The Wonders of Pokeweed

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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by Erik Baard

Imagine a common wild berry that not only feeds and protects wildlife but is potentially the next big thing in solar energy. Ah, the wonders of American pokeweed!

American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), flowers in summer and its purple berries are ripe in autumn. So why write about it now? HarborLAB harvests pokeberries in late February when they’re dry and less messy, and birds have had a chance to subsist on them through the winter. Besides, few native plants have given us a better weekend song than “Polk Salad Annie.”   🙂

 

The song name derives from the traditional dish, “poke sallet.” The lyrics offer a great description of pokeweed, except that composer Tony Joe White mistakes the species for being specific to the South. This hardy perennial grows at forest edges and in sandy beaches across all but eight of the 48 contiguous states. It thrives even in eastern Canada, far from White’s home state of Louisiana. HarborLAB grows it at our GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek, and we’ve encountered it on shores from Staten Island to South Brother Island. We make pokeweed seed balls and distribute them in areas where city, state, and federal park ecologists determine 8′ high bush’s deep tap root can stabilize shorelines and dunes, and protect the interior from storm surge.

As a central part of our GreenLaunch habitat area, the white flowers are a favorite of beneficial insects like our favorite pollinators, bees and butterflies. The leopard moth feeds on the plant during its larval stage. Northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, northern cardinals, mourning doves, cedar waxwings, brown thrushers, and other birds eat the berries. Our resident raccoon can enjoy noshing on a bit of pokeweed too. Few mammals are so lucky, and for some the plant is deadly. Humans must strip young stems and leaves and boil them three times and toss the water after each cycle. After boiling removes the toxins, many fry the soft greens. “Poke salad” remains part of African American and Appalachian cultures of the South, taught earlier by American Indians, who also used the plant for herbal medicine.

Pokeweed, especially its berries, should be handled with care because it causes rashes on some people, and the poison can be absorbed through skin or open cuts. Never eat the berries and roots, which cause severe vomiting and even, in rare cases, death. Infants are especially vulnerable. Crushed seeds release the greatest toxic loads. Longer-term concerns like mutations and cancer are suspected, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

On the bright side, literally, Wake Forest University Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials Director David Carroll was inspired to test pokeberry juice as an “agrisolar dye.” Purple pokeberry ink would replace the silicon normally sandwiched between the plates of a photovoltaic panel. Carroll envisions this as a cheap way for developing nations to produce solar energy hardware locally, even in poor soil. That’s a prescription for either growing a solar revolution or unleashing an invasive organism.

 

 

 

A Night for Snow Pillows

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Snow Pillow monitoring station. Photo by NYCDEP 

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SNOTEL with snow pillows. Image by USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service

The term “snow pillow” evokes a peaceful, muffling moonlit whiteness spreading a lull across the countryside. For New Yorkers, however, it’s a critical piece of hardware.

Much of the billion gallons of water used daily by nine million residents of NYC and surrounding counties arrives as snow. The white caps of the old, rounded Catskill Mountains nestling the Neversink Reservoir are a reserve bank that melts to meet our needs in warmer months. Snow melt can also swell rivers, so anticipating flood risks is very important to towns an farms. With so many lives affected by snow, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, in partnership with City University of New York and National Weather Service, is constantly looking for better ways to measure it.

At the end of the last decade NYCDEP began using “snow pillows,” essentially scales that weigh snow in remote locations and transmit data wirelessly in near real-time. The technology (first developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska) is often integrated into remote sensor stations in rougher terrains out west. The NYCDEP deployed its first snow pillow at the Schoharie Reservoir in 2008, and later near reservoirs in Cannonsville, Pepacton, and Neversink. HarborLAB operates a canoeing and kayaking program at the Neversink for NYC youth groups and public school students to learn about their drinking water sources.

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Inner workings of the NYCDEP’s latest generation snow pillow. Photo by NYCDEP. 

The NYCDEP still uses aerial surveys and good old fashioned field work to measure snowpack, but the agency plans to more than double its constellation of snow pillows to 35 stations in coming years. Another sensor used is the Gmon, which helps researchers estimate snowpack by measuring the absorption of naturally occurring radiation. Future snow data collection might increasingly rely on satellites.

