Watery New York: Starlight Park and Bronx River Greenway

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
**
It seems as if everyone who writes about New York has just (re)discovered that we’re a city surrounded by water.

Amidst skyscrapers, it can be easy to forget New York is a city surrounded by water.
Amidst skyscrapers, it can be easy to forget New York is a city surrounded by water.

There’s an excellent feature in this month’s Conde Nast Traveler about New York City’s waterways, and it’s not the only article I’ve read on the subject in recent weeks (there was another one I stumbled upon from Men’s Journal a few days later).

It is easy, when you’re in Midtown and neither river is within view, to forget that you’re only blocks from at least three waterways (the East River, Hudson River, and Atlantic Ocean). Your only clue may be seagulls cawing overhead, which themselves have caused many a double-take: Seagulls? New York City? What?

But walk east or west for just a few minutes and New York City’s riparian roots will immediately be visible. And, as Justin Davidson points out in that Traveler article, every season there are more opportunities for New Yorkers and visitors alike to get on the water themselves.

Francisco and I have spent some quality time on New York City’s waterways– kayaking the Hudson River and riding the water taxi and ferry on the East River. We’ve even tramped around Newtown Creek (though we haven’t dared dip a toe in those waters). Davidson’s article inspired us to go a bit farther afield, though, and a couple weekends ago we traveled up to The Bronx to explore Starlight Park, part of the Bronx River Greenway.

Bridge to Starlight Park, part of the Bronx River Greenway.
Bridge to Starlight Park, part of the Bronx River Greenway.

The Bronx River Greenway is one of several “Look how we turned this polluted river into something incredible” stories transforming not just the quality of the city’s waterways, but also the access to and utility of those bodies of water. Today, the former “open sewer,” polluted by the factories set up alongside it during New York’s industrial boom, has been cleaned up (though there’s still plenty of garbage to be seen along its banks) and people are actually using the river.

That’s due, in large part, to the efforts of the Bronx River Alliance, which has taken the banks of the river and surrounding land and turned them into recreational areas. Not nearly as accessible as, say, Hudson River Park (in fact, we drove around and around Starlight Park, one of the access points for the Greenway, for nearly an hour before we found our way in), it is clearly an important resource for neighborhood residents. The day we visited, the multi-use park was full of people. Its playground was packed with kids, a soccer field was spilling over with players, and families walked their dogs, picnicked, and cycled the bike path that winds along the river.

Boat launch at Starlight Park, part of the Bronx River Greenway.
Boat launch at Starlight Park, part of the Bronx River Greenway.

For those of us who don’t live in the neighborhood, we have to really want to get to Starlight Park and the other access points of the Greenway, but for river rats, especially, the payoff is worth it. The river is, as Davidson describes it in his Traveler article, peaceful and uncrowded, and you’ll have a hard time remembering that you’re in New York City.

Community groups are working hard to increase visits to the river. This weekend, the first-ever flotilla and 5k canoe challenge launched from Starlight Park. Apart from this event, which organizers hope will become a yearly activity, you can also participate in monthly guided paddling trips.

If you’re looking for a new way to experience New York City beyond the roar of traffic and subway trains, check out the New York City Water Trail Map, which lists put-in points for all five boroughs, gives tips and warnings about conditions, and alerts you to the kinds of wildlife you’re likely to see on your paddle.

Erie Canal Trip: The B-roll

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
**
September was a busy month, packed with exciting, interesting assignments, including one that took us to the Erie Canal region of New York State. The task: to do a combination drive/paddle journey along a small portion of the 524-mile canal and write about it for the BBC.

The calmness of the Erie Canal is visible here.
The calmness of the Erie Canal is visible here.

We first became intrigued by the canal during an upstate road trip we took a couple years ago. Driving a state highway that ran along the canal, we became interested in the possibilities of renting a houseboat or packet boat and floating at least a portion of the canal, but we never followed through with the trip. The cost of renting a houseboat for the week seemed a bit beyond our reach, so we filed it away as an item for our travel bucket list.

A kayaker paddles toward Fairport's lift bridge.
A kayaker paddles toward Fairport’s lift bridge.
At the time, it didn’t occur to us that we could kayak or canoe the almost 200-year old waterway, but as we learned on this trip, these watercraft provide the very best experience of the Erie Canal (except if you want to experience the canal by land, in which case you should cycle the Canalway Trail).

