Most Popular Guides: New York, London, Paris, Rome, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Rio, See All Guides

Adrift in Bliss: A New York Canoe Journey

by Johnny Panessa

Another excellent reader submission, about two guys who spend the Jewish holidays cruising uncharted waters in their backyard. Got a travel story to share? We want to hear it.

Guacamole, Guac for short, drove us to the canoe drop in Yaphank, Long Island, on his morning commute. He had an early call at the hospital, and we got out there just as the park service unchained the gate. It was the third Jewish holiday of the month, which meant my co-worker and longtime friend Jason and I had two mid-week days with workless, bachelor status. We were on a dude's mission. The wifeys would be pecking computer keys at their desks as crystal-clear water passes underneath us, with just a sliver of fiberglass keeping us dry and afloat.

I concocted the plan five years prior: Canoe around the Mastic peninsula, setting off some ten miles inland, coming down the tranquil waters of the Carmans River, battling the brackish washing-machine waters of the river mouth, crossing the boat-wake-ridden Great South Bay, and finally settling in for the night along the Atlantic's mosquito-swarmed Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wildness. After a night of arm- and back-muscle rejuvenation on a tent floor, another early morning voyage, again traversing the bay with canoe nose pointed into the rising sun due east. Multiple consecutive paddles on the right side would push us around the curve of the forested William Floyd Estate and catch the incoming tide up the Forge River. In my head, it sounded doable, though I had never heard of anyone doing it. People in these parts of Long Island don't realize they live on a peninsula (or neck, as Native Americans referred to it) — a piece of land headlocked by two rivers, east and west, and a bay to the south. The waterways would be just about empty during the post-summer season.

The night prior to lift-off, Jason and I purchased some needed goods in NYC's Chinatown: matching cowboy hats inscribed with "Ronaldino" on the sash. The plan was to not remove the $2 purchase throughout the two-day journey. As for provisions, junk food and beer would be our motor.

The roadside drop-off was a dock's walk to the put-in. All the supplies tucked neatly in between the two rowing positions. Hats securely chin-strapped, we broke the surface with a simultaneous stroke, the first of a million to come. The upper river is only a few inches deep, and the trees' fingers grab at the river, creating a hallway of foliage that bisects Southaven County Park. River grass dances on the water's motions like green jellyfish tentacles. The sun hadn't yet had a chance to burn the morning mist that blanketed the moving waters and pasted branch silhouettes against a glimmering sfumato backdrop. The nose of the canoe sliced the fog like a just-sharpened sushi knife parting the finest fatty tuna. With cameras dangling from our necks, our mouths hung open. It was astounding. Long Island was showing off its best: engulfing green, deep blue skies, a ripple anointed by bird tweets and heron wing flaps. The rare human presence scared them out of their perch. The night's cooler airs painted the riverside leaves with slight fall hues. With less than 65 miles between this tranquility and the hectic beeps of the monstrous city, we could not believe this existed right here on Long Island.

For three and a half miles, we barely paddled, letting the Carmans flow pull us south toward the first of two portage points. In the early 1900s, Carmans River was damned to control flow for the now-extinct mills that lined the shores. Though the damming breaks up our flow, it forces resting points. The second portage point was a bit harder. There was a staircase at the bottom of Mill Pond, and our haul was easier for having restied in a pine forest. We crashed into Mill Pond's bank and found a giant grove of eastern pines in a landing that can only be defined as a set for Return of the Jedi.

With canoe re-submerged, we carefully repositioned with shaky balance and trod on south in the brackish lower river. Another three to four miles, and the real paddle would begin as we hit the Great South Bay's headwinds and quick-moving tides. But for now, the water guided us forward through Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge, one of Long Island's nine refuges. The Ronaldino brims protected us against the now-burning Indian summer sun. Our timing could've been better: The lingering summer heat strengthened, as did the push into the bay. Sweat now beading up, the muscles started their fatigue and burn, the shore lines parted further away, losing their tight grip, as if they were hands opening and releasing a dove into the blue skies.

