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July 5, 2010


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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July 5, 2010

The Creek At The Mouth Of The Normanskill

Navigating part of the waterway that separates the
South End from the suburbs

The Normanskill demands respect. Serious whitewater rafters consider the kill a good short trip full of thrills. Every so often some fool full of alcohol tries to run the spring rapids with an air mattress and pays the consequences. Now and then the high steep banks of the kill slide down, taking poorly planned roadways and structures down into the ravine.

That’s why The Wife and I have not explored the Normanskill with our personal water craft, me in my kayak and she in her canoe. Neither of us are into courting danger and seeking death defying thrills. You won’t catch either of us climbing sheer cliffs or bungee jumping, we prefer to paddle quietly down lazy rivers.

It was during a paddle down the Hudson River one recent Sunday morning that we discovered the mouth of the Normanskill. It looked peaceful so we decided to explore.

Island Creek Park Early Morning After A Shower
Island Creek Park Early Morning After A Shower

We shoved off from the mud flats just past high tide after a light rain at Island Creek Park, the very popular picnicking spot where the South End meets the Hudson. (For those who don’t know, the Hudson has tides.) It is also a popular place to fish, but you definitely don’t want to eat anything you catch. This being the South End the park tends to be neglected by the City government despite heavy use.

I’d always wondered, why the name Island Creek for the little park? No streams or rivulets run through the park, and the terrain does not suggest that a stream once did. Well, on this trip we paddled along the length of the Port of Albany, which will be the subject of a future post. And we discovered Island Creek, or rather what’s left of it.

The  Normanskill At The Left Of The BoatyardIsland Creek Park Early Morning After A Shower
The Normanskill At The Left Of The Boatyard

This far southern end of the Port is technically part of the suburban town of Bethlehem, the only part of the Port that is not inside of the City of Albany. Thus the actual mouth of the kill that empties into the Hudson is not part of the South End. But a little ways upstream we were skirting along the border of the City through the forest primeval.

The Wife Navigates The Forest PrimevalThe  Normanskill At The Left Of The BoatyardIsland Creek Park Early Morning After A Shower
The Wife Navigates The Forest Primeval

A little ways up the waterway around the first ninety degree bend we found this, uh, bridge. I suddenly felt like we were going up river to find Mr. Kurtz. I half expected to see a phantom jet drop napalm on the jungle while hearing Robby Krieger’s psychedelic style guitar picking. But I reassured myself that Mr. Kurtz is indeed dead, I have that on good authority. We proceeded forward into the heart of darkness.

At first I thought this thing might be part of the celebrated rail trail, but we were not far enough inland from the Hudson. No train or sober pedestrian would dare try to cross on that. As far as I could tell the um, bridge did not connect any sort of road or path.

It appears to be parts of some railroad bridges that were hauled over here and propped up on a pile of sticks and crap. The Wife hesitated to paddle under it, I can’t say I blame her. Take a look at this mess:


We pushed forward around the bend and the kill became wide and shallow. Reassuring signs of civilization popped up through the trees, dispelling the illusion that we were paddling up either the Mekong or the Congo. Along here the kill is a narrow greenway corridor that apparently has not been worthwhile to “develop.”

Corning Towers Above The Trees Remind Us This Is The South End
Corning Towers Above The Trees Remind Us This Is The South End

We were skirting the backside of the Port of Albany, we could see some of the older rustier oil tanks to our right. We were actually traveling north parallel to the Hudson, much of the Port is sandwiched between the two waterways.

The Port makes a big show of “security” on the front facing the Hudson, but we didn’t see much of that in back along the Normanskill. It reminded me of people who install a steel front door on their house with three locks and an electronic alarm but leave their flimsy back door held with a latch. But really, this is just one more example of how most “security” is little more than theater designed to impress the rubes.

Eventually we came to the next ninety degree bend, this one to our left westward. We thought this next bridge was the rail trail, but the real rail trail bridge is actually much prettier and farther upstream. We were rather alarmed at how the supports underneath were visibly crumbling from the relentless impact of the water.

The True Mouth Of The Normanskill
The True Mouth Of The Normanskill

Eventually I learned that this bridge was part of a now unused rail line built in the 1800s that skirted north along the water’s edge. It terminated in a loop by the old iron works at what is now the north end of the Port.

The Five Islands In 1893
The Five Islands In 1893

The strange pair of right angles in this part of the Normanskill made me wonder as I paddled if this was an artificial channel. Later I went home and stared transfixed into the magic crystal ball on my desk looking for answers. I made contact with a powerful ethereal spirit called Wikipedia that taught me the truth.