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For more about NYCDEP’s work to measure snowpack, please view this PowerPoint presentation by James H. Porter, PhD, Chief of Water Systems Operations at NYCDEP:

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MLK Day and Water

In the African American experience, racism perverted even water — the mother of life — into an instrument of oppression. Through the Middle Passage, the Atlantic Ocean connected commerce but separated families and separated people from their right to life and liberty. Fire hoses meant to protect life and property were instead turned on peaceful civil rights protesters. Water fountains marked “white” and “colored” turned a necessity into a daily reminder to African Americans that they were officially regarded as lesser.

Today we too often witness official neglect of water systems in communities with higher percentages of residents of color, most notably in lead-contaminated Flint, Michigan, but well beyond. Solid waste transfer stations and sewer plants cluster more densely on waterfronts in African American and Latino neighborhoods, imposing environmental injustices. Trucks aggravate asthma in the same communities because barging is squeezed out by municipal economic policies. Combined sewer overflows and leaks have fouled areas of respite like Hallets Cove, at the foot of the NYC Housing Authority projects in Astoria.

HarborLAB works to make access and education on our estuary and watershed inclusive and inspiring. We hope that participants come to even more deeply recognize our common humanity through dependence on and celebration of water.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service please take a moment to tell us how HarborLAB might bring even more free educational paddle tours, classroom activities, and ecological restoration to underserved communities. Maybe yours? Just drop us a note at edu@harborlab.org with your requests and ideas!

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MLK Jr. Gardens. Raleigh, North Carolina.

HarborLAB Secretary Perry Leung

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Perry Leung, right, with one of our finance crew’s lead volunteers, Fatoumata Magassa.

 

HarborLAB is pleased to announce that volunteer Perry Leung has been elevated to secretary by unanimous vote of the board. Perry is a stellar administrative volunteer, drawing upon his education and experience in business and environmentalism.

“I’m looking forward to serving HarborLAB in the coming year! I’ve been inspired since the start of my engagement with HarborLAB by the amount of positive impact our volunteers have had on the environment and New York and will do my part to make sure we continue to educate and inspire on New York’s waterways,” Perry said.

Perry graduated from NYU Stern School of Business with honors in Economics and Finance before working as a senior manager in global regulatory risk compliance in New York City and Hong Kong. Throughout his demanding career on two continents he’s remained an active and committed grassroots environmental organizer, leading beach cleanups and composting efforts. He also secured a seed grant through the ASHOKA Youth Venture program to start three new Ultimate Frisbee programs in New York City High Schools to engage inner city students in team sports.

All of HarborLAB’s governing documents and financial reports are readily available upon request but Perry is helping Business Manager Katherine Bradford to organize post them for easier sharing. Perry is also spearheading with volunteers Fatoumata Magassa, Ricky Marcello, and Betty Liu much of our outreach for new sponsors and institutional support.

HarborLAB’s bylaws, adopted in 2016, permit volunteers who are not board members to serve as officers. The secretary:

  • Is for the period of one year and will be voted upon at each annual meeting; and
  • Includes these responsibilities: “The Secretary shall keep the minutes of all meetings of the Board in books provided for that purpose. He or she may be responsible for the giving and serving of all notices of the Corporation and shall perform all the duties customarily incident to the office of the Secretary, subject to the control of the Board, and shall perform such other duties as shall from time to time be assigned by the Board.”

Thank you, Perry!

Seedball Making at LIC Springs!

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HarborLAB at LIC Springs! Seedball making station. This group of seedballers was perhaps the most fierce of the day.    🙂

 

HarborLAB volunteers had a wonderful time at the LIC Springs street festival, teaching kids and adults how to make seedballs. This means of planting native species helps restore habitat and stabilize shorelines. We focused on seaside goldenrod, which sustains migrating monarch butterflies and other beneficial insects in the autumn and shelters the eggs of black skimmer shorebirds. Our seeds were gathered by HarborLAB volunteers and students from Hunters Point Community Middle School in coordination with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy.

