Canoe the Bronx River.

Canoe the Bronx River.

Rivaled only by its reputation for not sleeping is New York City's well-deserved notoriety as a truly gritty city. And earning an equally filthy reputation over the past decades are the shamefully polluted waterways that surround and traverse it. From industrial pollution to raw human waste, medical garbage to random floating bodies, they've all served to alienate the city's residents from their water for generations. Thanks to massive cleanup efforts, though, that's finally changing, and today many of the rivers and bays that were once de facto garbage dumps are, against all odds, returning to life. In the city's poorest borough, the Bronx River especially is experiencing a renaissance that for many can only be described using religious terms. After canoeing much of the river ourselves, we can understand the feeling of reverence.

Stuck in between Bronx Boulevard and the Bronx River Parkway, Shoelace Park offers a tiny dock and entrance into a river that at times appears too low to even wash one's feet, much less launch a boat. Luckily, canoes do well in shallow water, and within a couple of minutes of paddling, the sound and sights of the city vanish. With a few notable exceptions, the river is surrounded by green. Tall trees keep things shady while a few fallen ones provide evidence of the river's most notorious residents: Jose and Justin Beaver.

A few more minutes of paddling and the water deepens considerably, and returned fauna now gentrifying the area suddenly become apparent. Belted Kingfishers hunt while egrets and herons loom large overhead. Spotted Sandpipers and Double-Crested Cormorants perch on tree limbs rising out of the water, waiting for prey. A few decades ago, this river was known for rusting cars and flowing sewage. Today, wildlife stakes its claim.

As you might imagine, the Bronx River doesn't boast untouched natural beauty for its entire length, but if you're the sort that can also appreciate the complicated beauty of Gotham, then you'll love what you see. Once we pushed our boats into the river, we were transported into a different world. New York City would only occasionally remind us of its proximity when we floated past artful graffiti in unexpected locations, or when we floated under bridges, gaining unique perspective on uncountable architectural styles.

Out of necessity we portaged past three surprisingly impressive waterfalls, and then got back in and canoed over small but still exciting whitewater rapids. Paddling a bit further, we passed through the Bronx Botanical Gardens and then the Bronx Zoo. Excitedly waving zoo visitors treated our flotilla like another novel exhibit on their way to see the endangered tigers.

"How much does it cost?" yelled one of the zoo visitors.

"It's free," someone screamed back (it's actually a modest $5, though). Our onlooker seemed bewildered. It was as if the tigers had started speaking to him.

More information: The Bronx River Alliance offers guided tours via canoe; check online for a calendar, or contact the Alliance to schedule an outing. Alternately, canoers and kayakers can use city park boat launches with their own craft (between April and December), after receiving a $15 city parks department permit (click here for PDF of application and regulations).