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Kayaking through Staten Island’s former Fresh Kills landfill

As the old dump is slowly converted into Freshkills Park, several projects are helping bring the natural world back into focus

New York City has many strange landscapes laced with forgotten waterways, but one of the most unique is out on Staten Island’s Arthur Kill, where the tributaries of Fresh Kills flow through a protected wildlife refuge and past a fenced-off city dump.

The best way to explore this isolated landscape is by kayak, launching out from the former Fresh Kills landfill and paddling up Main Creek, past ruined docks and abandoned buildings, into a marshland where painted turtles and nesting ospreys have recently found a home. As the creek splits apart into its hidden branches, and as the mounds of garbage recede into the distance, it almost feels as though you have traveled back 100 years, into Staten Island’s rural past.

When the Fresh Kills Landfill first opened in 1948, it began a massive alteration of what was once a rustic salt-marsh habitat. By the time it closed in 2001, the landfill had become the world’s largest manmade structure, sprawling across 2,200 acres and burying creeks, inlets, islands, and wetlands under 150 million tons of solid waste.

But while the mouth of Fresh Kills was dramatically changed, its many inland tributaries still flow along the same routes they took in 1917. Vreeland’s Brook still trickles out from an obscure wetlands; Springville Creek still gushes through a bucolic forest; and Neck Creek still meanders down through the marshlands near Signs Road, past wandering deer and hunting egrets.

Today, as the old dump is slowly converted into Freshkills Park, several projects are helping bring the natural world back into focus. A greenway now traces its outside edges, offering views of Fresh Kills’ two branches, Main Creek and Richmond Creek. A salt marsh restoration has helped facilitate the return of several species; a new section of park will soon break ground inside the fenced-off landfill; and a massive earthwork art installation by Mierle Laderman Ukeles is scheduled to begin construction, offering expansive vistas of the estuary. Each of these projects highlight the waterways that weave through the landfill, illuminating their complicated paths.

Nathan Kensinger.

“The waterways really etch out the whole landscape. It’s part of what makes the place, despite the fact that it’s totally engineered, look like a natural landscape,” says Eloise Hirsh, the Freshkills Park administrator. For the next major development in Freshkills Park, the public will be able to visit Main Creek, with work anticipated to begin this fall on the first phase of North Park. This project will open up a 27-acre section of waterfront, creating two miles of biking and hiking paths and a lookout tower with views onto the creek.

When it opens, North Park will be the first public area of Freshkills Park inside the boundaries of the old landfill. “Fresh Kills was a real mystery for a long time. I mean, everyone knew it was a dump, but people didn’t go in it,” says Hirsh, who hopes visitors here will gain a better understanding of the complicated interplay between the natural and unnatural environments. “We wanted people to be able come in and see the potential. That was really the thought. Let people come in and just kind of get it, about what this can be.”

Nathan Kensinger

Until North Park is opened, one of the most popular ways for visitors to explore Fresh Kills is on the regularly scheduled kayak expeditions up Main Creek. These trips are led twice a month throughout the summer by Megan Moriarty, a communications associate at the Parks Department. Each trip can accommodate up to 21 visitors, but public demand has greatly outpaced the supply of kayaks. Expeditions tend to fill up immediately, with waiting lists of up to 50 people, and visitors have come from as far as Maryland to paddle the creek.

“We really want to get people to the park so that they can understand what’s happening now and what’s happening in the future. And I think the uniqueness of being on the water attracts a lot of different people,” says Moriarty, who grew up on Staten Island. For her, the kayak trips are meant to take visitors on a deeper journey, something that’s beyond just another urban adventure. “I would say that there is almost a kind of reverence that people experience. They are very quiet and they are very much just noticing everything and very aware. And at the end of the tours, they are very grateful.”

A paddle up Main Creek is certainly a chance to reflect on how nature has returned to this altered landscape in recent years. Deer, herons, egrets, and fiddler crabs are all common sights as the creek moves from the landfill into the adjoining William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge. Here, the creek splits into its various historic branches—Neck Creek, Springville Creek, Vreeland’s Creek—whose flows are largely forgotten and unmarked. Outside the refuge, they are soon swallowed up by the surrounding human development, buried under newer strip malls and housing developments. For a short while, though, the journey upstream takes you back toward a wilder past, until you swing around and face the debris of the future.

The Parks Department’s kayak launch for Freshkills Park is currently on an unmarked beach facing the confluence of Richmond Creek and Main Creek, the two major branches of Fresh Kills.

Just west of the kayak launch, the decommissioned infrastructure of the old Fresh Kills Landfill lines the waterway. This dock was once a station for unloading garbage barges.

