When the boat launch was first installed at its current location in Laurel Hill Park, the park didn’t yet exist.
It was still something on the drawing board, waiting to happen. The boat launch in Secaucus was a dream of then-Mayor Anthony Just, who wanted what he called “a poor man’s boat launch.”
Access to the Hackensack River can be expensive. There are a few free launching areas, but most places charge people to put their boat in and take their boat out.
“This is still one of the few places people can launch a boat for free,” said Gregg Bucino, one of the staff of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, Inc., a Hackensack-based environmental group that rents canoes and kayaks to adults so they can explore the nearby estuary.
The 80-foot ramp was the result of a combined effort by Hudson County and the Secaucus government and the Meadowlands Commission.
At the time, it was the first and only public boat launch in Hudson County.
The boat launch is located on a 2.5-acre parcel of land located in the center of what later became a 43-acre park, and is a unique funding effort by Hudson County, the Meadowlands Commission, and Green Acres state grants.
The ramp with its string of pilings is equipped with a conduit and utility hook up for area lighting and a public telephone, as well as a wash-out station for boats, tow vehicles, and trailers.
The park eventually featured a waterfront walkway, but for many of those who come here on Sundays, seeing the park and the local environment is much better by water.
A brutal January storm in January 2016 damaged the boat launch and it took $450,000 to restore it. The renovations included boat launch replacement, removal of the damaged dock and piles from the water, and gangway repairs.
A pause for lunch
Sundays are a busy day at the Secaucus boat launch. And July 14 was no exception. Boats, canoes, kayaks, and other water vehicles lined up in the parking lot, waiting their turn to launch.
Mike McGuire of the Hackensack Riverkeeper waited on the dock as two large canoes and their guide boat made their way upriver.
This day was a marathon fundraising event by the Teaneck-based Bergen County Rowing Academy (BCRA), who were trying to pay off a boat they had purchased. The craft was dedicated to a coach who died in a freak accident in New York City in 2017.
Jenny Santos, 29, a Kearny resident, was an assistant coach at the BCRA. She reportedly fell 30 feet to her death from a top-tier escalator after trying to recover her sister’s hat in the World Trade Center transportation hub.
Santos had started rowing when she was a student at Kearny High School and continued the sport in college before she began working as a coach for the academy.
Clemens Reinke, the academy’s head coach, said buying the boat and naming it after her was a way of keeping her memory alive. She was someone who always helped people, he said.
The new “Jenny Santos” arrived on April 22, 2017. But the academy needed to help raising funds to pay it off.
Unlike many of the boaters who use the ramp this Sunday, the academy members did not launch here, nor did they intend to disembark here.
“We’re stopping here for lunch and then continuing on,” Reinke said.
Earlier that morning, the group departed from Nereid Boat Club in Rutherford on the Passaic River and rowed their way downstream through Lyndhurst, Nutley, North Arlington, Belleville, Kearny, Newark, and Harrison, into Newark Bay at the top of Bayonne. At this point, they rowed around Kearny Point and began the arduous task of rowing upstream on the Hackensack River past Jersey City.
“They rowed against a stiff wind,” said McGuire.
In Secaucus at Laurel Hill County Park they took a one-hour lunch break. Then they continued through the Meadowlands past North Bergen, Carlstadt, Moonachie, Little Ferry, Ridgefield Park, and Bogota. Their final destination was Foschini Park in Hackensack, for a total distance is 27 miles (43.5 km).
Busy on Sundays
Peter Wilcox, one the people near the dock, watched the rowers come and go, noting that a cool spring had kept the boat launch relatively quiet. But Sundays have become busier.
Indeed, several boats used the ramp to get into the river, as behind them a convoy of pickup trucks and SUVs carted in a half dozen jet skis to launch.
“We rent kayaks and canoes and provide other services,” said Bucino. “But we only rent to adults here. We have another facility in Overpeck Park in Bergen County that rents to families.”
This part of the Hackensack River is tidal and the water is often turbulent. It also sees dramatic shifts that turns parts of the tour area into mudflats. Most people who rent from the Hackensack Riverkeeper are encouraged to stay in an area between two railroad bridges and to explore various channels through the estuary on the Kearny side of the river.
“We rent the boats for four hours,” said McGuire. “People must be back by 6 p.m.”
There are exceptions when it comes to various tours the Hackensack Riverkeeper puts on, such as the moonlight or sunset tours.
Jody Lynch, a Secaucus resident who lives near the park, said she often doesn’t have a companion to take a kayak ride with.
“I’m here with my son from Indiana,” she said. “He came all the way here to do this with me.”
She said she loves seeing sunset over the meadows.
The Riverkeeper operates the rental seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The rental opens in spring and closes down in late fall
“This year it started off slow,” said McGuire. “It was a cool spring. But it has picked up.”
Although it is a county park, the Riverkeeper people serve a role as advisers and traffic cops in sometimes-busy launch and recovery periods.
“We try to help keep order,” Bucino said, who noted that the boat launch has a number of regulars, such as the man with a large rowboat that comes every Sunday.
“Some people come here a lot,” Bucino said. “We get to recognize their faces, even if we don’t know their names.”
For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org