The Kayak Chronicles ©

by Darren Caffery


Paddling the Meadowlands Marshlands

Friday October 6,  2006


Since I had not been in my kayak in a few weeks, I was looking forward to today's planned Meadowlands paddle. It was to be guided by a naturalist from the Hackensack RiverKeeper which is a local organization that has been very active in advocating for the preservation,  conservation and restoration of many acres of Meadowlands tidal marsh.  They are also involved in eco-educational programming and guide paddling tours of the area.

In pre-European times the Meadowlands covered about 20,000 acres of estuarine marsh, freshwater marsh, and Atlantic white cedar swamp. Today, following many decades of destruction and degradation of wetland habitats due to suburban development, dredging, draining, mosquito control, landfilling, and industrial pollution, some 7,700 acres of wetlands (many of which are privately owned) remain in the 32 square-mile Meadowlands District. Prior to the creation of the Meadowlands Commission  by the NJ state legislature in 1969, this unique coastal ecosystem had been written off as a biological wasteland and a regional eyesore.  Today, the ecosystem grows stronger each year as the water gets cleaner and the scars on the land are softened by time. The waters of the Meadowlands are now home to more than 60 species of fish and shellfish. At last count, 63 species of birds were found to nest there, with an additional 200 species utilizing the marsh and adjacent uplands as migratory stopovers. Endangered northern harrier and yellow-crowned night heron are confirmed nesters, and resident ospreys and peregrine falcons utilize the marshes as a primary hunting ground. Over the past two years harbor seals have been observed in the lower Hackensack River feeding on the abundant schools of herring that migrate from the ocean through Newark Bay.  With progressively increasing public awareness as to the importance of wetlands environments, restoration efforts and restrictions on development, there have contributed to the remarkable eco-recovery of the tidal marshes.  The area is fast becoming a popular recreational spot for kayakers, birders and other outdoor enthusiasts looking to experience the Wilderness on the Edge of the City. 

For an informative and humorous account of the area check out the book titled, The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City by Robert Sullivan or Fields of Sun and Grass:  An Artist's Journal of the NJ Meadowlands by John Quinn.  Another very informative resource about this area is a DVD entitled, Turning the Tide which was produced by the New Jersey Network.


When I awoke to rain, chilly temps and gray skies today I thought the trip may be cancelled by the Hackensack Riverkeeper.  An early morning call to the riverkeeper office however yielded good news as the Meadowlands never got the rain we got here at the Jersey Shore and areas south. I was still surprised that only 2 paddlers of the 11 scheduled to attend the trip had bailed out.
After loading the kayaks in the pouring rain, Tom K and I headed up the parkway and east on the NJ Turnpike. We drove through more heavy rain and gray skies but the rain began to lighten as we got over the Raritan River bridge.  By the time we got on the NJ Turnpike, we were out of the storm cover.

All 9 paddlers were at Laurel Hill County Park in Secaucus by 12 noon and ready to launch before 12:30.  Paddlers included, Tom K, Tom B, Doc, Drew R, Joan M, Annmarie, Kay S and her friend BonnieThere was heavy cloud cover over the area and although temperatures were only in the low 60's, it felt colder with the wind chill.  Some polartec fleece under my raingear kept me nice and warm while paddling. Some paddlers were also very well prepared with wetsuits.

Along with our guide, Nick Vos-Wein, from the Hackensack RiverKeeper and a friend of his who joined our group, all 11 of us launched into the murky Hackensack River at about 12:20 pm.  The tide in the marsh was a bit higher than normal due to the full moon and there was noticeable swift current as we ferried across the Hackensack River to the entrance to the Saw Mill Creek.  A few large jets landing at nearby Newark Airport flew overhead as we paddled and we could hear the noise from the Turnpike and other major arteries which connect the area to New York City.  As we paddled through the marshes of the creek, we saw some Snowy Egrets wading and feeding in the murky waters.  After paddling a short distance we reached a more open area of marshland which are reportedly mudflats at low tide. We could see and hear the western spur of the NJ Turnpike ahead with its heavy volume of cars, trucks and buses whizzing by on their way towards New York City.  The interesting part is that there was still a feeling of peacefulness in the marsh, despite the proximity to all the traffic in the air and sky.  We were still able to hear the marsh grasses swaying in the wind and it was interesting to see the wading egrets in some shallow tidal pools with the Empire State Building and the rest of the New York City skyline only 5 miles to our east in the distance


As we paddled, our guide shared some stories about the history of the Laurel Hill and the Lenni Lennapi Indians which settled on the banks of the Hackensack River.  

"Many of our paddlers arrive with stereotypical preconceived notions about the Meadowlands. My goal is, by the time they leave, to foster in them a sense of stewardship for this once neglected natural treasure"  stated Vos-Wein.

During the paddle I noticed a large hilly mound which rose high above the banks of the marshland in the distance.  I thought it might be part of Laurel Hill but it was actually a landfill.  It was reported the area was recently privatized and the plans for development include capping the landfill and developing a golf-course and park on the land.  The golf course is to be state-of-the-art and eco-friendly, using recycled waste water and other environmentally sound practices for lawn maintenance and pest management.  In addition, the plans also require a certain percentage of the land to be used for public open space.  The end result is to be a golf course and public park on the hill, overlooking the marshlands of the Meadowlands and the skyline of New York City.  Time will tell what actually happens and Iím sure politics will continue to be involved in the process and the eventual outcome.


The wind gave us a bit of resistance as we paddled into it in some of the open areas of the marsh.  This was our longest stretch of "open water" paddling.  As we continued paddling, we made our way out of the open marsh area and into a more wind protected area.  High marsh grasses on both sides of us shielded us a bit from the wind as we entered the K-Ditch, the Cross Ditch and eventually to an area of the marsh known as the Kingsland Creek. A few small open areas provided good opportunities to take some pictures of the Manhattan skyline which had some rather large ominous storm clouds hovering over it. We also observed a number of bird life including some Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Double Breasted Cormorants, some American Black Duck, and a few Least Sandpipers.


As we paddled through the Kingsland Creek, Nick informed us we would be coming out to the Hackensack River again and that it would be just a short paddle up the river to our takeout at Laurel Hill County Park. Despite the cold weather and clouds, I wanted to paddle some more but the reality of hitting the rush hour traffic on the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway back down to the Jersey Shore made me reconsider.

Although this area was heavily polluted in the past, it seems, at least from the surface, to be making a remarkable recovery.  We saw more birds than debris. The birds did not have three heads and were not deformed. Their blood levels of pcbís and other contaminants was not available at the time of this trip report but Iím sure someone knows what website or agency to get this information from.  Other than one old tire nestled in the mud of the banks and a Conrail hard hat in the reeds (there was no body attached to it), we didnít see much other floating trash. We did not find any dead bodies.  We did not drink the water and luckily, no one swam in it.  We all landed safely a bit before 3 pm and after paddling about 3.5 miles.


Hackensack RiverKeeper        NJ Meadowlands Commission

Meadowlands Conservation Trust

In contrast to the natural area we paddled today, a few years ago a few of us paddled down the Hackensack River to the Pulaski Skyway. The scenery on both sides of the banks looked like Baghdad after the bombings. To view the urban ruins and read the trip report of our trip down the Hackensack, click the link below.



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