Sheehan, Hackensack's riverkeeper, hopes the launch sites are repaired before the beginning of the Meadowlands boating and fishing season on May 1.
"It's supposed to be available for public use 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year," said Sheehan, referring to the Laurel Hill site. "It's a free public ramp that was paid for by the state to provide public access to the water."
While the Laurel Hill ramp is intact, the dock has been destroyed, making launching boats unsafe, according the Sheehan.
Hackensack Riverkeeper, a local environmental conservation organization, uses the Laurel Hill dock for its eco-cruise program, pontoon boat tours of the Meadowlands area on the Hackensack River and several creeks. They also provide canoe and kayak rentals and tours of the river.
A rough winter
"It's been a rough winter," said Sheehan. "These facilities are out of their elements."
The river froze over this winter for the first time in several winters. When the river freezes, Sheehan explained, ice forms around the legs of the docks, grabbing hold. When the tide changes, the ice moves and pulls the dock apart.
"It literally can grind the wood to splinters," said Sheehan. "It can even pull out the nuts and bolts that hold everything together. It's not a pretty site. Pieces of the dock start falling off, and before you know it, you have a complete breakdown of the system."
In the past, the river would freeze more regularly.
In the 1930s, the Hackensack Water Company (now United Water) built a dam and reservoir at Oradell, changing the Hackensack River from freshwater to10 percent brackish, or a mix of salt water and fresh water. Since salt water has a lower freezing point than fresh water, the river stopped icing over every winter as it once had.
"That changed the makeup of the river," said Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell. "It used to freeze and people would ice skate and drive cars over the river."
A power plant in Ridgefield Park uses the river for cooling, but its output is not as hot as it was in the past due to environmental regulations.
The combination of the severe winter, the power plant and the change in salinity caused the change in winter conditions, according to Elwell.
Meanwhile, at the Red Roof . . .
The Red Roof Inn has a wooden dock which floats directly on the water, held in place by stabilizing poles. When the tide came in, ice would form under the dock, leaving it suspended as much as five feet in the air when the water receded.
"Eventually, the wood wouldn't hold the weight and the clamps would crack," said General Manager Jim Mastrangelo.
Ice between the dock and the shore pushed the dock out four feet further from the shore line than usual. Twelve out of 16 finger locks snapped, and some of the stabilizing poles were pulled as much as five feet out of the mud.
"Before the ice melted, we had to tie the dock down so it wouldn't float away because all the clamps broke," Mastrangelo said.
Mastrangelo said repairs could cost up to $24,000. He hopes to see the dock repaired before boating season starts. "Right now I'm at [the contractor's] mercy," he said. "It's not every day you have to go out and get a dock repaired.
The Red Roof Inn was required to build a dock to satisfy a zoning requirement which mandates hotels on the Hackensack River provide public access.
Other damage limited
According to Public Works Director Mike Gonnelli, the rest of the town escaped the winter with relatively little damage.
"We're in pretty good shape," said Gonnelli. "The weather over the last few weeks let us get a jump on any cleanups."
The dock at Laurel Hill needed repairs twice before. The hinges were replaced before Riverfest last June, and the dock was repaired again in the fall.
The town was able to use an in-house wielder and fabricator to make the repairs.
Gonnelli will look at the dock later this week with Ken Jennings, assistant director of the Parks Department, to see what kind of repairs need to or can be done.
Elwell suggested that the county should consider removing the docks for the winter season when the river starts to freeze, because it would not be navigable.
"It's an expensive proposition to repair those aluminum docks, they're not cheap," said Elwell. "The river doesn't freeze immediately. It takes three to four days of cold weather for the river to freeze."