Stalking the Wild Terrapin (2008)

Erik Baard

Paddling southward, we muscled the bows of our kayaks through whitecap chop as a cold December wind from the southwest froze sea spray thickly on our right arms and shoulders. Eventually two islands came into view before a wide expanse of ocean under an immutable pewter sky. After another hard half-hour we eased up. Our five kayaks slid silently through the calmer water around the first hardscrabble island, and arced wide around the eastern side of its outlying smaller companion. There we found the objects of our efforts—seals, perhaps as many as 10, the tan highlights of their coats showing against the dark wet rocks. Curious pinnipeds swam under our boats, stealthily surfacing like periscopes yards away.

This was no weekend escape to Maine. We'd launched from the Downtown Boathouse ( at the end of North Moore Street in Tribeca, and made our way past Hoffman Island to Swinburne Island, an abandoned crematorium off the northeastern coast of Staten Island. A thriving community of seals had returned to New York Harbor after more than a century, and we were among the first to witness it. That day, nearly two years ago, was my greatest experience as an outdoorsman in New York City. A friend working at Coney Island Aquarium reports even better luck. He once spotted a finback whale swimming toward the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

A wilderness envelops, swirls through, and seeps up into New York City. To experience it is to have moments when you stop thinking "the Bronx is up and the Battery's down" and see instead the longitudinal flight paths of migrating birds and the ebb and flood of the Hudson River; east and west are restored to the sun's transit. Neighborhoods are redefined. Midtown is a place of lonely cliff sides where peregrine falcons live. Nature's Times Square—a still-licentious commons—is bustling Jamaica Bay (718-318-4340,; Brooklyn Bird Club,, live with diamondback terrapin turtles and endangered piping plovers laying eggs in the sand; horseshoe crabs mate openly, males comically mounted on larger females for more than a week to ward off competitors. "Forgotten borough" Staten Island boasts a Greenbelt (, with our city's longest hiking trails crossing from Great Kills Harbor to the Arthur Kill, where marshes part to reveal black mats of mussels. Egrets, cormorants, herons, terns, and geese congregate on fringes of red clay.

Time is measured differently too. Human generations rise to the tick of periodical cicadas emerging from the ground every 17 years—in 1996, the earth of Staten Island was buckshot with holes. The start of summer is marked not by Memorial Day, but by the dwindling of the running of the shad ( from the Atlantic up the Hudson. Autumn comes with swollen hurricane-season waves thrilling surfers along Rockaway Beach (Hurricane Hopeful Chowder Bar, 218 North 7th Street, 718-302-3535) and the enchantment of monarch butterflies flying southwest to their deaths in Mexico.

New York is a small place, but its richest rewards can still be tough to discover. A good trick to sense if you're on the right path to them is to ask two questions: (1) Did I leave prepared surfaces behind? (2) Am I burning more calories than usual? Engines scare off anything worth seeing. A third question that might seem puritanical but has practical value: Is my form of locomotion cribbed from nature? Mountain bikes race through Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx performing astonishing stunts off of rocks and steep slopes, but it's not snobbish to note better ways to appreciate wooded urban enclaves than thrill riding. Horseback riders wind their way through lush greenery and gallop across sandy beaches near the Paedergat Basin (Jamaica Bay Riding Academy, 718-531-8949,; the City Climbers Club ( scales Worthless Boulder and Rat Rock in northern Central Park. Trading grit for sap, the New York State Arborists (518-783-1800, hold tree-climbing contests in Prospect Park.

No park, however, can match the open skies and diversity of this archipelago city's rivers, bays, and tidal straits. We have about 500 miles of shoreline overlooking billions of gallons of untamable water. Bass and bluefish are reeled in from charter boats in the center of the East River and from small craft huddled around moored gravel barges in the upper bay of the harbor, while Staten Island bristles with fishing poles.

For divers, the Hudson is a realm of seahorses (the Urban Divers, Pier 26, Manhattan,, and City Island (Captain Mike's Diving, 718-885-1588, offers submerged wrecks, for decades claimed by the Long Island Sound as reefs. For me, kayaking still provides the greatest reach for anyone wanting to explore New York's littoral environment— whether surfing six-foot waves south of Governors Island on a windy day or sheltering in coves boiling with fish. But mainly, there's no way to capture in a few paragraphs how one can learn from and enjoy what nature's woven together over millions of years.


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