Why?

First, you’re at eye level with everything interesting along the waterway: the green and blue herons scouting the banks; the beavers and mink scuttling to their dens; the occasional fellow boater drifting past. Second, the canal is the great athletic equalizer: as long as you can hold a paddle, you can do this trip. The canal’s waters are calm and consistent; in fact, it’s an ideal trip for a novice paddler.

The BBC article was published yesterday. As always happens when we’re traveling, whether we’re on assignment or on a non-working trip, we came home with more information, ideas, and intriguing leads than we could possibly fit into a single article. It’s tough to see what gets left on the cutting room floor, first in our own round of edits and, then, in the editor’s slash and burn (ok, I’m being melodramatic here). We want to acknowledge every person, honor every place, and tell every story… and of course, that’s never possible.

Having a blog, though, lets us share a bit of the B-roll with you. The BBC piece has loads of trip-planning intel and logistics information, but there are a few other highlights–including Francisco’s incredible photos– we wanted to share for travelers who are considering an Erie Canal trip.

We started our trip in Rochester, and no trip to Rochester is complete if it doesn't include a visit to Wegman's. This massive grocery store is THE place to go for breakfast or lunch in New York's third largest city; there's a large section of hot and cold bars with a variety of foods.
We started our trip in Rochester, and no trip to Rochester is complete if it doesn’t include a visit to Wegman’s. This massive grocery store is THE place to go for breakfast or lunch in New York’s third largest city; there’s a large section of hot and cold bars with a variety of foods.
Rochester definitely merits a return visit; Francisco wanted more time to photograph scenes like this and I wanted to do a detailed interview with the curator of the Genesee Country Village and Museum's gallery.
Rochester definitely merits a return visit; Francisco wanted more time to photograph scenes like this and I wanted to do a detailed interview with the curator of the Genesee Country Village and Museum’s gallery.
Fairport was probably my favorite port of call because it's where I first got in the water. By paddling the canal, I began to understand it and get a sense of how our itinerary would come together.
Fairport was probably my favorite port of call because it’s where I first got in the water. By paddling the canal, I began to understand it and get a sense of how our itinerary would come together.
At every stop, we met people who were passionate about their towns and about the canal, among them, Bonnie Hays, the executive director of historic Palmyra. When we arrived, Bonnie handed us a media kit pinned with a button that says "Palmyra: This Town Matters!". I <em>loved</em> that--the insistence that this little town is important. Palmyra is mentioned in the BBC piece, but I'm including it again here because I really loved the old print shop, which is still in use today.
At every stop, we met people who were passionate about their towns and about the canal, among them, Bonnie Hays, the executive director of historic Palmyra. When we arrived, Bonnie handed us a media kit pinned with a button that says “Palmyra: This Town Matters!”. I loved that–the insistence that this little town is important. Palmyra is mentioned in the BBC piece, but I’m including it again here because I really loved the old print shop, which is still in use today.
The Erie Canal sluices through Finger Lakes wine country, and I was disappointed the section about Ventosa Vineyards was cut from the BBC article. Ventosa offers tastings for $2 (four wines) and overlooks Seneca Lake.
The Erie Canal sluices through Finger Lakes wine country, and I was disappointed the section about Ventosa Vineyards was cut from the BBC article. Ventosa offers tastings for $2 (four wines) and overlooks Seneca Lake.
Syracuse, our last stop, definitely got the short end of the stick in the BBC article, but that was because it was a rushed part of our trip. Falling on the last day of our journey, which also coincided with an absolute downpour, we didn't see or do nearly as much as we wanted to in Syracuse. Maybe we'll start there, rather than finish there, when we return for a more leisurely trip on the canal.
Syracuse, our last stop, definitely got the short end of the stick in the BBC article, but that was because it was a rushed part of our trip. Falling on the last day of our journey, which also coincided with an absolute downpour, we didn’t see or do nearly as much as we wanted to in Syracuse. Maybe we’ll start there, rather than finish there, when we return for a more leisurely trip on the canal.

For more Erie Canal photos, check out Francisco’s Erie Canal album on flickr.

Have any questions about the Erie Canal region? Let us know in the comments.

