Kayaking Through the Gowanus Canal on the Eve of Sandy

By Vladimir Brezina

We head down a dark HudsonOn Saturday, October 27, with Hurricane Sandy just offshore and aiming, it seemed, directly for New York City, we went for what we (correctly) suspected would be our last kayak trip for some time.

We paddled down the harbor to visit the Gowanus Canal, our favorite Superfund waterway. There one can encounter sights and smells like nowhere else—except perhaps in Newtown Creek, another Superfund site…

Everything was calm. The calm before the storm…

When Sandy hit the next day, the Gowanus Canal overflowed its banks and flooded a wide swath of industrial and residential land around. No doubt, as elsewhere, this caused much destruction. But in addition, of course, the Canal’s water is not just any ordinary water—it is laced with “toxic sludge, heavy metals, oil and—when the sewer system overflows—good old human excrement.” The city issued an advisory that “residents should wash their hands and practice proper hygiene if they come into contact with the canal’s water or sediments.” Sediments that it may take years to clean up…

So the chances are that the Canal and its surroundings will never be quite the same again. These may be some of the last photos of what Gowanus Canal looked like in the good old days before the flood…

ReflectionsIndustrial tableau 2
End of the Gowanus Canal
Intricate composition
In the glowing cavern
... into the sun

Here’s a slideshow of all photos from the trip:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The individual photos, and a much larger-format slideshow, are here.

73 responses to “Kayaking Through the Gowanus Canal on the Eve of Sandy

  1. Pingback: Sandy Saga, Part 1 | Wind Against Current

  2. I enjoyed watiching your slideshow and like your Red kayak. The New York Grain Terminal building makes me wonder how long it can stand there in its gray ruins. I assume it is empty. The glimpse of towards the statue, have your photographed that view yet?

    • Yes, the Grain Terminal is abandoned and empty, as far as I know. Here are photos taken by some guys who make it their mission to visit buildings like this, the more forbidden the better. And judging by the histories of other structures around NYC, the Grain Terminal could well stand there empty for decades…

      As far as the Statue is concerned, I must have hundreds of photos of it, from all angles, taken as we’ve paddled past on various trips. Here’s one photo:

  3. Fabulous pictures especially the first one with your red kayak!

  4. Beautifully done! Love the Slideshow option!

  5. Great shots – a very interesting way to see a harbor – not the way I use to see them… ;-)

  6. love the slideshow and your captions.

  7. Like so much else, I think you are right. The Gowanus and Red Hook will never look that way again.

  8. I always enjoy what you see when you’re on your jaunts – thanks as always for the lovely photos and stories that go with!

    Are you concerned going in polluted water like that and having an accident? I know kayaking is really safe, but still – you wouldn’t want to overturn in something like that would you?


    • Thanks, Nancy!

      It certainly would not be a great idea to go swimming in that water… In fact, we (semi-)seriously worry about what the stuff in the water, and the oil that we can see on the surface, is doing to the substance of our boats as we paddle through the Canal…

      Maybe, if one of us falls in, the other should just leave him/her there, as beyond salvage ;-)

  9. Thanks for the pictures of pre-Sandy Gowanus canal…you must have great memories and pictures to cherish.

  10. I like the photos! Great to see the other side of the ocean!

  11. wonderful gliding through the tour and seeing the more unusual sights and perspectives. Hope the canal recovers sooner than the runes predict

  12. Fascinating story and photos – I particularly like the first one.

  13. Fascinating post – some shots are reminiscent of the English canal system – ever considered kayaking through England?

    • Interesting idea!

      Having lived in Britain for a number of years, I am reasonably familiar with the English canals—but that was many years before I started kayaking.

      On the whole, after kayaking on lakes, even big lakes such as Lake Champlain, I’ve decided that on the whole I prefer the sea, with tides, currents, and wave action… But going a long way through a canal system has its own special appeal too. I’ve recently come across the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, for instance. A thought for the future?

  14. Thanks for the great photos!

  15. These pictures are wonderful. Hopefully they will not be the last of this beauty. Besides all this and our home being in Sandy’s path, it just continues to amaze me how many facets of all of our lives this hurricane has upset. The list is endless and devastating. Hoping for better days…and grateful for all I still have.

    • Yes indeed! … Although Superstorm Sandy hitting the already post-apocalyptic Gowanus Canal was somehow appropriate—and all just before the end of the world, coming up in a few days! ;-)

  16. I didn’t read all the comments, but I really can’t believe you two did that. That water just looks so…sick. (shudder) But, as you saw, even there life eeks out a living. Did you find out what kind of flowers those were?

    The abandoned buildings and junk does look apocalyptic – very fitting now, huh?

    • The water was kind of sick. Worse than the first time we visited the Canal. This time, quite apart from the oil and debris floating on the surface, it became more and more blue, even turquoise, the farther we paddled into the canal—not the sparkling, clear turquoise of tropical waters, but rather the dull, opaque, but intense blue that you sometimes see in photos of arctic waters. Probably for the same reason, suspended particles—although in this case I hate to think what those particles might have been…

      There are actually fish and crabs in the canal, and people catch them, although it is not advisable to eat them ;-)

      Flowers—not really sure what they were, beyond the usual flowers that one sees on scraps of waste ground in the city. But we saw plenty of them growing wherever they could. They didn’t mind how depressing the view was…

  17. Terrific post. As a lifelong resident of NJ, moving just 12 years ago, I watched with sadness as my friends and relatives dealt with the storm. Your photos offered a very interesting perspective! Thank you!

