Exploring the archipelago of New York City by canoe and kayak

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To Jens Rassmussen, 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.”

Rassmussen 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.

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.

Rassmussen, 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.

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, Rassmussen 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.

Photo Credit: Willis Elkins
Photo: 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!