Canoe-view of North Brother Island

This past Saturday, Urban Park Rangers from the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation led a group of New Yorkers on an Advanced Canoe trip in the waters around Randall’s Island with a surprise visit onto abandoned North Brother Island.

Canoeing along the Harlem River between Randall’s Island and East Harlem

Through all seasons of the year and across the five boroughs of New York City, the Urban Park Rangers conduct a variety of activities in and around the city’s park system.

Canoeing through Bronx Kill separating the Bronx and Randall’s Island

In this case, a few weeks ago the Parks Department announced a canoeing excursion in the salt marshes around Randall’s Island. It was a free activity, but since the number of spaces was limited, anyone who was interested had to sign up on the Parks website for a lottery. The lucky winners of these slots assembled on Saturday morning at Little Hell Gate, an inlet on Randall’s Island for what was billed as a roughly 3-hour canoe trip.

Several Urban Park Rangers led the flotilla of canoes on an adventure across the Harlem River, Bronx Kill, and upper East River. Thanks to smooth paddling by the group, good weather, and favorable tide conditions, the journey included a stop at a special, unannounced destination: North Brother Island.

Morgue and other structures

An Untapped Cities favorite, North Brother Island was formerly the home of medical quarantine facilities and later an ill-fated drug treatment center. It has been abandoned for decades, left to decay as nature has reasserted its domain over the island. It is City-owned and now under Parks Department jurisdiction. It is also a nesting ground for migratory birds during the spring and early summer.

Gantry crane once used by boats accessing the island

Abandoned buildings camouflaged by overgrown vegetation

North Brother Island is located in the open waters of the upper East River, south of Port Morris in the Bronx, north of Astoria, Queens, east of Randall’s Island, and west of Rikers Island. Nearby is its little sibling, South Brother Island.

Nurses’ Residence

As the Urban Park Rangers emphasized, visits to North Brother Island are allowed only with Parks Department permission. As such, the canoers were provided a very rare first-hand glimpse of the island’s ruins.

Returning from North Brother Island towards Randall’s Island

Now that it is under Parks Department oversight, perhaps more access will be provided in the future although no firm details have been announced. A City Council member has suggested the public should have opportunities to visit.

Approaching the bridges linking Randall’s Island and the Bronx

More information on Urban Park Rangers events is available online. The Randall’s Island area canoe trip is only offered once a year and no North Brother Island events are scheduled, but in the meantime there are plenty of other upcoming activities including nature walks and camping trips.

Canoeing single file through the high tide currents of the Bronx Kill

Next, discover 20 abandoned places in NYC and check out the stunning North Brother Island photography by Christopher Payne.