  18. I’m so used to kayaking on the New River … I very much enjoyed your pictures of “urban” kayaking. I particularly like the one of the city and the point of your kayak.

  19. These images from urban waters never cease to amaze me. Nicely done.

  20. A truly monumental blog post (an oxymoronic sounding thing to write but it holds). Of course its not safe to be in that water. It will take a lot of superfunds to clean up that toxic mess. Its like liquid graffiti and much much worse. (I like graffiti for the most part — this wet mess has the fascination of graffiti with the added thrill of being deadly) Its ironic that the city is cleaning up its waterfront (Brooklyn Bridge Park is a great example) just as Nature is declaring it off limits. The city and Long Island will be abandoned and will return to the barrier island status Nature intended for it in a couple of hundred years. (Unless the while thing is put on stilts — that might be easier than relocating everything) I wonder if the River Cafe will be rebuilt? I’m pleased that you are very skilled in the water and didn’t capsize (did you?) because that might finish you off which would be a real tragedy! Stay safe!!

    • Thanks, Frank! …. But we were somehow hoping that the city will be here for a while longer yet ;-)

      No, we didn’t capsize—if we had, the writeup would probably be quite a bit more exciting!

      • Vlad — you will not live to see Manhattan under water (probably — I’m guessing of course) but the sea is rising and Manhattan is practically at sea level. What do you think will happen if the trend isn’t reversed? Of course the Mayor has a committee looking into the effect of global warming and there is discussion of building sea walls. (Most cities in NYs situation did that years ago.) Maybe technology will protect the business as usual. Time will tell. But Sandy is not a one-off — again my guess. Warmer temps encourage tropical storms to come north. Ice milt is causing the oceans to rise. As sea side homes and villages are destroyed civilization must decide to rebuild or no. For the first time I’m reading discussion of not rebuilding. The Times They are A-changing —
        Come gather ’round people
        Wherever you roam
        And admit that the waters
        Around you have grown
        And accept it that soon
        You’ll be drenched to the bone
        If your time to you
        Is worth savin’
        Then you better start swimmin’
        Or you’ll sink like a stone
        For the times they are a-changin’.
        Dylan was being metaphorical 50 years ago but now its not a metaphor.
        Of course I live on an island that is all coast — so Cape Cod may suffer a similar fate. And so it goes…

        Anyway – that’s what I read in the funny papers –

        • Yes, it’ll be interesting how it all plays out… The first battle, beginning right now, will be between those people who advocate allowing the barriers islands to retreat, as they naturally do during every storm, and those who have planted their stake in the sand at what was the water’s edge, but with each storm is to a greater degree under the water, and want everything to be restored at all costs to the way it was…

  21. Pingback: Birmingham Canal Navigations | northumbrian : light

  22. I saw a program on television the other day that said some people are proposing the Gowanus Canal be cleaned up and transformed into a canal like the ones in Amsterdam. That’d be a pretty tall order, given the many decades that the Gowanus Canal has been heavily pollluted.

    • Well, the Gowanus Canal is slated for cleanup—that’s what its Superfund designation means—although how well it can be done, and whether, in this economy, the required money will even be available, is not clear.

      As far as transforming the neighborhood around the canal into Amsterdam goes, that seems a bit unlikely. But there are signs of, or at least proposals for, gentrification, which some welcome and others oppose, as discussed in this article. The thing that leaves many people incredulous is that the proposals, some of them now apparently approved, are to build apartment complexes right on the canal before it is cleaned up…

  23. That first shot is very ominous. That last shot is gives me hope.

  24. Wow, the courage to paddle through those areas. Scary, but great photo ops for sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw bodies floating by… Very interesting series!

  25. wow – you are very brave paddling there knowing you could potentially take a swim. Boston Harbor was once a brown murky mess and we managed to clean it up – but it took years. There is always hope and no time like the present to get started. Great photo journalism topic. Be nice if the media would pick this up.

    • Actually, strange as it may sound, there is a whole club of paddlers, the Gowanus Dredgers, based in the Gowanus Canal, and the media love stories about them (see for example here and here), to the extent that they would hardly be interested in yet another one just at the moment…

      And thanks for following our blog!!

  26. Very cool, Vladimir. It’s funny the canal actually looks clean. I remember it being very ugly. Did it smell bad when you were there? It’s been at least fifteen years since I walked around in that area and it used to stink. I enjoyed it, though. Love that industrial landscape.

    Thanks for the great photos!

    • The camera doesn’t lie… ;-) Actually, it still is ugly, but intriguing, like some kind of strange mutant landscape—you never know what to expect around the next bend. The last two times we were there, the water was oily and filled with debris, but didn’t smell especially—the smell emerges, apparently, only when you stir the water, as of course Sandy did… ;-)

  27. You’re right. It is Intriguingly beautiful and ugly at the same time.

  28. Love your photos as well as your adventurous spirit.

  29. I grew up in Detroit, which taught me to find beauty everywhere. Yet sometimes this same industrial beauty can make me feel sad. Great photos, glad I had a chance to see them. Happy New Year.

    • New York Harbor (and New York City generally) has just the right mixture at present, I think—some parts decayed, some parts being renovated, some parts new, and in between, here and there, still the pre-industrial landscape. One can see the history and the cycle of renewal…

      Thank you, Barbara, and Happy New Year to you!!

  30. Pingback: Last Manhattan Circumnavigation of 2012 | Wind Against Current

  31. Interesting perspective from water level :)

  32. Pingback: A Word A Week Challenge: Industrial | Wind Against Current

  33. Pingback: First NYC Paddle Since Sandy! | Wind Against Current

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