It is about four a.m. I am lying in a wet sleeping bag on the cobblestones of Fort Schuyler, a helpless old bastion that once guarded the eastern approaches to New York. Although Fort Schuyler could not now repel a frontal assault by fanatical bunny rabbits, at the moment its stout walls are serving me and three comrades well. Outside the open sally port where we are bedded down, a tropical storm called Doria is doing her roaring best to qualify as a full-scale hurricane. This is canoeing at its wettest worst.
Two days ago when I embarked with five other voyageurs to rediscover the New York waterfront, I had two writing pads and a tape recorder. Yesterday morning before we started out in a downpour, I mistakenly threw the pad containing notes on our first day's travel in a garbage can. The other writing pad is still with me but so soggy that barely half its pages are good for anything except making spitballs.
I brought a tape recorder with me to pick up anything said by me or Chuck Stewart, the sternman in my canoe, as we paddled along. After draining rainwater out of the tape recorder half an hour ago, I turned it on and got a lot of noise. I daresay that in the three centuries since Marquette and Jolliet plied the Mississippi, there has never been a canoe trip as loud as this one.
Most of what the recorder played back is garble, but here and there in its din I recognize some of the particular sounds of the past two days: the thunder of a squall, the bluster of tropical storm Doria, the howl and whine of jets headed for La Guardia Airport and, occasionally, the flatulence of trucks on bridges. At one point on the tape I can make out the sad cry of herring gulls, and at another my own voice complaining, "We aren't making a foot of headway in this damn wind." After serving up mixed noises for 15 minutes, the recorder began coughing gutterally. Then it died altogether.
November 22, 1971
As I lie here on old stones in a storm, holding a flashlight in my mouth, writing on damp paper that barely supports a pen, I should be downcast, but I take comfort remembering that the famous 17th-century canoeist, Louis Jolliet, was a scant day's paddle from Montreal when he capsized and lost the entire journal of his Mississippi River adventure. Jolliet blew the whole deal, and I am well on the way to doing the same. Plus √ßa change, I say. Qué serà? And what the hell. Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow maybe it will not rain.
It is now about half an hour later. I cannot sleep, so I have put flashlight back in mouth and taken pen in hand to continue. It is not tropical storm Doria that keeps me awake but my own inner excitement and the lousy accommodations. At this point the sound of Doria is sweet. The louder she howls, the sooner she is apt to clear out of here and head for Connecticut, where she will no doubt have a ball uprooting 200-year-old elms and knocking steeples off historic churches.
The Navy-standard inflatable life vest that I planned to use for a pillow on this trip leaks. I have often slept without a pillow but never in a wet sleeping bag on stones that are about as comfy as a fakir's bed of nails. A wet sleeping bag clings. In the last half hour every time I turned over, seeking relief from the stones, part of the sleeping bag rolled with me. A couple more turns and I would have been impossibly wound up in it.
This was the second time I tried to go to bed tonight and failed. After a day of paddling in mist and squall, drizzle and pour, at about two this morning I retreated to Fort Schuyler with three of the other canoeists, John Stookey, Dery Bennett and Herschel Post. At that hour the heavy rain along the dirty leading edge of tropical storm Doria had let up, and the wind was barely enough to bend a sapling. So we bedded down in newfangled tents that are nothing like the old sidewall types I have used before.
Whenever the wind is too much for it, an old sidewall tent simply pulls up its stakes and takes off, leaving its occupants exposed. A fancy, modern tent of the sort we are using on this trip is supported by an exoskeleton of aluminum tubing and resembles a futuristic, thin-skinned beetle. Since it has a ground cover connected to its sides, when you crawl inside one of these modern tents you belong to it. The least puff of air starts it quivering. The first 10 minutes I spent in the tent John Stookey lent me I felt as if I were inside a large bowl of Jell-O.
I had slept scarcely 20 minutes this stormy morning when the quivering tent waked me. The wind had picked up. It was well over gale force to judge by the sound of it, and the tent was responding to each gust, a creature possessed. One minute the front end of it would rear up. When I threw my weight in that direction, the other end would leave the ground. By spread-eagling myself, I managed to keep it fairly level, but the tent was obviously eager to be on its way. As the wind increased I realized that any minute I might be the first camper ever to take off successfully and crash in a flying tent. By the time I decided to bail out, Stookey, Bennett and Post, my companions in similar tents, had already done so. After wrestling our billowing shelters into a portable state, the four of us regrouped in this sally port of the fort to finish out the night. Chuck Stewart and Cal Plimpton, the other two in our party, had already withdrawn a quarter mile down the road to sleep on sofas in a college lounge.
