Gowanus canoers celebrate start of Superfund dredging

Three cheers! Members of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club raise a cup to the start of the federally-supervised dredging of the Gowanus Canal on Nov. 16.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

The Dredgers welcomed the actual dredgers.

Members of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club gathered early Monday morning at the Carroll Street Bridge to celebrate the start of a decade-in-the-making cleanup effort of the noxious waterway. 

“I’m really overjoyed, not just because it’s nice out here, but because we actually are seeing action over here on the canal — it’s real,” said Captain Brad Vogel. “It seems like that impossible dream is finally beginning.”

Vogel, who donned a blue life jacket to mark the occasion, greeted fellow paddlers and guests with hot apple ciders and an enthusiastic “Ahoy” on the sunny morning at 8 am — just as barge-mounted excavators began their long-awaited, full-scale dredging of the Gowanus Superfund site. 

Formed as a volunteer effort in 1999, the Gowanus Dredgers had pushed environmental bureaucrats in Washington for years to take action on the contaminated canal, which is polluted by more than a century’s worth of industrial use and hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage that flush into the waterway during storms each year. 

Over the years, the waterborne activists started embarking on regular voyages to see the filth up close and raise awareness, according to one of their founders.

“What better way to do that than direct contact,” said Owen Foote. “Some people criticize it, ‘You’re inviting people to canoe a filthy, disgusting, contaminated waterway?,’ and we’re like, ‘Absolutely. That’s the plan.'”

“If you canoe it you’re going to see what happens when it rains, what overflows, everything from trash on our streets goes into our waterway as well as anything from people’s homes,” Foote said. 

The group has since expanded its scope to host regular canal-side concerts, movie screenings, and water-borne opera singing

One mariner said the Dredgers gave her a whole new appreciation for the canal and the surprising amount of wildlife in it.

“Seeing the industrial community that really is still out there using the waterway, seeing the ribbed mussels that live in the bulkheads, seeing all of the birds, the fish, and the blue crabs, [I] have just really become very passionate for seeing the way that nature and the city really can coexist if we look after it,” said Celeste LeCompte.

Once the waters are cleaner, the third-year Dredger hopes more Brooklynites will join her to venture out on canal expeditions.

“The dredging is a real move in the right direction that hopefully it will bring more of our neighbors out onto the waterway and make people feel safer and more comfortable,” said Celeste LeCompte.

For now, however, much of the Gowanus will be off-limits to recreational boaters. EPA bigwigs announced last month that recreational boating would be banned for the duration of the cleanup anywhere north of the Ninth Street Bridge, so smaller vessels don’t interfere with the heavy machinery atop barges.

Vogel, for his part, remained optimistic that the Dredgers can work with the authorities to allow limited access in the coming months and years.

“We’re going to find a way,” he said. “The Dredgers are a pretty scrappy and intrepid crew and I think we’ll find something creative no matter what happens.”

Foote agreed, saying the Dredgers are experienced boaters capable of navigating around many different vessels.

“We’ve been mingling with maritime uses on New York’s harbor for the last 20 years, I don’t see why we wouldn’t spend another 20,” he said. “If we can work with the fast moving ferries of the East River and not have any collisions in over two decades, I think we should be able to work with a few of these tug captains here on the canal today.”

The boaters wrapped up their crack-o’-dawn get-together with a toast, using a regular sign off at the end of their boating events: “Let’s dredge!”