Interview with Writer John Lane: My Paddle to the Sea

Text:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo, with exception of John Lane photo, courtesy of John Lane
**

An Upstate, South Carolina river
An Upstate, South Carolina river

I rarely let go of a story.

I’ll research an article or essay, write it, and have it published, but it’s not often that I just file the story away and stop thinking about the subject. I like to keep following the story.

I’ve been writing about and following John Lane since 2008, when I interviewed him^ about his book, Circling Home. John lives in my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, so many of the places he writes about are familiar to me. That’s one reason I keep reading his work; the other is, quite simply, that he’s a good writer who wants to make sense of his experience through the writing process.

John’s newest book, My Paddle to the Sea, was just published by University of Georgia Press and the launch party, hosted by Spartanburg’s indy bookstore, Hub City Bookshop, was probably the best attended in Spartanburg’s history, if Facebook chatter is any indication. My Paddle to the Sea opens with Lane’s recounting of a tragic white water trip in Costa Rica and his subsequent 300-mile paddle of South Carolina’s waterways, a trip initiated partly for catharsis. But as with all of Lane’s projects, writing and otherwise, his 300-mile paddle trip was also undertaken as one more effort to understand himself, his local ecosystem and history, and his place within them.

Though I’d have rather interviewed John while walking around a riverbed in Glendale as I did three years ago, I was happy to have talked with him about My Paddle to the Sea via email.

*
Julie:
One of the qualities of this book that struck me–and has stayed with me since–is the way in which you honor other people by reflecting upon and celebrating what they’ve shared with you, whether an experience, as with Venable Jr. [Lane’s partner on the paddling trip], or a lesson or idea, as with other writers. You did so in an artful, elegant, authentic way that I found quite moving. Were you conscious you were making these acknowledgements of influence as you were writing?

John:
The major decision I had to make with this project was: go it alone, or go with a friend, or a number of friends. Originally, when I conceived of paddling almost 300 miles to the sea I’d thought, yes, I’ll do the trip alone and make it into one of those “man against the wild” type adventure stories. You know, rugged individual sets out against the elements in a kayak with only a can of pork & beans, a sleeping bag, and a Swiss Army knife. But our tragic trip to Costa Rica changed that. After the deaths on that river in Costa Rica I realized I’d have to have the help of my other adventurous friends if I wanted to pull this trip off and get back in the adventure saddle. I’d lost the desire to be alone on the trip.

After Costa Rica the idea of the trip became a celebration of friendship– planning and doing, sharing stories, overcoming adversity, and telling the tale. And I knew from the beginning that telling my tale would include telling the tales of my good friends Venable Vermont and Steve Patton. They are both adventurous men who have pulled off long river trips and had near misses like the one I had in Costa Rica, and they both had plenty to say about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we paddled along.

As far as the other influences–the writers and others who have come before– I’m always conscious that landscapes have deep histories, and I always want to acknowledge that other minds have passed before me. I knew going in that the Santee River basin wasn’t “unwritten,” wasn’t a blank slate. There was the mind and work of Henry Savage and his great Rivers of America volume on the Santee, and then there were literary writers such as WJ Cash, John P. Kennedy, Julia Peterkin, and poet Archibald Rutledge. Their voices had to be included along with mine. They had already sung of this river.

Julie:
I also felt like you struggled with trying not to be judgmental of people who don’t share your world view, and I wanted you to write about them in a way didn’t set up or reinforce binaries of “us” and “them.” I think the place where I felt most frustrated about this was the characterization of the “hook and bullet crowd” in the Low-country. (I fully acknowledge that I wanted you to do this because I struggle with it in my own life/work.). Any thoughts about this?

John Lane
John Lane
John:
Well, there is often an “us” and a “them” in many things, and I think it’s a lie if we try to act like it doesn’t exist. It’s like me traveling to Zimbabwe (which I did last October) and thinking when I land that there is no difference between me and those who I encounter in my travels. I’m not saying that there is always a hard “us and them” line– after all, we’re all humans– but my values are often different than what one of my friends calls the “hook and bullet crowd.” If you reduced me to my own stereotype then I’m close to what “they” would call a “tree hugger.” I don’t deny that and actually I find intellectual strength in it.

