Trying to find adventures in New York City has taken me to abandoned hospitals, more than 100 stories up, and onto an old school wooden roller coaster. But for this adventure, I went to the one thing I always shy away from - a boat. Namely, canoeing on the Gowanus Canal.
The Gowanus Canal starts in Boerum Hill, on Butler Street. From Butler, it runs south-southwest parallel to the local streets, for a total length of 1.8 miles.
The name “Gowanus” is based on Gouwane, the chief of the local Lenape tribe called the Canarsee, who used the shores for farming. A fun fact: both Henry Hudson and Giovanni da Verrazano navigated the inlet, back before it had a reputation for being...stinky. As one of my friends told me, “no local would go in that water unless they were insane.”
If you know the history of New York City, you know that its early start (and growth) came about due to its role as a port in the newly formed United States. It wasn’t just Manhattan that was a major maritime player - so was Brooklyn. In 1849, the State Legislature authorized the construction of the Gowanus Canal, a project that would be completed in the late 1860s. Use of the Canal led to a big rise for the surrounding area, with new factories and residential communities popping up on a frequent basis.
So how did The Gowanus get to be so...gross? The Gowanus Dredgers has a great history lesson on this, but I’ll summarize. Because the Gowanus Canal was such an important spot in Brooklyn’s growing manufacturing, oil, and chemical industries, the surrounding area also grew in popularity. New buildings were popping up, and all that sewage had to go somewhere. To address the new pollution issues, a pumping station was created in 1911, which was designed to push the water from the Canal into the harbor.
Over time, that stopped. The new Brooklyn-Queens Expressway led to the start of truck distribution, and the end of regular dredging of the Canal. In 1961, after 50 years of use, the pumping station broke, and was left to decay for 37 years. Fortunately, in 1999, dredging began again, allowing for hundreds of millions of gallons of water to be flushed through the Canal each day, meaning all of the water is replaced 6 times per day. The dredging restart also eliminated the putrid smells in the water, and geese, crabs, mussels, and other wildlife has started to return to the area.
That brings us to today, and the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. This volunteer organization’s mission “is to assemble and educate a diverse group of individuals, businesses and organizations to improve the Gowanus waterfront in Brooklyn and foster awareness of issues affecting New York- New Jersey harbor.” One way they help educate is through open access canoeing from May through November, where members of the community can canoe the historic waterway. The program is fully volunteer run at no charge, but donations are *highly encouraged* to help the Dredgers continue their mission.
Fun fact about me: I don’t know how to swim, and I’m terrified of drowning. But after hearing I could canoe the Gowanus, it was a done deal that I’d have to check it out. I live pretty close to the area, and I’ve always been curious about why this random waterway was there. I grabbed my friend, who was one of the few who didn’t respond with, “isn’t that water disgustingly polluted?” and we made our way to the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club Boathouse on 2nd Street in Gowanus.
Wednesday night canoeing with the Gowanus Dredgers kicks off around 6:00. When we got there, there was already a short line. After filling out some waivers and getting fitted with a lifejacket, we were assisted into a canoe by one of the volunteers. She was nice enough not to laugh at me when I asked what the likelihood of us flipping over was.
Free canoeing on the Gowanus runs from 6:00 to 8:00 pm during the summer months. For the most part, you’re free to go as far down the canal as you would like. During busy times, they ask you to limit your time in the canoe so that everyone gets a chance to go. There were people waiting when we left, so we decided to test the waters and see how far out we could go in a short amount of time.
For my first time in a canoe, this was only mildly terrifying. Every time the boat rocked a little, I was convinced we were going over. I still took the time to enjoy the sights around me. The area around the Gowanus is still very industrial, but you do get some great views, especially as the sun is setting. And, for those curious, the Gowanus does not smell, or at least it didn’t in the area where we were canoeing.
So what’s my verdict on canoeing the Gowanus? This is definitely a unique NYC experience that I would recommend to everyone. You get to see a different part of New York City than what you’d get if you did kayaking, and there’s a ton of history in the area for you to explore. Give the Gowanus Dredgers a follow, and head down for one of their open canoe sessions!