SECAUCUS, N.J. --  On May 30 and 31, Hackensack Riverkeeper did something that helped bring northern New Jersey a little closer to normal: the environmental group reopened its Paddling Center at Laurel Hill Park for the 2020 season. Fourteen paddlers took advantage of the perfect weather conditions — plus newly established health and safety protocols — to take to the river for a mix of exploration and upper-body workouts. Located on the river in Secaucus, NJ the popular Hudson County park is a quiet oasis that attracts people looking to paddle, fish, or simply walk alongside the water. The Center was the first active recreation amenity to reopen there since the pandemic began. 

“We certainly had great weather for our reopening,” said Assistant Center Manager Greg Buccino. “Surprisingly, all our paddlers were new to the river and to Hackensack Riverkeeper; but not surprisingly they all had a great time – especially John and Sarah, who were the first.” 

Two months prior to opening, Center Manager Russell Wilke and Program Director Hugh Carola began working out sanitizing and physical distancing protocols, which Wilke finalized on May 26. The procedures – which comport with Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 146 – include sanitizing all equipment (boats, paddles, life vests) after every rental, maintaining six-foot distancing at all times, and regular sanitizing of frequently touched surfaces including the portable restroom. In addition, Center staff – all of whom are seasonal employees of Hackensack Riverkeeper – are required to wear facemasks and gloves while assisting paddlers. 

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“I'm so proud of all the work our dedicated staff did to get Laurel Hill up and running this weekend,” said Wilke. “We’re always happy to give people this opportunity to get back out into the Great Outdoors – and we look forward to the next phases of our reopening.” 

Hackensack Riverkeeper’s Paddling Center at Laurel Hill Park is open weekends (weather permitting) 9AM to 7PM with last rentals at 3PM. Paddlers can enjoy up to four hours on the water to explore the marshes of the Meadowlands and take in unique views of the Manhattan and Newark skylines. The organization is also restarting its popular guided events, including a pair of Moonlight Paddles on Thursday and Friday, June 4-5, each beginning at 8PM; and two high tide explorations at 9AM and 11AM on Sunday, June 7. Complete information, including costs, age restrictions, etc. is available at www.hackensackriverkeeper.org

Originally opened in 1999, just two years after Captain Bill Sheehan founded Hackensack Riverkeeper, the center was — and remains to this day — the only kayak and canoe livery located directly on the Hackensack River. 

The organization also operates the Overpeck Park Kayak Center, located on Overpeck Lake in Teaneck, NJ. However, due to the very large number of people who visit that popular park, the Bergen County Parks Department has not yet allowed the center or any other park amenities to reopen. Once the green light is given however, Wilke and Buccino are confident they can open up the center within a day since all of its equipment has been pre-sanitized, signage is ready and like at Laurel Hill, the protocols are set. 

“I really have to hand it Russ for taking the initiative and making sure we were good to go at Laurel Hill and are ready to go at Overpeck,” said Captain Sheehan. “I’ve always believed that having the best people in the right jobs makes everyone’s work easier — especially now that we’re contending not only with COVID-19 but the aftermath of a fire, too.” 

On May 16, a four-alarm fire tore through a building directly adjacent to Riverkeeper’s offices at 231 Main Street in Hackensack. Thanks to the Hackensack Fire Department and fire companies from Teaneck, Ridgefield Park and Maywood, NJ, their building was saved but suffered major water damage. Most of its contents were destroyed, including over two decades’ worth of history. A GoFundMe page has been established to help supplement the organization's insurance coverage.

Despite their headquarters building being an uninhabitable empty shell, the work of Hackensack Riverkeeper continues. In addition to the Paddling Center reopening, Captains Sheehan and Carola are restarting the organization’s Eco-Cruise program on a very limited basis, beginning Saturday, June 6 and Outreach Coordinator Samantha Kreisler is currently working with corporate partners to jumpstart the 2020 River Cleanup program as soon as is practicable. 

“A major part of our work is — and always has been — reconnecting people with their Hackensack River,” said Sheehan. “Come hell or high water; pandemic or fire, it’s what we do and what we’ll always do.”