Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Exploring the Everglades of the North: ecocruising with the Hackensack Riverkeeper

On our birding ventures, both Ivan and I generally keep lists of the species we see. Invariably, the "day list" begins with the classics: house sparrow, Canada goose and American crow, with the European starling added for good measure. They're pretty much everywhere and very easily identifiable. If we were doing a count of how many of each species we saw in a given day, these few would probably be among the greatest in volume.

The other evening, in the heart of Secaucus, our first few included Forster's tern, peregrine falcon and bald eagle. Yeah, that's right: as you're riding over the Hackensack River on Route 3, you're sharing space with an astounding array of bird species, some even endangered and protected, but all there to live and eat. And they've got a bounty of food because the river is cleaner than it has been in decades. Native fish, crabs and the creatures that eat them have made their home in the Meadowlands again.

The improved condition of the river, its tributaries and the surrounding watershed is due in no small part to the work of Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan and the not-for-profit organization he leads. Through advocacy, cleanups and their fair share of lawsuits, Captain Bill and crew have led the charge in improving the river both as a source of drinking water for one of the most densely-populated areas of the country, and as a place for people to enjoy. (In the interest of full disclosure, Ivan serves on the organization's board and I've done some volunteer work for them.)

You can't see 'em, but there are two eagles in this tree.
One of Riverkeeper's top priorities is to get people out on the river, and we did just that the other day, on one of the organization's two pontoon boats. Leaving from a dock behind the Red Roof Inn on Meadowlands Parkway, we were soon motoring beneath the bridges that carry Route 3 over the Hackensack. As we passed one of the pilings supporting the westbound traffic, we saw a peregrine falcon perched in a nesting box that had been placed there by the state Department of Transportation. This endangered species appeared fully comfortable with his manmade home, yet another example of nature adapting.

When you're actually IN the Meadowlands, on the water and among the marsh grass, you're taken by how peaceful it is, as opposed to the stress of driving on the roads. Gulls and terns flew noisily overhead, putting one in the mind of boating through the back channels of the marshes down the shore. As we headed farther upriver, past the sports complex, we could see the Turnpike at ground level, the Vince Lombardi Service Area appearing like some bizarre rest stop in the middle of the Everglades.

At points, the trip even seemed to be turning into some sort of Disney World ride, with marquee birds making their appearances at strategic moments. An approaching riverside tree yielded two mature bald eagles, perched within full view as if they were waiting for us. Several osprey, still on the state's threatened species list, were perched on railroad and Turnpike bridges overhead. When we made a side trip into Mill Creek, a host of yellow- and black-crowned night herons accommodated us by taking wing and alighting onto convenient branches. Yellow-crowneds have proved particularly difficult for me to spot in my birding adventures, but I easily counted five of them foraging through the river's marshy banks and spartina grass as dusk darkened. That's a pretty big deal, and I was especially tickled to note that I saw them well before we spotted our first Canada geese for the evening. It's not surprising, actually, as the night herons have developed a rookery (nursery) near Harmon Cove in recent years.

Sunset on the Hackensack. Who'da thunk?
We weren't the only humans on the river, either. A jet skier zipped past us early in the trip, and we met up with a friendly kayaker just after we saw all the night herons. On the banks of the river at Laurel Hill Park, a father and his toddler son were enjoying the peaceful view of the sunset over the marsh. Another boat larger than ours waited patiently for a New Jersey Transit train to pass before the drawbridge could be lifted to allow both of us to motor back upriver. I couldn't help but be reminded of the long-ago days when the Hackensack was a major thoroughfare for schooners transporting raw materials and finished goods to dockside factories and merchants.

While the river has made remarkable progress in the past two decades, it's far from pristine. Crabbing is prohibited due to hazardous pollutants in the river sediment, and despite clean water regulations, outdated municipal sewerage systems continue to drain untreated wastewater (yes, that stuff) into the river after storms when their treatment facilities are overwhelmed. You're not going to get sick from boating or canoeing on the Hackensack, but it'll be some time before you can swim there on a daily basis. The Riverkeeper's work is far from done.

That, however, shouldn't keep you from checking it out for yourself. Hackensack Riverkeeper runs a full range of offerings to get you out onto the river, including canoe rentals at Laurel Hill Park and Overpeck Creek. You can even book passage to take the same sunset cruise we did. It's your river -- check it out. I guarantee you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you see.

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