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HarborLAB at LIC Springs! Seedball making station. Some were super serious seedballers. 🙂

We’re very grateful to Long Island City Partnership, our local business improvement district, for organizing this annual event, which is much more than a block party. Our lead volunteers for the day were Dylan Geil, Patricia Menje Erickson, David Borgioli, Scott Wolpow, and Erik Baard, with Thomas Dieter helping us get shipped out from the site. Thanks to David Kistner of sponsor Green Apple Cleaners as well, who did the leg work of picking up and delivering the 50 lbs bag of red clay powder needed for our seedballs.

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We’re also grateful to our Seedball friends (http://http://seedball.us/) for teaching us this ancient propogation technique, which mimics the critical ecosystem process of endozoochaory (spreading seeds by animal droppings). We simply mix natural red clay powder, a pinch of sand, seeds, compost (cocoa husks), and a bit of water until the ingredients reach a cookie dough-like consistency. Then the “dough” is rolled into penny diameter balls. These are air dried for a few days and then bottled. Then HarborLAB distributes the seedballs along shorelines to stabilize them and provide habitat and sustenance for pollinators and birds. In cooperation with conservancies and governmental park agencies, we’ve seeded shorelines from Queens to Coney Island and Staten Island!

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Catskills Boating with ReservoirLAB!

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The view from the ReservoirLAB launch Chandler’s Cove on the Neversink Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains.

HarborLAB warmly invites NYC public schools and community organizations to paddle with us for FREE on our Neversink Reservoir kayak and canoe fleet to learn about the natural and engineering wonders that make our city’s water wealth possible!

Here are our initial program dates:

June 10 and 11
July 8 and 9
August 5 and 6
Sept 10 and 11
Sept 17 and 18
Oct 8 and 10
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We’ll add dates as volunteer staffing and public demand both grow.
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To participate please email edu@harborlab.org with the subject line “Neversink Reservoir.” To volunteer for this program, please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Neversink Reservoir.”

All adult participants must have free access permits from the NYCDEP. Apply here:  http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/recreation/access.shtml

No permit is required of children under the age of 16 if accompanied by a valid permit holder over the age of 18, as will always be the case with our programs. Anyone 16 years old or older must apply for a permit.

Bus transportation grants are available from the Watershed Agricultural Council for groups incorporating forestry education into their visits to the Neversink Reservoir. ReservoirLAB will take participants on forest walks and using NYCDEP materials we’ll teach how forests protect and clean our drinking water. Classroom visits by NYCDEP professional educators also cover this topic. Apply for grants here:  http://www.nycwatershed.org/forestry/education-training/urbanrural-school-based-education-initiative/bus-tours/ 

We’re grateful to HarborLAB Camping Co-Manager Ray Tan for exploring alternative affordable busing options.

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HarborLAB educator Kamala Redd and camping co-manager Ray Tan exult in the knowledge that ReservoirLAB will soon launch!

 

The ReservoirLAB program is provided by HarborLAB volunteers and was made possible by a Catskill Watershed Corporation grant and its kind donation of boat racks; the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, which taught our volunteers to be “watershed docents” and provides reservoir access (NYCDEP also provided funds to the CWC for the grant); and ExxonMobil’s community outreach program for the Greenpoint Remediation Project, which financed a dozen volunteers’ Red Cross certification in CPR, AED, and First Aid (all for juveniles and adults) and basic water rescue for all of our programs from the Newtown Creek to the Neversink Reservoir. HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson is kindly allowing HarborLAB to use her mobile home as a camping base (for volunteers serving multiple days) and equipment storage site near the Neversink River and reservoir. Frost Valley YMCA has stored our five canoes and ten tandem kayaks, and our paddles and live vests, while we completed training and permits.

Below is a gallery of photos from a recent site coordination meeting of HarborLAB volunteers with NYCDEP and CWC officials at the Neversink Reservoir. Note nearby campgrounds, posters about invasive species and other environmental matters, a hiking path, Chandler’s Cove, and the boat racks donated to us by the CWC.

Sweet Sweep of the Creek!

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HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek Sweep, part of the Riverkeeper Sweep event at sites from NYC to Albany.

