Because storm-swollen tides coupled with high winds might be too much for us in Hell Gate and the East River narrows while Doria was still howling, Stookey decided we should try hitching a ride in a style befitting the waters we were exploring. A garbage barge was what he had in mind. This morning Herschel Post and I found that 700 tons of wet garbage was scheduled to leave the Department of Sanitation dock in Queens about midafternoon. Assistant Foreman Ray Masone at the Queens dock was all in favor of letting us ride on top of the garbage, but he felt his hands were tied. "I want you to understand, the New York Department of Sanitation has a big heart," Masone said, "but for permission to ride on the garbage you'll have to go to higher echelons." By the time I had telephoned a few higher echelons, the wind on the backside of Doria was dropping, so we took off under paddle power. A mile above Hell Gate we waited in the cove of a power plant until the tide was slack. We have tide tables and current charts that are probably as accurate as the Mayan calendar—and about as easy to read—but in the end we counted on a simpler way of determining slack water. When the gulls and terns resting on the water stopped sliding upstream, we started down.
Another day is done. We are now encamped just above the storm line on a flat island called Ruffle Bar. Although the area all around Ruffle Bar is known as Jamaica Bay, it is not really a bay but rather a maze of channels and empty islands with haunting old names. To the west of us lies Barren Island: to the northeast, Yellow Bar Hassock; and eastward, the Raunt and the marshes of Jo Co and Silver Hole Here in the dark of Ruffle Bar, where big stars rotate on Polaris and there is only the remote sound of jets using Kennedy Airport, it seems improbable that we are inside the limits of New York, the world capital of light and unnecessary noise.
Since leaving Manhattan early this morning we have traveled about 22 miles: down the Upper Bay, into the Gowanus Canal and back out, through the Narrows under the Verrazano Bridge, across Gravesend Bay and the neck of Coney Island, then eastward on Sheepshead Bay and four miles beyond to Ruffle Bar. Some parts of the long day of paddling were dull. For our first two hours on the Upper Bay we bucked wind. The Brooklyn shore, the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island beyond, all looked their best gilded by the sifted light of the low sun, but we saw too much of them for too long. After we had crawled two miles along a waterfront studded with a monotony of piers. Chuck Stewart, a man not given to overstatement, said, "This part of Brooklyn is getting d�j� vu."
In the lower reaches of the Gowanus Canal ships of the world were gathered—the General T.B. Celeboy out of Istanbul, the Al Ahmadi from Karachi and the Sea Challenger from Monrovia—but since it was Sunday, not a crewman was stirring. In the upper Gowanus we saw not a living thing except a German shepherd dog sitting under a sumac beside a rotting building. At the sight of us the German shepherd began pacing the bank, barking strenuously, obviously delighted that we had come along to threaten the desolation he was defending. After we had paddled a mile and a half on the stagnant Gowanus, Dery Bennett, the conservation expert of our party, declared that the canal was so fetid it no longer even belonged to the ecological system.
Mike Kaufman, the
New York Times
man, has stuck with us all the way, through thick and thicker. He is still using the orange fishing boat he rented 65 miles back and depending on the same weak and sick motor. Every time Kaufman has disappeared to find a trading post where he could file a dispatch, I have never expected him to return under the same asthmatic power. As a result of his dispatches, our reputation is preceding us. Today one man described us to his friends as the canoe nuts who were racing around Manhattan (at the time we were a good eight miles from Manhattan). A lady leaned over the rail of a waterfront porch, offered a drink and shouted, "I read about you. I bet you make it." A Mr. Kaffler, or Keffner, of Brighton asked if we were the Explorer Scouts he had heard about. The guide on a tour boat in Sheepshead Bay pointed us out to his customers. "Just ahead, off the bow," the tour guide said over his P.A. system, "you can see the three canoes that have been in the newspapers. The young men, or maybe old men, who are paddling the canoes are traveling through all five boroughs to Pelham Bay or somewhere." (Pelham Bay is roughly where we started.)
Kaufman's news stories have generated such enthusiasm that by tomorrow afternoon when we finish this odyssey in Shellbank Basin in upper Jamaica Bay, I expect one of the city's fireboats will be on hand, tooting and throwing water into the air. In the past day we have run into only one pocket of public disinterest—in Brooklyn, where we portaged for a mile and a quarter along Neptune Avenue to get from Coney Island Creek to Sheepshead Bay. I have heard that people in the Coney Island part of Brooklyn are well entrenched and blas�. It is not often that you see three men straggling along a boulevard with their heads hidden in the upturned canoes balanced on their shoulders. If we had staged such a parade in most New York neighborhoods, we would have provoked cheers, wisecracks and no end of questions. The Coney Islanders were unmoved. As John Stookey portaged one canoe along Neptune Avenue, barely able to see 10 feet ahead, a passerby did stop him to ask if he knew the way to the city aquarium. When Herschel Post, traveling equally blind, rammed the canoe he was carrying into a marquee and then wandered out into the traffic on Neptune Avenue, no crowd gathered, no cop blew a whistle. If the mother of Moses suddenly appeared on Neptune Avenue and did a kootchy dance while balancing her infant son on her head in a cradle of bulrushes, I doubt if Coney Islanders would react.
We spent most of our last day exploring Jamaica Bay. While we were eating last night, egrets and glossy ibises settled into the trees across a stand of phragmites from our campsite. Although there was a chop on the water, three black skimmers came winging in on the last light of day to try their luck with their long bills in the shallows near us.
I am an unstable bird lover. Ordinarily I can take bird watching or leave it, but when I am exposed to a rara avis or two, the birdiness in me is aroused. I start seeing auks, murres, gallinules and godwits where there are none. This morning I saw a loon in the tidal swash back of our tents. When I summoned Dery Bennett, the most experienced bird brain in our party, he correctly identified it as a bedraggled gull. Farther along in a marshy swale on Ruffle Bar, I thought I spied an immature snow goose. I spent five minutes stealing up on the young goose. When I got close, it turned out to be a large television tube that had floated in from somewhere.
Near the middle of Jamaica Bay we put ashore this noon on a wildlife refuge where birds abound—a multitude resting on the water and sunning on the shore of a large pond. In one slow sweep with binoculars, I saw herring gulls, great blackbacks and ringbills, mallards and black ducks, two kinds of tern, an ibis and a yellowlegs, egrets and big and little herons, and a few oddballs. Although I was exposed to a wild variety of species, I managed to keep my bird fever at a low boil—observing quietly like the other bird watchers around the pond. But then I spied a solitary brant sitting in a flock of black ducks, "A brant! A brant!" I cried out. "I see a brant."
Swinging his glasses in the direction I pointed, Dery Bennett said that it certainly was not a brant.