Dutch Kills Dock Delivery!

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HarborLAB paddling the dock east on the main channel of Newtown Creek. Note the bright green kayaks at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch at the apparent base of the Empire State Building. Photo by Mitch Waxman.

Participants in the coming 13 Steps Around Dutch Kills tour by Mitch Waxan will find something new on this forgotten waterway, which terminates just south of the LaGuardia Community College campus of the City University of New York — a new science research dock!

As an environmental science education and service organization, HarborLAB does much more then produce recreational paddles. One of our recent projects was to build a dock for the CUNY LaGuardia Community College Environmental Science Program to use on Dutch Kills, a branch of the Newtown Creek. The college has become a center for independent research and community information on the creek, including innovative work for habitat restoration. But these important efforts, which afford students unique opportunities to address an EPA Superfund Site, were hindered without the safe water access and stable platform of a dock.

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HarborLAB paddling the dock north on the Dutch Kills branch of the Newtown Creek. Photo by Manny Steier.

HarborLAB itself needs a dock and we knew we could save the college time and money through our labors, so we set about learning to build them by rebuilding a rotted dock from the Stony Brook Yacht Club, which also kindly donated flotation billets. Mitch Waxman, official historian of the Newtown Creek Alliance and Newtown Pentacle author, photographed our human-powered dock delivery from a canoe while HarborLAB volunteer Manny Steier captured the event by biking from bridge to bridge.

We’ll complete our own dock in the coming weeks and welcome your help! In the meantime, see some of the good our hard work has produced by joining Mitch and the Newtown Creek Alliance on the 13 Steps walk!

A gallery of Mitch Waxman’s photo of the dock delivery.

A gallery of Manny Steier’s photos of the dock delivery.

Plumb Beach Planting and Paddling Fun!

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HarborLAB had an amazing time planting 20 hackberry trees, 10 serviceberry trees, and hundreds of beach plum seeds in the Plumb Beach, Brooklyn section of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Executive Director Erik Baard proposed the project and Park officials directed us to plant on the interior of the dune line, to help prevent sand from blowing into the vital salt marsh habitat (the blue snake of water you see to the right of Plumb Beach in the satellite image below).These fruiting species are all native, salt tolerant, drought resistant, and delectable to birds and humans alike.

In addition to core HarborLAB leaders and volunteers, our crew for the day included New York District Division 11 Key Club high school students and friends from the Eastern Queens Alliance, and our planting work was guided by Gil Lopez of Smiling Hogshead Ranch urban farm. We’re grateful to have also consulted with the Northeast Chapter of the American Littoral Society. The trees were supplied by New York Restoration Project and the beach plum seeds were a gift from Briermere Farms.

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After the planting was done, we launched two groups onto the water. HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Menje Erickson took those who were new to paddling or unable to join the planting work on short tours along the beach, while Erik took experienced paddlers who helped with the dune stabilization planting on a little voyage to one of NYC’s secrets: White Island. Huge thanks to our youngest volunteers, who went the extra mile and picked up plastic trash as they went. We paddled from the beach on Rockaway Inlet through Gerritsen Creek and Gerritsen Inlet into Shell Bank Creek. We saw a wonderful array of shorebirds, but the stars of the show were certainly a pair of osprey nesting on a platform within Marine Park (a NYC Park), across from White Island. This loop of Shell Bank Creek is home to a Forever Wild habitat restoration and preserve that supports over 300 bird species, a third as many fin fish species, scores of butterfly species, and a kid’s dreamscape of icky, clicky, squishy, and cool invertebrates. At this time of year, one ancient return from the sea to witness is the horseshoe crab mating migration to shore. We were lucky to see some of these living fossils.

Our only landing was by the rip rap bluff of White Island, and we never ventured over its dunes for fear or disturbing or damaging the restoration. This former dump is now planted entirely across with native grasses and flowers, and mussels have already begun to anchor its marshy fringes. The intertidal flats are spongy and riddled with crab and snail retreat holes.

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The morning crew. Over the course of the day, another dozen people joined us.

We look forward to returning to this spot with kids this summer, but launching from within Shell Bank Creek for fuller protection from wind and current.

Many thanks to all!

HarborLAB’s Hidden Heroics

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Much of the most important volunteer work at HarborLAB happens outside of public view. Our fun, valuable programs are witnessed by many and often pretty photogenic, but behind those are many hours of administrative work, trip and program planning, organizing of tools, site work, gear maintenance, and other routine but essential tasks. On Thursday, two volunteers who’d rather be rolling over waves were rolling on wheels, driving errands that will benefit all through HarborLAB.

Jeffrey Lim drove to the Bronx after his tiring work day to pick up serviceberry and Asian pear trees from Sustainable South Bronx and Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. The trees were provided by New York Restoration Project as part of MillionTreesNYC. The serviceberry trees — known locally as shadbush — will be used for HarborLAB’s habitat restoration efforts while the pear trees will be incorporated into our GreenLaunch shade orchard and distributed to gardens, College of Staten Island (via Gotham Orchards) and homes locally. At the same time, Patricia Erickson drove out East to the Stony Brook Yacht Club to pick up donated flotation billets that will be used in the construction of docks by HarborLAB volunteers to benefit LaGuardia Community College, City of Water Day, HarborLAB itself, and others.

