Monday, May 8, 2017

NYC and Jamaica Bay

The next day in Brooklyn arrived cool and overcast, and instead of hopping on the subway to go east into Manhattan, we elected to go west, to Jamaica Bay. After our two days in Manhattan and trip on the Staten Island Ferry, these would be the third and fourth boroughs explored on our trip, as Jamaica bay is split in half between Brooklyn and Queens. Our destination was Gateway National Recreation Area, a 26,000 acre national park that includes the Sandy Hook Unit in New Jersey, the Staten Island Unit (Great Kills Park, Miller Field and Fort Wadsworth), and the Jamaica Bay Unit. My advice is to concentrate on one of the three units in a day, as even travel from one end of Jamaica Bay to the other can take an hour.

Our first stop was Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport used by famous aviators in their quest to break records in the early days of aviation. At one point Floyd Bennett was one of the country’s most important naval air stations. We stopped by the visitor center for maps, junior ranger workbooks and itinerary suggestions, and checked out the exhibits before continuing on. Activities at Floyd Bennett field include biking, birding, camping, hiking, fishing, kayaking and picnicking, and it is an interesting stop for those interested in aircraft restoration and military history.

Continuing south on Flatbush Avenue will take you to across a toll bridge to Jacob Riis Park, Fort Tilden and Breezy Point. Jacob Riis Park was created in the early 1900s as a seaside recreation area, and today features basketball, biking, golf, volleyball and swimming during the summer months. Fort Tilden leans more heavily on the historic, as it had the important role of protecting the NY Harbor in the time period from WWI through the Vietnam War. With rain in the forecast we chose to skip this end of Gateway, instead returning to the Belt Parkway, and circling the bay to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, the only National Wildlife Refuge managed by the National Park Service (and not the Fish & Wildlife Service).

On our way to the Refuge we passed Canarsie Pier, reputed to have some of the best fishing on the bay, and then turned south on Cross Bay Boulevard. After cutting through Howard Beach and passing Frank Charles Memorial Park, the bridge crosses onto Broad Channel Island, and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge occupies the northern half of the island.

One of the largest bird sanctuaries in the northeastern US, over 330 species of birds pass through the area in migration along the Atlantic Flyway. Bats, butterflies and fish also stream through the Refuge in their migration up and down the coast, and in the fall, thousands of hawks migrate south along the dunes. In spring, horseshoe crabs return to the park’s shallow bays, and several pairs of osprey nest in what is for them a fertile hunting ground. The unique ecosystem includes grasslands, wetlands and dunes, and hosts a myriad of plants that vary from holly and oak, to wildflowers, to prickly pear cactus. While there are multiple trails that cover the area, it is prudent to start your visit at the Visitor Center where you will learn which trails are currently open and seasonally most interesting. (See trail map here)

As it was lunchtime upon our arrival we settled in at one of the picnic tables near the parking lot to fuel up before venturing out on the trail. The boys were delighted by a visit from a park ranger with a diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), a turtle species native to coastal tidal marshes in the eastern and southern US. The terrapin had managed to gain entrance to the refuge office, and was being relocated back to the marsh. The diamondback’s population in Jamaica Bay has declined by more than half in the last decade, and as the terrapin plays a crucial role in the ecosystem’s health and resiliency, research is underway to determine the root cause of this decline – which up until now is a mystery.

photo credit: Anna

no terrapins harmed in the making of this photo (photo credit: Anna)

Just as we were finishing up our lunch it began to rain, and even with our rain gear on we decided to spend some time in the Visitor Center to see if it would let up before starting a hike. The timing couldn’t have worked out any better, and just as we had finished viewing the educational exhibits and movie (and stamping our Park Passports) it stopped raining and we could head out on the trails.

In 2012 Hurricane Sandy breached the south shore of West Bay, introducing saltwater to what was a freshwater marsh, and destroying a portion of the West Pond Trail. While it currently is not possible to walk the entire way around West Bay (as the trail is closed past North Garden and Black Bank), the short walk to view the osprey platform was perfect to get a feel for the dune and marsh ecosystems. We admired the osprey, explored the South Garden, and returned to the Visitor Center with completed Junior Ranger booklets.

As the boys were still craving access to the water, we made one last stop in the Refuge, just short of Joseph P. Addabbo Bridge. The fishing area on the north end of the island has a gazebo and two parking lots, and seemed a rather popular spot with the locals. It wasn’t until we had ventured out across the sand to the water a short ways that we noticed all the strange items that had washed up on shore, and realized that it might not just be the fishing and birdwatching bringing New Yorkers to this point. Religious icons, small bowls and other offerings littered the sand, providing a treasure hunt for the boys but giving us an uneasy feeling about what truly goes on in this seemingly remote location. Across the bay are what were formerly the Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue landfills – today an example of restoration creating a multitude of recreation opportunities for the local community. However it seems that the dumping has just shifted to this side of the bay, and after letting the boys have some fun in the surf we scrubbed their hands, changed their clothes, and herded them to the car for the return trip home… for a bath!

Our visit just scratched the surface of Gateway NRA, the Staten Island and Sandy Hook Units left unexplored. However, with its proximity to the city and unique dune and marsh habitats, the Jamaica Bay unit made for a great day trip. The trip was a breath of fresh air – just a short distance from the popular Brighton and Manhattan Beach areas, as well as Coney Island.  Our boys had a chance to splash around a bit, while we also got our fix of nature and saw what the area might have looked like 500 years ago before the Dutch first lay claim to the land. We returned to the Belt Parkway and spent some time fighting traffic back towards Upper Bay, but the memories from our day in the Gateway of America have stayed with us even after our visits to far more famous spots in New York City…

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