But when I arrive at the canal on Second Street, it doesn't look so bad. Budding shrubs and leafy trees fill the banks, and the dock is covered in algae. But with the plastic water bottles, Twix wrappers, empty Fritos bags, and the occasional condom floating on the surface, it's not like I'm about to drink it.
Much of the contamination is residual from when the canal was a transportation hub and the now-defunct chemical plants on its banks dumped pollutants straight into the water. But still to this day, when the sewer system can't handle a big rainfall, the canal takes in the overflow.
"We don't exactly know what's in there," says Ray Howell, one of the founders of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, as we look out across the grey water.
The volunteer organization provides public waterfront access and educational activities to transform the canal into "a self-sustaining, environmentally friendly and healthy waterfront." Thursdays and Saturdays are Estuary Stewardship Days, the Dredgers' most popular event, when, in exchange for picking up a few pieces of trash along the banks, anyone who wants can canoe for free.
The canoe trips started ten years ago with just two boats. After Howell moved to Carroll Gardens from Manhattan, he met Owen Foote, who at the time was giving powerboat tours of the infamously polluted Gowanus. Along with two others, they founded the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club.
For a couple hundred dollars, Howell says, the founders bought two canoes and a few paddles and started sending curious neighbors out to explore. Two years ago, the Dredgers made a deal with Toll Brothers, the development company that plans to bring new residential buildings to the area, for enough land to build a small dock and park a trailer on the bank for storage.
Today, they send as many as six canoes on the canal at once and accommodate around 30 paddlers per event. About 1,000 visitors canoe each season, which runs March to November.
Howell moves toward the water as a canoe slowly drifts up to the dock.
"I'd like the water to be clearer," says Mike Weiss, 46, a journalist from Astoria. But the water quality didn't keep him from enjoying the trip. "The experience is like walking down the middle of a busy Manhattan street in a snowstorm." Still, Weiss says, "I'd like to see more living things. Like how the pond in Central Park is full of turtles."
Apparently, the cloudy day is to blame for the lack of living things. Howell attests to the return of much wildlife-on sunny days, fish are jumping, blue crabs are scuttling, and even an egret or two can be seen prowling for food.
Another canoe returns to the dock, and I step in, repeating to myself the "don't fall in" mantra. Once seated in the front of the canoe, I set off toward the bay. A barge heaped with gravel sways with the current next to a cement plant. Next to two enormous fuel tanks, a construction truck piles scrap metal. Sporadic commercial areas, like the surroundings of a Lowe's Home Improvement, are neatly landscaped, but most of the undeveloped land is a final resting place for discarded milk crates, baby carriages, file cabinets, and tires. The film of oil on top of the water is so thick in some places it looks solid.
Back on the dock, Rebecca Schoenberg-Jones, a statistician for the Department of Education, is returning her paddle to the storage trailer. The 26-year-old hails from Alphabet City, but says it is impossible to miss the sense of community the canal fosters among locals.
"Tons of people waved to us when we went under the bridges," she said. "There were even some people having a barbeque who told us to come join them!"
Many of these people support the Superfund designation, Howell says, because most are opposed to the new development included in the city's plan. The city, on the other hand, opposes the federal designation because of current restoration projects and residential development plans that should create new jobs. To complicate matters, the state nominated the canal for the Superfund listing, thinking the pollution was too much for the city to handle without federal aid.
The Dredgers remain neutral in political matters, but speaking personally, Howell says he feels that "unless you get federal money in one form or another, it won't get cleaned up."
"We give people the ability to get on the water in the middle of New York City," Howell said, switching gears from politics back to the future of the canal. "When you're here, you almost can't believe where you are. I want whatever can clean it up."
Photos by Emily Frantzen