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All Photos by Nathan Kensinger

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Canoeing Along the Restored Bronx River

The once-blighted waterway has undergone a remarkable transformation

We were stuck on a rock, in the dark, under an overpass. The water was flowing black and fast around us, and we could not see its depth. Suddenly, sacks of garbage came raining down, thrown over the bridge, plastic cups and bottles spinning quickly towards us. And just then, our canoe swung free, pivoting us backwards through the rapids, as we braced ourselves, ready to spill over and be submerged in the frothing river.

But as we came out into the sunlight, our boat steadied, and we were surrounded by a lush forest. Within moments, the commissioner of New York City’s parks, Mitchell Silver, was there, filling his canoe with trash scooped from the water. "We picked up most of it," he announced, and after several choice words aimed at the polluters, we continued down the Bronx River, past wild forests, fish ladders, bison herds, and post-industrial ruins.

This past weekend, the 17th annual Bronx River Flotilla brought 88 paddlers, 41 canoes and six kayaks out onto the water for a five-mile journey through one of the crown jewels of the New York City Parks Department. The Bronx River, once considered "one of the most blighted, abused waterways in the country," has undergone a remarkable recovery in recent decades, and a paddle along its southern sections today reveals a verdant green oasis running through the heart of the Bronx, past new parks, restored shorelines, fields of flowers, and thick stands of trees. A journey down the river is still a rigorous urban adventure, traveling under graffiti-covered bridges and through homeless camps, but the natural rewards are abundant and steadily increasing.

My canoe partner for the flotilla was Maggie Greenfield, the deputy director of the Bronx River Alliance, an organization which has worked to restore the river since 2001, following in the footsteps of several earlier groups whose efforts dated back to the 1970s. "It's funny—when I started, I felt like everything had been done," observed Greenfield, who has been with the alliance for 11 years. "But when I think about all that has happened since I’ve been here, it’s pretty remarkable. That we’ve opened up 20 acres of new waterfront parkland in the South Bronx. That we’ve restored salt marshes and planted nearly 100,000 trees along the river corridor." During our paddle, Greenfield pointed out the many ways the Bronx River has changed, both large and small, while also making clear the endless amount of work still to be done. "Obviously, we are never going to fully restore the Bronx River to what it was 200 years ago," she said. "But there are still a lot of projects that we can do."

Even after decades of improvement, several major new projects are currently underway along to the Bronx River’s shoreline. These include a year of restoration work in the Bronx River Forest, a new building for the Bronx River Arts Center, and the final period of construction for the Bronx River House, which will be the future headquarters of the Bronx River Alliance. "We expect to be moving in this fall," said Greenfield, describing the work being done on the building as we float by. "It’s going to be a terrific opportunity for us, in terms of having more of a presence in the community."

In the meantime, the flotilla itself has the feeling of an annual block party, as neighbors and allies paddle from group to group, trading stories, catching up. The mood is light and celebratory. "There is a real community of people who care about this river. That’s part of why the flotilla is so fun, is that a lot of them have met each other," observed Greenfield, and indeed, the event was well attended by local activists and community groups. Ed García Conde of Welcome2TheBronx boarded a canoe with camera in hand, and Baron Ambrosia, an ambassador of all things Bronx, was there in a cowboy hat, telling tales about how he once swam the entire length of the river. "It was 2011. People were calling me, saying I couldn’t do that," recalled Ambrosia. "Swimming the river opened an incredible gate for me. It became a way for me to explore and experience this space. Every year since, I’ve swam a different urban river."

Heavy industry, highways, poverty, and pollution have had a terrible impact on the landscape of the Bronx over the past century, permanently scarring neighborhoods like Port Morris, Mott Haven, and Morrisania, and leaving behind a legacy of blighted post-industrial spaces. The waterfront of the South Bronx is still emerging from decades of neglect, and the old Port Morris Branch still runs like a jagged scar through the heart of the Bronx, but the Bronx River has become the borough’s green artery, its fresh water providing sustenance and shelter for a variety of species. Muskrats, beavers, minks, coyotes, and deer now roam its banks, while geese, ducks, and black-crowned night-herons ply its waters. A recently constructed fish ladder is giving a boost to some of the 30 species of fish found here, which include pumpkinseed sunfish, yellow bullhead, herring, carp, chub, and perch. If the Bronx River can return to supporting such a diversity of life, perhaps there is hope for the rest of the borough’s post-industrial waterways.

At 8 o’clock in the morning, the canoes of the flotilla await the beginning of the paddle. This year’s event helped raise $56,000 for the Bronx River Alliance, which will help fund its public canoe programs throughout the year.

In the morning light, a first glimpse of the river shows a placid and translucent flow, almost too shallow for canoes. After a heavy rainfall here, however, the river often floods up over its banks and into nearby Shoelace Park.