HarborLAB volunteers, environmental science students from CUNY LaGuardia Community College, and a mix of visitors from other schools and walks of life had a fantastic time tending to the Newtown Creek on Saturday! Our work was part of the annual Riverkeeper Sweep of Hudson River and estuary sites from New York City to Albany. Our Newtown Creek home base is a waterway so blighted with pollution that it qualifies for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program.

HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek Sweep had two basic components, cleaning and gardening. We offered a variety of activities so that people of all ages and abilities could participate. More than 30 people helped over the course of the day. We were especially grateful to have educators among us to add learning to the labor. Holly Porter-Morgan, Diana Szatkowski, Harald Parzer, and Thomas Dieter brought knowledge and encouragement to our students and volunteers.

The core of the program was removing plastics from our shoreline and the creek itself. Volunteers wend their way through broken bulkheads and boat lines to pick trash from the shores while our canoes went out in two waves to scoop up litter, mostly plastic bottles and bags. These smaller items filled seven large trash bags. Larger hauls included a lawn mower, two chairs, a 55-gallon steel drum, a bird feeder, and antiquated electronic sound systems.

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We’re under no delusion that our cleanups will remove the tonnage necessary for an ecosystem rebound, but the exercise educates people about the severity of the plastics problem. So what works if picking up plastics is a measure that’s too little, too late? Recycling is also an inadequate solution by itself because it requires a great amount of energy (often from carbon-releasing fossil sources) and sustained administrative focus. With petroleum and other commodity prices low, private carters in New York City are recycling even less material than usual despite New York City’s public commitment to eliminating waste. While a reduction in unthinking, rampant consumerism is laudable, instilling new virtues across the culture will be a slow process. Real penalties and enforcement for littering will help a bit, but not enough. That leaves voters and activists to demand a reduction in wasteful packaging at the design and production stage. We must also push to eliminate combined sewer overflows, which gulch marine debris as well as pathogens and other pollutants.

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Gardening was also a big part of the day, and is a huge part of HarborLAB’s work. Volunteers — especially a group from New Hyde Park High School — made thousands of native pokeweed seed balls that we’ll distribute as we land at rest stops on our harbor journeys across to stabilize shorelines, buffer storm surges and waves, feed birds, and sustain pollinators. Those up for heavier lifting helped restore our shoreline by layering cocoa husks from MAST Brothers Chocolate with burlap sacks, kitchen scraps, and soil in a system called “lasagna composting.” This fresh soil covers a broken brick substrate that mimics the glacially transported rocks of our region. The resulting slop will be planted with staghorn sumac, pokeweed, goldenrod, milkweed, and other indigenous species, and footed by smooth cordgrass and shellfish. Some of these species are already making headway. We were delighted to see that our dozens of shadbush saplings were fruiting copiously and our hackberry and American persimmon are also thriving. Our raised bed and container-grown dessert cultivars are doing great too, including apricots, apples, pears, and figs.

We’re tremendously grateful to all who came and helped, and to Riverkeeper for creating this unifying event and helping direct volunteers to sites.

 

 

 

Watershed Training Report

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Thomas Dieter, a leader of the HarborLAB communications crew and Director of CUNY Start at LaGuardia Community College, was our note taker for a recent NYC Department of Environmental Protection training session to qualify HarborLAB volunteers are Watershed Docents. This was our second session for the required instruction.

Report by Thomas Dieter. Photos by Ray Tan, Erik Baard, and Patricia Menje Erickson.

March 29, 2016

LaGuardia Community College

AGENDA: ReservoirLAB Orientation with NYCDEP

5:30 PM: Introductions

Attendees: 2 NYCDEP representatives; HarborLAB volunteers; New guests, including an educator from NYCH2O. There were 15 people trained and one late volunteer who is committed to supporting the certified docents. 

(Though these sessions, along with Red Cross certifications (AED, CPR, First Aid, Basic Water Rescue for assisting both adults and juveniles), are required for our Neversink Reservoir leaders, we welcome volunteers to join us in bringing these wonderful learning experiences to NYC public school students and youth groups. Skilled paddlers are valued, but so are people to help with life vest fittings, waivers, and kid corralling!)

HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard started the meeting by welcoming all attendees and facilitating brief introductions.

5:45 PM: HarborLAB Overview

What is HarborLAB?

HarborLAB focuses on environmental learning through service—the “LAB” stands for “learning,” “adventure,” “boating.” HarborLAB has been around since 2012 on paper and 2013 on the water, and the fleet is purely motor-free.

What is ReservoirLAB? (Mission/vision, resources, fleet, funding, schedule, who is served.)

ReservoirLAB is an initiative to introduce students to learn about their drinking water, from the source to the sewer. It will aim to give students a FREE and comprehensive experience of the NYC water system, through a mixture of class-time, service-learning and boating trips.

A Catskill Watershed Corporation grant purchased the ReservoirLAB fleet of ten tandem kayaks and five canoes (plus life vests and paddles), and the current schedule is modest, involving monthly Friday and Saturday trips to serve schools and youth groups. As the volunteer base grows, the idea is to expand service offerings.

What is a Watershed Docent? What certifications are required?

A watershed docent is an educational guide for students and youth group  partners who want to learn about their potable watershed. Such docents engage participants in discussions and explorations of the regions and systems that make fresh water possible where they live—for us, that’s the Catskills Watershed, the Delaware Watershed, and the Croton Watershed.

Watershed docents are trained by qualified developers. The DEP Director of Education and Deputy Director of Education led the docent training at LaGuardia Community College on 3/29/2016. (See notes below.)

Program descriptions: Class paddles. Proposed: Partner Paddles, Community Paddles.

Currently ReservoirLAB offers class paddles at the Neversink Reservoir to NYC public school students. As ReservoirLAB scales up, partner paddles and community paddles could start as well, depending on the NYCDEP, its Catskills partners, and the needs of licensed commercial outfitters.

The Open Space Institute (OSI), which now serves as HarborLAB’s fiscal sponsors, purchases and protects land in the Catskills Watershed. HarborLAB will work with OSI to extend its regional outreach.

4/27/16 will mark our next volunteer orientation trip to Neversink.

Logistics: Transportation for us and schools/partners, lodging, storage.

Permits are necessary for entry to Neversink Reservoir. The permit is free, but must be obtained in advance to ensure access.

Logistics, storage and lodging to be investigated.

Watershed Agricultural Council grants cover some class visits to the reservoir provided that the classes combined paddling with forestry studies, and learn how forests protect watersheds.

ReservoirLAB is exploring separate travel grants to help defray some transportation costs. Currently, NYC residents will manage carpooling.

Catskills resources to augment trip value.

6:00 PM: NYC Department of Environmental Protection.

Presenters:

Kim Estes-Fradis, Director of Education. Robin Sanchez, Dep. Dir. of Education.

Materials provided:

A “Neversink: Recreational Boating” program; information cards entitled “NYC Water Supply,” “NYC Water Works,” and “NYC Water Distribution”; copies of New York City 2015 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report; and copies of The Magic School Bus: At the Waterworks.

Activities

The group learned simple, inexpensive activities that we could bring to classrooms, teacher training, libraries, and youth groups to teach watershed hydrodynamics. Topics covered by the activity include how topography, hard vs natural surfaces, and temperature affect water flow. We also demonstrated how toxins can spread in surface water bodies and groundwater.

The NYC drinking water system’s infrastructure, relationship to nature, and history

A watershed is an area of land that feeds into the waterways of a particular area. Forests act as natural filters of our drinking waters.  Soil, root structures, and snow pack slowly release water into rivers and natural and human-made reservoirs. Three watersheds feed NYC: The Catskills Watershed, the Delaware Watershed and the Croton Watershed, and together they cover over 2,000 square miles, 75% of which is forested.

The Department of Environmental Protection follows the ethos of protecting water at the source. A significant portion of watershed lands are owned or protected by the DEP; the land and water are regularly tested, and the Catskills Watershed and Delaware Watershed do not need to filter their water.

NYC’s roughly 8.5 million residents use more than 1 billion gallons of water each day, and the city continues to grow. Centuries ago, the first residents originally drew their water locally, but it became an issue of water quantity and quality. Waterborne diseases like typhoid fever and cholera made water dangerous to drink, and limited access to fresh water harmed the city’s responsiveness to great fires and other natural disasters.