Although tropical storm Doria is running things right now, I doubt if her antics will be what we best remember when we finally haul our canoes out 65 miles farther along. The city itself is too hot a package ever to be upstaged by a passing storm. Ever since I took up existence in one of its warrens, I have considered New York to be the world's worst vertical mistake, a city so compressed that explosion is inevitable. New York's slums and parks lie hard by each other. Filth and grandeur, monotony and excitement are well integrated. In any large New York park you can find Boy Scouts, joggers, bicyclists, empire builders, panhandlers, common pigeons and accomplished thugs, all using the same public parcel for their particular needs. The city's rabid radical rousers and its conservative polliwogs are frequently found ranting in the same public squares, sometimes espousing the same causes.
Lawrence Whit, the man who carted us and our three canoes to our jumping-off spot on the Hutchinson River near the northern limits of the city, was armed with a tear-gas device. Whit explained to me that in the predawn in that part of the Bronx you never know whom you might meet. To judge by the broken streetlights and the rusty switchblade I found in the weeds, that part of the Bronx does have an undesirable element. Nonetheless, as we carried our canoes through junk to water, the only public offender we encountered was a rat. I think it was the common species, Rattus norvegicus, but I am not sure, for it quickly fled under some old bedsprings without baring a fang.
If our purpose had been to sample the best and worst of New York, we could have quit in half a day. In our first mile down the Hutchinson River we passed a complex of high-rise apartments called Co-op City, better known as New York's biggest penitentiary. New York once was a city-nation of little neighborhoods and mixed tongues. As a result of all the witless construction going on—glassy offices and high rises—the city is losing its diverse character and charm, acquiring instead a sterile magnificence that is Orwellian and downright dull.
Even before entering the mainstream of the Hutchinson, we saw small fish dimpling the oil slick. Dery Bennett, who on workdays serves as conservation director of the American Littoral Society, identified these surface dimplers as killifish, and I go along with him. In the boyhood I partly wasted fishing in South Jersey, whenever I needed flounder bait I knew there were killifish galore around the sewer outlets in the bays back of Absecon Island.
Directly across from the towers of Coop City on the Hutchinson River we passed salt-grass flats lush enough to qualify as wilderness. No doubt some day high-rise apartments will be stacked on this marsh, but right now it is an inviolate part of New York's park system—badly oil-soaked but sacrosanct. I fully expected to find herring gulls working the area, for they know how to make a living where there is little life. Curiously, the first water bird we saw was a little green heron, a species I always considered too finicky for such a slum. The list of birds Chuck Stewart and I spotted in the first two miles is lost in the notes I mistakenly threw out. Offhand I remember a green heron and snowy egret, mallard and black ducks, herring gulls and a solitary blackback.
Except for a television crew that followed us a short way in a tug, the only people we saw in our first few miles were three water skiers, two fishermen and a horseshoe pitcher. As we paddled by, one of the water skiers took a spill in the Hutchinson River. He surfaced immediately, declaring, "This water tastes like——." I asked one of the fishermen we met what he was fishing for. "Probably nothing," he replied. The horseshoe pitcher, a retired subway motorman named Matthew Montgomery, was waiting for cronies to show up in a bosky dell on the shore of Pelham Bay Park. He invited us to stick around to watch the contest, but we had many a mile to go before sundown.
Although its bridges and the tunnels under its salt rivers obscure the truth, New York is an island city. Only one of the city's five boroughs, the Bronx, is situated on the mainland of North America. Two of its boroughs, Richmond and Manhattan, are islands unto themselves (in more ways than one). The other two, Brooklyn and Queens, take up the western end of Long Island. In its 320 square miles above the high-tide line, New York includes many lesser islands, the exact number indeterminate because the topography of the city has been in turmoil since the coming of the white man and his all-powerful tool, the hydraulic dredge. Creeks and tidal guts that once were no longer are. Within the city limits of New York, new islands have been piled up; others have been enlarged and joined; some have disappeared. For example, the south end of one parcel in the East River is still called Ward's Island and the north end is called Randall's Island, although the two have been connected by fill for more than 10 years.
