feat

Canoes on the Gowanus Canal

“Hold on, hold on!” I shouted into the cell phone pressed against my ear in a vain and laughable attempt to seal out the cacophony of a passing delivery truck with a faulty muffler as it scurried out of the way of a fire engine.

“I can’t hear a damn thing,” I said, more to myself than to the distant, tinny voice trickling forth from the phone and struggling to be heard over the din with a determined might (or is it desperation?) not unlike that exhibited by those baby sea turtles who plunge for the first time into the unforgiving sea and must paddle wildly in flight from the myriad predators lined up to gobble them whole. I did my best to pin the phone between my shoulder and head so I could free my hands for scrawling down the directions on the rare event that I was able to hear them. Let’s see. Downtown F train at West 4th. Take that to the Carroll Street stop in Brooklyn. Leave the subway station and look for 2nd Street…

It ended there. The voice giving me the directions decided to give up and was swept away in a seething torrent of noise highlighted by the distant strains of an unaccomplished smooth jazz band set up streetside and well into a ten-minute long adult-contempo rendition of the “Flintstones” theme. None of that mattered anyway, because the reception bars on my phone suddenly plunged from four to none as I rounded the corner onto a less busy side street in an attempt to escape a vendor cloaked in billowing hot dog vat steam who had been yelling at me from behind a rampart of colorful soda cans to get the hell out of the way of his customers, of which there were none.

I closed my phone and stared at the borderline illegible notes I’d written on the back of a receipt from Astor Wine and Spirits. Head down, I burrowed my way through the rush hour throngs toward the West Village, a battle that my usual schedule keeps me from having to fight. Outside the West 4th subway station a basketball game was raging inside “The Cage,” but for all the shouting and squeaking of shoes as they were dragged across the court, no one was actually very good. I lumbered down the stairs, fishing awkwardly through my pockets in search of my Metrocard, which had somehow become enveloped within a deposit slip for a paltry sum that represented my total income for that month and a few carelessly crumpled bills that represented my total savings for the same month.

As I squeezed onto a packed subway car and grasped for a pole before the lurching action of the train sent me sprawling at the feet of my fellow New Yorkers, I couldn’t help but reflect on this damn funny business. This was, by far, the strangest kayaking trip I’d ever taken.

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When you look at a list of the world’s top paddling spots, it’s unlikely that you’ll find Brooklyn, New York. And it’s even less likely that you’ll find the Gowanus Canal, a narrow sliver of water that cuts its way from Gowanus Bay through the industrial zones of Red Hook, South Brooklyn, and Park Slope. It’s not exactly what you might call scenic, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. It’s lined by crumbling warehouses, generating plants, shadowy factories, Coast Guard fuel depots, and even a Home Depot. It meanders beneath the Gowanus Expressway, one of the busiest highways in New York City, and has been referred to as the most polluted waterway in America. A slick, rainbow film of oil and other chemicals gives the water in the canal a colorful, shimmering candy coating that would be beautiful at sunset if it didn’t smell like cold metal and gunpowder and leave a disturbing acrid taste in the air. Visibility in the water is almost zero, and any trip across it is highlighted by an overpowering fear that you might get some on you. And yet still, people put paddle to battery-scented water and get both a unique view of New York and a first-hand understanding of how a neighborhood and an ecosystem can flourish, die, and then struggle to be reborn.

Construction of the canal began in 1849 as a response to a population boom that meant a demand for more waterfront shipping and industry space. By 1869, the Gowanus Canal was ready for business. And business was ready for the Canal. Everything from oil refineries to sulfur producers, gas plants to chemical plants, sprouted up along the canal. And all of them began dumping waste directly into the water. Rapid population growth also necessitated the installation of a new sewage system, which was designed to discharge raw sewage into the canal. By the end of World War One, the Gowanus Canal was the busiest, and arguably most disgusting, commercial canal in America.

As America’s shipping moved from water to highway during the 1960s, the Gowanus Canal and surrounding area suffered a precipitous plunge in prosperity. By the 1970s, over 50% of the previously bustling property in Gowanus was abandoned. Dead-end streets that butt against the canal’s concrete embankments became magnets for gangs, drug dealers, muggers, and according to local legend, popular spots for Mafia thugs to dump cumbersome bodies to disappear beneath the impenetrable waters.

