Independence Paddle

How and why to paddle in New York City for the fireworks

This story featured in the July 2007 print issue.

By Claire Martin

If you live in New York City and care about the outdoors, you’ll do all sorts of crazy things. You’ll train for a marathon exclusively on the 4.25-mile dirt path in Central Park. You’ll sink the bulk of your disposable income into a summer rental near the dunes of Montauk. Or you’ll cram two pairs of cross-country skis, one mountain bike, a surfboard, three snowboards, two wetsuits, a tent, and half a dozen CamelBaks into your 350-square-foot apartment’s lone closet. But the craziest-sounding scheme of all is the one that’s actually worth traveling to Manhattan: Kayaking the Hudson River. At night. On the Fourth of July.

The mental preparation: This is the farthest thing from your typical night out in New York. There will be no Marc Jacobs-clad, Stoli-and-soda drinking, Magnolia cupcake-eating city dwellers in sight. Yet it’s also completely unlike a July 4th celebration anywhere else.

The physical: Wearing drytops and soggy neoprene spray skirts, you’ll walk single-file down the gangway at Pier 63, just above Chelsea Piers. The water will be choppy, and the dock will buck and bob. You will crave Dramamine. Your guide will drag single and double kayaks from within a cavernous hold beneath the pier and set them down on the dock, where they’ll glow in the twilight. You’ll attach safety lights to your bow and stern, grab a paddle, and ease into the cockpit.

The traffic: The Hudson River will resemble the West Side Highway (located just 200 feet from pier) during rush hour. Nearly all of the city’s Circle Line barges and mini cruise ships will be out tonight, as will every drunken slob in this city of eight million who owns a powerboat. The traffic is no joke, your guide Eric Stiller, of Manhattan Kayak Company, will warn. The 25 of you are to stick together and stay close to the shoreline, which in this case is slabs of concrete and occasional tangles of rebar. You’ll push off from the dock under a halo of light from the Frying Pan, a 133-foot former lightship built in 1929 to withstand the hurricanes off the coast of Cape Fear, N.C., and later retrofitted with a below-deck bar and dancefloor. As you head out into the Hudson, pointing your boat south towards the Statue of Liberty, the Frying Pan heaves in time with the waves and the disco.

The work: Eric will lead the way in a double kayak, chatting incessantly, growing giddy about this trip – an annual paddle for him. You’ll already be battling the Hudson’s fierce current as you pass the outdoor driving range at Chelsea Piers. As you glance to the west at the condos and smokestacks of New Jersey, the sky will have that pink glow of urban nighttime.

You will be a silent member of a massive, motorized boat parade. The wakes join forces to create 15-foot waves. You’ll angle your boat into the bigger swells and let the smaller ones lift you up. Sometimes you’ll surf the biggest waves as they crest and spill toward shore.

The payoff: Your group will pull into a rectangular inlet—the Greenwich Village equivalent of a bay. You’ll extend paddles to each other and hold them tight, forming a flotilla. It’ll be quiet here, safe from the traffic. You’ll rest for a few minutes.

Then suddenly, three pyrotechnic displays will begin simultaneously, illuminating the sky above midtown, downtown, and the Statue of Liberty. The good folks at Macy’s will warm up with the standards: the spark-tailed Chrysanthemums, the cylindrical Dahlias, the comet-like Palms, and the squiggly Fish. Then they’ll deliver Bouquet Shells – bursts of light immediately followed by smaller bursts of light – and Salutes, which sound like gunshots ricocheting through the night.

The explosions will keep coming—more than 20,000 pyrotechnic shells from seven different barges. You’ll be watching the world’s largest fireworks display, in triplicate, from the water. Peonies over the Empire State Building, Horsetails dropping into Ground Zero, Willows down by Lady Liberty. And dozens of smaller fireworks displays will pop in the sky from Ellis Island to the George Washington Bridge. And by this point it won’t sound crazy at all. Being outdoors in New York has never been so glorious.

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