Playing for Keeps

July 7, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Program Director

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Last Monday a team of “Dodgers” gathered at the Laurel Hill Paddling Center and boarded a pontoon boat so we could see, smell, and touch and better understand the stories behind the rebounding health of the Hackensack River. While there are a number of factors in play, like better environmental regulations and improved industry standards, many of the River recovery stories begin with one person – Captain Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper.


I have to admit, being a former field hockey goal keeper, I have a particular affinity for the “waterkeepers.” There is something unique about watching and trying to influence actions that are unfolding across the entire playing field, and then serving as the last line of defense. Of course the stakes couldn’t be higher for the Waterkeepers. WKA-collective-JPGThey are often the last line of defense against ill-planned developments and uneducated (and sometimes just unconcerned) polluters that stand to wipe out critical habitat that protect us from flooding, clean our waters and support wildlife.

During our eco cruise Captain Bill laid out the challenges: the legacy of industrial activity, the impact of the NJ Turnpike, the impact of the Newark Airport, and the continued environmental violations from industry, businesses, and developers (just to name a few). One of my colleagues recalled her childhood images of the Meadowlands as a filthy wasteland. When she took her first eco cruise with Captain Bill a few years ago she was amazed that the River and the surrounding wetlands offered a sanctuary for wildlife and presented scenic views.


Now to truly understand the transformative actions of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, you need to be front and center for Captain Bill’s rich storytelling. I won’t attempt to capture the details of those awe-inspiring stories here, but I will share a few images to pique your interest in the River’s rebound.

No more than five minutes into our eco cruise along the Sawmill Creek Wildlife Management Area, we were greeted by a black crowned night heron.

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Two minutes later an egret flew across the bow of the boat.


Mallards engaged in an endless series of short take-offs and landings that would have sent the air traffic controllers at Newark International into a frenzy. And as the traffic along the turnpike whizzed by, we were following the beginnings of the Hackensack Riverkeeper’s water trail.

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A main take-away about the River’s rebound is the approach of the Riverkeeper. Captain Bill believes in partnerships and he stands ready to make eco-heroes out of anyone willing to listen, learn and act on the River’s behalf. Take PSEG for example. As we rounded a bend in the River, we were greeted by the site of the last remaining coal-fired electric generating facility in New Jersey. Following advocacy by the Riverkeeper and strong leadership at PSEG, measures have been taken to improve the emissions, as well as to protect fish from water intakes. The fish story has been such a success that there is now a nesting pair of osprey on telephone pole adjacent to the plant. We moved in slowly to catch a glimpse of a mother and chick, but note that Captain Bill is on patrol here to keep fisherman and others away from the area during the breeding season.

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Near the end of our eco cruise, after passing under a maze of Amtrak and roadway bridges, Captain Bill pointed up to a bridge landing and to our amazement a peregrine falcon was looking down on us.



The falcon seems to stand as regal harbinger of river health, though there are many remaining challenges in this most urban of ecosystem settings (a mere 20 million people live and work within a stone’s throw of the Hackensack River). By way of partnerships, education, advocacy, and when necessary, legal action, Captain Bill has thwarted countless bad developments, stopped pollution and planted the seeds for renewable energy projects, regenerative development and other positive people-nature ventures.

We returned to the dock with a sense of deep gratitude and a feeling of hope about the work of the Hackensack Riverkeeper and of all our New Jersey based waterkeepers (the Hackensack Riverkeeper is joined by the NY/NJ Baykeeper and the Delaware Riverkeeper). Please join these dedicated frontline waterkeepers and their staffs to learn more about ways to enjoy and protect these precious waterways – and if you see anything of concern when you are traveling along the Hackensack River, just call the Watershed Watch Hotline (1-877-CPT-BILL) to set the wheels of action in motion.

Click here for more information about the Paddling Center at Laurel Hill Park, which is easily accessible by car or train (Secaucus Junction) The Hackensack Riverkeeper has a fleet of twenty-six canoes and kayaks at the Center and is ready to take you on a guided paddle or eco cruise.