A Journey from Princeton to New York City by Kayak
Nearly 50 years ago, two Rutgers University faculty members paddled a canoe from Princeton to the Statue of Liberty, landing on Ellis Island. The Montgomery News editor re-enacted the trip, by kayak, along the Millstone, Raritan, and Arthur Kill, and finally into New York Harbor.
By Barbara Preston
It all started when Michael Rockland, a professor in Rutgers’ Department of American Studies in the 1970s, noticed the Millstone, Raritan, and Arthur Kill rivers on a New Jersey map led to New York City. “Hmmm,” I thought, as I read Lea Florentine’s story about the trip. “The Millstone River flows by my house in Rocky Hill. I have a kayak!”
Text message to my husband:
“Did you know that two Rutgers professors canoed from Princeton to Manhattan Island in the 1970s? How about you and me doing it?”
Reply from my husband:
“Are you crazy? An oil tanker will sink us! No.”
Text message to my daughter:
“Anna, do you want to kayak to New York City with me?”
Reply from Anna:
“Sure! I’ll stay over Saturday evening, then we can get an early start on Sunday. What’s the plan for getting a ride back from New York City?”
At least she mentioned the word “plan.” I had no idea how we would get back with two kayaks. I did not even know how long the trip would take. I figured from watching a movie that the professors made it in three days so it might be a project of sorts.
“Let’s see how far we make it on day one,” I texted to her. “We’ll figure it out.”
Day One: (16 miles in eight hours): Princeton to Somerset
The 38-mile Millstone River begins in Monmouth County, eventually flows into the man-made Carnegie Lake in Princeton, and becomes a river again around the area of the old Kingston Flour Mill (now a private residence) by the Old Lincoln Highway.
We started our kayak trip at 7 am on August 31, easily drifting downstream, under the Route 27 bridge. The river was smooth as glass, and just as clear. The surface mirrored the great blue heron, that seemed to curiously follow us downstream. A bald eagle on a low branch clutching a fish in its great talons flew off, not willing to chance that we might want to share her breakfast.
As I finished gawking at the eagle, I dipped my paddled into the fresh water when a giant, and I mean a 40-pounder fish of some sort, jumped clear out of the water near my kayak, and startled me. The spirals of waves from its reentry to the water gently rocked my boat and made my heart pound against my rib cage. I have since read that giant Carp live in these waters. Still, it was an experience to behold. We reached the Route 518 bridge in Rocky Hill way too fast. Little did we know — we were about to enter logjam hell. Or, depending on your mindset, a challenge that makes any journey an adventure.
Day Two (22 miles / 8 hours): Somerset to Perth Amboy
This section of the journey led through an eerily silent Rutgers University Campus. The Raritan flows through the middle of the university, with the Busch and Livingston campus on the left, in Piscataway, and the College Avenue, Cook, Mason Gross, and Douglass campus to the right in New Brunswick. Usually, some 50,000 students would be bustling around, waiting for buses, or walking to class. The women’s crew would be rowing on the river. A football game would be happening with canon’s firing and crowds cheering.
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It was silence. After this, the Raritan leads through acres of wasteland — landfill after landfill, the size of 10 soccer fields! An old coal-fueled powerplant was the only building on the horizon for miles. There was not a single other boater or person in sight for hours. I did this stretch alone, just me and my kayak. I was beginning to question the wisdom of this. I’m 56! What if I have a heart-attack out here. Who will find me? I should never have started this crazy trip. What’s that ahead? A beach with fishing piers and a boardwalk and lovely Victorian mansion behind a landscaped park. Did you know Perth Amboy has a beach and boardwalk? I half drifted onto the beach. My fingers were melded onto my paddles. I had to peel them off one-by-one.
Day Three (22.1 miles / 8 hours): Perth Amboy to Statue of Liberty
The highlight of the Arthur Kill is a boat graveyard, filled with treasure. The rust patina on red paint turns these antiques into pure sculpture. One can appreciate the architects’ work. (Are boat designers called architects or engineers? For me, it was like paddling into a painting.
Day Four (Ferry): Ellis Island
By day four, I figured I would never kayak again. I took a ferry from Liberty State Park on September 11 to Ellis Island to finish the trip. Even as my friends, neighbors, and family are divided in this volatile election season, and 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, the Statue of Liberty stood, unmoved, holding her torch aloft. At dusk, two beams of light pierced the sky where the World Trade Towers had stood. And, Democrats and Republicans stood together in awe.