Hopping off the train at the Carroll Street station, I struggled out of my work shirt and into something I would be less concerned to see dissolve upon potential accidental contact with the water. After taking note of my surroundings and trusting in my unerring sense of urban direction, I set off in exactly the opposite direction I needed to be walking. A slight course correction ten minutes into the hike put me on 2nd Street, and from there it was obvious which direction to go, even to me. 2nd Street is the path to the boat launch, and it wasn’t like any kayak put-in I’d experienced so far. Brownstowns and solid little brick houses lined the sloping street, fronted by tiny four-by-four lawns adorned with a truly staggering number of flags and grinning lawn ornaments. Gowanus has changed a lot in the past few years.

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A block away, I could see the street dead-end at the water. Houses gave way to squat warehouses, and from the top of the hill at the beginning of the block I could see a group of guys huddled at the far corner of one of the desolate looking buildings. One of them was in that unmistakable hunch associated with tough guys smoking a cigarette, the butt of which he was casually flipping into the canal as I approached.

I was supposed to be meeting Owen Foote, the voice at the other end of my doomed cell phone call and the founder of the Gowanus Dredgers, an environmental awareness group dedicated to educating people about the Gowanus Canal and surrounding Brooklyn waterfront by putting them on its surface in canoes and kayaks. But Owen was nowhere to be found. “Don’t be late,” he’d said in an e-mail to me a few days earlier. “We’re leaving at five sharp, and the tide doesn’t wait.” The Gowanus waterway has a pretty drastic tidal shift that can raise or drop the sludgy water level by six feet or so depending on the time of day, rendering some potential launch areas inaccessible if you don’t plan things right. The 2nd Street put-in is the only one on the canal that can be easily accessed regardless of water level. I checked my watch: 4:57. Technically, I should still be at work, but you know, technically I probably shouldn’t have been entertaining the idea of paddling along the stinking, filthy waters of the Gowanus Canal.

Near the water were three canoes, chained to posts and fences and whatever else presented itself in much the same way you might chain up your bike around town. The canoes sat in an overgrown recess choked with litter and those sorts of leafy plants that seem designed specifically to thrive in abandoned urban nooks and dead ends.

“How you doing?” It was a voice from behind me, just barely recognizable as the same voice that had fought its way up to some cell tower then back down through the canyons of Manhattan to emerge static-plagued and distorted from my phone.

Owen Foote has been taking people out onto the canal since 1999 when he founded the Gowanus Dredgers. Since then, paddling the Gowanus Canal hasn’t exactly become a popular Brooklyn pastime, but it’s become popular enough so that in 2003, the Dredgers launched over 1,000 people into the canal. “As people experience and enjoy the waterfront,” explains Foote, “they become advocates for its revitalization.”

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Having watched sundry legislative and technical approaches to saving the canal fizzle and fail, Foote decided that the best way to spark interest in and make progress toward cleaning up the canal was by giving people first-hand experience with it. In a city with so many rules and regulations, the natural assumption is that, even if one wanted to put a canoe into the Gowanus Canal, one wouldn’t be allowed. This isn’t the case, however, and the canal is a freely accessible city “street” to whoever has the vehicle to traverse it.

“It’s no different than taking a bike onto a street,” explains Foote as he unlocks one of the canoes chained to the fence. “This landing is public property. The water is public property. Anyone who wants to can use it. The only regulations are that you have to wear a life jacket, have a light if you go out after dark, and get out of the way if something bigger comes by.”

“So when the water is clean, then they’ll kick everyone out and built fancy places for rich people,” is a popular sentiment among neighborhood residents. In a city where revitalization has become synonymous with gentrification, and in a borough that is caught in the middle of battles over redevelopment of multiple neighborhoods that are seeing long-time residents and business moved — potentially through force of eminent domain — to make way for luxury condos and stadiums, it’s no wonder that some Gowanus locals, who have seen a modicum of peace and order return to their neighborhood, might see the cleaning of the Gowanus Canal as the first wave of development that could push them out of their homes and businesses.

