Tony and I found ourselves mired in a muddy situation recently, one that proved to be unusual even by Bronx political standards. So, we did what any self-respecting politicians would do in this type of situation: we got down and dirty.
Another political scandal brewing? Business as usual in Bronx politics? Not at all! Tony and I were just two of the 30+ volunteers who came out to the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary in Pelham Bay Park on the morning of Sunday, September 23 to help remove debris and trash along the shoreline of the Hutchinson River in the Third Annual Clean Up organized by the Hutchinson River Restoration Project.
The Hutchinson River flows through our respective congressional and state senate districts. This was the perfect opportunity for us to learn more about the work that HRRP is doing to bring awareness to this neglected river, and as an issue to address in our campaigns. We ended up getting a little more involved than we bargained for. More about that shortly.
I met Tony on the subway as we headed for the last stop of the 6 train and then to the BX29 bus to Pelham Bay Park. We arrived at the site about 8:45am. HRRP founder and President, Dr. Eleanor Rae, along with her husband Giles, greeted us and the other volunteers as we arrived at the site at the BX29 bus stop, just off the intersection of Shore Rd. and City Island Rd. A table was set up with literature, sign in sheets, and site assignments. Another table held containers of fresh water and some light snacks. Volunteers had their choice of cleaning up along the shore at the base location or canoeing to four other sites along the river.
Park Rangers arrived a few minutes later with canoes, paddles and flotation jackets. Two of the Rangers gave a safety talk and some basic lessons in handling the canoes. After donning the jackets, the volunteers were divided into crews and directed to their canoes where they were met by their crew captains. Each crew consisted of two canoes, with no more than three persons per canoe. Tony and I were assigned to one canoe while crew captain, Inge Otto, along with Nilka Martell, a reporter with the Bronx Free Press, and Isaiah Vega, with the Bronx River Alliance, were assigned to the other.
Our assignment area was a section of the river just a little south of the I-95 bridge over the Hutch that takes you from the Bronx into Westchester County toward New Rochelle. As this area was the farthest away, and it would have taken us too long to paddle there, our canoes were tethered to a powerboat operated by volunteers Pat Kenney and Bob Jervis from City Island, and towed to the site.
We got a great overview of the river. This particular section can’t be seen from the parkway and isn’t accessible from the opposite shore, so it was a new experience for me in my own backyard.
Bob and Pat also acted as tour guides, directing our attention to some of the wildlife that lives along the river. Egrets, seagulls, even a heron or two could be seen on the shore. We saw one egret catch a fish. They also told us of some of the problems that plague what may be the dirtiest river in the Bronx. One example is a derelict barge located off of Coop City near the Amtrak railroad bridge that crosses the river, parallel to the Hutchinson River Parkway drawbridge. The barge, owned by the B & O railroad line, is outfitted with a crane that was used for track repairs but is now rusting away and ready to collapse. Portions of the barge have broken off and are floating in the water nearby, creating a potential hazard for small boats.
It’s not clear what agency has jurisdiction over the river and responsibility for keeping it clean and navigable. “We contacted the Army Corps of Engineers and explained the situation to them. We asked them if they could remove the barge”, Bob explained. ” They said ‘Sure, as long as you pay us the [hundreds of thousands of] dollars it would cost for us to do it’. So it looks like we’re stuck with it for now”. Dr. Rae, who is an environmentalist, offered a different opinion about the future of the barge: “It’s been there so long, that it’s become a habitat for a number of species. We don’t want to disturb that now. It might be best to only remove the portions that are an immediate threat and just let the rest of it disintegrate on it’s own.”
The Hutchinson River is a combination river / tidal estuary, like the Hudson River. The upper part, with its headwaters
in Scarsdale, is a freshwater river. It flows south through Eastchester, New Rochelle, Pelham, Mount Vernon and into the Bronx where it becomes a saltwater tidal estuary that flows into the Long Island Sound. Only the last three miles of the river are navigable – from the Sound up into Mount Vernon. The area is heavily industrialized, with Coop City, oil companies, scrap yards, a cement plant, and a stone and gravel yard situated along it’s banks. Barges and oil tankers still make regularly scheduled stops on the river. But it also flows passed the salt marshes of Pelham Bay Park, and is a habitat for numerous species of plants and animals. It also possesses strong currents. This would be a factor in the later drama.
When we arrived at our assignment area, the first thing the boat crew noticed was that we wouldn’t be able to navigate into the inlet where the site was located because the tide was too low. Neither the boat nor the canoes would be able to get in. The tide was rising but it wouldn’t be high enough for hours yet and we didn’t have the available time. Pat told us we could get to shore if we were willing to use a device they had that would allow us to “walk” across the mud and onto dry land. These devices are simply 2 x 8 wood planks about 4 feet long with long ropes attached through each end. The idea is to stand on the plank and grab a rope in each hand. By pulling up with the rope on one side of the plank and pulling it forward a couple of inches and then repeating this with the other side, you can move forward a few inches at a time and “walk” your way over until you’ve finally reached dry land.
The mud was much too soft so that the planks just sank in and couldn’t be moved. But before any of us actually tried using them, Tony, in his exuberance and enthusiasm, decided to just go for it and walk to shore. He immediately got stuck in the mud up to his ankles. One of the crew threw a plank to Tony but he couldn’t get on it, slipped, and fell into the mud. He was able to stand up but he couldn’t move forward. Isaiah, who was in the other canoe, decided to try to help Tony (against the better judgment of the crew). He jumped out at a different point that was a little more solid and made his way to shore but not without sinking in too. The crew threw a line to him to throw which he turn threw to Tony. Tony was able to grab the line and make it to shore with Isaiah’s help. Inge and Nilka decided to stay put in their canoe, which was now stuck in the mud itself.
