By Emily J. Weitz
It was a misty morning when a committed group of about forty paddlers gathered at Havens Beach on Saturday in support of the efforts of Kevin McAllister, the Peconic Baykeeper. The event, the First Annual Paddle for the Bays, was organized to spread the mission of the Baykeeper.
“We’re part of the Waterkeeper Alliance,” explained McAllister as he dragged his kayak towards the water. “Our organization was formed in 1997 to protect and restore our bays. We are focused on clean water, and we rely on our citizen enforcer components.”
I looked around at the small army of citizen enforcers, ranging from strapping young surfers with tattooed arms to women in their 60s slathering sunscreen across their faces. It wasn’t a brigade I would want to mess with.
The Paddle was designed as a casual way to familiarize people with the beautiful waters. We pushed off a little after 9 a.m., cutting through the rippling bay in the direction of Little Northwest Creek. I was on a Stand Up Paddle (SUP) board lent to me by Larz of Main Beach Surf and Sport, who supports McAllister in any way he can. He, too, was on a SUP Board, and he looked back over his shoulder at me.
“You doin’ okay?” he asked. I nodded.
“I love this,” I said, drinking in the serene scene of dozens of water-lovers collectively drifting out to sea.
Getting up onto a SUP board is like claiming something back. There’s a sense of power, maybe because you’re nearly walking on water or maybe because you’ve stepped onto your own self-propelled craft. Whatever it is, once you’re up on a SUP board you feel aligned with nature.
We paddled through the rippling waters as the fog slowly began to lift. As we each navigated our own little Zen vessels, I realized what a brilliant idea it was. Who better to protect these waters than those who fall in love with them? And how better to fall in love than like this, on a lazy morning in May, in a casual regatta of kayaks, canoes, surfboards, and Stand Up Paddle boards, stroking towards the marshy wetlands.
McAllister wanted everyone to just enjoy, but he laced in his wisdom and some harsh realities along the way.
“It was only a few years ago (in 2004),” he explained, “that we advanced a No-Discharge Zone here at Havens.”
That means that prior to that, the hundreds of boats that anchored there in the summers could just dump their waste (including human excrement) right into the waters.
“And there’s still a ditch here that discharges storm water filled with lawn fertilizers and pesticides into this water,” McAllister added. “As a credit to Sag Harbor, they have committed to make changes to the ditch to filter storm water.”
I looked back at the swing sets and slides at Havens, recalling a recent moment when my two-year-old dashed without a care towards the gentle sea. Human excrement? Pesticides? I was convinced: The citizen enforcers were indispensable.
“The thing is,” McAllister said as he guided his kayak through the water, “we should not take these waters for granted relative to water quality. People think water quality is an up-island problem, but it’s not true. There were shellfish closures in Shinnecock Bay three or four weeks ago because of toxic red tide.”
And if that’s still far enough west to push it out of your realm of consideration, consider this: Last year, bacteria in Northwest Creek in Sag Harbor was discovered to consist of 67% human source.
“Our water is polluted by too much nitrogen,” says McAllister, “which comes from cesspools.” The hope comes from the fact that advocacy efforts are starting to pay off. Sag Harbor has committed to cleaning up the water quality at Havens Beach. But that’s exactly why McAllister adds, “If you’re about this beach, you’ve got to show up at the town meetings.”
I looked out at the group, everyone going at their own pace, having their own experience, connecting with nature in their own way. A young guy in a wetsuit lay across his surf board, the smooth strokes of his arms propelling him. A pair in a two-person kayak shrank to a dot in the distance, their power pulling them ahead. An older man in a canoe sat back, just taking it all in. I wondered who of us would show up.
I broke off from the group to make my return voyage alone. Alongside the desolate beach I traveled, dipping the paddle in the cool water in long, slow strokes. The trees jutted out of the sandy cliffs, the sound of birds skipped across the water, and I, in my soundless vessel, felt like a part of something bigger. And that’s what McAllister wanted for us. The hope is that if we love it, and we teach our children to love it, then maybe we’ll show up to save it.