New York is a city of islands, irregular masses of land that straddle rivers, creeks and bays. Yet, other than a minority of folks who regularly ride one of the few ferry systems, we are a culture that is tethered to the land, traveling along subways and roads that pass over and under the water. We admire it from the safety of a vast assortment of waterfront parks—but rarely engage with it directly. And, rarer still, in a watercraft that doesn't have engines.
Which is why I was curious to join artist Marie Lorenz for one of her regular pilgrimages around the area's waterways in one her handcrafted rowboats. As part of a six-year project called the Tide and Current Taxi, the low-key Lorenz regularly takes guests—artists, boaters, random New Yorkers who find her through her website—on waterborne excursions around the City. So, very early one Sunday morning, my WNYC colleague Jennifer Hsu and I joined her for a paddle through the Dutch Kills, a narrow tidal flat north of Randall's Island that is only navigable during high tide—and, even then, only in small, shallow craft.
The experience was revelatory. I've been paddling in the Everglades and Costa Rica, but never in New York. As is to be expected, the urban scenery (and its attendant smells) can be less than idyllic. During our two-and-a-half hour journey, we rowed under bridges, through the murky water along a treatment plant, and admired floating detritus. But we also spotted cormorants hanging out on pilings, two families of geese with goslings and a fluttering monarch butterfly. For part of our route, we were accompanied by a quacking mallard—with Bronx garbage freights and public housing projects as a backdrop. It was surreal.
It can be easy to think we know our city. But this short excursion made me realize how little I understand New York's landscape—and how visceral it is to see its industrial guts fringed at the edges by nature. Lorenz told us that she often hears people talk about how they travel upstate or to places like Florida to "get away." Yet they often forget, she says, that we have a pretty big backyard—all within the confines of our city.