Leaders looked up to Westchester County, and in the 1800s Croton Watershed started feeding the city through aqueducts. The late 1800s saw the creation of the New Croton aqueduct which is still in use today, in part because in 1890 NYC became 5 boroughs. This aqueduct delivers 290 million gallons of water each day, all of it treated by filtration and disinfection.

Today, all three watersheds, the Croton, the Delaware and the Catskills, collect fresh water in 19 reservoirs and three protected lakes and hold roughly 580 billion gallons of water in storage.

The Neversink Reservoir is the smallest reservoir in the Catskills Watershed (92 sq. mi.); it has the highest elevation and reaches a depth of 175 feet. It was constructed in 1941 by damming the Neversink River and in 1954 was the second to begin operating in the watershed. To create the reservoir, two hamlets, Neversink and Bittersweet, were condemned and flooded.

To get to NYC, water from the Neversink goes through the 85 mile-long Delaware Aqueduct, the world’s longest tunnel. At certain places, the tunnel can run more than 500 feet below ground. Today, the tunnel has a substantial leak near the Hudson River, losing more than 18 million gallons per day. When City Water Tunnel 3 is completed, the city will be able to do repairs to Tunnels 1 and 2 which will have served NYC continuously since 1917 and 1936, respectively.

Where does the water go? It travels from its respective watershed and aqueduct into the Kensico Reservoir where the water then goes on to be disinfected and treated at the Catskill/Delaware UV Disinfection Facility. The water then funnels through the city’s primary service lines to more than 6,800 miles of underground water mains. The gift of gravity creates enough force for the water to travel from its watershed to six floors up most NYC buildings.

Once the water has been used, it returns to a network of tunnels, this time in the form of 7,400 miles of sewers. NYC houses 14 wastewater treatment plants where used water is processed, cleaned and return to our waterways. The Newtown Creek treatment facility is the largest in NYC, and it cleans the solid waste, or sludge.

According to the New York City 2015 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report, the local water quality is the cleanest in 100 years, since 1909 when measurements began.

Expectations (deliverables) for the program.

Docents need to know about the three watersheds that serve NYC, as well as the unique systems that transport and treat the water, and be able to communicate this information in an engaging and educational way to volunteers and participants.

Docents should engage participants in open discussions about the importance of fresh water and the implications for its use, misuse and overuse in the context of a place as rich, diverse and large as NYC. Topics of discussion can include why it is important to conserve water, the methods by which wastewater is treated and released, the average daily use of water in NYC (~75 gallons/person), and the changes we have made over time, including with the infrastructure, science and human behavior.

Some facts:

71% of the Earth is surface water.

Less than 1% of it is clean, fresh and drinkable. 2% is icepack.

NYC has the largest surface water reservoir system.

The 2.5 mile bypass that is being constructed for the Delaware Aqueduct leak (there are actually 2 leaks) will shut down the aqueduct in 2022 for about 12 months.

               

                Resources

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/newtown_wwtp.shtml

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/index.shtml

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/pdf/teacher_resource_guide.pdf

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/workbook.shtml

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/edactivities.shtml

6:50 PM: Concluding remarks and Q & A.

March 29: Reservoir Training!

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Neversink Education Training at LaGuardia Community College

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Learn about our city’s beautiful drinking water system, a wonder of nature and engineering! Share that new knowledge with NYC youth and kids!

LaGuardia Community College, Room C463.

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Please share this to build our volunteer base for this program!
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Come get trained to be a Watershed Docent, a volunteer who’ll help introduce NYC school kids and other youth to our drinking water supply. This is NOT paddling skills training and you needn’t be an expert paddler; this is a night to learn about our drinking water system and the Neversink Reservoir itself. This program will activate HarborLAB’s second boat fleet on the Neversink Reservoir in the Catskills. This program is made possible by the NYC Department of Envionmental Protection, the Catskill Watershed Corporation, and HarborLAB volunteers.
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Please email harborlab@gmail.com with the subject line “Neversink Training” to participate. Additionally, please join and share here: https://www.facebook.com/events/968029069940341/
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Volunteer candidates will be screened by our volunteer co-managers and ED.
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(If you received Red Cross certification funded by HarborLAB’s sponsors you have a special responsibility to this program. Please make every effort to ensure its success.)
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Phragmites Tankwa?!?!

