Jefe's House

Deliverance, Brooklyn Style

by on Sep.06, 2003, under NYC, On the Road, The Press

Jeffrey Stanley canoeing in New York Harbor near the Brooklyn Bridge; 2003

As some thrilled tourist once said when he overheard a local complaining about the odor of the canals of Venice, we should all be so lucky as to smell that putrid odor every day. The first time I stood on the banks of the Gowanus Canal the dreadful effluvium indeed put me in the mind of Venice. But I never saw floating fields of garbage and dead rats in Venice, and of course there was no stunning Venetian architecture in South Brooklyn to soften the sensory blow. Could I paddle through this industrial wasteland and learn to love it? Dragging a canoe to the edge of  a three-foot drop and staring down into the filthy, brackish liquid, I was determined to find out.

 My goal had to have a rip-roaring, outdoorsy, inexpensive summer right here in New York City, and being on some kind of watercraft was for me a must.  I am an experienced fresh water paddler and have J-stroked my way safely through many treacherous and boulder-laden river rapids, but I am a starving playwright and teacher who by choice lives on nickels and dimes, so escaping to a rustic river for a few days was out. 

 Sure, there’s the image-conscious Hamptons crowd.  These are my smug lawyer and investment banker friends who quietly vanish every weekend from June to September to their upscale getaways along the south shore of Long Island.  If I promise to behave, and if I’m willing to wear the right deck shoes, they will invite me along with them periodically to frolic in their artificially perfect paradise. But the occurrence of such trips for me is unpredictable.  I never know for sure whether they’re going to come through with a last-minute invitation to tag along on a Friday afternoon to hop on the Hamptons jitney or not.  No, I was going to have to find a way to get out onto the mercury-infected waters right here around New York Harbor or be stuck sweltering on dry land all summer.

 My exploration began with a free kayak lesson at a pier in lower Manhattan which I discovered while jogging one June morning. Ultimately the kayaking subculture turned out to be a bust for me. The hardcore kayakers who go out on longer trips seemed militaristic. They liked barking orders, and there was never time to relax in a kayak.  The hobby was also potentially pricey, with literal bells and whistles and flashlights hanging from fancy life jackets, and wetsuits, and funny rubber skirts, and nowhere on most  kayaks to comfortably put my macho fishing tackle or a big sandwich, so I decided to look for something in the way of a nice Cadillac of a canoe. 

 A five minute search on the Internet turned up the Gowanus Dredgers, a canoe club based in Brooklyn on the infamous Gowanus Canal. That fact alone would be enough to deter most aquatic fun seekers from going any further.  The historic waterway is known to be a cancerous, toxic, smelly mess of stagnant water, industrial sludge, and rapidly decomposing dead mobsters.  Could there really be a nature-loving canoe club based on its banks? I took the bait and sent an email to the club’s president, Owen Foote.  It was no joke. I could pay a $25.00 tax-deductible annual membership and a $75.00 equipment access fee, sign a waiver promising not to sue the club if at any point I began to dissolve, and I could take out a canoe anytime I liked.  Sold!  I reached for my checkbook.

A week later a small key arrived in the mail in addition to further emailed instructions, including the password to an online calendaring system for signing out a canoe. The key would unlock not only the two canoes which were chained to a guardrail at the foot of a dead end street overlooking the canal, but also a big wooden box containing life jackets and paddles.  I was thrilled at the laissez faire attitude of the Dredgers’ leadership.  No monthly meetings, no one barking orders, no intrusive email rants or incessant phone calls from busybody club officers, and no deck shoes. My dirty, retired running shoes would do just fine.

 According to legend, Gowanus Creek was named after Gonwane, a Canarsie Indian.  In the 1600s Dutch settlers gathered oysters along its banks.  In 1776 George Washington fought the British along it.  In the early 20th century Al Capone grew up in the surrounding neighborhood and robbed a lot of its banks.  Today the isolated dead-end streets along the canal, also known locally as “lavender lake” because of the reflective, purplish slick often seen coating its surface, continue to draw untold numbers of illegal dumpers, drug addicts, and couples looking for a good place late at night to park and have a back seat romp.  By daylight used condoms, condom wrappers and empty rolling paper packages are a common sight.  At the urging of local civic and environmental groups, the Army Corps of Engineers recently began taking regular water quality samples, and a broken flushing station designed to keep the industrial waste and storm drain runoff moving southward out of the canal and away from the residential areas has been reactivated.  And then there are the Dredgers, hell bent on reclaiming the canal for recreational use by the public and thereby increasing the government’s continued attention to cleaning it up.

 Standing on the wood and concrete ledge of the Dredger’s “boat launch” clutching one end of the canoe, I quickly learned that dropping this baby into the canal at low tide and then figuring out the best way to climb down into the canoe without falling into the “water” was going to be an ordeal.  I should have taken Foote’s advice to check the tide charts provided on the website and book my canoe as close to high tide as possible.  But I made it safely aboard and was soon paddling past the dead rats, through the fields of garbage and cutting southward through an intermittent lavender film toward the mighty Atlantic.

 Rusting bulkheads line the shore on both sides, keeping back pollutants from the noisy rock smashing operations, shoulder pad manufacturers, and oil depots.  DEP signs are posted at intervals along the bulkheads providing a hotline to report illegal dumping.  I was there on a weekday and the businesses were roaring and clanging at full tilt, which made for a fascinating trip through the twists, turns, and dead ends of this industrial haunted river. 

 A few narrow bridges cross the canal just a few feet above the water.  Unlike the arched walkways in Venice, cars and trucks rattled by on these steel byways.  Passing pedestrians stared down at me in horror.  The haunted river theme was driven home by the dark and narrow 50-foot tunnel running beneath the Gowanus Expressway which I opted to paddle through, past the back side of the new Home Depot.

 Just past the tunnel the canal widened and ocean currents began to churn the water.  Oil tankers, tugboats, sailboats and speedboats came into view, as did the Verrazano Bridge to my port side and the lower Manhattan skyline to my starboard.  Directly ahead I could see people fishing off the Port Authority pier at the end of Columbia Street.  I was in New York Harbor just south of Red Hook.  The sea was gently rolling but not too choppy, the day was lovely, and even the abandoned Revere Sugar refinery looked rather stately gleaming in the sunlight.  I was hooked.  My self-guided orientation complete, I headed back up the canal for home.

Takin' Care of Business in a Flash

Becoming a Dredger dramatically altered my summers. I returned from Manhattan to canoe out of the canal many times, and learned the wisdom of checking not only the tides but also the water’s speed and direction in the harbor using the handy charts and maps on the Dredgers’ website. I have met and become fast friends with other urban canoers and fallen into a trash-paddling subculture where I feel right at home.  Sometimes my newfound pals and I sign out both canoes and hit the water as a group, extending our journeys past Red Hook, up the East River to the Brooklyn Bridge and beyond.  We return several hours later energized, arms a little tired, cheeks a little sunburned, and clean off our hands and faces with bottled water, hand towels and antibacterial wipes.  Then we head to the restaurants and bars along Smith Street for succulent frog legs, crispy French fries, and iced cappuccinos.

 I found my deliverance from the sweltering city doldrums without leaving town, and hadn’t spent more than about $125 on the endeavor for an entire summer.

Written in 2003.

[photo via me]

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