Monday, October 24, 2011

row row row in circles

i got back to nature this weekend by taking a canoe trip... on the Gowanus Canal.

no, this was not the canoe we took.
i think this boats only here for decorative purposes.
it draws your eye away from the sludge it sits in.

now if you live in Brooklyn, you know about the Gowanus. it's a twisting waterway that separates some of the most desirable neighborhoods in Brooklyn. it's also the most polluted canal in the world.

back in the 1800's the canal was built on the cheap with no locks to flush it. there's only one entrance that fresh water can flow in through. engineers thought this would be enough to appropriately flush out the canal.

they were wrong.

basically, for hundreds of years, the water in the Gowanus has just sat there. here's a copypasted quote from Wikipedia (great research, huh?) that drives home how gross the water is.

"Water quality studies have found the concentration of oxygen in the canal to be just 1.5 parts per million, well below the minimum 4 parts per million needed to sustain life.[6] With the high level of development in the Gowanus watershed area, excessive nitrates and pathogens are constantly flowing into the canal, further depleting the oxygen and creating breeding grounds for the pathogens responsible for the canal's odor.
The opaqueness of the Gowanus water obstructs sunlight to one third of the six feet needed for aquatic plant growth. Rising gas bubbles betray the decomposition of sewage sludge that on a warm, sultry day produces the canal's notable ripe stench. The murky depths of the canal conceal the remnants of its industrial past: cement, oil, mercury, lead, PCBs, coal tar, and other contaminants. In 1951, with the opening of the elevated Gowanus Expressway over the waterway, easy access for trucks and cars catalyzed industry slightly, but with 150,000 vehicles passing overhead each day the expressway also deposits tons of toxic emissions into the air and water beneath.[6]

There is an urban legend that the canal served as a dumping ground for the Mafia. In Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, a character refers to it as "the only body of water in the world that is 90 percent guns."

cut to 2011. one of my best girl's is doing an art piece about the Gowanus. would i like to be her paddling partner? definitely!

i thought we'd be there on some special Parson's pass, but it turns out that on Saturdays, the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club lets anyone take out a canoe -- for free -- no previous paddling experience required.

have you ever paddled in circles on some of the most polluted water in the world? have you ever felt the frustration of going nowhere as disintegrating black things float past in water that you do your best to make sure doesn't come into the boat, let alone touch your skin? no? why then you haven't lived! (i am definitely kidding).

the only living creature i saw in the water was a lady bug. i pulled it out on my paddle. are lady bug legs supposed to be the same color as the rest of their body? i swear it's eyes were triple normal size (you could say it was bugged eyed, bah dum bump) as if it was going, you would not believe what i just landed in.

at one point a tiny fleck of water splashed my cheek. one of those woken up by a nightmare noises escaped my lips. i couldn't have been more horrified than if acid had touched my skin. maybe it had.

and yet? it was beautiful. or maybe beautiful isn't quite the right word. it was fascinating? nice? cool?

maybe lets say: it was an experience. an only in Brooklyn would i ever consider time spent on toxic water a relaxing, back to nature, escape from it all, Saturday appropriate event. but it was. and i couldn't recommend it more highly.

fyi the Dredgers Club provides anti-bacterial gel when you're done. still, washing up someplace else really well afterwards comes highly recommended.


  1. OMG you are so brave. I don't think I could do it. It's so icky! I'm glad you survived. Ha. :) That's hilarious they offer anti-bacterial gel.

  2. you and your hubby should TOTALLY do it! it's definitely an adventure. i thought the gel was pretty funny too, though what i really wanted was a giant hazmat shower.

  3. brave of you!! sounds like... well, i dunno about fun, but sounds interesting for sure ;) sorry i couldn't stop by this weekend! :(

  4. I think I threw up in my mouth a little. Paula