It seems that this peaceful waterway with the two odd right angles is not the Normanskill, it’s Island Creek! It turns out that the Port of Albany used to be five separate islands, the largest of which was called, among other names, Westerlo Island. Island Creek was the waterway that separated the five islands from North America.

Around 1929 the five islands were landfilled together and connected to the mainland, and the Port was opened in 1932. The Normanskill emptied into Island Creek opposite Westerlo Island. Thus we passed the true mouth of the Normanskill as we turned the second right angle just before the old rail bridge.

The map at left shows the rail line passing over the true mouth of the Normanskill (center left.) Island Creek continued due north in a more natural manner circumnavigating Westerlo Island. Thus this quiet channel has been modified and cut in half. I’d guess that the only reason they didn’t landfill all of it was out of respect for the Normanskill, which had to go somewhere.

Actually, Island Creek and the landfilled waterways that separated the five islands are all part of the Hudson River. Our northern part of the Hudson historically had lots of similar islands, most have been merged with the mainland but some are still in place. In any case, this quiet sheltered remnant of Island Creek technically can never really be called part of the Normanskill, which is a raging, treacherous kill.

Approaching The Rt. 144 Bridge
Approaching The Rt. 144 Bridge

At last we came to a bridge in use, the Rt. 144 River Road span. The supports for this sucker are on dry land well away from the kill, no pillars in the water crumbling against the flow. From what we could see, this automobile bridge should cause no one to worry.

After the two bridges we approached the first rapids and began to see patches of foam on the water. This is light petroleum (gasoline, etc.) mixed with water. The lighter oil tends to sit near the surface of the water, it only revealed itself here because of the churning action of the rapids.

I’ve observed that motorized water craft often leave trails of oily foam, ski-dos are among the worst offenders. Don’t let anyone tell you that foam is not oil and water, that it’s caused by bacteria or some other nonsense. This is a serious mostly unregulated source of pollution, you need a small human powered craft to see the problem.

BTW, if you study news photos of the effects of the British Petroleum (BP) terrorist attack against the United States in the Gulf of Mexico you will see lots of this foam. And you will notice that no one talks about it, at least not in the corporate media.

Sad to say, oil is not the only pollutant in Island Creek. Check out some of this monitoring data from Riverkeeper:

Monitoring Of Island Creek By Riverkeeper
Monitoring Of Island Creek By Riverkeeper - Click on chart to read

During high summer the Creek is infested with entorococcus, which as far as I understand is the bacteria from inside your large intestine. In other words, human poop dissolved in the water. Raw sewage is being dumped into Island Creek and thus into the Hudson. The sewage is either coming down the Normanskill or it’s surreptitiously being discharged by the Port.

Meanwhile, just north and upstream from Island Creek Park, the giant “Big C Pipe” (from “combined overflow”) is discharging raw sewage originating from Albany Medical Center into the Hudson. The State and the Feds say the water flowing past the park is loaded with E. Coli and something they call “fecal coliform,” that is, poop. Like I said, don’t eat the fish caught at the park. All this discharged waste swirls around by the Port.

A short ways downstream from here the Town of Bethlehem has the intake for their water supply. The other day I foolishly tried to drink a big glass of Bethlehem’s tap water and spit it into the sink. God, it’s awful. I’ll stay here in the City of Albany, thank you, where the water is clean and tastes pretty good.

The First Normanskill Rapids

We halted at the first rapids, no whitewater thrills for me and The Wife. We’re strictly flatwater, portage is too much like work. Besides, once we portaged the rapids we would be certain to find . . . more rapids. And more rapids after that. Time to turn around.

But first, after sitting in our boats all morning and emptying our water bottles, we needed to discharge some waste. Since we are law abiding citizens we were careful to go on the Bethlehem side of the kill because the City of Albany prohibits urination anywhere except in approved containers. Like, if you’re hiking in the Pine Bush you’re supposed hold it in until you get home.

Oh c’mon, our two little Sunday morning piddles are not the point sources of pollution around the Port. The ecosystem is designed to absorb and use the occasional squirt by large mammals passing through. The problem comes from the heavy exploitation of the ecosystem’s cleansing qualities by large combines like the Port or Albany Med, or lord knows what is spewing waste up the Normanskill.

Notice how free citizens are held to a tougher and very unreasonable standard while the big boys are exempt from responsibility. Indeed, we noticed that none of the discharge pipes coming from the Port of Albany along the creek had posted permits as required by State law. But on the very public Hudson side of the Port we saw that all their discharge pipes had proper, readable permits.

The Dutch first established a post to trade with the Indians on Westerlo Island in 1611. Does Island Creek look a little bit today the way the whole area looked to the first European settlers and tradesmen 400 years ago? So much has happened since then it’s hard to know.