Many thanks to our everyday hero volunteers, and to our partnering organizations!

Trees and Docks — What a Day!

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HarborLAB again brought green new life to the Hunters Point, LIC waterfront on Newtown Creek by hosting a MillionTreesNYC giveaway of 150 saplings! Many thanks to New York Restoration Project for supplying the trees and expertise to make this happen! We provided hackberry, serviceberry (shadbush locally), American persimmon, and native dogwood trees to the public, with smiles!

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NYRP provides guidance. Newtown Creek in the background.

Some pollinators chose to just hang for a bit.

The persimmons went like hotcakes, and  we’ll plant surplus berry trees in the Gateway National Recreation Area’s habitat restoration at Plumb Beach this Saturday! Paddling and planting, perfect together! HarborLAB will also plant these salt-tolerant indigenous plants at our own GreenLaunch, to support pollinator insects (they found us right away!), birds, and hungry paddlers! Our edges and slopes will be rich in beach plums, shadbush, native grasses, milkweed. goldenrod, and other beautiful and important species. Indeed, it’s already underway! Further upland we’ll have raised bed orchards for those hungry paddlers. We’ll also have innovative living structures. We’re so committed to greening because plants of all sizes reduce atmospheric CO2 (and thus reduce ocean acidification and riding sea levels), reduce combined sewer overflows, stabilize shorelines, and provide sustenance and protection to native animals.

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After all of that work was done, we got to work on building our second dock. By June both HarborLAB and CUNY LaGuardia Community College will have small environmental science research docks built by HarborLAB volunteers! We’ll keep one on the main channel of the Newtown Creek while the second will be floated into Dutch Kills to further habitat restoration studies there. Dr. Sarah Durand came this weekend to help with the dock building, and Dr. Holly Port-Morgan came last weekend to join our Riverkeeper Sweep program.

Newtown Creek Swept! Sorta.

One of our morning crews.

One of our morning crews.

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Loading up a canoe with waterborne and shoreline trash.

HarborLAB was happy to participate in the 2015 Riverkeeper Sweep! Starting at our Hunters Point, Long Island City GreenLaunch, we covered the Queens side of the Newtown Creek between Vernon Boulevard and Dutch Kills by foot and paddle. We intended to paddle a much greater distance but there was such a massive amount of plastic trash and other garbage in even just that small section that we filled 16 large black contractor bags to the brim and another 11 large clear contractor recycling bags. Our shore walkers concentrated on the dead end of Vernon Boulevard, which we aim to have turned into a pocket park that we can call the Butterfly Bioswale. The vision is a sitting park centered on swamp milkweed, which absorbs rain runoffs from our streets and support threatened Monarch Butterfly populations.

We recognize that this Sweep event was an educational exercise that highlights the problems of unsustainable industrial and consumer practices, inadequate sewer and street water system capacity, and over reliance on petrochemical plastics. Annual cleanups like this, of course, can’t make much of a dent in the tonnage of plastics dumped into our waterways, directly or flooded in from streets. We do, however, more quietly perform cleanups throughout the year, both in the Newtown Creek Superfund area and in other locations throughout our estuary. We hope the attention sparks policy changes that address the plastic trash problem upstream in design and systemic planning, at the source.

Many thanks to Lamar Outdoor Advertising and the Circus Warehouse for allowing us to add our “catch” to their trash carting loads!

No doubt most of the trash was released with combined sewer overflows on stormy days, but sadly at and near our site a considerable amount was clearly tossed by a few of the sailors tied up along the creek on the Queens side (some are very conscientious lovers of our waterways, and we see the situation improving with others) and truckers who tossed their refuse over parking lot fences at the end of their shifts. We discovered this by clambering up crumbling bulkheads and rip rap rock. One tell-tale sign: numerous plastic bottles filled with urine. The Earth will have to forgive us for leaving those bottles, but now that we’re aware, we plan to take action to ensure those drivers are strongly dissuaded from the practice.

LaGuardia Community College student Sandra helps guide younger seedball makers.

LaGuardia Community College student Sandra helps guide younger seedball makers.

HarborLAB had several crews for the Sweep. We had morning and afternoon shore crews and canoe crews. Dr. Holly Porter-Morgan, director of the CUNY LaGuardia Community College Environmental Science program oversaw our work to prepare small fruit trees (especially indigenous berries for bird habitat) for planting on our waterfront, generously provided by Schuman Properties. We also joined the wonderful LIC Springs! street fair while continuing the greening aspect of estuary “Sweep” work. We had a seedball making table, focusing on pokeweed the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group said was needed in Alley Pond Park. Our pokeweed seeds were gathered right at our site, in Hunters Point. Long Island City!

The Newtown Creek itself was in a bad way on May 9, the date of the Sweep. We observed numerous dead menhaden fish — a recent returnee to the creek after decades of absence — and apparent sewage slicks. Both warrant further investigation and action.