Bob called Eleanor to let her know that Tony and Isaiah were stranded, that the other canoe was stuck in the mud, and that the site wasn’t accessible. We were going to try to get Tony and Isaiah aboard the boat and return to the base site.
In the mean time, the crew asked me to canoe over to the inlet to see if there was any possibility of us getting in to the site. They really wanted to complete the job. A strong current had developed along with a wind and I was starting to drift. I was facing in the wrong direction now and as I tried to stop the motion and swing around, the canoe began to list to one side until it finally started taking on water and capsized. Somehow I fell out of the canoe standing up, paddle in hand. I was waist deep in the river but stuck in the mud up to my shins. I tried using the paddle to keep myself upright but the mud actually sucked the paddle under. I lost it beneath the mud. Fortunately, the water was warm, as was the air temperature, so there was no danger of hypothermia.
Bob again called Eleanor to let her know that I was now stuck in the mud. They asked if I was alright – I was – and then asked if I could move at all – I couldn’t. They paddled the boat over to me, hoping that it wouldn’t get stuck as well.
I was able to get one leg free. Pat fashioned a loop out of some line and asked me to try to get a foot in it so they could pull me out. I was able to lift the free leg with a lot of effort and place it in the loop. Once in the loop I was able to grab on to the side of the boat and try to pull myself over. I was too stuck. Pat and Bob grabbed me under the arms and tried to pull me out, while I was still trying to pull myself out. I told them to stop for a second and just hold me up, as I was able to slowly extract my other leg. Then with a big pull I made it over the side and flopped into the boat like the catch of the day.
Now that I was rescued, the next order of business was getting Tony and Isaiah into the boat. We still had most of the wood planks in the boat when an idea struck me. I asked the crew what they thought about placing the planks end-to-end to form a footpath so that Tony and Isaiah could walk across to the boat. Even though you couldn’t pull the planks up, they were still above the surface. They agreed to try it.
We were able to get the planks in place by throwing them in the general direction and then throwing a long handled hook to Isaiah, who was able to maneuver the planks into place. He scooted across first, using the hook for balance. Once he was on board, he carried another line to Tony and he was able to “walk the planks”, using the paddle he still had for balance.
About this time a couple of Parks Dept. Rangers who had been notified of our predicament arrived to help. They were surprised to see that everything was now under control, asked how we were and called back to say everyone was fine.
[All the while, Nilka had been taking pictures of the adventure for her article. She sent some of the photos to me. Tony and I are posting them to our campaign websites.]
Pat and Bob piloted the boat over to the other canoe and secured a line to it to drag it out into open water. Once this was done, we boated back down stream to recover my canoe and then back up to tow both of the canoes back to base. Pat bailed out the canoe before attaching the tow line. We boated back to base. The canoe with Inge and Nilka was pushed to shore by the boat, where they were able to get out on to dry land. Tony, Isaiah and I had to jump into the water and wade back to shore because the boat couldn’t maneuver close enough. The water is much cleaner at this point and the bed is rocky so it wasn’t so bad. Besides we were already wet and muddy.
Eleanor met us on shore, asked if were alright. Then she asked if we had seen the marker that she had placed at the site the day before to indicate the clean up area. There was no marker that we saw. Inge said that it most likely was blown away in the storm on Saturday evening. After this Eleanor turned to Tony and me and said she figured we’d had enough for the day and might as well go home to clean up and rest. “On the contrary”, we told her. We were there to help and there was still a lot of work to do. So she told us about a big truck tire that was embedded in the shore and asked if we could try removing it with one of the other volunteers. After some digging and some effort we finally extracted it. Once we had it upright, Tony started removing the muck from inside so we could roll it to the collection site. We noticed some movement in the muck. Looking closer we saw a fairly large crab that had taken up residence in the tire. Tony gently removed it and placed it in the water where it scurried off. There were all kinds of little creatures in the hole that was left by the dislodged tire.
The shore is littered with the shells of clams, mussels and oysters. A century ago, this was a prime location for harvesting them by local shops and restaurants. Prior to that, it was a paradise for the native Siwanoy tribe that lived along these waters. People still go there to fish, crab, and dig for clams, although I’d have second thoughts about eating anything that comes out of these waters in it’s present state.
It was around 2pm now and we began to wrap things up. In just those few hours the group filled about twenty large trash bags with debris, plus numerous larger items – like the tire – that couldn’t be bagged. We were told to leave broken glass because it would eventually turn into sand through weathering and erosion and wasn’t an environmental hazard. Also, local artists like to collect it for their projects.
A number of the volunteers, on learning that Tony and I were Green Party candidates, expressed their thanks and admiration for our actually helping with the clean up and not just using it as an opportunity for a photo op as the current elected reps do. We might get some votes out of this!
The Parks Dept. workers came back for the canoes and life jackets and Tony and I left for home. We were worried that the bus driver wouldn’t let us on, but Tony told him about the clean up and the driver not only let us on, he thanked us for caring enough to do that!
As soon as I got home, I took off all the muddy clothes and jumped in the shower. What a relief. I had muscle aches and pains for the whole week. We’ll do it again next year.