Urban Paddling: The Great Outdoors Is Closer Than You Think


Summer 2015

The canoe scrapes lightly along the rocky bottom and tiny fish scatter in a surge that ripples the surface of the river as if someone has tried to skip a handful of pebbles across it. With a couple of strokes, my wife and I are out into the gentle current on a moderate summer day, the breeze rustling through the cottonwood trees and tall grass growing along the bank. There are no visible signs of civilization. The view seems as pristine as any you'd find in the deep woods.

And yet there's something else present. A hum. Underneath the soft sounds of the breeze and birdsong is a nearly subliminal humming, the rhythm of people on the move, the collective whisper of a city breathing.

Surprises in Your Own Backyard

A jogger appears on an invisible trail for an instant in a gap between the trees. Around the bend we come to a high concrete bridge and that city hum fades, lost in the increasingly louder grumble of angry water. A line like an event horizon appears in the water ahead and I realize we're facing a drop on this otherwise lazy river. Sure enough, the concrete embankments have bottlenecked the river and lifted up a chute of white water, perhaps only Class II rapids, but a surprise nonetheless.

I warn my wife - seated in front - to just keep us straight and we rush through, waves cresting higher than the gunwales, and let go with cheerful cries as if we've suddenly been transported to an amusement park. We come out on the other side taking the slow gentle curve of an eddy as we collect ourselves while, above us, a woman and her child smile down from a pedestrian bridge that shadows the street bridge and connects a series of apartment buildings to the other side of the river. Fifteen minutes later we pull up at a concrete embankment to stop for lunch at a restaurant in downtown Milwaukee.

No Boundaries

This is the magic of urban paddling. I didn't need to set aside the whole day to drive out somewhere; this was a morning paddle.

At the end of it, we pull our craft from the water, bike-lock it to a fixed rail, and take a city bus back to the park where we put our canoe into the water. No $35 shuttle, no outfitter, no hassle.

It's this juxtaposition of nature and the wonders of modernity that I love. I can circle the entire island of Manhattan, cross to Jersey from there, or, if I'm mindful of the tides, paddle down the Hudson and out to see the Statue of Liberty gazing out over my head.

Rivers Reborn

Don't get me wrong; I love venturing deep into wilderness, but urban paddlers find the beauty in that line between the water and the concrete. And as more and more people find their way into our cities' waterways, something else changes: Our awareness of the value of our water. Milwaukee once used the river to flush sewage out into Lake Michigan. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland actually caught fire in 1969. When Pennsylvania boomed with crude oil in the 1800s, drillers would actually float the black gold down the Allegheny River where it could be skimmed off when it arrived at a refinery near Pittsburgh. Today, we know better. Wildlife has returned to the Allegheny, beavers and muskrats, fish waiting to be caught. Paddlers ogle the skyline from beneath the steep slope of the river valley or come out to watch fireworks as they burst among skyscrapers and reflect off the rippling waters.

The River of Angels

Urban paddlers have even rediscovered the Los Angeles River. For years it had been padlocked, fenced off with no trespassing signs, a slope-sided concrete channel of dirty water with a wide, flat bottom, and a movie setting for car chases and drag races. LA was founded on the natural river's floodplain and, after a long history of devastating floods, the Army Corps of Engineers brought it under control in the 1930s - and sealed it from public access.

Thankfully, a grassroots effort sought to change all that. George Wolfe kayaked the whole 51 miles of the river in 2008 to show it was navigable, a necessary proof to get protection for it as a riverway. In 2011, he founded LA River Expeditions and started running guided kayak trips on select sections. "The response has been overwhelmingly positive," says Wolfe. "It's been a real win for the city of Los Angeles." Subaru partner the American Canoe Association granted Wolfe the Green Paddle Award for Waterway Conservation and more stretches of the river have since opened up.

Walk your boat down the concrete slope and off you go. Circumnavigate little islands in the stream, slip past bulrushes and cattails, even cottonwood and willow trees, and, if you're lucky, maybe a coyote. At the 3-mile Glendale Narrows, a stretch with a natural river bottom, shoot through some Class I and II rapids. "There are parts where you disappear into the inner passage so you don't see the concrete on either side of you and you can get lost in the notion that you are in the wild in some sort of exotic location," says Wolfe. And then moments later Dodger Stadium or the downtown skyline appears in the distance, or you spot some graffiti art as you paddle around the massive concrete supports of bridges and viaducts.

Paddling takes city recreation out of the parks and closer to the truly urban, similar to the way parkour turns our utilitarian urban environment into a playground jungle gym. Where will you go on your urban paddle? A better question might be, "Where can't you go?"

Adventures All Around

Grab Your Paddle and Explore these New Frontiers

Urban paddling routes can be found in all parts of the country. Here are some additional suggestions for great urban paddling experiences you can experience all across the country:

Austin - Kayak deep in the heart of Texas. Not just a marvelous skyline view, but in the evening you can paddle to the Congress Avenue Bridge to watch the world's largest urban bat colony take to the skies for their supper.

Boston - Paddle down the Charles River for amazing sunsets and skyline views, or pass through the locks into Boston Harbor and see the USS Constitution.

Chicago - There is nothing like a "duck's-eye view" of the Windy City. Even Chicago natives will be surprised to take in such landmarks as The Tribune Tower, the Merchandise Mart, and the Wrigley Building from such an unusual vantage point.

Milwaukee - The Milwaukee River winds through green space past the educational Urban Ecology Center before entering downtown, where one can moor along the riverfront to enjoy great restaurants and brewery tours.

New Orleans - Paddle deeper into the wild for a skyline view from Bayou Bienvenue, paddle up close through a vibrant local community, see buildings dating back to the 1700s, and check out a historic cemetery along Bayou St. John.

San Francisco - With views of Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the city skyline, and exciting glimpses of native wildlife, this sea kayak site is tough to beat. Go out for a moonlight paddle when the city is offering fireworks displays for an extra added thrill.

Seattle - Floating homes, a real boating community, and the odd seaplane or two are part of your kayaking experience around Lake Union at the heart of the city. Make a pass along Gas Works Park, see the Space Needle and the rest of the skyline, or even follow the ship canal out to Puget Sound.