HarborLAB Support for Hackensack and Bronx River Events

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A core part of HarborLAB’s mission is to extend other groups’ and educators’ work onto the water, but sometimes we jump in to support long-established stewards of our estuary. This month Hackensack Riverkeeper and Bronx River Alliance had big annual events in successive weekends. The Hackensack Riverleeper Recycled Regatta at EarthFest Overpeck is a zany competition in which teams race boat made from upcycled materials, right down to the paddles! The Amazing Bronx River Flotilla is a season-opening open invitation to New York City’s only true river. In both cases, HarborLAB provided canoes for public use and kayaks and volunteers as safety escorts. We’re honored to be asked by these terrific organizations to support their much needed work!

Hats off to the HarborLAB volunteer leaders who so greatly contributed to the success of these events: Roy Harp, Jeff Lim, and Ray Tan on the Hackensack River and Bob Din and Patricia Erickson on the Bronx River! Great thanks to all of those who volunteered with them!

Below are photos from the Recycled Regatta and a few from the Flotilla. Join us next year!

HarborLAB Dock Afloat!

EJ Lee takes the first rest on the dock before final installation.

EJ Lee takes the first rest on the dock before final installation.

HarborLAB’s community investment in environmental recovery again came in sweat equity. The construction of our first dock was a great success! This achievement is a testament to the creativity, perseverance, and great abilities of HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Menje Erickson. Indeed, we’re calling this dock “The Patsy.” Hey, we’re starting our own tradition of naming docks.  😉

We’ll ultimately have three docks: twin 6′ x 15′ science docks and one 10′ x 20′ main boat dock. We’ll build the second twin dock between May 15-May 17 (more here: https://www.facebook.com/events/730740727023245/) for the CUNY LaGuardia Community College environmental science program, one of our closest educational and ecological partners. That dock will float on Dutch Kills, where students are already working with Dr. Sarah Durand and Dr. Holly Porter-Morgan to study industrial impacts and prospects for habitat restoration. Our goal for the 10′ x 20′ dock is to have it complete by July 19, City of Water Day, to be used on Governors Island if needed before permanent placement at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch on Newtown Creek.

With the season fast upon us, Executive Director Erik Baard decided that waiting for funding to purchase a prefabricated dock might result in delays that compromised safety and access for educational and environmental canoe and kayak programming. But HarborLAB volunteers had never built a dock. David Kistner of sponsor Green Apple Cleaners recommended getting a used dock. Erik agreed, reasoning that even a very rotted dock could serve as an outline to replicate with modifications. On Friday, the two went out to the Stony Brook Yacht Club, Long Island, for a dock that was kindly offered for free. David’s partner at Green Apple Cleaners, Chris Skelley, generously loaned his powerful pickup truck.

The dock, described as 5′ x 26′, turned out to be 6′ x 30′. David backed a boat trailer into the water while Erik went into the chilly water to guide the giant dock onto the trailer’s rollers. Once ashore, David devised a masterful tie-down scheme to safely transport the giant, barnacle-encrusted and rotting monster despite wind sheer and vibrations.

The dock was greeted in the evening with great skepticism by several volunteers, including Joe Block, Mairo Notton, and Alessandro Byther. As we considered our next steps, we removed mussels and oysters from the flotation billets and put them into the Newtown Creek rather than dry o dearth in the sun for days. Patricia was unfazed by the mechanics of what lay ahead, embracing the intellectual challenge.

That work started on Sunday morning, with a morning crew of Emmanuel “Manny” Steier, Alessandro, Jenna Nugent, Phillip Borbon, and Erik taking to tasks at Patricia’s direction. We replaced deck boards immediately to stabilize the dock for deeper work. Most of the wood was replaced, braced, or otherwise reinforced. Old wood was cleaned of nails for reuse in our GreenLaunch’s raised bed gardens. Pat, Phil, and Erik worked into evening. By the end, the 30′ dock was halved and the first deck planking was done!

A larger crew of builders and movers regathered on Tuesday, this time adding Mairo Notton (whose skills as builder were invaluable), his bright son, Tormi, EJ Lee, Pat’s son, Mike Menje, and delightful newcomers Alex Sramek and Aremi Ruiz. We completed all of the dock construction and recovered more wood for later use in the garden.

Then Pat’s genius shown. One of the biggest, unsolved challenges was how to get the heavy dock into the water. Attempts to line up large mechanical help didn’t succeed. The dock was too hefty to lift, and once at the water’s edge, how would we get it safely in the water, face up? Pat had us saw the PVC piping inside the original dock (run through for water, electricity, and such at the Stony Brook Yacht Club) into sections to act as rollers. The dock moved easily, upside down along the street and the HarborLAB GreenLaunch’s earth. Pat identified and enhanced a ridge that, along with ropes, would allow us to control the dock for a final flip. Erik scheduled the dock launch to coincide with high tide on the Newtown Creek. It worked without a hitch! We attached cleats once afloat in holes we drilled ashore.

A job well done by all!