Build a Reed Boat With Us!


International High School students binding phragmites reeds. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB is building a reed boat to debut on City of Water Day, July 16, and you can help!

To join our reed harvesting and boat building efforts email with the subject “Reed Boat.”

Cultures across the globe have made reed boats or equivalents for thousands of years, from the woven ark of the story of baby Moses to the elaborate totora balsas made by the ancient and surviving Uru people of Lake Titicaca on the border of Bolivia and Peru even today. Our boat is most inspired by Ethiopian papyrus tankwa and North American tule canoes. The plant we use  is invasive phragmites, a widely distributed plant with Eurasian genotypes brought to North America as decorative accents on estate landscapes. Phragmites  grew out of control because they reproduce by both fecund seed tufts and rhizomes that sprout new shoots from underground. Our whole region is fringed with this tall, densely growing marsh reed.

To honor the shared heritage of reed boats HarborLAB chose to work with the International High School at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. A cheerful crew of Tibetan (via India and Nepal), Colombian, Ecuadoran, Egyptian, Peruvian, Uzbeki, Bangladeshi, and Senegalese students launched our construction under the guidance of teachers Amy Bouros and Sanjeeb Anower, and HarborLAB volunteers Erik Baard and Katherine Bradford. One Bangladeshi student recounted how in his homeland he built a raft from a banana tree to cut miles from his daily walk to school. We thank Principal Jackie Valane for introducing us to the teachers and taking such an active interest in the project.

Reed boats are great classroom projects for a host of reasons. They require no power tools and the materials are simply reeds and burlap twine, made from another reed called jute. International High School student Tenzin Woesel researched the plant’s growth patterns to calculate how much we’d need to harvest. We included that information in our research application to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group. Tenzin also learned about the history, construction techniques, and anthropology surrounding reed boats from readings selected by HarborLAB volunteer and anthropologist Diana Szatkowski (PhD, Columbia  University).

Phragmites aggressively displace native marsh plants like cordgrass, so most conservation scientists are only happy to see them felled by clippers and machetes. The reeds we use have so far been harvested and fetched from Alley Pond Park by Tenzin, Erik, Patricia Erickson (who also lent her van; HarborLAB Chair Scott Sternbach, director of the LaGCC photography program, lent his pickup truck), Greg Leopold, Katherine, the NYC Parks Stewardship Team, and volunteers from Latham and Watkins, LLP, thanks to coordination by Natural Areas Conservancy and NYC Parks coastal wetlands engineer Jamie Ong. Our quarry was the dead cane. We were careful, however, to remove all seed heads to avoid propagating the species.

When our reed boat has passed its useful working life by the end of the summer, it will entirely return to the earth. We hope that it inspires future projects, or even a World Boatbuilding Museum in NYC!

Please enjoy a photo gallery by Erik Baard of the work so far:

A Bright Solstice Paddle!




HarborLAB welcomed summer to Gantry Plaza State Park! The longest day of the year eased down into a glorious sunset that dappled the little cove touching the growing community of Hunters Point South. We used the event to educate our many participants about solar energy.

We distributed solar energy coloring books, instructions for making solar ovens from pizza boxes, passive solar design guides for youth projects, and sheets explaining how photovoltaics work. As usual we also gave away NY State Department of Environmental Conservation educational literature and flyers from the Waterfront Alliance, American Canoe Association, The River Project, US Coast Guard, and other organizations promoting water safety and ecology.

Fittingly, when our eyes follow the sun trail across the water, they come to both the United NationsUnited Nations and the Solar One alternative energy education center. On the shore behind us were terrific volunteers with Hunters Point Parks Conservancy pulling out invasive mugwort so that native plants can thrive.

NY1 News came out to video the fun and kindly shared our mission with viewers.


Thanks to a grant plaza from TF Cornerstone we’ll soon be able to offer basic kayak paddling lessons at Gantry Plaza State Park. Our “Instruction for Inclusion”program will fund lessons to certify a number of HarborLAB volunteers as American Canoe Association level 2 sit-on-top kayak instructors. Our aim is to build skills and confidence in participants in our Gantry programs so that they join longer harbor tours. We find that our open paddles within protected areas draw more diverse participation than our longer and often even more rewarding voyages. On that note, we were also to safely share the water with sponsor New York Waterway, with its East River Ferry service docking at Hunters Point throughout program hours.

We’re grateful to Waterfront Alliance and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for coordinating access to Gantry Plaza State Park for HarborLAB’s free public programs. As always, it’s our volunteers who ultimately make these good things happen. A special thanks goes to Josue Silvestre, EIT, our water quality manager for testing the water at Gantry Plaza State Park each week for nitrates and sulfates and bringing samples to labs at CUNY LaGuardia Community College and The River Project for fecal bacteria, our safeguard against sewer overflows. We’ve found Gantry Plaza State Park to have the cleanest waters in western Queens, usually testing within safe swimming parameters. Josue was also there at the dock during the event, introducing fellow New Yorkers to their estuary.


