I’ve canoed all over the Adirondacks without ever seeing a black-crowned night-heron. Last weekend, I finally got to see one. On the Bronx River.
We saw other birds as well, including great blue herons, mallards, gulls, and (I think) cormorants. This being the Bronx, we also saw a lot of trash: plastic bags, soda bottles, an electric fan, a sunken tire.
But the river is much cleaner and more loved than in the past, thanks to a nonprofit organization called the Bronx River Alliance.
Founded in 2001, the alliance is working to restore and protect a river that flows through one of the most urban areas in the country. In coordination with the New York City Parks Department and other partners, the alliance is establishing a greenway along the waterway, with bicycle and pedestrian paths.
Starting at the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County, the Bronx River flows 23 miles to the East River near Long Island Sound. Linda Cox, the alliance’s executive director since its founding, says only about five miles of the river is easily traveled in a canoe — from 219th Street south to the mouth.
Last Sunday morning, Cox led a small group on a canoe trip. We put in near Starlight Park, paddled upriver to the West Farms rapids, then turned around and paddled downriver past our starting point to Concrete Plant Park (that’s right, it’s a park on the site of a former concrete plant, the vacant buildings still intact).
This was not the Adirondacks. We didn’t see any high peaks, but we did a lot of high buildings. We passed under several busy highways, including the Cross Bronx Expressway, and a railroad trestle. One of our party took a photo of a cormorant (?) perched atop an abandoned piling with the subway rushing past in the background. Yet much of the time we enjoyed the shade of trees.
I had a couple of reactions to this trip. It made me appreciate even more the natural beauty, quiet, and solitude we find on wild rivers in the Adirondacks.
At the same time, I realized that wildness on this overcivilized planet is relative. Just because the East Branch of the St. Regis is not as wild as the Yukon doesn’t mean it’s not worthy. It still offers us a refuge in nature. Likewise, the Bronx River provides local residents an escape from the urban landscape. Indeed, a river in the Bronx, whatever its shortcomings, probably brings more happiness to more people than does the East Branch of the St. Regis. (Although we encountered no other paddlers on the Bronx, we did see people fishing and hanging out along the river.)
Our little adventure left me feeling better about our species. We, or at least some of us, have an impulse to conserve nature. Whether our efforts are directed toward the Adirondacks, the Amazon rainforest, or the Bronx River, the impulse is the same, and it ought to be encouraged. If not for our own sake, then for the sake of the black-crowned night-heron.
Photos by Holly Leicht. Top: the author and his girlfriend on the Bronx River. Bottom: a kayaker heads downriver toward Concrete Plant Park.