In the past century New York has used its lesser islands in a variety of doleful ways, as burial ground, as isolation wards for people of contagion and as rehabilitation centers for lawbreakers and addicts. Yesterday we passed Rikers Island, the biggest of New York's little islands, but we could not land because it is used to contain lawbreakers. Back in the good old Indian days, when the Wechquaesgeek tribe of the Bronx ran things, Rikers Island was less than 100 acres. Today it is more than 400 acres, built up largely of submarine earth that New York's tunnel diggers had to put somewhere. Just beyond the southeast end of Rikers Island one of the runways of La Guardia Airport has been extended to accept jets, and the two public facilities are now at an impasse. If either facility grows 150 yards more toward the other, Rikers inmates will be able to take it on the lam and hijack a La Guardia jet without wetting a foot.
In New York, the city of perpetual upheaval, not even the dead stay put. A hundred and fifty years ago the city buried its impoverished on the south end of Manhattan. When real-estate values in that area improved, the dead were re-buried roughly where 42nd Street intersects Fifth Avenue. When that land became valuable, everybody was re-exhumed and re-reburied farther north. I will say this about New York: it takes care of dead citizens. If you are a dead New Yorker and your relatives are strapped or too stingy, the city buries you free on Hart Island, a lovely place. There is one hooker: about every 40 years the city redigs where they buried you, sifts your remains to the bottom and plants somebody else in the same hole. As I keep saying, this is a crowded town.
We spent an hour on Hart Island, picking berries and wandering. We did not find a scar in the land suggesting that 600,000 people are buried there, only a large monument inscribed PEACE rising out of the tall grasses of the finished summer. The water around Hart Island has a poor reputation, but the Army Corps of Engineers' crackdown on polluters must be doing good. The water was so clear that at a depth of eight feet I could see old sneakers and beer cans on the bottom. Indeed, in two days we have only passed through one bad flotsam line of trash and raw sewage. Among the mentionable items I recall in the flotsam were a head of red cabbage, a toupee and three tires, all with better tread than I have on my present car.
On our first morning, about the time the television crew took leave of us, Michael Kaufman of The New York Times showed up in a 16-foot, orange lapstrake hull. Kaufman plans to follow us all the way, reporting daily. I must say he is doing the job, handicapped by a croupy outboard motor but hanging on as if this voyage were the only news bone worth gnawing this week. John Stookey, who fomented the idea of rediscovering the waters of New York for fun, was concerned that too much press attention would turn the trip into a righteous crusade against pollution or in favor of birds, or worse. I was happy to see Mike Kaufman of the Times show up. I had heard a potential hurricane was headed our way. If the storm really walloped us, helicopters might not see our overturned canoes, but the bright orange bottom of Kaufman's press boat would be hard to miss.
Early on our first morning, when we stepped ashore at Pelham Bay Park to enjoy the environment briefly afoot, the television crew planted a remote microphone on Herschel Post. Post is executive director of The Parks Council, a public-spirited body concerned with the recreational use of city land. I suspect the television gang selected Post for bugging on the theory that he was the one most likely to let out a freshet of heady guff about man's need to get back to nature. I doubt if they got much. Although both Post and Dery Bennett of the American Littoral Society have good axes to grind on such a trip, they have been taking it casually like the rest of us.
Of all the wild and half-wild creatures we have met so far, the most intriguing is our expedition leader, John Stookey. He is an inspired wanderer, endowed with the curiosity of a wharf rat and the sort of unquenchable zest that made Franklin D. Roosevelt a constant winner. When all hell is breaking loose, Stookey often has a thin cigar in his mouth, canted upward in the fashion Roosevelt used to cock his cigarette holder. I have heard Stookey say, "There is nothing quite as dull as when things are routinely bad. It is far better if things are really awful." We originally intended to take this canoe trip in the long days of early June, but late last May, while driving a tractor enthusiastically up a Vermont slope, Stookey lost steerage-way. He tried to jump clear on the downhill side but failed. The tractor rolled over him, pressing him into the earth and breaking 11 of his ribs.