Volunteer Steven Chu exuberantly welcomes new volunteer and novice paddler Yemi Abioye to the East River!

Another hero was safety patrol kayaker Diana Szatkowski, PhD, who received rave reviews from novice paddlers for her patient coaching, encouragement, and keen eye for each paddlers’ needs. Designated public paddling partner Steven Chu helped visitors become paddlers too, hopping into their boats for on-board cheer and guidance.

A huge thanks also to event volunteers Yemi Abioye, Philip Borbon, Mairo Notton, Erik Baard, Patricia Erickson, Evan O’Neil, Scott Wolpow, Dorothy Morehead, May May Cheng, Wing Ho, Greg Leopold, and Katherine Bradford! May May and Wing came through HarborLAB’s 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, Open Space Institute. They staffed the education and sign in table, fit participants with life vests and conducted them safely to the dock and into boats, and kept them safe on the water. Lots of work that we believe really makes a difference in the life of our city and in each individual participant.

Please enjoy the gallery below by Erik Baard.



Family Fun Day Memories.


On June 18 HarborLAB had a wonderful day providing a free paddling program and environmental education literature to  Friends of Fort Totten Parks‘ popular “Family Fun Day” in Little Bay Park on the northeastern Queens coast. As usual, we learned new things along the way!

We’re grateful to Waterfront Alliance, which coordinated the day’s waterfront programming, for inviting HarborLAB to contribute our activities alongside others as diverse as health screenings, Brooklyn College’s hands-on environmental science displays, seaweed art, and pet microchipping information. City Council Member Paul Vallone provided a mini-grant to HarborLAB to help activate this NYC Water Trail launch, and he stated that he hopes to found a permanent boating and education program out of an underused building on the shoreline. He clearly loved putting his paddle to the cove!


Erik Baard of HarborLAB and Roland Lewis of Waterfront Alliance launch City Council Member Paul Vallone and his little captain on a voyage about the Little Bay. Photo courtesy of Alison Simko/Waterfront Alliance.

Our volunteers cleaned the beach through an effort led by Jeff Lim. A good thing too as we shared the beach with a variety of beautiful plants and animals. Horseshoe crabs swam up and we gingerly moved them aside to avoid any boats walloping them as they landed. Even more astonishing was how an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly graced the beach amid the hubbub. At first we thought it was ill or dying (they live as butterflies for only weeks) but it flew with great vigor, only to very deliberately return to the beach. Some speculated that it was feeding on seaweed somehow, or even garbage! But the truth discovered through subsequent research was even more surprising: it was taking up salt from the wet sand, a normal behavior called “puddling.” Young males freshly winged out of their larval stage seek sodium ions and amino acids to enhance their reproductive abilities. They will even draw from dung and urine. Most of the time the species stays high in the canopy and feeds on flowers. Who knew that clean estuary sands helped sustain beautiful butterflies?



Eastern tiger swallowtail puddling. Photo by Erik Baard/HarborLAB.


Eastern tiger swallowtail paddling. Photo by Erik Baard/HarborLAB.

As always, our deepest thanks go to the sponsors and especially volunteers who made the day possible. Jeff Lim, Patricia Erickson, Alex Sramek, Phillip Borbon, Diana Szatkowski, Danushi Fernando, Erik Baard, Shinjie Lim, Diana Chang, Jessy Yap, Alyssa Yap, Erik Baard, Scott Wolpow, EJ Lee, David Kistner, and Manny Steier, and new friends brought by Jeff did amazing work. Thanks!

Please enjoy the gallery of photos below by Captain Margaret Flannagan and Alison Simko of Waterfront Alliance and Erik Baard, Diana Chang, and Jeff Lim of HarborLAB.










GreenLaunch Attracts More Life!

HarborLAB’s work to green and stabilize our little section of Newtown Creek Superfund waterfront continues to bring green returns. When we arrived in late 2012 the site was covered with illegal dumping and pallets of scores of thousands of stranded bricks. Now our GreenLaunch’s milkweed, shadbush (serviceberry), American persimmon, and other native species are thriving and attracting birds and insects. After we install our final pieces of large infrastructure we’ll plant our healthy, container-grown apple, apricot, fig, pear trees and fruit vines into permanent homes. We also plan to cover graffiti at our site with a living green screen.

We need gardeners and sponsors to help keep this wonderful progress going! Please email or with the subject line “gardening” and a few lines about how you’d like to be help. Thanks!


Black swallow butterfly (male) feeding on milkweed nectar at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch. Photo by Erik Baard.


Black swallow butterfly (male) feeding on milkweed nectar at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch. Photo by Erik Baard.


Shadbush (or serviceberry or juneberry) growing at HarborLAB. Delicious for birds and humans alike. Photo by Erik Baard.