Our dove was red, constructed of fiberglass, and didn't gallantly glide. We were now struggling, zig-zagging the choppy surface across open water, each paddle a stitch in an uncharted path. With every wake marching toward us, we would quickly turn and point her nose against the shakes. We made a rest-up landing on a strip of jutting white sand scattered with nothing but seaweed and bird footprints. With a refuel of junk food and liquids to replenish the sweat tap, we pulled the canoe across to cut twenty feet of paddling around the strip. We were exhausted, and we still had about a mile of bay before picking up our overnight pass at the ranger stand. Once acquired, it was a mile and a half paddle west to Old Inlet, where wilderness sleeping begins. We hugged the wetlands coastline, where the strength needed to push west was calmed a bit.

Weaving through glowing, goldenrod-tinted wetland and islands, we finally tied up on the dock and hiked the gear into the dunes. At the sight of the deep blue ocean, we dropped our load and rushed straight in, the chill of fall waves engulfing our pain. We had made it — eight hours of paddling — and were now on the white sand beach, the only other breathers a family of deer moseying along in the sunset. Jay and I cooked, set up tent, and, as the sun shone its last ray, our eyes closed and remained tightly shut until first light, twelve hours of sleep injecting life back into muscles I never knew I owned.

The day's first act was to announce our visitors. The only thing separating us from the salivating mosquitoes was a thin, nylon wall. The light projected silhouettes of hundreds of anxious pests. Like Hitchcock's Birds in miniture, they were everywhere. Breakdown took seconds. We dashed back to the canoe with a trail of bloodsuckers tailing, hungry for all the rivers that flow through us. A few kept up with our pace, landing like helicopters, their lives quickly ended with multiple slaps. There were a few successful bites, but that only added to the poison ivy itch that already rearing its ugly head. We untied and quickly paddled far from shore, squishing the brave few who followed us out onto the bay. A deep breath of salty air, we were safe. The mosquitoes went back to whatever mosquitoes do while awaiting their next victim. We were no longer breakfast.

The morning again set a foggy, grey curtain on everything around us. A few quacks and ripple laps were the only interruptions in the buzz of silence. We paused and soaked it in before the eastern glide under Smith Point Bridge through the narrowest gap between mainland Long Island and Fire Island. When we skirted the coast of Mastic Beach, we landed in mosquito-free wetlands to recharge with bacon and eggs for the Forge River ride north. Before finding the river mouth, we transversed inlet after inlet, hopskotching along every leg of green stretching into the bay, forming a straight path along the wetlands. The land starts curving north as the Forge River mouth comes into view, but only after a large coastal curve that forms the southern border of the William Floyd Estate.

Luck buddied up and came for the ride: Bay winds at our backs pushed the canoe surfing the incoming tide from the Moriches Inlet directly up the river. We passed Old Mastic, the Poospatuck Indian reserve, and aimed the red beauty into a dark still-water canal where we paused for the last few moments away from population, away from the land where jobs and cars and houses and stresses lived.

We yanked the canoe out of the water. She did so well: no flip, no leaks, no sinks. The life we gave her was better than the dormant backyard life my neighbor gave her. When my neighbor had pushed her through a hole in the fence a few months back, an overflowing bed of murky water with a tattered body, little did he know that right here in Long Island there was so much water for her to float, so much beauty for her to bypass, so much enjoyment to give two office workers, Ronaldino and Ronaldino, an absolutely glorious two-day river adventure on barren waters with a bit of bay in between.

MAP IT →
See the points on their journey. (Google Maps)

FIND IT →
You will need your own canoe or kayak.

Driving directions:
From Manhattan, take Long Island Expressway east to exit 67N.
Take Yaphank Ave. north (County Road 21).
The canoe drop will be on your right in the Hawkins House property.

Locations and parks in the story:
Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness

+1-631-281-3010

Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge
360 Smith Rd.
Shirley, NY 11967
+1-631-286-0485

Southaven County Park
Victory Avenue
Brookhaven, NY 11980
+1-631-854-1414

William Floyd Estate
245 Park Dr.Mastic Beach, NY 11951
+1-631-399-2030

Johnny is a toy and packaging designer. You can see more of his gorgeous travel photography on his website. He travels for the answers to questions.

More On Fathom

Instant in-box upgrade: Sign up for Fathom's newsletter.