Stookey can find more silver lining in a dark cloud than any man I know. When the gray leading edge of tropical storm Doria came over us, Stookey observed that we were lucky not to be paddling in the broiling sun. When the worst drenching squall hit us—a real dam buster accompanied by 40-knot winds and lightning—Stookey pointed out that the driving rain was knocking the tops off the waves. Late yesterday as we crept toward the south end of Flushing Bay, Shea Stadium, the home of the baseball Mets, loomed ahead. Stookey immediately proposed that we watch the Met game that evening and feast on hot dogs and beer. He had no idea whether the Mets were playing at home or away, or at all. Nor did he consider that the Shea outfield was probably ankle-deep after a day of deluge. Such minor realities never slow Stookey up.
On the sea I lean toward caution. In my own sailboat I seldom go out for half a day without a copy of Bowditch's Practical Navigator, a pocket edition of the King James Bible, emergency flares, a packet of marker dye and enough water and tinned food for an Atlantic crossing. In contrast, Stookey is master of the art of traveling light. Except for camping gear, the only bulky item he has on this trip is a bundle of nautical charts, all marked with routes, alternate routes and possible avenues of diversion.
Chuck Stewart, my canoe partner for most of the trip, has wandered with Stookey in the past. Before we set out, Stewart warned me about Stookey. "When John goes canoeing," Stewart said, "he loves to portage and he loves to explore." Stookey belongs to the Age of Discovery. If it had been Stookey instead of Verrazano who explored the New World for King Francis I of France, every minor creek and backwater of the Atlantic seaboard would have been charted in half a year.
To get to the south end of Flushing Bay the obvious route is through the narrows between Rikers Island and the runways of La Guardia Airport—but not when you are with Stookey. He led us under La Guardia's runways into a subterranean gloom that reminded him of Mayan temples he has visited. I have been in a few Mayan temples but never in one like the underbelly of La Guardia. The Mayan stoneworks I have seen were etched with glyphics. In sub-La Guardia there was not a literate mark on any of the concrete pilings or beams, not a line of graffiti nor a four-letter word.
In the next three days if we come to a large sewer outlet, I am sure Stookey will lead us up it. We approximated the experience yesterday around noon when we explored a stagnant meander called Pugsley Creek in the Bronx. In looking over the data I brought along to help us enjoy the waterfront, I find the city's Department of Planning considers the Pugsley Creek area a problem, socially and physically. According to a planning department report, the area is one of "rising community tension" where old residents resent the new. The report goes on to say that "the overflow that empties into Pugsley and Westchester Creeks after a storm creates unpleasant odors." Possibly so, but when we pulled ashore in a corker of a storm, I smelled nothing. As for community tension, we detected none that rain-soaked day. The people of Pugsley Creek took us to their bosoms.
From the spot we landed on Pugsley Creek our only access to public streets was through a large swimming-pool facility wishfully called the Castle Hill Beach Club. At the far end of the club property we came to the entrance building. John Stookey has a way of suddenly delegating responsibility to members of his crew. Probably because I looked the wettest and most forlorn, Stookey said it was my job to get us out through the club entrance. Approaching the attendant on duty, I said, "Sir, we have been cast upon your shore...." I was prepared to go into details of our plight—pangs of hunger and so on—but there was no need. Impressed by the volume of water we were shedding on the floor, the attendant waved us through.
Across the street from the Castle Hill Club we had drinks at the Hi-Tide Hideaway owned by the seven Cinnante brothers: Joseph, Emil, Sonny, Sal, Louis—and I forget the other two. Then we ate clams and hero sandwiches next door at Tim Tarn's Barbecue, owned by the same Cinnante clan. One Cinnante brother—Emil, I think—said we must have pasta for brains to be canoeing in such weather. On the radio in Tim Tarn's Barbecue an announcer was doting over the damage already done by tropical storm Doria and her future plans. According to the announcer, Doria had knocked the Virginia capes for a loop and was centered off New Jersey, "packing winds of near-hurricane force," headed for New York. "This is no time to be out in a boat," the announcer declared exuberantly. I looked at Stookey, our leader. He was aglow, enjoying the news of Doria almost as much as his second order of clams. "I have no idea where we will end up tonight," he informed us. "After this rain," I pointed out, "Mount Ararat is going to be the only place."
When the announcer warned that tides would be three to five feet higher than normal and flooding could be expected, Stookey was almost uncontained. "Do you realize what that means?" he said. "Tonight we may be able to paddle up a street, park our canoes and eat at an excellent restaurant."
