Duke Riley photo by Damon Riley/New York Times
New York City's Gowanus Canal contains over a dozen contaminants, including oil, lead, mercury, PCBs, coal tar, and reportedly, gonorrhea. Newtown Creek, further north at the border between Brooklyn and Queens, is so polluted that an aeration system is in place to oxygenate the water, but may only release bacteria from the black mayonnaise of the creek bed to burrow snugly into the esophaguses of nearby residents. And the beach at Dead Horse Bay, on the southern shores of the Floyd Bennett Field, is basically a landfill containing of 120 years' worth of glass, nylons, doll parts, and horse bones. Who wants to go canoeing?
The City of New York is an archipelago with 520 miles of shoreline, but due to industrial development that's choked the waterfront with pollution, most New Yorkers have never dipped a toe into any of its waters or floated on it in anything other than the Staten Island Ferry.
The rivers are much cleaner now than they used to be, and despite the pockets of filth, plenty of traditional boaters ply the major waterways to fish or drink beer someplace with a better view than the fire escape at home. Some sail the low seas of NYC in order to explore boat graveyards, ancient waterfront infrastructure, or other unlikely enclaves of beauty, as well as orchestrate elaborate naval shenanigans for art and entertainment. Some even do it for sport and health reasons.
Since the mid-90s, small, dedicated groups of alt-sailors have been quietly reclaiming the waters. Here are some of the notable crowds and characters braving the pathogens, wild currents, and politics of the New York City waterways.
THE GOWANUS DREDGERS CANOE CLUB
Photo: Dan Glass
Maybe paddling through a steel canyon past garbage barges, scrap yards, and bloated rat carcasses doesn’t sound like a therapeutic jaunt through nature, but it's all the founders of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club had when they formed in 1999.
Starting with two canoes tied to a post and a beaver dam's worth of shopping carts and trash at the shoreline, the Dredgers grew to become one of the most prominent advocates for cleaning up the much-maligned canal. All their programs are free, and canoes from their boathouse—a shipping container behind a graffiti-covered gate—can be taken out on weekend afternoons just by filling out a waiver. Says Ray Howell, co-founder (and US Naval Academy graduate), "We don't charge fees because we don't want anything in the way of people getting on the water." Even if in some parts, that water is on the verge of becoming a solid.
In 2010, the Gowanus earned Superfund status, meaning it was on the Environmental Protection Agency's official to-do list. It's easy to make jokes about it, but is much cleaner since earning its ironic nickname "Lavender Lake" in the early 1900s, when it was the busiest commercial canal in the country. Completed in 1869, the one-ended, two-mile-long canal fueled a South Brooklyn economic boom, and with it, a housing boom and subsequent sewage boom. When trucking finally killed the local barge business in the early 1960s and the flushing tunnel that fed it clean water broke, the canal became a dumping ground.
The Dredgers spend their time organizing clean-up days, educating neighborhood groups, talking to politicians, and swelling their ranks with an eclectic and diverse crowd, says co-founder and treasurer Owen Foote. Over the past decade massive amounts attention, money, and resources have gone into clean-up efforts, and raw sewage only flows into it after rains overload the city's combined drainage and sewer system. Funds continue to be raised, Foote says, due in part to the canal’s increased recreational use. "The more people do it," he says about boating on the Gowanus, "the more we become the argument for taking care of the waterway."
The get-in-there attitude also got them attention from outside of the city. Japanese public television broadcast from their dock this past June, and what they were interested in, says Howell, "was how a community club such as ours, started by a couple local people, could reach a point that it has influence and makes things happen." The Fukushima disaster in March 2011 had prompted Japanese interest in self-started community action groups, he says, an unfamiliar notion in a hierarchical society that tends to wait for government to make the first move.
So while the canal is still fetid from the sediment and combined sewer outfalls, there are fewer shopping carts and cans in the water, and more baitfish and birds that aren't garbage-eating pigeons. The Dredgers logged over 3,000 trips last year, and spawned canoeing and kayaking clubs in other neighborhoods, which has swelled their fleet from two canoes over a decade ago to over 115 boats now. The canal may never get to the pristine, oyster-supporting state of the pre-industrial past, but the Dredgers are out there, providing the reason to try.
The Gowanus Dredgers recently held their annual fundraiser at a new bar appropriately named "Lavender Lake" in Brooklyn, and the boathouse is open until November 1st. See gowanuscanal.org for info.