I know what you’re thinking. Kayaking? In the East River? Seriously?
Yes, I was skeptical too. Growing up in New York City, the East River always presented the impression of a mass of toxic water that you would never want to make contact with your skin, let alone sail on.
The only time this city boy ever got to paddle a boat was canoeing with my family as a child on a placid lake in Maine where my family has a vacation home. But that was hundreds of miles from any urban environment and the erratic currents of New York’s traffic-clogged waterways.
But now city dwellers like myself do not need to drive hours away to the country to get the joy of boating. All you need is a MetroCard.
At Hallets Cove in Astoria, the nonprofit all-volunteer group LIC Boathouse offers free kayaking all summer long on select weekends for those who want to try their hand at the popular pastime.
Launching from Socrates Sculpture Park Beach, just adjacent to the riverside greenspace, anyone who wishes to grab a paddle on select weekends during the summer can do so.
Kayakers sign a waiver and get a stamp to allow them unlimited access to the beach for the day. They wait for a kayak to open up, before being fitted with a life jacket by a volunteer and helped onto the boat. Kayakers can go solo or with another person. Children under the age of 18 can also ride, accompanied by an adult.
Last Saturday, I strapped on a lifejacket and decided to do a little paddling myself.
Despite my, albeit limited, experience in canoeing in Maine, I was not completely comfortable going out in a solo kayak. Although it’s very hard to flip a kayak, as I was repeatedly told Saturday, I asked for a volunteer to join me.
Beatrice Hofman, who has volunteered with LIC Boathouse for just over a year, was nice enough to join me for a half-hour kayak trip around Hallets Cove.
On the day after the Fourth of July, the bright sunny skies brought out a huge crowd. At times during the afternoon every one of the roughly 20 boats that lined the beach was out in the water. But that’s typical, Hofman said.
“This is actually not too bad,” she said. “Usually we have a long line all afternoon waiting to get on a boat.”
Hofman’s experience proved helpful as she steered the boat away from the shore, other kayakers and buoys that I most certainly would have hit on my own. I took in the sites, including the unique view of the Manhattan skyline from the north, where the tallest buildings barely peek over Upper East Side apartment towers.
On the north side of the cove, the shifting tide created a swift current just off the Astoria Houses, providing a perfect place to rest our arms as residents, who were outside by the river enjoying their holiday barbecues, waved to us.
A variety of people, from all genders, ages, incomes and ethnic backgrounds, came to try their hand at kayaking. Some even brought their dogs, large and small, which LIC Boathouse welcomes.
“The dog lifejackets are a new addition,” said Ted Gruber, a member of LIC Boathouse’s steering council who stopped for an interview with me by kayak in the middle of the East River. “There are a lot of people in Long Island City and Astoria with pets and we wanted to see how we can accommodate them.”
LIC Boathouse does more than just walk-up paddling. Always seeking volunteers to add to its roster of about 60, the group offers free paddle trips three times each week during the summer to destinations in Queens and other boroughs. Some of their jaunts are night trips. On July 23, Aug. 6 and 20, sunset kayaking will be offered in tandem with Socrates’ outdoor movie viewings.
For those who enjoy taking part in the kayaking experience, the fact that it can be done right in the heart of the city is both convenient and exciting.
“It was fun,” said Hanna Reznick, an Astoria resident who took her first paddling trip on Saturday. “It’s amazing that you can do that here. It’s too expensive and too difficult to get out of the city sometimes. I’m glad this is offered.”
Gruber said kayaking on the East River is a sign of the progress the city has made since the notorious late-20th century days of crime and grime.
“When I was younger, I always thought I’d leave New York because I enjoyed doing things like this,” Gruber said. “But here we are, kayaking in the heart of New York. This city has come a long way.”
For more information and an up-to-date schedule, visit licboathouse.org. Any cancellations due to weather, tides or poor water quality are issued two hours prior to a scheduled event.
Free Kayaking at Socrates Sculpture Park Beach
When: July 19, Aug. 3 and Aug. 16 from 1-5 p.m., Aug 30 and Sept. 13 from 1-4 p.m., conditions permitting.
Where: Socrates Sculpture Park Beach, 31st Avenue and Vernon Boulevard, Astoria