 63 at around 7:30 PM. But that darn East River was pushing against me already. No idea why. Was it the influence of the full moon, or was I just plain late? (Yes, I was just plain late, I just found out by looking into the Eldridge that the East River currents change one (1) hour past low tide, not after two (2) hours as on the Hudson River). Anyway, I had too much respect of the East River currents, especially while being sandwiched between the shore and Roosevelt Island, to try to paddle against Mother nature’s will after being on the water for 8 hours already. Next surprise: While paddling up the Harlem River, I realized that the current was pushing against me here as well. And here again was the current quite strong. Weird.
Good news: I did not have a lot of time complaining about this strong current against me. Bad news: The reason for that lack of attention for the current was that I had the pleasure to experience another surprise, materializing itself now in my 2 water bottles: They were both empty. I drank twice as much water as on my trip to the Norwalk Islands 2 days ago. How could that be? Was it the dehydration from the hangover from last night’s party around the camp fire? Now being tired, thirsty, and hungry and paddling against an increasing current in the Harlem River, the day got a little bit longer than I expected. But relief was just around the corner: I remembered our burgers and the “basket of shrimps” we had with Bonnie, Lyn and Mike Cook back in March at Tubby Hook. Tubby Hook! The vision of refueling there and waiting for the ebb to arrive over a burger and a couple of drinks energized my mind and body enough to paddle in good spirits around Spuyten Devil. As I was just starting to get annoyed about myself, not having really prepared the trip back from the Norwalk Islands and not having bothered looked at the Eldridge etc., wonderful things started to happen. At 8:30 PM, now for nearly 12 hours on the water, I finally reached Tubby Hook. I decided to dock at the Tubby Hook marina, not at the sandy beach, avoiding leaving my boat unattended. While passing Tubby Hook-the-bar, I saw that there was a salsa band playing and that the place was packed above capacity.
The Hudson River Watertrail Guide, edition 2004, says about the Tubby Hook marina: “There is also a small yacht club, but don’t expect hospitality: There’s a fortress mentality in this part of town”.
An incentive to show best possible manners while approaching the personnel which assembled here on the pier while watching the salsa bands playing nearby. I pulled my boat onto the pier, and asked the four guys sitting in these white plastic chairs on the pier if it’s OK that I leave my boat here for a while, while getting something to eat and drink at the Tubby Hook bar next door. They mentioned it would be no problem at all, but explained that the concert at the Tubby Hook was sold out; this is why they do not let anybody into the Tubby Hook-the-restaurant anymore.
And by the way: “Where are you paddling from and where are you going, brother?” As I told them I came from Norwalk, doors literally opened for me: Plenty of food, Hennesey and beer fell plentiful from the sky! Nelson took me under his wings and away from the pier, to the sold out Tubby-Hook-the-bar. He introduced me to the bouncers from the bar, which let me pass through a side gate, and Nelson guided me right into the kitchen trailer.
There he gave the operating chef $40, and asked him to serve me as much as I wanted to eat and drink. Before I could even say “Thank you”, Nelson disappeared. He run back to his pier, watching the bands playing and left me standing in the kitchen trailer, now contemplating about my dinner plans. I ordered a burger, fried chicken, lots of fries, an orange juice, and coke and went back the to the pier. Nelson and his friends Comple, Mark, Emilio and Alfonso were still on the pier, partying and enjoying themselves while listening and watching their favorite band from the Dominican Republic, “Dorito”, playing fierce salsa tunes. They offered me a beer, some Hennesey and a black label Jack Daniels as a good bye drink, before I made my way to pier 63 at 10:30 PM against a mild flood. By hugging the shore as close as possible, I even got some help from back eddies, ending the voyage at 12:30 PM at pier 63. I just hope that Nelson and his friends Comple, Emilio, Mark and Alfonso never get a hand on the Hudson Water Trail Guide. I would be quite ashamed if they would read the review about their “fortress”. Thank you Lyn, Jeff, Julia, Jack and Mike for that unforgettable weekend with you.
“When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.” -Mark Twain
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