In its second year, the Hackensack Riverkeeper’s Splash River Paddle event drew 100 paddlers and river enthusiasts to Secaucus on Sept. 8. Despite threatening storms, wind, and tornado warnings, people from Hudson County and beyond paddled upriver from Laurel Hill County Park to Mill Creek Point Park in Secaucus.
The event featured live music, lunch, and a special surprise visit by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who sailed in on his boat from Manhattan with his sons. Kennedy is the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international alliance of grassroots water advocates. Last year, Hackensack kicked off the first river paddle in a national series of SPLASH events held by the Waterkeeper Alliance across the country.
Reclaiming the Hackensack River
The goal of the event was to enjoy and raise awareness about protecting the river, and to raise money to benefit the Hackensack Riverkeeper environmental organization.
“This is about reclaiming the Hackensack River…to take back the river from polluters…developers…and dumpers,” said Captain Bill Sheehan, head of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, during his remarks at Laurel Hill.
“This is about reclaiming the Hackensack River.” – Captain Bill Sheehan
He noted that the river is on its way to recovery because of Sheehan.
Secaucus resident Sheehan, an active conservationist, started the Hackensack Riverkeeper in 1997 to protect the watershed and the public’s right to clean water. Since then he has stood watch over the small 50-mile long river and served as an advocate to prevent degradation and go after polluters. Each year, the Riverkeeper leads a number of activities to educate visitors about the history of the area, the wildlife, and the environment.
“If it weren’t for Bill Sheehan, nobody would be paying attention to this river,” Kennedy said.
“There is no one that is going to fight harder for your right to clean water than Captain Bill,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance. Sheehan was part of the founding movement that started the Waterkeeper Alliance, which has grown to span 39 countries across six continents.
In Secaucus waters
“This year it is a Secaucus event,” Sheehan said. “It is a way of celebrating not only the river, not only our mission but also the fact that Secaucus is the capital of the Meadowlands and my hometown.” The Hackensack Riverkeeper, which was founded in June 1997, is celebrating its 15th year, and will honor Mayor Michael Gonnelli in October during their annual awards celebration.
Kayakers and paddlers made good time upriver and some navigated the route to Mill Creek Point Park in less than 45 minutes, a trip organizers thought would take at least an hour and a half to two hours. Food and live music waited for the river enthusiasts at the end of their journey.
Local officials were also present including Councilman Gary Jeffas, Deputy Mayor John Bueckner, and Mayor Michael Gonnelli. Environmental Committee Chair Amanda Neishewat also attended the event. The mayor and Town Council have recently made efforts to invest in upgrades to the Mill Creek Point Park area.
“This place has really turned out to be something special,” said Gonnelli about Mill Creek Point Park. He described a vision that he shared along with Sheehan for the Old Mill as they once referred to it that dates back many years. “It is such a beautiful area. It is probably the only place where you can feel like you are alone when you are looking at the Empire State Building.” He said that the transformation of the area was beginning to take place and he was proud to work alongside Sheehan to make it a reality.
“Back in the nineties there were very, very few people who had the vision of what could be happening here. I heard nothing but negative back talk,” said Sheehan. He noted that the biggest single accomplishment of the Hackensack Riverkeeper in its fifteen years is re-introducing people to the river and getting people to understand that the river is theirs to enjoy.
“We’ve proven beyond a doubt that it works and that people want to do this type of thing.”
Facing challenges from DEP
The Riverkeeper is suing the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to get cities like Jersey City, North Bergen, and Bayonne, which still have combined raw sewage systems, to stop dumping overflow sewage in the river during heavy rains. Sheehan said that for the first thirteen years the Riverkeeper went after polluters like Honeywell International Corporation and the Standard Chlorine Company but in recent years has faced their biggest challenges from the DEP.
“They have failed to do their job to protect the environment and that’s just wrong,” said Sheehan. “We should be working shoulder to shoulder and side by side with the DEP.”
He said that while cities like Jersey City and North Bergen may want to do the right thing – they need guidance from the DEP.
“DEP is doing nothing to give them that guidance and direction.”
Exploring the river
Many attendees at the Riverkeeper event noted that they had often driven by and noticed the Meadowlands and the river but were finally out to explore the area first hand.
“For years I have just driven by,” said Hillary Exter from Manhattan. “On some level it looked like a wasteland and on another level it looked like a wonderland.” Exter has been involved in Riverkeeper events in New York and said that she has a lot of respect for their work protecting the waterways.
“I love the tranquility and the motion,” she said about kayaking.
“I’ve never been on the Hackensack River,” said Hoboken resident Jean Uva. “This is a great family outing!” She said her family has a couple of kayaks and usually go out to the Delaware River.
Former Jersey City resident Vito Mazza said that he was at the event because of “my wife.”
“We were looking to do something local and active and we have a baby at home,” said Mazza. The couple lives in Leonia. It was their first time exploring the Hackensack River. His wife Tara, who is originally from Maine, is an outdoorsy person.
“We really like their mission and we understand the importance of clean water,” said Tara. Vito Mazza said that he recalls when no one wanted to even get a toe wet in the Hackensack River from the pollution but that he was pleased to see the effort to clean it up. His wife Tara added, “I hope the river will be cleaner for [my daughter].”
Sponsors for the Splash event included Keen Footwear, REI, Toyota, and local sponsor Sony Corporation. Toyota donated $200,000 toward the national SPLASH event series. Other partners and donors include Shoprite, REI, Frantic Band, and Hudson County.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.