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Birds and Beaches in Brooklyn: A Canoe Trip to White Island

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The New York City Parks Department's takes green-starved city dwellers on outdoor adventures for free through its Urban Park Rangers program. All you have to do is register online, and hope you get selected via the random lottery. I tried my luck and got chosen for not one, but two excursions: camping in Inwood and canoeing to White Island in Brooklyn's Marine Park.

11:35 a.m.: We started the morning at the northernmost tip of Manhattan in Inwood Hill Park after camping out, and now M., my outdoor adventure companion, and I are 22 miles south at Marine Park in Brooklyn for a canoeing and birding expedition in Jamaica Bay. The concerns we had about camping—mainly, that we'd be surrounded by children—are not an issue, as the Parks Department says this is an "intermediate" canoe trip. No beginner baby canoers here!

11:37 a.m.: The sun is hot. After we check in, we slather on some SPF 55. I turn into a lobster just going to the park.

11:40 a.m.: We walk over to a small beach. The canoes sit on the edge of the water, and a half a dozen park rangers mill about. These rangers are not all "hi-how-are-you-my-name-is..." like the camping rangers. It's already clear that this will be a more solitary, less group-bonding experience.

11:41 a.m.: We spot a few little crabs on the beach. Then a few more. Then we see that the entire beach is crawling with them. They go in and out of their holes, waving their one giant claw like they're saying hello. We use our binoculars to get a better look at them. Later, a ranger tells us they are fiddler crabs. The males wave their big claws to attract the ladies.

11:47 a.m.: Wow, it is really hot. I should have wore a hat. Definitely going to fry. Immediately put on more sunscreen.

11:58 a.m.: A ranger gives us life vests and paddles. There is no breeze on this beach, and these vests are like sleeveless winter coats. This is going to be sweaty.

12:10 p.m.: The lead ranger starts the introduction spiel. She's giving us a pretty detailed history of Marine Park, the biggest park in Brooklyn. Like many parts of New York, the area was first settled by the Dutch—the marshy coastal plains reminded them of home—who used the area as farmland. At the start of the 20th century, developers wanted to wipe away nature to create a port. A few landowners were not on board and, in 1917, offered the city 150 acres for use as a park. The city mulled the decision for seven years before accepting. Glad to see our bureaucracy has always been painfully slow.

12:25 p.m.: She is still talking. The whole group looks bored and very hot. I start to worry that I didn't bring enough water. In addition to me and M., the canoeing crew consists of five park rangers; one family of four, with two teenage boys; a photographer who may be involved with the parks; a single dude who didn't register, but participated last year and just showed up hoping there'd be space; two other younger couples; and parents with a young girl (who is just along for the ride—literally; she's not given a paddle). No name games today.

12:36 p.m.: Finally we're out on the water. I'm in front, M. is in the back, controlling the steering. I may or may not have a reputation to get rather bossy while canoeing/kayaking/rowing in any manpowered boat, and M. kindly asks me to not yell about the boat's direction, since, you know, that's controlled from the stern. Plus, I'll disturb the birds we're supposed to see. According to the Parks Department, the Marine Park Preserve, designated a Forever Wild site by the city, is home to more than 325 species of birds, plus 50 species of butterflies and 100 species of finfish.

12:41 p.m.: Wheee! Who doesn't like canoeing? We're paddling along and enjoying our first five minutes on the open seas water. All of the canoes are spread out—thankfully, no one likes a canoe traffic jam—and we're able to go at our own speed. We're told to paddle south toward White Island, and take a left into a creek opening.

12:47 p.m.: We see a few birds; it'd be nice if the bird expert ranger was closer so he could identify them. A few non-ranger canoers get closer—too close in fact, and start an accidental game of bumper canoes.

12:50 p.m.: Bird expert ranger saddles up beside us in his kayak to point out an osprey nest on two posts that the park erected. They return every four years to nest. There are currently three chicks, and both the momma and poppa are present. I want to get close to see the chicks, but the ranger says the ospreys are "freaking out, probably because those kayakers are too close." Not trying to get attacked by a bird of prey, so we move on.

12:57 p.m.: Bird expert says we paddled past a few Great Egrets, a Great Blue Heron, a Snowy Egret, and a pair of Double-crested Coromorants. Because I am not a professional photographer with a telephoto lens, I failed to get quality photos of any of these beautiful creatures, but this Flickr gallery has a great collection.