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Ethiopian Tankwa boat. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

HarborLAB will commence its multicultural boatbuilding program in March with the International High School! We’re thrilled to serve these students, who are in an intensive college preparatory program for immigrant youth with limited English. IHS is housed within CUNY LaGuardia Community College.

We’ll make reed craft using invasive phragmites, which crowd out many of region’s indigenous estuary species. We’ll start with a demonstration inspired by the tankwa, an Ethiopian work boat made from papyrus on Lake Tana. Other models will follow, launching on June 8 for United Nations World Oceans Day. Our goal is for these boats to greet the arriving Hokule’a, a Hawaiian canoe circling the globe for environmental education. This is easily achievable at Gantry Plaza State Park, if permitted, directly facing the UN and a few minutes paddle from our launch.

We welcome volunteers to join the effort and donors to sponsor us!

Grass (family: Poaceae) and sedge (family: Cyperaceae) boats are among the most ubiquitous types because papyrus, bamboo, and reeds are renewable and readily available to those working the water as fishers, ferryers, and traders. Grasses and sedges also wonderfully pliable materials, providing both planking and twine. We’ll work with the United Nations community and immigrant cultural centers to maximize our inclusive service and multicultural representation.

This world heritage is truly ancient, as evidenced by petroglyphs depicting reed boats in Azerbaijan that date back 12,000 years. These boats quickly return to the soil, so archaeological evidence is spotty. Logic would indicate African origins. The earliest remains of a reed boat are 7,000 years old, unearthed in Kuwait. Palm fronds are also used in a similar fashion in the Persian Gulf. Even the story of Moses begins with him set afloat in a bulrush ark. The apexes of accomplishment in this art include ancient Egyptian papyrus voyaging vessels and the ornate craft of the living Uros culture of Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Our most famous reed heritage boat in North America is the tule (pronounced too-lee). Watch one get built in the video below!

On the East Coast, science writer and ecologist David Samuel Johnson proved the viability of phragmites boat construction. Even young students can build these boats.

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David S. Johnson paddles a phragmites boat. Photo by Brian Landergan.

Benefits of this project:
  • Environmental science education: Indigenous/invasive species, rhizomes, ecological services, estuaries, wetlands, etc.
  • Cultural and Economic Education: World heritages, commonalities and differences, economic development and identity, renewable resources and growth, etc.
  • Habitat Restoration: Tangible results from removing invasive reeds (and removing seeds before construction). New, native plantings would bring even more value.
  • Safety: No power tools are needed. Adults would maintain a good ratio and oversight of youth. All paddling would be done under HarborLAB insurance with Red Cross certified (Water Rescue, CPR, AED, First Aid, adult/pediatric) volunteers in safe areas. HarborLAB will provide safety support from sit-on-top kayaks, though these reed boats will be much more seaworthy.
  • Youth empowerment: Students will do much of the building, paddling, documentation, and outreach themselves.
  • Publicity: We’ll paddle these boats past the UN and skyline, generating great images and video. This would be a sight never seen on the East River. This is especially true if we are able to support the Hokule’a effort.
  • Budget: The materials are harvested invasive plants and twine.
  • Sustainability: The boats will last a season and then be composted to enrich planting areas for habitat or ornament (not edible gardens).
  • Outreach: The students, educators, organizations, agencies, and companies involved will trumpet this unique project, delivering some aspect of its value to wider audiences. The boats will be brought to communities throughout NYC.
  • Long-term Results: Thorough documentation will allow other educators to reproduce our results and build upon them. The excitement may seed the founding of a World Boatbuilding Museum (a place where the public can see small boats from around the world — reed, skin-and-frame, wood, and more) built before their eyes, and ride aboard them) that could be a major tourist draw.

If you’d like to volunteer with us and the students, please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Boat Building.” To sponsor, please email support@harborlab.org.