"It occurs to me," I said levelly, "that if there is water in the streets, no one will be driving cars, and the excellent restaurants probably will not stay open to cater to passing canoeists."
All yesterday I rode with Stookey in our lead canoe called Old Grandad. Although all three canoes are classic, warped-wood, canvas-covered craft made by the Old Town Company in Maine, Old Grandad is far the oldest. It originally belonged to Stookey's father and is now in its 33rd year. When we disembarked in Pugsley Creek, I carefully hauled Old Grandad well ashore, until its stern barely was in water. I forgot that when higher water than normal is expected, the tide comes in faster. When we got back to Pugsley Creek, Old Grandad was gone. "I have goofed," I confessed to Stookey. "We are up a creek without a canoe."
By the luck of it, the wind was blowing from the mouth of the creek, and Old Grandad had taken off upstream. Fortunately also, Pugsley Creek is one of the waterways that the earth changers of New York have been filling in. If the creek still wound around as it once did, we would have had to slog a mile or more into the heart of the Bronx to recover the canoe—somewhere past Bruckner Boulevard. As it was, we had to go barely a quarter mile to find poor Old Grandad waiting for us, pressed by the wind against pilings near the present, truncated end of Pugsley Creek.
It is now the predawn of our fourth day. With a new writing pad and flashlight in mouth, I am bedded down on the cabin top of an old Gloucester schooner, Caviare, alongside a pier in lower Manhattan. The buildings of New York's financial district dwarf the old schooner. I should be feeling small, lying at the feet of giants, but I am stimulated by the heavy, wharfy odor of the East River.
We are packing our own grub on this trip, but because of the wild weather we have been forced to live off the land more than we planned. In a complicated wilderness like New York, of course, living off the land is a very broad term. Last night, for example, we ate at a good restaurant called the Pagoda in Chinatown. On sorties to Chinatown and elsewhere, we have traveled on land more erratically than by canoe. In the process of retracing our steps to pick up baggage we left behind, we have thumbed rides, taken cabs and used subway and bus. By chance as much as design, we have ended up twice in the Moby Dick, a restaurant-lounge on Throgs Neck that features topless entertainers such as Ida the Spider and Lisa the Pleaser. Although the show in the Moby Dick is well within the limits of modern, erotic decency, the proprietor, Vinnie Foley, tells me he still has problems with blue-nosed citizens in the area.
After three days of exposure to John Stookey, I am infected with his zeal. So much so that when we backtracked to Throgs Neck last night to pick up sleeping bags and whatnot, I proposed we take one canoe on the subway with us. We are the only canoeists who ever paddled under an airport. It would be fine if we were also the first to portage by subway under a river. Getting a canoe into a subway car is perhaps an impossible dream, but the transit attendants probably would have let us try. Everywhere else we have gone with our canoes—paddling or portaging—we have had entree. If we had been traveling in any craft powered by so much as an eggbeater, we would have been treated simply as another larking gang of stinkpotters. In canoes, we have been welcomed like wayward sons home finally from the sea.
In Queens, in a cove at the bottom of Little Neck Bay, a lovely lady named Aurora Gareiss—a wildlife lover, onetime sailor and antipowerboater—invited us onto her lawn for lunch. Aurora Gareiss feels all canoeists should be encouraged since they create no stink.
The six of us are using the deck of the schooner Caviare tonight courtesy of the management of the South Street Seaport Museum. One of the museum founders, a voluble ear bender named Joe Cantalupo, says we are the sort of people the city needs. (Out of gratitude I promised to donate my canoe paddle to the museum.) On the long list of generous souls we have met, I do not include the nasty kid who threw rocks at Stewart and me yesterday, shouting, "I read about you in the papers." Certainly I exclude the anonymous beast, or beasts, who dropped heavy objects in our path from 130 feet up on the Queensboro Bridge.
I feel sure we will be able to stay on schedule for the rest of this trip. Yesterday we made it safely through Hell Gale and the East River narrows around Welfare Island, where the tide can run up to five knots and the wake of a large boat rebounding off the seawall could easily swamp a canoe. In our first two days we contended only with rain and wind. Even before Doria moved in, on one leg across Long Island Sound a 15-knot southwesterly—and the chop it created—pressed so hard on our starboard bow I felt we were scraping over mud. In the words of Cal Plimpton, who got the worst of it in the lead canoe, "We swept past Kings Point at a standstill."
