Friday, October 5, 2007

Into the Weeds

Last Sunday at high tide, a friend in the marina led me through the cow path to the airport. This is the other cow path, the main cow path being a high-tide shortcut into Broad Channel, which I negotiated by myself for the first time a few weeks ago, in a stiff wind. “Risk it. You need the experience,” the boss had said. That cow path is marked with a white “No Wake” buoy at each end, but in the middle there are plenty of tempting routes into the weeds. Lucky for me, a boat was coming out just as I was going in, so I knew to make a sharp right turn. Later, in the car, I could see the cow path clearly from the bridge.

So this friend, Frank of Assisi—the one who feeds the birds—left a pile of peanuts for the squirrel, turned on the tap in the fish sink to give the swans a drink of fresh water, and mounted his jet ski. His engine has 125 horsepower; my new outboard has 6 horsepower. He is on the equivalent of a racehorse while I am holding the reins of a horse-drawn beer wagon.

He idled at the mouth of the path till I caught up, and led me through yellow-green meadows of salt marsh. Sometimes he would disappear, and only when I came to a turn would I see which direction he had gone in. There were straightaways and doglegs and floating mats of weeds that I had to be careful not to foul my outboard with. We flushed a couple of egrets from the meadow, as well as some big dark goose-shaped birds. In the distance was the control tower of JFK.

After meandering for several minutes, we came to open water just south of a runway. A Homeland Security vehicle drove past on shore, flashing its rooftop light. I did not take a picture of it. “Do you know where you are?” Frank asked. I did. I had been following our progress on the chart, in case he ditched me. There was a skeletal pier parallel to the runway between me and the channel. Two big boats at anchor were tied up alongside each other, the only other vessels in this fishing hole. The bay is very deep here; I read somewhere that the fill for JFK's runways was dredged from Jamaica Bay.

Frank went back the way we came, and while I was still poking around in the high-security area he came zipping through the cow path at speed, churning up a wake.

Since I had plenty of gas, I went up to the head of the bay to Meadowmere Park, all the way to the Rockaway Turnpike. Driving in a car on the Rockaway Turnpike, you would never suspect that behind the International House of Pancakes and the carpet outlets was a scene out of Maine or Cape Cod: boats and buoys and stacks of crab traps in people’s back yards. If I had wanted to, I could have tied up and crossed the street and used my credit card to buy a new outfit at T. J. Maxx in the Five Towns Mall.

On the chart, it looked as if I could turn right just before the turnpike and go under a bridge and up a channel to circle back into the bay without retracing my route. The bridge looked utterly forbidding, however—squat and concrete, like something an industrial troll lived under. And the only way to tell if the water was deep enough was to poke through the weeds growing right in the middle of the channel and risk getting stuck in the mud. I was tempted—what is the point in coming this far if you're not going to see if there is a passage to the Orient? where would we be if Christopher Columbus had not dared sail over the edge?—but the tide was starting to go out, and there was a big "No Trespassing" sign on a waterfront building, and though I usually assume that this doesn't mean me, I headed back the way I came.

My jet-ski outrider got back to the marina about the same time I did. He'd been all over the bay. When I told my friend Pete where I'd been, he was unimpressed. “It’s not fun unless you have a breakdown,” he said.

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