The launch of the canoes brings a flurry of activity, as paddlers seek to orient themselves to the flow of the river. Some have canoed the Bronx River before, but many are new to its waters.

The first sight along the riverbank, across from Shoelace Park, is work being completed along the banks of the Bronx River Parkway to plant new trees and prevent erosion.

Further south, a walkway along the river takes pedestrians underneath the Bronx River Parkway, connecting Shoelace Park to the Bronx River Forest. The river runs approximately 24 miles in total, from Westchester to the East River, and is straddled by at least a dozen bridges.

In the forest, a lush landscape is laced with walking paths and river views. The Bronx River Alliance is helping to facilitate the restoration here, working with the Natural Areas Conservancy. "What we see in that forest, and are constantly battling, is that the invasive species are the first ones in, and they take over. So we have to keep going back in," said Greenfield. "Otherwise we are going to see this monoculture of Knotweed everywhere."

The current restoration of the forest will help to clear away non-native species and improve the trail system. "I’ve come to learn that there is never going to be a point at which we can say the Bronx River Forest has been restored, and we can walk away and let it manage itself," said Greenfield, "because of the fact that we live in such an urban environment and there are so many influences that come at it."

A historic dam blocks the flow of the river nearby, inside the grounds of the New York Botanical Garden, creating a large waterfall. There are three similar dams along this southern stretch of the river, creating a difficult passage for spawning fish and eel.

For canoeists, the dam means a long portage through the gardens, over a bridge and back down to the water. During the flotilla, a large team of volunteers and workers from the Bronx River Alliance were on hand to help with portages and launches.

In the grounds of the botanical gardens, canoeists begin to travel through a landscape that is normally off limits to the general public. Visitors here must usually purchase an admission ticket in order to access the riverfront.

At a second portage, canoes are lowered down a steep embankment on a small island, flanked by twin dams. The general public is allowed to canoe these same sections of the river, after getting a permit from the parks department, as part of the Bronx River Blueway.

The river next flows through the Bronx Zoo. The only other way to see this section of the river is to hitch a ride on the Wild Asia Monorail, a guided tour through "the heart of the Asian wilderness." Views of Bronx canoeists are not part of the official tour.

"It’s like you’re in the jungle," said Baron Ambrosia, describing the stretch of water running through the zoo. A herd of American bison can sometimes be seen nearby, and signage along the length of the river points out unique flora and fauna to canoeists.

The paddle is again interrupted by another dam, this one traversable by portaging over the recently completed fish ladder, which opened in 2015. The ladder was created to give herring a passageway upstream, an area they have been unable to access for hundreds of years. An eel ladder also runs over the dam.

The waterfall over the 182nd Street dam marks the southern end of the Bronx Zoo, and borders River Park, where the public can look out over the river from an esplanade.

The river travels past an earlier restoration effort that used old car tires to stop erosion along the riverbank. "Those were done back in the 1970s, and yeah, no one would do that today," said Greenfield. "The Bronx River is pretty unique in the city of New York. There is no other freshwater stream that runs through the city, so there is a lot of learning in the field that happens."

Along the opposite shoreline, the unfinished West Farms Rapids park awaits completion, its empty paths overgrown and delayed by contractor and financing problems. "Over three years, it’s been closed already," said one neighbor. "They’re supposed to open it up. It’s green, it’s beautiful."

The river continues on through a series of small rapids, passing the bucolic landscape of Drew Gardens, a two-acre community garden site that provides one of the few places where the public can access the water itself.

A black-crowned night-heron works the shoreline here, near flocks of ducks and geese. Numerous bird and fish species call the river home.

The river travels through Starlight Park, which reopened in 2013 after an $18 million, 10-year restoration. Though much improved, the park is not yet complete—several acres remain unrestored, and additional access points have not been secured.

Official access to the water in the wooded sections of the park is fairly limited, although there are several informal paths down to the river. A pair of new docks is located further down the shoreline.

The Bronx River Alliance will soon open their new headquarters here, at the Bronx River House, which will look out over this turning basin at a bend in the river.

Further south, Concrete Plant Park, which opened in 2009, is one of a series of new waterfront parks that have opened throughout the city in the past decade. A boat launch provides ample waterfront access here, though the park is utilitarian.

At the river’s southern end, industry still lines the banks, with an active scrap yard and concrete plant bringing barges into the brackish water. Rocking the Boat, a maritime community group, has its headquarters nearby.

The group’s homemade rowboats shepherd the flotilla into Hunts Point Riverside Park, once an "illegal dumping ground" and now "a gateway to the revitalized Bronx River," where community groups mingle over food and drinks. "For me, what’s so special about the Bronx River is that it’s been a community driven process. The vision for this has come from community groups and it’s been driven by community groups," said Greenfield. "I find that the most meaningful part of this work."

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012.

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