1:04 p.m.: We're the first to reach the beach on White Island. We are greeted by hundreds of fiddler crabs and a few dead horseshoe crabs that are about 12 to 16 inches across. M. picks one up; it's gross and bug-filled.

1:10 p.m.: The whole group has arrive, and everyone is obsessed with the fiddler crabs. The mom of the teenage boys picks up the same dead horseshoe crab M. just touched. She's convinced it's moving its legs, and therefore it must be alive, so she puts it in the water. It sadly bobs along.

1:14 p.m.: I put on more sunscreen as the lead ranger tells us that the pilings that we landed near are the remains of a bridge that was used until the 1960s. White Island, like so many of New York's islands, started as a big pile of garbage, and that bridge was mainly used by dump trucks.

1:20 p.m.: We climb up a sandy dune to the top of island, which is a very recent restoration project. It looks more like a beach than a wildlife habitat, but it's still in the very early stages. Since it's meant as a wildlife preserve, the parks department is not planning to increase access to the island. Right now, they offer a few canoe trips every summer.

1:25 p.m.: There are a lot of perfectly intact seashells, and a small orange-flowering plant is plentiful. Bird expert ranger tells us this is butterfly weed; monarch butterflies love it, and lay their eggs in the plant.

1:35 p.m.: A few fast-moving little bird starts flying around and screeching. Loner dude tells us these are terns, and they are angry. There's likely a nest nearby that we're disturbing.

1:45 p.m.: Back on the water. We're the first to depart, and since the lead ranger asked the group to stick together, M. decides this is the perfect time to test out his steering and paddles us in a backwards circle. One of the rangers floats up beside us and says some people are heading back if we want to join them. Pssh! Cut short our boating time? No way. Onward!

1:54 p.m.: We see dozens of geese and ducks on the shore and spot a stray refrigerator. This island was used as a dump.

2:05 p.m.: We land on new part of island, further south. We're greeted by hundreds of tiny snails just below the water surface at the shoreline and, of course, hundreds of fiddler crabs on the beach. It's low tide, so the crabs are happy. I immediately put on more sunscreen.

2:11 p.m.: The mom who tried to save the dead horseshoe crab thinks the female fiddler crabs are an invasive Asian crab. She picks one up and asserts her groundbreaking discovery to the rangers, but she's quickly proven wrong.

2:13 p.m.: Suddenly, there's a dog bounding down the island. The rangers say dogs—or the boat that its human companions are in—should not be here. Several people in the group want the rangers to give them a citation, but the rangers say they "keep trips to trips, enforcement to enforcement." Lead ranger says the parks department has sent $10 million restoring this part of Jamaica Bay. At first, the community was incredibly resistant to the plan because it imparts boating restrictions around White Island to protect the biodiversity. However, Hurricane Sandy changed their minds when they saw that the wetlands and marshes act like sponges during flooding. Just as the ranger says that boat motors are disruptive and harmful to the wildlife, three jet skis scream past us.

2:20 p.m.: One of the rangers picks up a male and female fiddler crab to show us the difference. Their claws look big and sharp, but they aren't strong enough to hurt humans.

2:25 p.m.: M. decides he needs to catch a crab, too.

2:27 p.m.: This part of the island has a beautiful view of the Belt Parkway. It's super windy, but if you don't look at the highway looming in the distance, it seems tranquil... aside from the burnt out car at the end of the beach. The lead ranger says people setting cars on fire on the island used to be a serious problem.

2:50 p.m.: We spend 20 minutes exploring the island, watching terns dive into the water for fish, and looking at a barnacle-covered bucket (barnacles are weird), then it's time to head back.

2:53 p.m.: We depart first and get out ahead of the pack. One World Trade Center is visible in the distance through the haze. There are less canoes now, and it's more peaceful...until I start getting bossy about steering. M. says, "It's not a car. There's no power steering. It does not turn immediately."

3:14 p.m.: We land back where we started. We return the equipment and trek back to the bus, crusted in sand, salt, and sunscreen, and hoping we aren't sunburnt.
· Urban Park Rangers [official]
· Outdoors Week 2014 [Curbed]