The Gowanus Canal runs through a small section of Southwest Brooklyn, passing a block from my apartment. It is a waterway of jokes, legendary for its funk and as a place to dump gangsters. One night, my neighbor Pete and I stood on the 9th St. drawbridge and watched as fetid oils bubbled on the water’s surface below us. When I told him, a few weeks ago, that I was going to canoe on the canal, he was quiet for a moment, then said: ‘I heard that they were trying to cultivate oysters in the Gowanus. As a test. And the rats swam out and ate through the cages to eat the oysters. They pulled up the cages. Just holes and shells. No oysters.’
With that vision of killer submarine vermin I arrived at the landing, meeting a friend, Mike, and his four-year-old daughter Ellen. There was a good Brooklyn mix already there: men with beards, women with shorn heads, and a fellow in his late 40s smoking a cigar, all waiting to paddle around and pick garbage out of the canal with nets for Earth Day. We signed waivers and waited in the sun for our turn in the boats.
‘Look in—there are crabs scuttling in the shopping cart,’ said an organizer, pointing below the water to a submerged metal frame that had once held groceries. A brown jellyfish, which looked like a muffin wrapper, pulsated not far from the crabs, under the slow ripple of the current.
Our turn came; Mike hopped in the boat, four feet below the landing, and I handed Ellen down. She’s shy, but she took the handling stoically, looking straight ahead with a frown as her father received her and found her a place to sit. I lowered myself next, secretly afraid I’d sink the boat in clumsiness, but it only rocked, and I sat gingerly, then took up the oars.
From the water, with the rowboat tilting back and forth, the Gowanus was nearly charming. The green water looked like bottle glass; the rotting piers, annexed to concrete processing plants and scrapyards heaped with piles of rusted metal, took on a dystopian charm. I rowed us around the bends, not more than 10 blocks by land, and Mike netted floating detritus and cataloged it—a bounty of Twix and Snickers wrappers, condoms (checked off as ‘miscellaneous plastic items’), and soda bottles. Ellen stayed calm, occasionally rising in excitement to see a pigeon roosting in a sewer pipe, or another jellyfish, then sitting peacefully when reminded.
Looking up at the heavy equipment and warehouses, we joked about Heart of Darkness—in our version, we would start in Red Hook and row up past the Home Depot and the concrete processors, and come to a scrapyard run by Mr. Kurtz, an ancient mobster. My hands went numb from gripping the oars, and I found it hard to keep a straight course, but it felt good to stretch my back, and as I rowed I felt a familiar, forgotten excitement. Being on the water makes me seven years old, breathing fast. The Gowanus, sullied and grim as it could be, was still a waterway, and the pleasure of the journey was as pure as I could want. I wanted to row out to the Red Hook Channel, to the Buttermilk Channel, and the East River channel. Perhaps I could stop for a moment at Governor’s Island, and then continue out from the Hudson River Estuary and to the Atlantic, all the way to England. Or Iceland, if I got tired.
Twenty minutes into the journey we came on a white egret, perched by a warehouse, its neck as thin as the oar handles and nearly as long, a pure white shape framed by blacks, browns, and greens. Ellen waved to the bird, which turned its narrow head to us, the rest of its body immobile.
We stayed still for a moment to watch it, until a motorboat came by, manned by the organizers of the event. Its captain told us to turn around, so that others could come out and find their share of garbage. I wanted to stay out—could have taken another few hours—but I rowed us back quickly, not wanting to take more time than I was allotted, bumping the sides of the canal three or four times.
We arrived, and brought out our small bag of trash and I climbed up the algae-slimed wooden beams that bounded the landing, once again receiving Ellen from her father, lifting her back onto ground. She was as light as cloth. We gathered ourselves on the water’s edge and wiped off the dirt we’d accrued climbing from the boat, introduced ourselves to some friendly-looking strangers, and went to find lunch.