Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke to over 70 first-time paddlers and river enthusiasts about their rights to the waterways during the Hackensack River Paddle held Saturday, Oct. 1 in Secaucus. The river paddle was the first in a national series of SPLASH events held by the Waterkeeper Alliance across the country.
Paddlers took to the river in canoes and kayaks for a 4-mile journey that began at Carlstadt and ended in Secaucus at Laurel Hill County Park. The goal of the event was to enjoy the river, raise awareness about protecting the river, and to raise money to benefit the Hackensack Riverkeeper environmental organization.
Protecting more than just the right to clean water
“We own the waterways. They are not owned by the governor. They are not owned by the legislature. They are owned by the people,” said Kennedy, a board president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. “Everybody has a right to use the [waterways]. Nobody has a right to use them in a way that will diminish or injure their use or enjoyment by others.” Kennedy gave an overview of the history of environmental law and the fundamental rights of the people, which are rooted in ancient rules governing democracy.
“We still got a ways to go before people can jump in [the river].” – Captain Bill Sheehan
Riverkeeper at the forefront of the fight
“The Hackensack Riverkeeper is the best advocate out there for the Hackensack River and has been fighting for decades for everyone’s right to clean water,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international alliance of grassroots water advocates. “We were thrilled to have them as a partner.” The Waterkeeper Alliance represents 195 waterkeepers in 20 countries worldwide.
Captain Bill Sheehan has led the efforts of the Hackensack Riverkeeper and was part of the founding movement that started the Waterkeeper Alliance. He spoke about the shift in the public mindset about the river since he first began his work.
“I am pretty much a lifelong resident of the town of Secaucus,” said Sheehan. “There is a sign over there by the ramp that says the Hackensack River is an environmentally sensitive area. When [now-Mayor] Mike [Gonnelli] and I put those signs up back in the ’90s people laughed at us. Today, look what’s going on.”
Gonnelli was at the event, as was Councilwoman Susan Pirro.
Celebrating the river
“We love kayaking. We have our own kayak and wanted to get out on the river one last time before it gets too cold and also support the Riverkeeper,” said Christina Namendorf, 29, who grew up in Secaucus but now lives in Carteret. She was at the event with her husband Christopher.
“I never paddled the river before,” said Mat Ward, 28, of Jersey City. He was at the event with two friends, Liz Cox, 30, of Jersey City and Eric Tuvel, 27 of New Brunswick. The three of them paddled the 4-mile distance together in a canoe. “This is the first [Riverkeeper] event I’ve been to. I didn’t know they had so many events. I am a supporter of the mission.”
“I want to volunteer,” said Cox.
“This is a lot nicer than the Hudson and East Rivers,” said John McGowan, 22, from Manhattan. McGowan had never been to Secaucus before.
“I didn’t finish last and I didn’t tip over,” said Justine Napierski, 39, from Secaucus. It was Napierski’s first time in a kayak.
Toyota presented the event in partnership with Keen Footwear. Toyota donated $250,000 toward the national SPLASH event series.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.
A future for swimming?
Can you swim in the Hackensack River?
“One of the reasons we are here today is to help push the state to finish the cleanup,” said Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan at an event on Saturday. “We still got a ways to go before people can jump in [the river].”
Sheehan said the river is a secondary contact waterway that is okay for boating, not a primary contact waterway that would be okay for swimming.
He said the Riverkeeper is suing the Department of Environmental Protection to get cities like Jersey City and Bayonne, which still have combined raw sewage systems, to stop dumping overflow sewage in the river during heavy rains.