Because storm-swollen tides coupled with high winds might be too much for us in Hell Gate and the East River narrows while Doria was still howling, Stookey decided we should try hitching a ride in a style befitting the waters we were exploring. A garbage barge was what he had in mind. This morning Herschel Post and I found that 700 tons of wet garbage was scheduled to leave the Department of Sanitation dock in Queens about midafternoon. Assistant Foreman Ray Masone at the Queens dock was all in favor of letting us ride on top of the garbage, but he felt his hands were tied. "I want you to understand, the New York Department of Sanitation has a big heart," Masone said, "but for permission to ride on the garbage you'll have to go to higher echelons." By the time I had telephoned a few higher echelons, the wind on the backside of Doria was dropping, so we took off under paddle power. A mile above Hell Gate we waited in the cove of a power plant until the tide was slack. We have tide tables and current charts that are probably as accurate as the Mayan calendar—and about as easy to read—but in the end we counted on a simpler way of determining slack water. When the gulls and terns resting on the water stopped sliding upstream, we started down.
Another day is done. We are now encamped just above the storm line on a flat island called Ruffle Bar. Although the area all around Ruffle Bar is known as Jamaica Bay, it is not really a bay but rather a maze of channels and empty islands with haunting old names. To the west of us lies Barren Island: to the northeast, Yellow Bar Hassock; and eastward, the Raunt and the marshes of Jo Co and Silver Hole Here in the dark of Ruffle Bar, where big stars rotate on Polaris and there is only the remote sound of jets using Kennedy Airport, it seems improbable that we are inside the limits of New York, the world capital of light and unnecessary noise.
Since leaving Manhattan early this morning we have traveled about 22 miles: down the Upper Bay, into the Gowanus Canal and back out, through the Narrows under the Verrazano Bridge, across Gravesend Bay and the neck of Coney Island, then eastward on Sheepshead Bay and four miles beyond to Ruffle Bar. Some parts of the long day of paddling were dull. For our first two hours on the Upper Bay we bucked wind. The Brooklyn shore, the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island beyond, all looked their best gilded by the sifted light of the low sun, but we saw too much of them for too long. After we had crawled two miles along a waterfront studded with a monotony of piers. Chuck Stewart, a man not given to overstatement, said, "This part of Brooklyn is getting déj√† vu."
In the lower reaches of the Gowanus Canal ships of the world were gathered—the General T.B. Celeboy out of Istanbul, the Al Ahmadi from Karachi and the Sea Challenger from Monrovia—but since it was Sunday, not a crewman was stirring. In the upper Gowanus we saw not a living thing except a German shepherd dog sitting under a sumac beside a rotting building. At the sight of us the German shepherd began pacing the bank, barking strenuously, obviously delighted that we had come along to threaten the desolation he was defending. After we had paddled a mile and a half on the stagnant Gowanus, Dery Bennett, the conservation expert of our party, declared that the canal was so fetid it no longer even belonged to the ecological system.
Mike Kaufman, the New York Times man, has stuck with us all the way, through thick and thicker. He is still using the orange fishing boat he rented 65 miles back and depending on the same weak and sick motor. Every time Kaufman has disappeared to find a trading post where he could file a dispatch, I have never expected him to return under the same asthmatic power. As a result of his dispatches, our reputation is preceding us. Today one man described us to his friends as the canoe nuts who were racing around Manhattan (at the time we were a good eight miles from Manhattan). A lady leaned over the rail of a waterfront porch, offered a drink and shouted, "I read about you. I bet you make it." A Mr. Kaffler, or Keffner, of Brighton asked if we were the Explorer Scouts he had heard about. The guide on a tour boat in Sheepshead Bay pointed us out to his customers. "Just ahead, off the bow," the tour guide said over his P.A. system, "you can see the three canoes that have been in the newspapers. The young men, or maybe old men, who are paddling the canoes are traveling through all five boroughs to Pelham Bay or somewhere." (Pelham Bay is roughly where we started.)
