On New York’s Low Seas: Day 3

A Week on the Water

A gull.

On City Room: Corey Kilgannon’s dispatches from the city’s waterways.

On Wednesday morning, a 79-year-old, shirtless man basked in the sun at the water’s edge, reclining on a broad sloping rock at the very northern tip of Manhattan.

From this rock in Inwood Park just east of the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, the man observed another New York City rush hour.

He heard the heavy pounding of car traffic on the Hudson River Bridge directly overhead. He saw across the water – an upper extension of the Harlem River that veers west to join the Hudson River – the Metro North trains ferrying commuters to Grand Central Terminal.

The man – he said his first name was Sabas but would not give his last name – had no job and no conventional home.

“Those people are living in their element, and I’m living in mine,” he said. “I live the way the Creator meant me to live, with what he provides for me. I have everything I need to live, right here in this park.”

Most important, he said, was his morning floating and bathing routine in the river: the key to his staying healthy and youthful.

He had just taken a swim in this area where you would be hard pressed to spot a swimmer all summer long. But Sabas said that he bathed here each morning – he had two stiff loofah sponges next to him – and that he swims year-round. There are short dips in the winter, and long floats with the current in the summer, he said.

He said his longest drifts were from this spot, out to the Hudson River, and then drifting south to the George Washington Bridge, a distance of several miles.

“That’s only when the current is just right,” he said. He climbs ashore near the bridge and walks back to Inwood Park.

He said he was a Korean War veteran and had taken to living outdoors, in caves in Inwood Park.

At first, I thought he was pulling my leg, but then I realized I had met this man before, looking a bit different all bundled up in the winter. I had long heard about the “Caveman of Inwood Park,” a spry older man with a long white beard who is well-known to the dog-walkers and users of the park. Many locals say they see him regularly floating in the river.

I had even searched for him in the caves in the rocky, hilly terrain of the park’s woods. But I had never found him there. Whenever I bumped into him on the street he was not talkative. But on Wednesday, he extolled cave-living and described in detail the domestic conditions, much the way other people might describe a nice summer cabin.

“It’s pleasant, and you get plenty of fresh air,” he said.

Sabas persuaded me to take a swim, so I stripped to my bathing suit and had him hold my bow line so my boat would not be pulled away by the current.

I followed his instruction how to carefully lower myself off the slippery rocks, and I threw myself into the brownish water. It was fine, if a bit brownish for my taste.

I climbed out refreshed, and let out a whoop and shook his hand.

“See? You’re a different person now,” he said, much friendlier now that I had joined his swim club.

Sabas was not the only sign of life in this isolated spot. There were numerous cleverly constructed lean-tos at the water’s edge along the Hudson River. And there was a tent made of blue tarp, just east of the Broadway Bridge, with a wooden night table inside.

It was evidence that while much of waterfront has been reclaimed and turned into parkland in the southern half of Manhattan, the shoreline around Upper Manhattan remains somewhat wild and unseen.

Heading up the Hudson, we pulled even with two female kayakers vigorously paddling up river.

One of them, Fiona Cousins, 43, an engineer from Manhattan, said she paddled before going to work several mornings every week. One favorite route is from the Pier 66 kayak boathouse at West 26th Street, up to West 125th Street, near the Fairway food store, and back.

“In the winter, we might get out and grab a hot chocolate at Fairway,” Ms. Cousins said.

Just north, a scuba diver was suiting up to dive into the murky water to inspect pilings supporting a seawall. The visibility was about two feet below the water. The diver jumped into the dark depths holding a flashlight-equipped camera attached to a boat by a thick cord.

More would happen this day. We drifted perilously in the roiling currents of Hell’s Gate, off Mill Rock Island, and stared down at the bubbling, oozing liquid that fills Newtown Creek, while a tug pushed a barge through the opened drawbridge along Metropolitan Avenue in Queens. But throughout the day, the memory persisted of Sabas, whose long gray beard and pointy straw hat gave him the appearance of some exotic sage.

During his long floats, he said, he keeps his belongings with him, floating along in plastic bags kept afloat by other plastic bags that he blows up and ties in a knot.

“It doesn’t take much, if you think about it,” he said, as he laid back on a rock.

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