As we’re discussing the future of Gowanus, the rest of the paddlers show up: two young women from Jersey, and an architectural historian from midtown Manhattan. We slip on life vests and introduce ourselves. As a bona fide addict to frolicking about in the water, I’m rarely concerned with making an entirely dry entrance into anything, be it a boat or my own home, but something about the glistening water reminded of greasy soup, and I thought perhaps this time it would be best to take a bit more care in avoiding plunging myself into the water up to my chest, or even up to the ankle, really. There was no telling what it might look like once it came back out.

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We pair up to take out the canoes. I opted to use Dredgers’ canoes — they are free for members of the Gowanus Dredgers to take out any time they want to, and Dredgers members frequently offer free guided tours like the one on which I was embarking. I was with the architectural historian, who turned out to be a poor paddler (most of the people who do this are also sitting in a canoe for the first time) but provided excellent running commentary to make up for his short-comings with an oar. Although the Gowanus Canal wasn’t his specialty, he knew plenty about it and was able to point out the various design innovations and missteps that made the Canal such a heavily trafficked waterway — and such a heavily polluted one as well.

From another canoe, as we slid silently under the Union Street bridge — at high tide there are just a few feet between you and the bottom of the bridge, and the open grate construction means that you can watch the cars rolling over you — Owen Foote described both the layout and history of the canal and the mission of the Gowanus Dredgers. Their goal is to educate people and, as a result, influence the situation in a way that is “low cost, high impact, without requiring a great deal of financial support or organizational bureaucracy.” By regularly taking paddlers, locals, and families out onto the Canal and nearby Red Hook shoreline, The dredgers can illustrate firsthand the effects of environmental disinterest as well as the effects of renewed efforts to clean things up a bit. Even Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz has been out to their meetings — though he’s yet to actually hop in a canoe and paddle the water himself.

The Canal cuts beneath a series of low-slung drawbridges that rarely get drawn anymore. Many of the factories along the banks are derelict, but others have sprung back to life. A shopping center that contains a new Lowes sits right on the water. From there you cross beneath the towering structure of the Gowanus Expressway and past Home Depot. We spy a group of factory workers tending a small tomato garden they’ve planted behind their concrete block of a workplace. We pull up near the bank — which is a smooth, slanted concrete face looming over us, and exchange a few words in broken English and Spanish with the guys, who seem to find the idea of canoeing on the Gowanus Canal to be as terrifying as it is hilarious.

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As we move into Gowanus Bay, we’re surrounded by fuel depots, a massive Con Ed generating station, and an old freighter that has been anchored to the same spot for years, collecting rust and barnacles after it was busted for running drugs. No one seems to know what to do with the thing, so there it continues to sit. A tugboat churns by, and the captain regards our presence as we scoot out of his way with what looks from a distance and sitting right near water level to be a combination of bewilderment and amusement.

The sky is streaked pink and orange with sunset as we hit the mouth of New York Harbor. It’s teeming with ship traffic, and not just tugboats, but those city-sized tankers and freighters. They already seem giant from the shore; imagine what they look like sitting in a canoe as they lumber past. Although people do it, none of us have signed on to paddle the Harbor. Instead, we watch the sun sink below the Statue of Liberty, then retrace our steps back to the 2nd Street launch. The trip was both exactly what I expected and nothing I ever dreamed of. I knew I would be seeing burnt-out industrial wasteland and dirty water, but I underestimated the sheer uniqueness of being in this position. And thanks to the company of knowledgeable people, I came away probably having learned more about Brooklyn in a couple hours than I’d learned in my six years of living there. After a while, the city passing by you becomes unremarkable. This isn’t strange and dangerous and glorious New York. It’s just home. You go to work, ride the train home, get something to eat, watch a little television. It all becomes routine. But put a boat out on that nasty little strip of water, and all of a sudden the eyes open, and you understand a little of the city from an entirely new perspective.

I crowded back onto the train bound for home, knowing that I smelled of old batteries and musty water. I smiled at the thought, though I doubt anyone else shared my amusement.