Kaufman's news stories have generated such enthusiasm that by tomorrow afternoon when we finish this odyssey in Shellbank Basin in upper Jamaica Bay, I expect one of the city's fireboats will be on hand, tooting and throwing water into the air. In the past day we have run into only one pocket of public disinterest—in Brooklyn, where we portaged for a mile and a quarter along Neptune Avenue to get from Coney Island Creek to Sheepshead Bay. I have heard that people in the Coney Island part of Brooklyn are well entrenched and blasé. It is not often that you see three men straggling along a boulevard with their heads hidden in the upturned canoes balanced on their shoulders. If we had staged such a parade in most New York neighborhoods, we would have provoked cheers, wisecracks and no end of questions. The Coney Islanders were unmoved. As John Stookey portaged one canoe along Neptune Avenue, barely able to see 10 feet ahead, a passerby did stop him to ask if he knew the way to the city aquarium. When Herschel Post, traveling equally blind, rammed the canoe he was carrying into a marquee and then wandered out into the traffic on Neptune Avenue, no crowd gathered, no cop blew a whistle. If the mother of Moses suddenly appeared on Neptune Avenue and did a kootchy dance while balancing her infant son on her head in a cradle of bulrushes, I doubt if Coney Islanders would react.
We spent most of our last day exploring Jamaica Bay. While we were eating last night, egrets and glossy ibises settled into the trees across a stand of phragmites from our campsite. Although there was a chop on the water, three black skimmers came winging in on the last light of day to try their luck with their long bills in the shallows near us.
I am an unstable bird lover. Ordinarily I can take bird watching or leave it, but when I am exposed to a rara avis or two, the birdiness in me is aroused. I start seeing auks, murres, gallinules and godwits where there are none. This morning I saw a loon in the tidal swash back of our tents. When I summoned Dery Bennett, the most experienced bird brain in our party, he correctly identified it as a bedraggled gull. Farther along in a marshy swale on Ruffle Bar, I thought I spied an immature snow goose. I spent five minutes stealing up on the young goose. When I got close, it turned out to be a large television tube that had floated in from somewhere.
Near the middle of Jamaica Bay we put ashore this noon on a wildlife refuge where birds abound—a multitude resting on the water and sunning on the shore of a large pond. In one slow sweep with binoculars, I saw herring gulls, great blackbacks and ringbills, mallards and black ducks, two kinds of tern, an ibis and a yellowlegs, egrets and big and little herons, and a few oddballs. Although I was exposed to a wild variety of species, I managed to keep my bird fever at a low boil—observing quietly like the other bird watchers around the pond. But then I spied a solitary brant sitting in a flock of black ducks, "A brant! A brant!" I cried out. "I see a brant."
Swinging his glasses in the direction I pointed, Dery Bennett said that it certainly was not a brant.
When I have seen a brant, I will not be denied. "Listen, Bennett, you simple boob," I shouted. "Don't tell me that isn't a brant. I have seen the common brant, species bernicla, often enough in the Audubon Water Bird Guide. It's a brant. And furthermore," I continued in full voice, "that little bird next to it is a baldpated grebe, commonly found in the very same bird book."
Bennett finally admitted I had seen a brant, largely, I suspect, to restore order on the marsh. My shouting had put a flock of black ducks into the air and unsettled a clot of serious bird watchers 50 yards down the trail.
Most of today the wind was astern, pushing us along. This journey, like others I have enjoyed, rushed to an end. Although paddling was easy, I found little to savor in the last three miles. We were on a fixed course. We knew where we were going and why. The sun felt flat, and the birds looked all alike. In the last mile, just before we entered Shell-bank Basin and hauled our canoes out, we passed a head of land. A gray-haired man basking near the water in the warmth of the day called out to us. "You guys really have the racket," he said, "paddling in canoes, nice and easy."
"It's quite a racket," I called back. "The first 50 miles are sometimes tough, but then it's downhill all the way."
We had wandered for five days on forgotten water. I will never be able to travel through, under, or over the many parts of the city with the indifference I once did. The next time I land at Kennedy Airport I will be pressed against the window, looking for Ruffle Bar and the big pond where I really did see a brant. I doubt if I will ever take off from La Guardia Airport without remembering I once paddled under it. Straphanging on interborough subways, I will be wondering just what water I am under. When I drive on the high bridges that leap from the middle of one borough to another, I will be looking down, trying to pick out some place of remembrance: the garbage dock, Pugsley Creek, the cove where we waited for the tide to turn, the old fort where we slept and the Moby Dick where Ida the Spider danced. New York is unforgettable once you have had a slow look at it from low down in a canoe.