June/July 2009
Ports of Call
Text by Catherine Price

If you live in a waterfront city, chances are you’ve seen at least one stranger navigating your metropolis in a kayak and wondered, Could that actually be . . . fun? “People ask me that all the time,” says Ted Choi, owner of San Francisco’s City Kayak. “They basically assume that kayaking in a natural setting is the best thing—but urban kayaking is amazingly beautiful.” And easy. Many U.S. cities have local paddling outfitters (we found three in Manhattan) that offer equipment rentals and tours, DIY or guided. It’s convenient, low cost, and yes, fun.

New York City

Push offshore and you’ll find the Big Apple no less hectic—or thrilling. “You’re out there in a kayak dealing with the wind, the waves, the current, boats going in all different directions—and then you look up and there’s Manhattan,” says Randall Henriksen, owner of New York Kayak Company. Sign up for his “Sushi Run” across the Hudson to Mitsuwa Marketplace on the Jersey shore, where dripping-wet customers are welcome ($150; nykayak.com).

Chicago

Skip Lake Michigan’s crowded shore in favor of a float down the city’s namesake river. Kayak Chicago leads nighttime paddles past historic industrial buildings into the heart of downtown. “When you get to Kinzie Street Bridge, it’s like a curtain pulls back to reveal the Emerald City—everything’s lit up and twinkling,” says owner Dave Olson. From here it’s 25 minutes to Navy Pier, where kayakers enjoy VIP views of the Wednesday and Saturday night summer fireworks ($50; kayakchicago.com).

San Francisco

It’s easy to feel small when you’re out in the big bay. “Even if the waterfront is busy, you only have to paddle out 15 minutes and you’re suddenly in the middle of nowhere,” says City Kayak’s Ted Choi. “There’s so much space out here, kayakers kind of disappear.” And if you really want to get away? Sign up for Choi’s Alcatraz tour, a 3.5-mile out-and-back to the infamous prison site. You’ll pass sailboats, migrating birds, and the occasional sea lion ($75; citykayak.com).

Washington, D.C.

In under a mile, the Potomac morphs from a silent, tree-tunneled river into a bustling urban waterway. Jack’s Boathouse, by the Key Bridge in Georgetown, is a convenient jumping-off point for forays in either direction. Paddle upstream into what co-owner Paul Simkin calls the “wilds of Virginia” (watch for bald eagles), or ride the current a half hour downstream to take in the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial (kayak rentals, $10 an hour per person; jacksboathouse.com).