Gabrielle Bennett-Meany, a Meadowlands Commission outreach project coordinator, is a small, determined-looking woman behind the wheel, steering the light craft across a Hackensack River with waves stirred up by 40 mile-an-hour winds.
Although originally planned as a calm canoe trip to explore the newly developed canoe trail along Mill Creek in Secaucus, the journey is changed by the winds and cold.
As mild a river as the Hackensack usually is at this point, the waves are ferocious. Even in the boat, they sometimes crash over the bow, soaking the passengers.
This is a trip across the river, but also into another world, a place where ordinary landmarks cease to have the same meaning as they do in the more conventional world of highway signs and traffic jams. Although we can still see the arch of the Route 3 bridge and the upper half of the Empire State Building, those landmarks seem out of reach - mere projections on a horizon filled with saw grass and common reed.
We have stepped into a whole new social order, whose citizenship is made up of muskrats and cormorants, striped bass and Great Blue Herons, turtles and blue crabs and homes are mudflats and reed beds, saw grass-covered islands and bird perches.
Although millions of people pass through this world daily over roadways, rail lines and jetliner runway approaches, few actually meet the citizens here or interact in the way many people did in the past.
This is something Bennett-Meany and the Meadowlands Commission are trying to change through a cooperative effort with local municipalities and businesses. This trip is to check out the first of a number of possible canoe trails for people to use to commune with nature. The first new trail, along Mill Creek, will open in the spring.
But the Meadowlands Commission has a larger vision called the Hackensack River Greenway, which will include pedestrian and bicycle paths, canoe launches and marinas, outdoor classrooms, passive park areas for environmental education, and wetland restoration projects.
Can't always go where canoes do
This boat trip to explore the trail cannot access many of the places canoes will be able to reach, partly because the low tide could make some of the backwater places inaccessible but because even at high tide only canoes can float over shallow places.
"During high tide, you can't even see the mud," Bennett-Meany said. "But you can feel it under the boat."
Even our trip up the deeper and wider channels of Mill Creek won't allow the boat to travel to the Mill Creek Mitigation site near the Secaucus Sewerage Treatment facility and the parking lot to the Mill Creek Mall.
"Most people would access the river from the boat ramp at Mill Creek Point," Bennett-Meany said, pointing towards the still-under construction park at the most northwestern section of Secaucus, a site that formerly housed Tony's Old Mill, but has since become a joint effort between the Meadowlands Commission and Town of Secaucus as part of their open space initiative. The shoreline has been reinforced with new walls through which a boat ramp was constructed. This space allows a casual boater to launch his or her boat, and will serve canoers as an access point to the new canoe trail.
Novices can take the wider channels the boat traveled, and can actually follow the twisting route through banks walled with reeds and grass-covered islands to the walking park behind the mall. Mill Creek, one of several tidal creeks that lead into the Hackensack River, was chosen because of the canoe ramp at Mill Creek Point and the added attraction of the Mill Creek Marsh Park walking trail.
"You can pull your canoe up on the bank and actually walk around the trails if you want," she said.
As the boat enters Mill Creek on this windy way, blue and green teal (the Meadowlands' smallest birds) rise in mass from the surface of the water, swirling around in the sky like fast-moving smoke to settle deeper into the meadows. A hawk struggled in the wind, its wide wings dancing along with the heavy gusts like a kite.
Lower along the water, mallards complain at the advance of the boat and begin a slower take off with two huge dinosaur-like great blue herons rising among them.
Bennett-Meany and fellow Meadowlands worker Chris Gale stare up in awe at the flight, each able to identify the birds - although both are delighted by the appearance of three black and white birds they quickly recognized as buffleheads - a regular winter visitor to the Meadowlands.
The channel, even as the cold of winter approaches, is thick with life, fish, fowl and fauna.
"Different species come in different seasons," she said.
But most people traveling more conventional routes through the Meadowlands see very little of these, and mistakenly presume as they ride over local bridges that the Meadowlands are largely devoid of life.
First new trail
Bennett-Meany, with the help of Boy Scout Troop 120 of North Arlington, hopes to have the first new trail up and running by spring, allowing people to access the innermost workings of the Meadowlands, either on their own or along with one of her guided tours. She said less experienced people can follow the main channels, but the narrower, more curious side channels require more experienced canoers.
"A less experienced canoer might not know enough to get out before the tide turns, and get stuck in the mud," she said.
Bennett-Meany, along with the Boy Scouts, intends to mark the channels with signs bearing the silhouette of a canoe, as well as numbers that will correspond to a printed map people can access off the Meadowlands Commission website. This map and brochure will feature attractions of particular points along the trail.
"People may want to come out here on their own, but they don't know where to go because things aren't marked," Bennett-Meany said. "This will help them. People can also start off with one of my guided tours and then go exploring on their own."
The map and markers will inform people about the various off shoots, where deeper channels are. While the main creek is defined well enough, even our boat is forced to turn around at shallow water.
There are, too, historical points of reference, such as the wood tide gates installed originally by the Dutch during the time when they sought to farm the wetlands, using flood control methods developed in the Netherlands. But other hands have played a part in reshaping this part of the world. The gates were reconstructed during various times, to help fight flooding or mosquitoes. Many of the side ditches we pass were part of a futile early 20th century effort to battle mosquitoes.
Other changes have occurred here. The construction of the Oradell Dam up river in the 1930s changed the nature of the water, allowing salt water tides to reach further inland so that Mill Creek has a mixture of salt water and fresh water species of plants and animals.
"Each part of the Meadowlands attracts slightly different varieties because of this," she said, which is why another canoe trail is planned for the southern section of the Meadowlands estuary where canoers can access the river from Secaucus' Laurel Hill Park.
The main part of the network of trails that will open eventually along Mill Creek is a route that is 1.5 miles long, and takes about two hours to travel round trip at a leisurely gait.
Although birds make up the most obvious resident of this world, other creatures stir in the dense undergrowth. Holes in the banks indicate homes of muskrats and turtles, although neither was visible during this trip. A recent study of the fish population also showed significant increases in that regard, providing a significant food source for migrating birds. Since much of the area around Mill Creek was rescued as part of a natural recovery project, many of the plants growing on the islands were designed to provide food for birds as poke weed, smart weed and spike rush.
"They just love spike rush," she said.
The population of birds changes with the season. In spring, summer and fall, egrets are frequent visitors, but most of these have already gone south by this trip, with flocks of excited teal most visible.
"We really want people to come out here and see what this is like," Bennett-Meany said as she steered the boat back towards the main river. "That is why we are doing all this. To get people to come and see it and enjoy it."