Exploring the archipelago of New York City by canoe and kayak

To Jens Rasmussen, a very spe­cial part of New York City lies part­way between Green­point, Brook­lyn and mid­town Man­hat­tan. You can some­times find him there, in the East River, bob­bing in a kayak and tak­ing in the spec­tac­u­lar view with other mem­bers of the North Brook­lyn Boat Club who have pad­dled out from Greenpoint.

Those tidal forces that push through the East River are awe­some. To expe­ri­ence the river in such close prox­im­ity and jux­ta­posed with Manhattan’s sky­scrap­ers is pro­found. It really rocks people’s worlds.”

Rasmussen points out that NYC is an arch­i­pel­ago and the water is the largest open space in the city. He believes access to it is a birthright for all New Yorkers.

New York­ers often expect water­ways around the city to be dirty, and thus unap­peal­ing for activ­i­ties like kayak­ing, but over the past sev­eral decades water qual­ity has dra­mat­i­cally improved. As a result, boat clubs have been pop­ping up in the five bor­oughs and more and more New York­ers are begin­ning to take advan­tage of what the water has to offer.

Exploring the archipelago of New York City by canoe and kayak

Prep­ping for a pad­dle out into the East River. (Photo: NBBC)

The North Brook­lyn Boat Club hails from New­town Creek, a hub of indus­try through the 19th and 20th cen­turies and once home to dozens of refiner­ies for oil and chem­i­cals. The EPA des­ig­nated New­town Creek a Super­fund site in 2010, and a years-long process of reme­di­a­tion is underway.

Rasmussen, who is com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor of the boat club, and his fel­low mem­bers are now also work­ing to reclaim the his­tor­i­cally pol­luted inlet for recre­ation. These pio­neers formed the North Brook­lyn Boat Club (NBBC) in 2012 to pro­mote access to clean, safe water­ways, increase par­tic­i­pa­tion, and get peo­ple to care about the waterfront.

Exploring the archipelago of New York City by canoe and kayak

Photo: Klaus Schoenweise

Today, indus­tri­al­iza­tion may have left the area, but there are still other sources of pol­lu­tion to worry about, from street lit­ter to com­bined sewage overflows.

The club’s new “Don’t Put Your Butt in the Creek” pro­gram seeks to build dis­tinc­tive cig­a­rette dis­pos­als on street cor­ners and to pro­vide infor­ma­tion on the impact of street lit­ter on water qual­ity.  When heavy rains fall, garbage on the streets of Green­point is washed down into New­town Creek, con­tribut­ing to the pol­lu­tion of the waterway.

Fur­ther exac­er­bat­ing the prob­lem, New York’s waste water sys­tem car­ries sewage and storm water in the same pipes. Runoff from heavy rains can tem­porar­ily over­whelm the intake capac­ity of the city’s treat­ment plants, caus­ing untreated sewage and storm water to be diverted and released directly into sur­round­ing water­ways. This type of event is called a com­bined sewage over­flow (CSO) dis­charge. The New­town Creek Alliance’s Weather in the Water­shed pro­gram sends out tweets and texts to inform NBBC and res­i­dents through­out the area about CSOs so that they can stay safe and still enjoy their time out on the water.

The club is inter­ested not only in mon­i­tor­ing the health of the waters but in look­ing for ways to improve it.  Their EDshed Pro­gram, cur­rently in devel­op­ment, will be an onsite edu­ca­tional cen­ter for researchers to study the ecol­ogy of the creek, includ­ing wet­lands restora­tion, fil­ter feed­ers and plankton.

Despite the prob­lems of pol­lu­tion, Rasmussen points out, “New York City’s water­ways are cleaner than they’ve been in our life­time thanks to the Clean Water Act.” He acknowl­edges con­cerns from peo­ple about health and safety, but advises that with the proper pre­cau­tions it is safe.

Exploring the archipelago of New York City by canoe and kayak

Photo Credit: Willis Elkins

Most of the mem­bers of the club reside in Green­point, Brook­lyn, but they have had peo­ple join from all around the city. They also attract a broader mem­ber­ship through pub­lic pad­dles and even by catch­ing peo­ple walk­ing by over the Pulaski Bridge.

There are many oppor­tu­ni­ties through­out the five bor­oughs to start ven­tur­ing out onto the city’s waters. The New York City Water Trail Asso­ci­a­tion web­site lists over 26 dif­fer­ent com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions in the New York metro area that are pro­vid­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple to join in the fun.   

Sum­mer is almost here. It’s time to go out and claim your birthright, New Yorkers!


See original piece by Jocelyn Dupre for City Atlas