By Devon Kennedy, NAG intern
On the Saturday before last, I went canoeing in Newtown Creek, the creek that forms the border between Brooklyn and Queens. The canoe trip was organized by North Brooklyn Boat Club. Before the trip started, one of the Boat Club’s guides – T. Willis Elkins – shared with us some of the history of Newtown Creek. It was once larger and had wetland surrounding it, but the city’s construction has since confined it into a smaller body of water. Due to the historical industrial use of the areas surrounding the creek, it has become highly polluted, and is now a federal Superfund site. However, there is hope that the creek is recovering.
After the participants helped carry the canoe to the edge of the water, we got in and paddled eastward. After a while, we passed the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on our south side. Our guide told us that this wastewater treatment plant had a higher capacity than any other one in the city, and that it treated a large amount of the city’s wastewater. We also learned that a major source of current pollution into the creek is from Combines Sewer Overflows (CSOs) because much of the area surrounding Newtown Creek has outdated sewer system that “overflows” with raw sewage into the creek even with the slightest rain storm.
A couple times during our ride, we passed workers by the sides of the creek who smiled and said hello. One group of workers said “Don’t you know that water is nasty?!” and we just nodded. After a while, we turned and went up a branch of the creek called Dutch Kills (“kills” being the Dutch word for stream). When we got to the end of this branch, we saw a lone egret in the water near the edge of the creek. Our guide said that the egret was a good sign, as its presence meant that fish were in the creek and that its ecology must be recovering from the pollution.* We turned back and paddled westward, and eventually we got to the place where the creek meets the East River. Here we got a good view of the Manhattan skyline. After this, we paddled back to the Boat Club, helped put the canoe back up, and thanked our guides for the experience.
The North Brooklyn Boat Club offers free public paddles and educational canoe trips (we went on the educational canoe trip) on several Saturdays during the season. It’s definitely an experience worth checking out and gives us a chance to seeing the city from a very different vantage point.
* For a nice summary of birds spotted on the Newtown Creek take a look at Newtown Creek Alliances’s Birds of Newtown Creek poster (the site also has information about local birdwatching).