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The healthy side of the Big Apple

DESTINATION: NEW YORK

Forget those workers shuffling on and off the subway. You can go biking, kayaking and rock climbing within this urban center.

September 17, 2006|Yi Shun Lai | Special to The Times

New York — \o7A recent week's schedule looked like this:

Monday: Bouldering with Naomi after work

Wednesday: Kayaking with Karen and clients after work

Saturday: Trail running race, 8 a.m.

Sunday: Cycling with group

\f7

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IF you guessed that I was bouldering in the mountains of Colorado, you'd be wrong.

If you guessed that I was paddling among the orcas in Washington's Puget Sound, you'd be even farther off.

I spend most weeks like this getting to know New York City. Yes, that New York, the one whose name invokes images of pallid workers trudging through underground subway tunnels day after day.

But my New York is different. The city I know intimately is not from the pavement but from the waters of the Hudson River, the mean back hill of Central Park, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and the steep, unforgiving trails of Van Cortlandt Park.

Below, you'll find four of my favorite outdoor activities and places in the city to try them out.

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Paddling

Seeing New York City from a kayak on the river, where the only sounds are the water lapping against your boat and the occasional thrumming of a passing ferry, is an otherworldly experience. The city should always be this peaceful.

Among places in the city to rent kayaks are the Downtown Boathouse, a free boat rental service run by New York City at three sites in Manhattan; and the Long Island City Community Boathouse in Queens. The Downtown Boathouse has branches in three popular areas: 56th Street and the Hudson River, close to what New York residents call the Mall, or the Time Warner Center; 72nd Street, in charming Riverside Park; and Pier 40, at Houston Street on the Hudson River.

But the newly opened Long Island City Community Boathouse is the more culturally satisfying of the two, because it's just down the beach from the Noguchi Museum and the public, cool Socrates Sculpture Park.

All four boathouses are first come, first served, and rentals are free; you're allowed to take the boats out for about 20 minutes. But the odds of getting a boat at the boathouses in Manhattan are 50-50. A better bet is to head over to the Long Island City boathouse and take in some sculpture while you wait for a boat.

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Climbing

Bouldering is the Zen-like art of crawling around on a rock, looking for the best way to work your way from one part of the rock to another. It's a terrific way to unwind, and you can do it in Central Park.

Since the early 1980s, climbers looking for a way to hone their skills in the concrete jungle have recognized Manhattan's schist-and-gneiss outcroppings as the ideal place to practice their sport.

There are more choices than you would think throughout the park's 843 acres. Two of my favorites -- and the most accessible to visitors -- are Cat Rock and Rat Rock in the southwestern corner of the park.

Cat Rock is behind Wollman Rink, Central Park's main ice-skating venue. On a recent visit, I saw a couple of kids scrambling here and there on the rock, and some folks sitting on top of it, but no one was attempting what I was -- a crawl up its face. I didn't succeed in getting to the top, and never have. But no matter -- it's getting that close to the bedrock of Manhattan that counts.

Of course, you might become a tourist attraction yourself. Folks do wonder why you're standing with your face plastered to the rock and your hands covered in chalk.

The city parks department is fine with bouldering as long as you're not using ropes or bolts and you get a sports permit beforehand.

For some practice indoors, head over to the park's North Meadow Recreation Area, which has two climbing walls, or the nearby ExtraVertical climbing gym, on Broadway at 61st Street, or the City Climbers Club on West 59th Street, a not-for-profit dedicated to climbing in the city that's run by the local Parks and Recreation Department.

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Biking and birding

You can't mountain bike in most New York City parks, but one of my favorite areas to ride is Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of Gateway National Recreation Area, in Queens.

Manhattanites might refer to the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn as "the country," but they probably don't think of the briny smell of saltwater marshes or the possible sighting of endangered avian species, which occurs regularly here.

Jamaica Bay, the only wildlife refuge in the New York metropolitan area, is a critical flyway for migratory birds, and nearly 300 species of birds have been spotted there. It's also home to the few remaining natural sand dunes in the area. Do a 20- to 30-mile loop, nearly all on safe greenways, paths or trails that link parks and communities, that go through the now-abandoned Floyd Bennett Field, the city's first municipal airport, and the wildlife refuge.

Bikes are allowed on the boardwalk in the refuge from 5 to 10 a.m. only, so plan your trip accordingly.

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