When you tell people, you’re kayaking around Manhattan, most people’s reaction is “aren’t you afraid you’ll catch something?”  Turns out, over the last few decades, the water’s gotten a lot cleaner. Not that I’d drink a glass straight out of the river, although I dared my kayak partner to do so; he wouldn’t take me up on it, however.

I’ve been to Manhattan dozens of times over the years, but a few years ago, I overheard my friend Stefani Jackenthal, a local NYC adventurer who joined me on my 2004 expedition with blind kids in Tibet, talking about a full circumnavigation of the island and it sparked my interest. So, last week, as part of a media tour leading up to the upcoming No Barriers Summit Oct. 5-6, I teamed up with some folks from Manhattan Kayak Company to make a lap of the island, almost 30 miles from the aircraft carrier – Intrepid – and back to Intrepid.

a photo erik weihenmayer kayaking at pier 84 and by the intrepid where the 2018 no barriers summit will be hosted
Pier 84 and the Intrepid, where we’ll host the 2018 No Barriers Summit
a photo of erik weihenmayer kayaking around nyc with new jersey on his right and statue of liberty up ahead
Shortly after launch, the buildings on the right are Newark, NJ and far in the distance the Statue of Liberty

The key to the journey is tidal timing, so we picked a perfect day to depart from their boat house and catch the ebbing tide – meaning going out with the current – to paddle down the Hudson River, past the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, and Wall Street. With the Statue of Liberty on our right across the river, we turned the corner at the south end of the island at the Battery.  If this seems fast, it’s because it is . . . this is the busiest and most intense part of the trip. Dozens of sea taxis and ferries, bound for Staten Island, buzz by, creating large rolling wakes which bobbed us up and down like a family of brightly colored ducks against the massive skyline and roaring drone of the city.

a photo of erik weihenmayer kayaking the hudson river with the staten island ferry and brooklyn bridge in distance
Rounding the battery, the Staten Island Ferry is the orange boat and the Brooklyn Bridge is in the distance

Hugging the shoreline and avoiding the busy ferries, we rounded the bend to emerge in the East River that separates Manhattan to the west and Brooklyn to the East. This is where the tidal timing comes in again. The goal is to time it perfectly so that as you turn to go from paddling south in the Hudson, the tide will have switched to flowing into the East River. Although both the Hudson and East Rivers do technically flow toward the sea, they are part of a massive estuary that is much more influenced by the tide than the river’s current. As you can tell, I was fascinated, not only by the iconic landmarks as we passed, but also by the science and strategy behind our route. As we passed under the Brooklyn Bridge, I could hear the constant rattle of cars hundreds of feet above and the sheer scale of the giant stone towers that hold up the span. There is something about NYC, a pressure that comes from so much sound and movement that makes the air feel dense.

About at the half-way mark, we stopped for a beach picnic at Randall’s Island at the intersection of the East and Harlem Rivers. My experience in New York has been almost entirely below Central Park, so this was new territory and also the hardest paddling of the trip. Having lost the flowing tide from the East River, we slogged for about 6 miles past Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, to finally meet up again with the Hudson near the Columbia University boathouse. It was amazing how the environment changed from the roaring chaos of lower Manhattan to the placid waters and verdant banks of Upper Harlem. My friend Skyler who joined me in the tandem kayak remarked that it was the difference between the sharp and menacing Gotham of Batman and a lush Central American island with chirping birds and squirrels leaping between the trees.

a photo of erik weihenmayer kayaking along the last stretch of the harlem river with bridge up ahead
The last stretch of the Harlem River, lined with lush vegetation. The bridge in the background connects Harlem to the Bronx
a photo of erik weihenmayer kayaking around manhattan on the hudson river
Paddling down the Hudson in our last 10 miles stretch

Peeling back out into the massive Hudson River, with 10 miles to go, we paddled under the George Washington Bridge and back towards the jagged skyline and thrumming buzz of the city. As we neared Pier 84 — our landing point — an enormous cruise ship blasted its deafening horn to get underway. We thought it best to wait rather than get mowed over by a boat the size of a building. “HONK . . . HONK, HONK, HONK,” One short and three long blasts, and the tugs pulled it away from the dock.

a photo of a huge cruise ship while erik weihenmayer kayaks the hudson river in nyc
Our tiny boats against the massive cruise ship hundreds of yards away

Circumnavigating Manhattan was a brilliant adventure, an up close and personal way to see, hear , and smell the beast that is New York City. I hope to “see” many of you at the No Barriers Summit in Manhattan in just a few weeks!

Register here to join us on October 5th & 6th.

Special thanks to Jay, Louanne, Ali, and Orlando from MKC and of course my longtime friend Stefani Jackenthal.