I probably understand the motives of the person who sits in a tree to stop it from being cut down more fully than I understand one who sits in a tree stand all day to shoot a deer. But I do share many values with the hunting and fishing tribe–my love of wildness, my observation skills, my knowledge of landscapes– but there are still often some fundamental difference between many of those who hunt and fish seriously and those who do not. Mostly these are simply management issues. Most wild land is managed now and I’m generally more of a preservationist as opposed to a conservationist. I’d like to see land set aside and managed for all creatures great and small, not just deer and turkey. I’d like to see large tracts of territory where ecological processes can go on without us. I prefer free-flowing rivers to recreational lakes. If you forced me to choose between the ideas of John Muir or Gifford Pinchot, I’d choose Muir. Pinchot’s “Wise Use” doesn’t cut it for me entirely.

And in South Carolina there is a huge spectrum in the hunting/fishing world. Many who hunt and fish I admire deeply and they too would vote for preservation. Others I wouldn’t agree with, and those are usually the ones who think of hunting as a “sport.” Through the years I’ve come closer and closer to understanding and even admiring those particularly who eat what they kill. (I’ve even developed relationships with several hunters where we eat what they kill.) But I still can’t kill game myself, and I know that “they” generally see the wild world through the scope of a rifle or as just off the tip of a rod. I see it at the end of a paddle or under my feet or bike tire. The worlds of the hunter and the non-hunter are often very different and they are managed in different ways.

Julie:
In the book you say, “There are no simple answers to contemporary recreation in the [American] South.” But besides kayaking your local waterways, what are some of *your* answers? How do you engage with the land apart from the time in your kayak?

John:
Well, in some ways this is a continuation of the question above. There has been a shift in our culture in the last 30 or 40 years from wilderness to recreation, from preservation to conservation, from nature worship to use. During the 60s and 70s the lobby for the values of wilderness and preservation were strong. Read Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter.” Read the 1964 Wilderness Act itself. The idea of limited and controlled human access to wilderness in particular was supported politically and intellectually.

Lots has happened to bring some of those values into question since then. The work of historian William Cronon in the 1980s brought into question the idea of wilderness itself. Cronon suggested that wilderness was an idea invented by urban people, that the places we call wilderness– take Yellowstone for example– were actually inhabited and used by people regularly for thousands of years.

There has also been an explosion in technology and income that can take people into wild places– from airline routes to kayaks to four wheelers to light weight hiking gear. Every improvement in gear makes it easier for humans to “use” wildness easily. Every uptick in the adventure travel industry has made it harder to support the values and ideals that were outlined in the Wilderness Act. That document saw value in difficulty of access and use.

In the [American] South it’s even more complex because there is such a large population within easy driving distance of our limited wilderness areas. The Chattooga Wild & Scenic River and its Ellicott Wilderness is within a 2 hour drive of 7 or 8 million people and many of them like to recreate “in the wild.” It’s complex for me because I value wilderness, but I also like to go into it, to recreate. Here’s another place where the easy “us” and “them” breaks down!

Lane's home river
Lane's home river
I’m spending alot more time enjoying “nearby nature,” my own backyard, than I did in the past. Much of my walking/paddling now takes place close to home. I’m finding out that there’s a lot to be learned and enjoyed in my “limited wild” (to use David Gessner’s term). I began to walk a small circle every morning with my dog on our 4 suburban acres that I wrote about in CIRCLING HOME. I’m always engaged on that walk.

Julie:
What are the other places you want to explore in the South that you don’t know so well yet?

John:
I really want to spend more time up in the Blue Wall area, the mountain front west of here. I’d like to hike the whole Foothills Trail. I also want to paddle as many of the South Carolina rivers as I can.

Julie:
Regarding some of the practical aspects of promoting and selling this book, what’s your strategy?

John:
I’m hoping that readers who know my work from the past will pick up on it, and I’m hoping that there will be a few good reviews. I’m also hoping that the 30 minute video RIVER TIME (www.rivertimefilm.com) that film makers Chris Cogan and Tom Byars put together about me and the trip will take off and get shown on local ETV stations around the south. They have a few screenings set up in SC and Georgia and we’ll sell some books there. I’m not sure how it will be received in other regions. We’ll just have to wait and see.


^One of the unfortunate aspects of writing online is that technology evolves and some published works get lost in the evolution. My article that accompanied the oral interview linked to above has been eaten by the interwebs.