A group of New Yorkers is trying
to convince people to get out on one of
the most polluted bodies of water in the
country – literally out there, in canoes.
Samara Freemark reports that they hope once
people see the water up close, they’ll
realize just how dirty it is. And maybe
then they’ll help clean it up:
A group of New Yorkers is trying to convince people to get out on one of the most
polluted bodies of water in the country- literally out there, in canoes. Samara
Freemark reports that they hope once people see the water up close, they’ll realize
just how dirty it is. And maybe then they’ll help clean it up:
(sound of water, paddling)
You wouldn’t believe the stuff people have pulled out of the Gowanus Canal.
Refrigerators. Bathtubs, rusted cars. A 5000 pound dead whale. A suitcase full of
human body parts. Sewage floods into the canal all the time. So you see everything
people flush down their toilets. The water itself is a sickly, opaque green.
And that’s just the stuff you can see. The canal used to be a dumping ground for the
factories that line it. And the sediment at the bottom is still full of a laundry list of
toxic chemicals: cyanide, mercury, lead, asbestos. Scientists found strains of
gonorrhea in a water sample just last year.
And I’m sitting in a canoe in the middle of it.
(water noise, “Ewww, oh, God, gross. It’s like a subway down here.”)
The Gowanus is a 2 mile long trough of murky water that flows into the New York
Harbor – though the word ‘flowing ‘ is a bit optimistic, since the water mostly just sits
You wouldn’t think anyone would want to canoe in this kind of water – much less
see it as a good way to spend a lazy summer afternoon.
(Laughs.) “ My first day was like, hell no. I knew it was going to be nasty.” (Laughs.)
That’s Alex Kovaleski. She’s a Dredger, a member of a group that gets together to
canoe the Gowanus.
“But I’m always looking for an adventure or a way to see things from a new
perspective, so I went out. And then I started having dreams about it, and it was all
Kovaleski knew she had to do something.
So almost every summer weekend she and the Dredgers gather at a makeshift pier
and paddle up and down the canal.
They invite others along. Anyone who shows up can jump in a borrowed canoe and
take it for a paddle. They get a lot of first-timers, New Yorkers who have heard about
the trips and come for the novelty or to get a taste of nature in this most urban of
That’s why Stephen Kline and Beatrice Aranow came. This is their first time at a
Dredgers event. I speak with them on the pier, before they step into a canoe. They
say they came because they love nature, they love being out on the water, and they
want to see their city from a whole new perspective.
Stephen and Beatrice are in for a big surprise. Twenty minutes later, they had their
(talking over each other) “ There were like dead rats, turds. It was a lot worse than I
could have ever imagined. It wasn’t that mysterious. I actually thought I was going
to have a pleasant time going out but it was pretty intense. It was repulsive.”
This doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of the Dredgers.
But Alex says Stephen and Beatrice’s reaction isn’t that bad – it’s actually kind of the
“Part of it is just being out there with the poop and the trash, like, hah, here it is,
there’s no getting away from it. When you’re in it, you’re naturally longing to see it
A week later I came back to the Gowanus canal for another Dredgers event. This
one’s a cleanup day, and volunteers are out with rubber gloves and bags, picking up
trash. It’s kind of a festive scene- there’s music and free pizza. And there’s a group of
high schoolers who came to spend the day canoeing and helping out.
(students talking about canoeing, cleaning)
Alex says those students are who the Dredgers really want to reach. The Gowanus
isn’t going to be clean anytime soon. But those kids are going to grow up, and they’re
going to be tax payers and voters. Soon they’re going to make the decisions that
decide the future of the canal.
For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.