Last weekend I went kayaking in Jamaica Bay, Brooklyn. Like a lot of outdoor excursions in the middle of large urban areas, this one was tinged with absurdity. Jamaica Bay is perhaps best known as the body of water you fly over before landing at JFK International Airport. There's a major highway buttressing half of it. There are landfills nearby. And to get to the small cove from which the National Parks Service has offered free kayak excursions, you walk through a significantly-sized public BBQ area—Haitians, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Koreans, happily grilling, wondering why you're walking through their cookouts. From the outset, there was the very real possibility for something comic to happen. Sensing this, I dragged my girlfriend, Emily, along.
At the cove we met Park Ranger John, who is running the program and seemed particularly upbeat, considering the circumstances. It was windy. Extremely windy. And the wind had whipped up a chop in the bay something fierce. I looked out across the chop to a small spit of wild looking land.
"What's that?" I asked John. Then my hat blew off.
"That," John said, pausing to run after my hat, "is the Canarsie Pole. It was created when the bay was dredged. No one lives on it. It's park land. People think treasure is buried out there, but it's not."
There were birds in the bay. Spinners and plovers and one particularly active red-tipped skimmer. Apart from the chop, it looked almost pleasant. John helped us to our kayaks and we set off.
Soaked immediately, but the water was warm and surprisingly clean. Soon the sounds of the highway were overtaken by the howl of the wind. I'd tell you more about what it looked like out in Jamaica Bay, but I was concentrating on keeping my kayak perpendicular to the chop. I looked back at Emily. She was drifting towards a clump of reeds, which was unexpected. Those reeds looked great, what were they doing here? I tried to paddle over to her rescue but by the time I had the thing fully turned the wind and current had taken me into the reeds too. We were stuck, but the reeds still looked great. And there were coconuts in them. A shadow passed overhead. A cloud blocking the sun? No, a 747 landing a JFK. Ranger John was coming down the beach to our rescue. I could smell Korean BBQ.
The free kayak tours launch from Canarsie Pier, which you can get to by public transit on the L subway with a free transfer to the B42 bus. The "pier" is more like a parking lot out on the water, but the kayaks launch from a small, rather pleasant (at least in low-wind), cove to the north. The program runs throughout the summer, Friday-Monday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is offered by the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, in partnership with the NPS, and Coca-Cola. There will soon be a map available of fully developed "kayak trails" within the bay, but Ranger John is still working on this. Get more information here.
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