2pm Kayak Cayuga

woman in a kayak navigating Cayuga Lake


Raging rapids jostled us nearly overboard as the river spit it’s white several feet above our watercraft. We held on for dear life and paddled as hard as we could, praying the river gods would have mercy.

Yes, that happened, but certainly not during our kayaking adventure here in Ithaca, New York. I don’t even think my rafting companion—and the mother of my children, including one just about ready to arrive—Renée even got wet. Every drop of water I took on was purposely dripped over me to combat the wrath of not a river deity, but a sun god intent on burning every inch of Ithacan skin not buried in SPF 80 on a summer’s day fit for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Despite warnings against not making a reservation, we called up the boys at Puddledockers fifteen minutes before we wanted to hit the lake. Though their website says they’re happy to take walk-ins, they also warn that they book up quickly.

“Puddledockers,” came the voice on the other end of the line.

“Hi, I wanted to see about getting a tandem kayak for the day.” Renée is pregnant, so a kayak built for two would mean I could do most of the work and build up my romance points at the same time.

“Sure, when were you thinking?” came the reply, the type of happy resonance in a voice that comes naturally to people who float around in the sun for a living.

“I don’t know, maybe fifteen minutes? We’re gonna grab some coffees and be right over.”

“Alright, no problem. We’ll see you…whenever.”

A couple of tall, iced coffees from Collegetown Bagels later, we were pulling off of West Buffalo and into Puddledockers parking lot. The owner was busy showing a group ahead of us how to put on their life vests, how to paddle, telling them about the dos, don’ts and dare tos of the adventure that lie before them. I grew a little nervous, not wanting to have to undergo such a beginner’s lesson myself, but the day was young and so are we, so the lady and I perused the small shop that serves as storefront to the rental space out back, near the river. Finally, our time came.

We were lead to our kayak, where they “fitted” us for the long and red vessel which would serve as our ship of exploration, a process basically involved us sitting in our particular assigned seat—me in the back to do most of the work and her up front to enjoy whatever scenery I could get us to—while a young kid rightfully ever so enthusiastic about his job working for a kayaking shop, on my assurance that we were all pro, gave us the expedited version of the safety course. They slipped a waterproof map into the front net of our dragon’s tail worth of a sea kayak, and sent us on our way.

ruins of a former structure peak through the murky waters south of Cayuga
Urban ruins meet city foliage on Ithaca's murky waterways.

The most beautiful thing about the nearly non-existent current in the waterways south of Cayuga Lake is precisely that: the stillness. This makes it easy to paddle up or downstream, cut from the left side to the right, and anywhere in between. Directly from Puddledockers, you can head north and brave the open waters of the lake itself, which at 45 miles long and a mile and a half to three or so wide, is the longest of the Finger Lakes and would take even a world class kayaker an entire day to cross and come back. Once you’re out on the open water like that, well, you’re out on the open water.

a sailboat docked in the waterways, the city of Ithaca in the distance behind
The city rises up in the distance.
a rusted, ivy covered bridge with fading graffiti
Ivy and rust retake the city's bridges. Beautiful urban ruins like this abound.

For most of our time, we instead cut south where little channels and inlets lead all through the City of Ithaca. Where lake bound you’ll be sharing liquid with pontoons and other, larger, motorized vessel, in these smaller waterways we didn’t see a single boat and much of their area is too shallow to allow anything bigger than a canoe to pass.

a duck passes by boats docked in the water near Puddledockers
The water in front of Puddledockers.

I gave Renée the cue to sit back and relax as much as she’d like as I paddled us under the city’s bridges, between fallen trees, around heavily forested bends and below graffiti strewn, rusting train trestles. We slowed by docked boats, some vintage, wooden ships that were easy on the camera lens. I couldn’t help but think of how similar the experience was to those old thyme images of a man courting a woman, taking her, white dress and lace umbrella and all, out onto the lake for a picnic. This is not a fast action adventure, in any way. What it is, though, is a relaxing and different way to explore Ithaca. You can certainly make a work out of it if you’d like, but similarly you can pull your paddles out of the water here or there and take it easy. While the city bustles above you, you’ll go mostly unnoticed just above the water. There are even a few restaurants where you could theoretically dock up and have a drink or a shrimp cocktail to rejuvenate yourself for another few hours of rowing.

Either way, if you’ve never kayaked before or are an old school paddler from way back, this is a great way to see the city from an angle most others don’t.