To the north, along Main Creek, the unnatural hills of the old landfill dominate the landscape. The grasses here are growing from a special seed mix planted by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). “Everything you see with these grasslands is a result of that seed mix that took, and then whatever else Mother Nature did—seeds that had either been blown in or that birds had dropped,” explains Robin Geller, a DSNY program manager.

An osprey nest is located just north of the kayak launch. Many birds and other wildlife have returned to the area since the grass mix was planted. “Now that it’s really grassland and there’s no garbage going in, it’s just dramatic, the number of birds and other species that have come back,” says Geller.

Egrets, herons, and other species have all taken up nest in and around the former landfill, and in the nearby wetlands of the 814-acre William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge, which is located just north of Freshkills Park.

Much of the landscape around the edges of the landfill is man-made, including an enormous slurry wall keeping Fresh Kills’ water out of the garbage mounds and a system of drainage basins that channel rainwater into the kill. “We don’t want any water getting in that can come in contact with garbage and create leachate, and we have to control the water that flows downwards when it rains so that it doesn’t erode anything,” says Geller.

A system of stone gabions climb up the sides of the landfill, helping to drain rainwater off the hills. “What it does is slow down the velocity of the water when it rains, especially in heavy rainfalls, so that it won’t erode anything,” explains Geller. “And then it goes into a pipe underneath the road, and into these stormwater basins.”

Paddling out of the landfill and underneath Travis Avenue, the landscape changes from marshland into forest as Main Creek travels deeper into the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge.

Travis Avenue cuts through the heart of the refuge and feels like a rural backcountry road, despite the constant flow of traffic.

Looking back from Travis Avenue down Main Creek, toward the hills of the landfill, the landscape appears to be almost natural. Had Fresh Kills continued to operate as a dump, it would have eventually become the highest point on the East Coast.

To the north of Travis Avenue, Main Creek begins to narrow into a winding route through the marshland. This branch of the creek was once known as Neck Creek, or Long Neck Creek, according to “Staten Island Names: Ye olde names and nicknames,” an 1896 publication by William T. Davis.

Main Creek twists and turns through shallower waters, where hundreds of fiddler crabs have burrowed into the shoreline, which is lined with marsh grasses and phragmites.

As it nears its head, Main Creek is overgrown by a forest frequented by deer and raccoons. Just a mile away from the landfill, the change in terrain is remarkable.

The headwaters of Main Creek, or Neck Creek, are thick with fecal overflow after a rainstorm, signs that a combined sewer system overflow has emptied out nearby.

An enormous culvert drains out a mix of stormwater overflow and freshwater here, at the head of the creek near Signs Road. Historically, the waters of Willow Brook once emptied into Fresh Kills at this intersection.

Hidden alongside the culvert, a small freshwater flow still trickles out into Main Creek through a glen of poison ivy, perhaps a last vestige of Willow Brook’s unpolluted waters.

The freshwater emerges from a tunnel underneath Signs Road. Across the street, a condominium complex named “Rustic Woods” has covered over the old forest and creek with a swimming pool and playground.

The landscape outside the wildlife refuge is now largely man-made, with streams buried underground and controlled by culverts and basins, as opposed to the wild-running creeks inside the refuge that still closely follow their historic routes.

One of the remaining free-flowing waterways in the area is located near Travis Avenue and Mulberry Avenue, in a newly restored wetlands hidden off the side of the busy road.

This may be the original flow of Vreeland’s Brook, a small waterway that travels under Travis Avenue and through a newly made gravel streambed before joining Springville Creek, the eastern branch of Main Creek.

Not far from this wetland, the New Springville Greenway travels through the marshlands. Completed in 2015, the bike path connects the wildlife refuge to Freshkills Park, offering views of both natural and man-made landscapes.

The next major waterway along the greenway is Springville Creek, which flows out of an enormous culvert near Travis Avenue and Richmond Avenue before entering this forgotten forest.

Scrambling down the rocky bed of Springville Creek reveals a wild landscape. The freshwater flow passes under an abandoned footbridge before joining the other branches of Main Creek and flowing out through Fresh Kills to the Arthur Kill.

As the Greenway continues along Richmond Avenue, it traces the edge of Freshkills Park, passing through a planted landscape. “It’s nice. It kind of shades you from some of what’s immediately adjacent to you,” says Geller. “The sidewalks were all rutted and cruddy before, full of potholes. Some of them were dirt and there were no sidewalks in some places.”

The view here looks back across the waters of Springville Creek and Main Creek toward the landfill, offering a chance to reflect on the changing landscape. “It’s positive human intervention,” says Moriarty. “Yes, nature can take over, but it’s with the help of people, installing all these gabions, seeding the hills, and installing infrastructure.”

Looking in the opposite direction, yet another a tributary of Springville Creek flows under the wide expanse of Richmond Avenue and toward the chain-store outposts of the Staten Island Mall, a reminder of what we have replaced our natural world with.

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. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

Freshkills Park

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