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Bronx River Paddle Season Begins With a Ride Through the Borough’s Rapids

The annual Bronx River Flotilla marks the start of free summer canoeing on New York City’s only freshwater river. Up for it? Get ready for smooth cruising, some waterfalls — and trash.

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It was another sparkling Saturday on the Bronx River for the yearly flotilla, May 6, 2023.

Jonathan Custodio/THE CITY

There’s only one freshwater river in the five boroughs, and canoeists can traverse its rapids and see waterfalls all summer long. But before they set out on the Bronx River, volunteers labor year-round to prepare it for canoes — pulling traffic cones, vehicle tires and even a bicycle out of the 5-mile waterway.

Torrential downpours like those the city experienced at the end of April can sweep branches and entire trees into the river too, said Elena Conte, interim executive director of the Bronx River Alliance, as she spoke to canoeists before they “put in” at Shoelace Park, a narrow ribbon of green hard by the Bronx River Parkway.

“That weather dramatically impacts the passability of the waterway,” Conte warned. “You’re going to see garbage in the river.”

The Bronx River Alliance’s annual Bronx River Flotilla fundraiser, a 5-mile canoeing trek held on May 6 this year, jumpstarts the Bronx’s canoeing season and underscores the strides preservationists have made to clean up the river — as well as the challenges that remain, to maintain it.

Before they confront trash, river adventurers first have to get into the water. That was a challenge for Bronx resident Lina Krakue, 52: she and her fellow paddler flipped their boat and fell into the water shortly after embarking.

“We both leaned left at the same time,” Krakue said with a laugh after finishing the event. Dozens of volunteers helped paddlers get into the river, keep them on course, and dock and re-enter at three checkpoints to avoid dangerous waterfalls.

People take part in the Bronx River Flotilla, May 6, 2023.

Jonathan Custodio/THE CITY

Later, Krakue said, because of the river’s rapids, “I thought for sure we’re gonna go in again.” She learned to “just go with the flow, literally.”

About 100 experienced and first-time paddlers participated this year in the 24th Flotilla, raising almost all of its $70,000 goal as of Friday afternoon. The money will fund free and low-cost paddling excursions on the river.

The course wends its way through settings such as the Bronx River forest, the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, bypassing neighborhoods like Allerton, Belmont, West Farms and Soundview before finishing at the Bronx River Alliance’s boat house in Starlight Park, a few blocks east of Crotona Park. The park recently underwent a major green space expansion — another step toward completing the Bronx River Greenway. 

Towering trees shadowed the canoeists while they traversed the river. They saw turtles and heard loud calls from Bronx Zoo peacocks — possibly even Raul — as they floated under bridges. Unfortunately, no dolphins were spotted in the river. 

Rock the Boat

Paddling on the river is not for the faint of heart. But anyone is now welcome to try it for the season.

Those eager to get out on the water can check the schedule or even arrange a charter trip for larger groups on the Bronx River Alliance website. And canoes aren’t the only craft that ply the Bronx River: Rocking the Boat, a nonprofit organization that provides Hunts Point teens with the tools to build wooden boats, will offer free community rowing every Saturday beginning May 27. 

Experts say much of the trash in the river comes from Westchester County, flowing from where the waterway begins, near the Kensico Reservoir. The Alliance uses two trash booms to collect garbage as it flows south. One is located at Muskrat Cove, near Woodlawn Cemetery — named after the native rodents that live there — and the other is in Concrete Plant Park in Longwood, protecting the East River and Long Island Sound from the pollution. 

Creating parkland and supporting habitats are also part of the work, said Conte, highlighting as an example the fish ladder at 182nd Street. 

The canoe sessions, which are first-come, first-serve, take place nearly every weekend through August and start at either Starlight Park or Concrete Plant Park. 

Success Story

Known best as the name of the busy parkway that runs alongside it, the Bronx River is an under-the-radar oasis that many Bronxites are either unaware of, or could not access when they were young.

“When I grew up, the Bronx River was a dumping ground. The pollution [and] the fecal matter. There was nothing inevitable about the cleanup of the Bronx River. It’s an improbable success story and it’s one of the greatest environmental success stories in the country,” U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) told THE CITY in Starlight Park after the flotilla concluded. 

Torres hasn’t canoed or kayaked on the Bronx River but said “it’s on my bucket list.”

The river isn’t all smooth sailing. Three small waterfalls break up the route, so paddlers need to disembark at three portages, then carry or wheel their canoe to a safe entry point downstream.

At the second portage, canoeists had to carefully climb down a rope while volunteers brought their boat down a small slope. Then, they had to maneuver bumpy rapids coming off the third portage, near a small dam at River Park in Van Nest equipped with a passage allowing alewife herring and American eels to access upstream waters. 

Participants went through rapids in their canoes, but walked their watercrafts around waterfalls like this one, May 6, 2023.

Jonathan Custodio/THE CITY

“The second one, it was like a rope. I thought I had to swing,” said Fordham resident Wendy Diaz, 35. “Can you imagine swinging on that?” 

Diaz said she leads an active lifestyle that includes yoga, running and practicing mindfulness, but it was her first time canoeing. 

“It was nice seeing the birds. I wasn’t expecting the transition points. That was surprising and fun,” she said.

The river-riders reflected on their 5-mile trip on the water. Frederick Ochavo, 43, said being there was therapeutic. He brought his foldable kayak, which provides relief from the stress he can feel working as an occupational therapist in a Bronx nursing home since arriving in NYC from the Philippines in 2019. 

“This is my way of relaxing,” Ochavo said.

Originally from Washington Heights, Krakue, who is Black, loved nature as a child but didn’t “know how to navigate it because, as a person of color, it’s not like it always seemed attainable, because it always seemed like it would be something that’s an expensive sport.” 

It wasn’t until she got married and moved to Florida that she learned to overcome her inhibitions that stemmed from not seeing enough Black people on the water and in the outdoors. She now lives near The Bronx’s largest natural area, Van Cortlandt Park.

“I really appreciate seeing this here and seeing people who look like me doing this, participating and contributing,” she said.

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