Have you ever walked across the Union Street Bridge, looked down at the Gowanus Canal and thought, I want to get closer to this polluted body of water? No? You are probably in the majority. But you can get closer. In fact, you can actually take a canoe trip down our toxic neighborhood waterway thanks to the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club.
The volunteer organization, which began in 1999, has a mission to educate individuals, businesses and organizations to improve the Gowanus waterfront and foster awareness of issues affecting the harbor.
“We believe that more will be done to clean up and restore the Gowanus Canal if more people are actively using the waterway,” explains Owen Foote, treasurer and one of the founding members of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club.
The club offers free canoe tours of the Gowanus Canal from their makeshift launching spot at the end of 2nd Avenue near 6th Street (Their former launch site at 2nd and Bond streets is under construction right now). So we decided to see for ourselves what the group has been doing on this toxic waterway for the last 16 years and took one of their tours.
Owen guided us and a few other brave souls onto the water. As we made our way from 2nd Avenue down the Canal toward the Gowanus Bay, Owen explained some of the history of the area and the canal.
The Gowanus Canal was originally a creek and was named after the chief of a local Native American tribe, Chief Gowanee. At the time of the Dutch settlement in the 1600s, there was a large population of oysters in the Gowanus and so a trade path was set up with the Carolinas.
By the time the industrial revolution rolled around in the late 1800s, the oysters were gone and the population of the city has increased exponentially. The city’s original sewage system was built with wastewater flowing into the city’s waterways killing the marine wildlife and often getting everyone in the area sick.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the city finally started building wastewater treatment facilities and eventually stopped dumping our sewage directly into the harbor.
The canal was made an EPA Superfund site in 2010, allocating federal funds to thoroughly clean the water. However, Owen says it’s not enough. “The day after they finish the cleanup the canal is going to start getting polluted again.”
Why? Because there are 12 sewage overflow sites along the 2-mile canal, which means when it’s raining and the sewer system is overtaxed, our sewage starts flowing into the canal instead of going to a sewage treatment facility.
To put that number in perspective, consider this: throughout the rest of the New York Harbor, there is only one sewage overflow site per 2-mile section of water. So the Gowanus Canal has 12 times the amount of sewage flowing into it as any other section of the Harbor.
That’s why Owen believes that more contact will inspire people to care more about our waterways and more people will demand that those waterways be taken care of.
“The nice thing about canoeing,” explains Owen, “is that it’s a little bit more distant than, say, swimming. You are less likely to come into contact with the water. And even if you do, it probably won’t be enough to hurt you.”
And honestly, canoeing down the the canal is actually a fun experience. The canal is surprisingly peaceful because the shoreline is mostly lined with industrial sites that are quiet by evening and make for interesting scenery. It feels like discovering a secret urban getaway. And it’s hard to beat the view of the sunset from the Gowanus Bay.
“We live in a city of islands, but it’s easy to forget that,” says Owen. “We should have more contact with our waterways.”
The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club has worked to spread interest in other parts of the harbor as well, including kayaking and boating in Red Hook, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Long Island City, and Staten Island. And the club supports a winter kayaking program at Riverbank State Park.
If you are feeling brave and want to take a tour of the Gowanus Canal yourself, stop by the club’s launch point at the end of 2nd Avenue near 6th Street, however, due to boathouse construction check the calendar for open hours or email to request a voyage.
“Or,” says Owen, “If you donate $100, we’ll send you a key to the boathouse and you can go canoeing as often as you like.”
To find out more about the work that the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club does, visit their website.