When Secaucus' own Bill Sheehan casts his pontoon boat away from a small dock on the fringe of Meadowlands Parkway, all that can be heard is water smoothly slicing off the bow.
His voice breaks the nautical calm.
"When people get on this boat, they all invariably say the same thing," he said. "Wow, we didn't know this was here."
New Jersey's 172 miles of oceanfront coastline is famous. Secaucus' 23 miles of Hackensack River shoreline is not. But day after day, Sheehan works to change that, transforming ignorance into wonder one boat trip at a time.
A life on the river
Sheehan is, in his own words, "A Hudson County boy", raised in Union City and Secaucus. He remembers a time when civilization stopped suddenly on a block in Secaucus and nature took over.
"I would visit my friends who lived on 9th Street and as soon as we went through the shrubs we would be out on the river," he said. "For us, it was paradise."
While Sheehan was growing up in the 1960's and 1970's, the river almost became paradise lost as the effects of heavy pollution began to take its toll. Sheehan began to feel a calling to do something to help the river that he loved as a boy.
"I was a fisherman with an attitude," he said. "The water from the Hackensack River provides the drinking water for about 750,000 people. Everybody is eastern Bergen County and northern Hudson County who turns on the faucet to wash their face or drink their coffee is making a very direct connection to the Hackensack River and most of them don't even realize it. I grew to realize it, and eventually I wanted to do something to help the river out."
After learning about other similar ecological organizations throughout the country, Sheehan founded the Hackensack Riverkeeper environmental advocacy group in 1997. He now serves as the group's executive director. Although his conservationist activities often lead to him interacting with developers, politicians and state government officials in order to promote the cause of keeping the Hackensack as clean as possible, Sheehan is as his best when he directs what he calls "eco-cruises" for the public on the river. It is on the river that Sheehan can demonstrate the greatest reason for preserving the Hackensack: the Hackensack itself.
Conservation in context
Moving slowly down the river from the docks at Laurel Hill County Park to the Mill Creek Marsh and back, Sheehan paints a picture for a group of ten on the boat about the unique landscape that the Hackensack flows through.
"You have this large expanse of wetlands here with night herons, egrets and other birds flying around that gives way to the Hudson County urban landscape on the hillsides," he said.
What follows is a stream of consciousness discussion while sailing upstream on the river, a discussion that touches on the geologic formation of the river, the ways of the original Lenni Lenape inhabitants, the arrival of the Dutch and the English, the rise of industrial America and its ruination of the river, the construction of the New Jersey Turnpike, the death of Secaucus' pig farms, and the recent attempts to environmentally redeem the river. It is a journey that is as varied at the bends in the river and just as complex. The conditions of the wetlands now, are in Sheehan's words, "good and getting better. The river and the surrounding area is now home to 265 species of birds and over 65 different types of marine life. Many people come up to me now and tell me how much better the river looks. Perception has changed. People are starting to realize that the river is a resource to enjoy."
Reveling in a river resource
The view of the river was also changing among the people who were on the eco-cruise with Sheehan.
Christine de Vries came on the boat for a simple reason.
"The river is beautiful and I wanted to see it from on the water," she said. "I now have a real appreciation for how alive the river is. We all drive by on the Turnpike so fast and we don't take the time to realize that there is something so beautiful here. I used to live in Colorado for a long time, but the rivers in New Jersey are magnificent and are worth being brought back from pollution. This is also a recreational resource. You don't have to go so far to find a place to relax and see some beautiful wildlife."
The wildlife definitely enthralled Kurt Petric, 9, from Mahwah.
"I liked seeing all the crabs," he said. "They're cool."
His grandparents Rado and Jeanine Petric were happy to take him out on the river.
"My grandson loves gardening and nature, and coming here today gives him an even bigger outlook," Rado Petric said.
His wife Jeanine agreed. ""It's important for kids to be aware of the environment and then to help."
As for Sheehan, he has no plans to stop leading eco-cruises on the river.
"I've got a lifetime of work left to do here," he said. "I just want to keep trying to help the river and get the message out about what a special place it is. I look for excuses to do this. Needless to say, I love my job."