We paddled back to Island Creek Park at low tide and had to drag our boats across the mud flats, and once again we wished for a concrete boat ramp. For carry in only, of course. I understand such a thing would cost a fraction of the price of constructing a full boat launch for motorized craft. Such a simple improvement would attract visitors and serve the South End neighbors.

The fishing deck was lined with people minding their poles and lines cast into the water. I know for a fact that not everybody who fishes there tosses their catch back into the Hudson. But what can I say? Not everyone is rich enough to live where the government maintains clean waterways.

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Posted by:Al
Posted on:07/08/2010
Dan, it's not easy to hike the pinebush lately, many of the trails are closed. It seems the overlords of the pinebush have money to waste and are bulldozing big sections of the preserve. I cannot fathom how their bulldozers do not do as much damage to the karner blue habitat as the bulldozers of developers, but I guess that is somehow true.

Posted by:Annon
Posted on:07/08/2010
The oily sheen from jet skis is unburnt or partially burnt hydrocarbons, because they are normally two stroke engines, that have no valves, and use oil mixed in with the fuel to lubricate the engine.

As far as the foam in the water are concerned, they probably are a combination of water churned up and bacterial growth, and actual soap suds. I've seen similar foam in very remote areas, near waterfalls, where there clearly is no known man made cause.

That said, any older homes with septic systems along the stream, probably discharge gray water with minimal treatment. Older pre-1970s septic systems are designed only to treat toilet water, while water from all sinks, tubs, and washing machines are sent out a pipe, legally 100 feet from a water body, and include a dug open-air holding pond or ditch. Supposedly, the suds and bacteria, are supposed to settle out in there or killed by the sunlight, but we know that doesn't happen.

Septic systems also fail after a while, especially if they aren't built right, with adequate gravel and distance from water bodies, and settling ponds aren't cleaned out properly.

The water quality going into the Basic and Alcove Reservoir isn't great.

I know, I was swimming in the Hannacroix Creek last night. It is loaded with soap bubbles, and sometimes gets really bad allege blooms, especially from run-off if they really load up the 100+ acre corn field along it's border upstream with the stuff from the dozens of honey wagons.

The Basic Creek, also has problems, not made better by the farm right upstream from the reservoir where the hillbilly farmer lets his beef cattle drink and defecate right in the water (why fence cows out of water or spend money to pump water out of the stream?).

For a while, the water quality in the Basic Reservoir was so bad that Albany County Health Dept wouldn't let the City pump water into Alcove Reservoir on low water days. The Alcove Reservoir, based on it's size, is pretty safe, because the sunlight will kill off bacteria, and the volume of water dilutes the pollutants. Yet, I wouldn't drink water out of that reservoir without treatment and filtering for biological agents.

Posted by:Dan Van Riper
Posted on:07/17/2010

Hey "Annon," (wouldja please learn to spell, AA)

...That's exactly what I'm talking about. That foam is identifiable as oil if you know what you're looking at. Many times out in the middle of a big lake in my kayak I've watched motorized boats of every description leave these foam trails in their wakes. Unless the water starts churning from wind or current the oil foam trails ride the surface of the water intact. The trails stay for hours.

Eventually, if there are a lot of motor craft out on the water, the foam will start to merge into big oil slicks. The oil is hard to see if you don't know what to look for. I've taught plenty of people to see the oil slicks, and they all hate me for it. Can't say I blame them.

I first learned to see the oil slicks at Great Sacandaga Lake during a light misty rain. The rain settles on the slicks and turn them a lighter color than the water. The revealed slicks move over the surface of the water independent of the waves and current of the water, a rather unsettling effect.

And on some more popular boating lakes the oil slicks hit shore and turn to foam again, which I've seen pile up at water's edge as a ridge as much as a foot high. Monday morning after a sunny summer weekend is a good time to see this phenomena.

I know what soap looks like in the water, it tends to dissolve more readily and doesn't last long because, as you pointed out, the algae eats it pretty quick. Nothing appears to eat the oil foam, except, interestingly, ducks. I've watched them occasionally scoop up a bit of the foam piled on the water's edge. I suppose that's because ducks are oily creatures and attracted to it, but would you eat a duck that's been eating petroleum?

Posted by:Grace Nichols
Posted on:08/01/2010
This is a great article. I didn't know about the Albany Med Waste policy...ewwwwww.

Now can Riverkeeper come test the Reservoir even though the water doesn't flow downhill? That is the question. You know, they might!

Posted by:Steve
Posted on:03/13/2015
If you ever canoe up the Normanskill again, I'd like to see pictures above the first rapids.

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