A walk on the wild side of Manhattan

Up hills, over rocks to unique views of the Big Apple

Short Hop

July 11, 2004|By Margie Goldsmith | Margie Goldsmith,Special to the Sun

I re-read the e-mail again:

I'm leading a Manhattan Bushwhack up and down the hills of northern Manhattan Saturday. Proper hiking books and gear is essential. Bring food and water. Be prepared for some serious rock scrambling.

-- Graeme, Your AMC hiking leader

Yeah, sure, I thought -- hiking boots and rock scrambling in Manhattan? No way. And bushwhacking? It had to be a joke.

Yet maybe not, because the AMC -- the Appalachian Mountain Club -- has about 20 hikes each weekend on terrain ranging from solid pavement to boulder fields. And among its many volunteer hiking leaders, there is no one wackier than Graeme Birchall, who would be just the kind of person to lead a bushwhack.

So I pulled on my hiking boots and took the subway to the A train's last stop in Manhattan, Inwood. This is the most northern neighborhood on the island, and a place I'd never been to before.

I ascended the subway steps at 207th Street and Broadway where a group of hikers were waiting on the corner, most wearing bulging backpacks. What were they carrying, tents?

I had only a sandwich and water bottle in my small fanny pack.

Graeme is a New Zealand transplant who, ever since he arrived here a decade ago, has led some of the toughest hikes the club offers, including the Manhattan Bushwhack, which he does only once a year.

Fair-skinned with flyaway reddish hair, he's 6 feet tall and looks much younger than his 48 years. He reminds me of a tall elf.

"Ready for the bushwhack?" he asked. There were 20 of us.

"Of course," he added, "these days you have to be politically correct. So we won't whack bushes; we'll shuffle our way through northern Manhattan."

He turned and loped along the sidewalk like a gazelle. We trudged behind him in our heavy hiking boots.

Hill, caves, boulders

At 204th Street, he stopped in front of a two-story white clapboard house. "This is the Dyckman House," he said. "It was built in 1783 and is the only Dutch Colonial farmhouse remaining in Manhattan. William Dyckman's family sold it and moved to a more fashionable mansion on Broadway."

I moved toward the entrance and stared at the farmhouse, amazed I'd never even heard of it after 32 years of living in the city.

"OK, let's move on, we've got a full schedule," Graeme announced.

"How come you know so much American history?" I asked, racing to keep up with him.

"When you come from a small country, you have to steal other people's history," he said, grinning.

We walked another couple of blocks, then turned the corner to a tree-covered hill, at least five stories high. A paved path ran up its center.

"This is Inwood Hill Park, the last natural forest in Manhattan," Graeme said. With his Kiwi accent, he pronounced park more like pack. "Here's our first bushwhack. Don't take the path or you're off the hike."

I made my own route up the steep hill, stepping over fallen tree trunks and around large stones. At the summit was a perfect view of a salt marsh, the George Washington Bridge and the Palisades of New Jersey. I had just sat down on a rock to admire the unexpected panorama when Graeme called out: "Let's go. Look for the Indian caves on the way down. The Lenape Indians used to live in them."

I've hiked down some pretty nasty hills, and this rated right up there with the worst. Midway down were two caves that looked as though they could hold, at most, a couple of washing machines.

"You call these caves?" someone asked.

"What do you want?" Graeme replied. "This is Manhattan."

At the bottom of the hill was a large boulder. "This is Shorakapok Rock," Graeme said. "Shorakapok means the edge of the river." He pointed to a metal plaque in the stone. "This says that in 1626, Peter Minuet purchased Manhattan from the Indians. But did it really happen here? Probably not."

He shrugged. "I find that Americans constantly package history in a neat, patriotic way."

He led us down two more hills to a dirt footpath that ran parallel to the Hudson River. We passed a small wooden building with a sign: The Inwood Canoe Club.

"This is the only private canoe club left in Manhattan," Graeme said. "There used to be dozens of these exclusive social clubs in the '30s, then they were wiped out in a hurricane, and Robert Moses wouldn't let them be rebuilt because he didn't feel that was a good use for public land."

Moses was the legendary head of the city's Parks Department, who, from the 1930s through the 1950s transformed the urban landscape of New York City.

The path ended abruptly in a boulder field that ran along the edge of the river. "OK, this is the hardest part," Graeme said. "We have to walk on these rocks for about 500 feet. Be grateful it's low tide."

"Isn't there an easier route?" came a quivering voice.

"Sorry," said Graeme. "This is the only way to get to the George Washington Bridge on foot."

The rocks were huge and slippery. I gingerly picked my way from one to the next, looking for safe footings.

After what seemed like a mile, we arrived above the George Washington Bridge. Below was the Little Red Lighthouse.

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