On July 19, HarborLAB took Hour Children on the second of several learning adventures planned for this season. This time we paddled at Orchard Beach Lagoon in Pelham Bay Park, New York City’s largest park. We chose this location foremost because there is public swimming at Orchard Beach, so water quality in the park is more closely monitored than it is at most launches. Patricia Erickson and Erik Baard surveyed and paddled Pelham Bay Park last year with WildMetro, an urban conservation and ecological education group. HarborLAB Operations Manager EJ Lee, who frequently catch-and-release fishes in the park using barbless hooks, brought volunteers on an orientation paddle in May.
The park also offers a great variety of natural experiences for the kids. We divided the 13 kids into two groups, alternating activities. Each child paddled, hiked the Kazimiroff Nature Trail, and swam at the beach! A third draw is that the area is scientifically fascinating. The uplands include a forest within which one can see one of New York City’s oldest trees, the Grandmother Oak, and migrating raptors and songbirds. Nestled within the forest is a rare meadow that’s home to native wild orchids (which absolutely must remain untouched) and insects seldom seen in our city.
At the shore there are saltwater marshes lush with spartina, also called cordgrass. This reinforced HarborLAB’s focus on the species through Cordgrass in the Classroom and activities with the American Littoral Society. We launched the first group at low water, which was a mucky affair, but it allowed the kids to see egrets feeding on invertebrates in the mudflats that skirted the spartina and to see mussels, oysters, crabs, snails, and soil porous with tiny sand crab and bloodworm holes. These two organisms are amazingly specialized. The crabs are egg-shaped and lack claws so they can more easily slip through sand, while bloodworms actually concentrate copper in their jaws to better withstand sand and gravel erosion and perhaps catalyze a venom! Like other shore denizens, they move and aerate the sand. We had kids shout back and memorize the names of the new species they encountered on the paddle. Their favorite new birds weren’t the showy white egrets, daring diving cormorants, or furtive night herons. Red winged black birds, with their striped epaulets, won the day. “Why? Because I like beautiful birds,” said Christian, one of the Hour Children kids. He added that “people should go to jail if they hurt animals.”
But the greatest creatures encountered that morning were of the imagination. One Hour Children girl, Jada, was absolutely certain that the orange buoys dotting the lagoon for rowing races were actually the heads of menacing octopi. Her adult paddling partner, HarborLAB Relationships Manager Bob Din, a father of three, was clearly amused and did little to discourage this notion.
Oystercatchers were also busy feeding at the edge of rocky islets, some so small that even Canada geese ignored them. It’s those islets, however, that were one of greatest goals for the second wave of paddlers. We fibbed a bit when the kids asked us, “Where are we going?” and we responded, “We don’t know! We’re explorers!” That got the kids excited and they readily embraced their new occupation. But Patricia discreetly suggested that we head for an island she’d enjoyed visiting during the volunteers’ May trip. As we rounded the lagoon’s marshy gate, the island of smooth and seemingly flowing stone came into view. Hour Children kids Christian and Braden piped up. “Can we climb it?,” Braden cheerily asked. Christian just boldly announced that he’d climb it as soon as we landed.
We asked the kids how old the rock of the island might be. Braden answered, “Fifty years old?” When we explained that the youngest rock was perhaps 400 million years old, the kids yelled that fact to each other and paddled even faster, eager to discover an ancient remnant. The island, Hog Island, belonged to the Siwanoy, an Algonquin people. The only recorded resident, however, was squatter Marion Lang, according to an excellent Columbia Journalism School account City Island and its smattering of neighbors.
Given the light footprint of history on the island, we left it to the kids to name it anew. Brianna quickly dubbed it Kids Rule Island, and the others heartily concurred. We adults all requested permission to come ashore, except for Bob, who declared with a smile that he was a pirate. Bob proved to be more of an archaeologist, spotting what might be post footings from the Lang residence, which was abandoned upon her death in 1930.
The landing beach offered many chances for learning. with numerous and varied shells. Skittering around were juvenile blue claw crabs. But the stone of the island itself told the story of ancient volcanoes and the crash and drift of continents. Orchard Beach Lagoon opens onto the Long Island Sound, which is famous for giant boulders deposited by glaciers that retreated over 10,000 years ago. But these islets among the Pelham Islands are eruptions of bedrock. They are banded and swirled, or “foliated metamorphic rock,” because at one point the immense pressures and frictions of North America and Africa colliding and retreating at the very spot melted stone and folded those molten layers into each other. Any fossils from those times would have been erased. In some places Ice Age glaciers scarred the rocks by grinding and scraping them. It’s hard to imagine this quiet spot was once so violent with lava and ice, but the ancient tales are written in stone.
The two most famous types of bedrock in our region are Fordham Gneiss, which is over a billion years old, and Manhattan Schist. But when we launched our kayaks into this realm of islets, we found ourselves among Hartland Gneiss. In landing on such an islet, explains a great Queens College report, “Now we have stepped off the old North American continent, onto the exotic terrain that arrived ~450 Ma ago (Figure 4C). The Hartland formation here contains a variety of rock types, including quartz-feldspar gneiss, biotite-sillimanite schist, amphibolite, and marble.” Many of the rock formations were formed on the ocean floor.
But we had only hours, not epochs, for our little voyages. We had to turn back so the kids could make it home in time after enjoying ice cream! The ice cream was paid for by a HarborLAB supporter through Patricia, earmarked for Hour Children programs. Thanks, Pat!