Nature Getaway Is Close as the Bronx
For New Yorkers without a weekend home, or even a car to make a day trip possible, one nature excursion is no farther away than the end of the nos. 2 and 5 lines: canoeing on the Bronx River.
You can go on your own with a permit, but group trips are also organized by the Bronx River Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring and protecting the river. On a recent Saturday, around two dozen would-be canoe paddlers, including a reporter and a photographer, met in Shoelace Park, a few blocks from the 219th Street station, for the “Border to Mouth” trip. The trip goes through the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo, then down a more industrial stretch of the river, and ends at Hunts Point Riverside Park, just before the opening into the East River. It is free, although a $10 donation to cover canoe insurance is suggested.
The majority of the crowd was Bronx residents, though there were a handful of people from other boroughs or from Westchester, and a group from Springfield, New Jersey. One member of the latter admitted she was surprised when a friend suggested an outing in the Bronx. “My idea of the Bronx was Â… what’s that movie? Â’Fort Apache, the Bronx,’” she said, referring to the 1981 movie about an embattled police precinct in the South Bronx.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the river’s overgrown banks made it a magnet for crime. Long before then, in the late 19th century, the river had become essentially an open sewer, in which factories, farms, and housing developments dumped their refuse. At one point the contamination was so bad that animals started dying in the Bronx Zoo.
Then in 1974, a group of community activists, supported by Bronx Borough Police Commander Anthony Bouza, formed the Bronx River Restoration Project, the predecessor to the Bronx River Alliance.
Today, thanks to the Alliance and its 60-some partner organizations, the river is an active recreation area, an outdoor classroom for students, and clean enough for a beaver to make its home. The Alliance and its partners have removed debris and blockages, cleared invasive vegetation, and restored the floodplain in the Bronx River Forest. The Alliance has trained local residents in environmental conservation and mobilized groups of students to monitor water quality. It has created a curriculum guide for teachers, called the Bronx River Classroom, and run workshops to help teachers use the river as an educational tool. It has also tried to cultivate local appreciation for the river through recreational activities such as bike rides and canoe trips. The first leg of the trip is on a section of the river that was artificially straightened in the early 1950s to accommodate the extension of the Bronx River Parkway. That had several deleterious effects, including making the water rush faster downriver when it storms, which causes erosion, and eliminating the variety of habitats that existed in the river’s natural curves. Along this stretch, the Alliance’s conservation crew has stabilized the bank in places and also built “boulder veins,” lines of rocks that make the current more sinuous.
After the river resumed its natural course, the band of canoers passed through the Bronx River Forest, which has been restored through the Alliance’s efforts and a $3 million investment from the Parks Department. Aside from the occasional tire on the river bottom (the Alliance has over time removed 150 tires, and five cars, from the river), it was possible to forget that you were in the city. A muskrat showed its head and then dove under the water. A little while later, an African-American couple, out for their morning exercise, waved from the bank. “We stop here every weekend,” they said. “It’s part of our walk regimen.”
The Alliance’s education coordinator, Anne-Marie Runfola, said that she was strongly influenced by growing up in a rural area of upstate New York, and she wants children in the Bronx to have that connection to nature, too. “I think it’s important for people to have some beautiful place to reach back to in their minds, so they have the urge to protect those places,” she said.
By the time the group got out of the canoes to portage over the Snuff Mill Dam in the Botanical Garden, people were visibly moved by the river’s renewed state. Several teachers in the group said they wanted to bring their students here. Others expressed amazement at how much the river had improved in recent years.
“When I was growing up, it was a cesspool,” said Teresa Gonzalez, a writer from Parkchester.
Below 180th Street, the river becomes considerably more industrial, with concrete banks lined with scrap metal and auto salvage businesses, storage facilities, and a U-Haul depot. But the Alliance and the Parks Department are working to change this. The Bronx River Greenway plan calls for an uninterrupted 23-mile ribbon of green along the river, with a bicycle/pedestrian path. The upper 15 miles already exist, but the eight miles along the lower stretch are a work in progress. More than $100 million has been committed to the project by the local, state, and federal governments. The State Department of Transportation has used eminent domain to seize some lots. Local groups have also mobilized to claim available sites, including an abandoned concrete plant, for parkland. Concrete Plant Park, which will be seven acres and include a waterfront promenade with shade and benches, will open next summer.
As the group approached Hunts Point Riverside Park, other boats appeared up ahead. One of the Alliance’s partners, Rocking the Boat, which teaches high school students how to build rowboats and then trains them in habitat monitoring and maritime skills, had its fleet out for a pleasure ride. Up in the park, families were gathered at picnic tables, and small children scampered on the grass. Two fatigued but satisfied paddlers, a Brooklynite and a Manhattanite, headed off on the last leg of their Bronx odyssey: the several block trek to the no. 6 train.
By KATE TAYLOR