Your Shore (2008)

Best obscure little Manhattan beaches to watch the tide come in and contemplate your insignificance in the universe

Heading north on the Hudson River path one recent muggy evening, a jogger recoiled at a piercing scream. Timorously, she approached the likely source—two female runners, one of them calling out hysterically and gesturing toward the dense shoreline brush north of the 59th Street sanitation garage. "Call 911," the apparent screamer was crying out, "he's dead!" A passing cyclist with bulging calf muscles and a Day-Glo shirt stopped and peered calmly toward the rocky, debris-strewn coast. "Shhh," he remonstrated. "You'll wake him." Sure enough, the prone body stretched and yawned. He wasn't dead—yet.

No doubt, that lucky survivor had nearly succumbed to the sirens of the Hudson, the invisible vixens who croon their deadly enchantment to us sea-starved denizens of Manhattan island. Here we are, surrounded by fierce saltwater currents, but bulkheads, piers, and garages block us nearly everywhere from communing with the elemental tides. Yes, real tides, high and low, two every day. The Hudson is a tidal estuary, where salty seawater rushes up to meet cascading fresh water from the mountains way north. And the East River ain't no river at all, but a tidal strait. Pressing from Long Island Sound on the north and New York Harbor on the south, the mighty Atlantic forces itself into this narrow passageway between Manhattan and Queens. So if you nab yourself a little piece of unbarricaded shore, you can watch the wavelets endlessly rise and recede, mesmerized by the eternal murmur that sang long before humans walked upright and will sing long after our puny lifetimes.

The undead man in the brush had found one of the best—and most secluded—spots to meditate on these elemental forces. On the western side of the concrete barrier lining the temporary bike path from 60th to 63rd streets, a tangled web of ailanthus trees, thistle, and other pugnacious weeds asserting their urban squatters' rights screens the shore from all but the nosiest peekers. Clamber through the thicket and pick your way across concrete slabs, rusty metal, and rotted wood bristling with spikes until you sink onto a scattering of rocks into the river. There, sheltered in a kind of man-made cove, you can feel the plash of waves on your feet—or the angry thrum of stormy surf.

Further south and less secluded—out in plain sight but mostly disregarded—is a block-long sandy beach just below the former United States Lines terminal (now the city's Tow Pound) at 34th Street. An easy-to-climb rail separates you from the beach, where waves rush up and recede in a hypnotic rhythm—except when storms threaten. Then the waters thrash and boil against the rocks, while panicked gulls wheel and scream warnings. At night, the lights of New Jersey bounce off the river and twinkling ferries ply the waters, carrying their transient human cargo through the wide darkness. Watch them and weep. But as you head out, steer clear of the Tow Pound driveway, where pissed-off truck drivers rumble out after forking over 375 bucks to get their ve-hickles back.

For more scenic solitude, jump north to Riverside Park's Cherry Walk (100th to 125th streets), wedged between the Hudson and the West Side Highway. Check out the northern end, where stands of young trees huddle together, along the slope where the land seems to avalanche into the sea. On a jagged boulder screened by foliage, you can throw your shoes aside and let the frigid waves wash over your toes while you stare northward at the imposing span of the George Washington Bridge.

Nestled under the towering GW like a child's toy at 175th Street stands Jeffrey Hook's Lighthouse—the Little Red Lighthouse of storybook fame. Here you can perch your body upon a mass of genuine bedrock and let the surf buffet your feet and your legs and your waist and, at high tide, the rest of you as you gaze southward at the spire of the Empire State Building. According to Mike Feller, a chief naturalist at the city's Parks Department, all those other giant boulders along the shore are mere "rip rap"—the riffraff of rocks—arranged there by mere men and machines. But this bedrock is a small chunk of New England that popped off in the Continental Collision 400 million years ago. Confronting that, now, could make a person feel small.

Want some real ocean action? Cross town to the East River. Start at Hell's Gate, the channel between Randall's Island and Queens, whose warring currents whip up ship-eating vortexes and, of old, created sailors' widows by the score. Although there's no real beach, you can peer into the churning whirlpools from the north end of the East River Park Promenade above 116th Street. For a watery slice of real estate that feels beachier, jaunt southward to the promenade at Stuyvesant Cove (18th to 23rd streets). A sandy swath of shore unfolds into the river, bridging two forbidding-looking rock piles to form a haphazard jetty. On a sunny day, you may see couples with babies lazing and gazing. But don't be fooled by this domesticity. Watch as the tide rises. Gulp in the salty air, and see the gulls and tiny seabirds converge desperately on the shrinking land as waves crash higher and higher, threatening to overwhelm rocks, birds, sand, and all. Better stand back if you don't want to get drenched. Or, better yet, stand clutching the rail, transfixed in the wet, and confront your true condition—as a minuscule speck, not even a hangnail, in the scheme of this vast, teeming universe.


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