Did you know that you can camp and kayak at a National Park site in New York City? We spent a few days at Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn doing just that. Gateway, however, is not at all what you might expect as an outdoor recreation destination.
Because no one else had campground reservations, the friendly and helpful ranger who checked us in right before the Visitor Center closed said we could have our pick of the sites. At first it was a little unsettling pitching our tent — in a patch of woods near abandoned runways and hangars on the grounds of an old airfield in Jamaica Bay — with no one around except a few fishermen out in the bay and helicopters flying overhead. Off in the distance we could see the Manhattan skyline through a slight haze, and even closer to us, planes took off and landed at nearby JFK Airport. At night we could hear thumping music, fireworks and cheering floating over from what turned out to be the Universoul Circus held on the park grounds. Yet we knew were out in nature because when the circus sounds died down we heard a creature outside the tent, moving about on the tarp and sniffing at the tent walls.
In the morning we returned to the Visitor Center to find out just what kind of place we had booked ourselves into. Another very informative ranger gave us an enlightening history lesson on Floyd Bennett Field. The airfield opened in 1931 as New York City’s first municipal airport, with several hangars, a beautiful Art Deco terminal building decorated with murals by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and an underground tunnel to whisk passengers to their airplanes unmolested by paparazzi or bad weather.
Unfortunately, the airport never broke even, so in 1942 the city sold it to the U.S. Navy to use as an air station. Also unfortunately, for art lovers anyway, the Navy removed the murals — deeming Rivera too left-wing to have his work displayed in a Department of Defense facility — and they’re now lost to history except for Rivera’s studies that are on display in the Visitor Center.
Regardless, Floyd Bennett Field remained in operation until 1972 when New York Congressman William Fitz Ryan pushed to transfer the property to the Park Service to provide recreational opportunities for city dwellers. Along with Golden Gate Park on the other side of the country in San Francisco, Gateway became one of the two first national recreation areas in the park system. This park definitely has a more urban feel to it when you see weeds growing in the cracks of the old tarmac.
Despite the abandoned feeling the park conveys today, ample opportunities for recreation do exist in the form of archery, fishing and kayaking. In the afternoon we drove to the kayak launch that sits at the end of one runway still in use by members of a remote-controlled aircraft club. We put in and paddled across Mill Basin Inlet but kept our distance from the shore at Bergen Beach because it was low tide. We thought about paddling out to one of the islands in Jamaica Bay, but the wind began to pick up and I doubted the wisdom of continuing across more open water, so we paddled around in the inlet, watching the fish jump in the water and the remote-controlled airplanes zipping about overhead.
On our second evening in the campsite we spotted a few raccoons, including one poor unfortunate soul who had gotten himself trapped in the dumpster by the bathroom. He looked up at us from his work on an old slice of pizza and cast us a wary gaze. We knew he wasn’t the one who came sniffing around our tent once again in the night, because we found him sleeping in the dumpster the next morning. He hadn’t finished his piece of pizza.
We drove to the other side of the bay to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, also part of Gateway. We had a few hours to kill before checking in to our hotel for a several-day exploration of Manhattan. At this birding hotspot we saw an array of shorebirds wading in the bay’s mudflats, and both of the main trails had nest boxes for tree swallows that fluttered out into the bay to bring back insects for their chicks.
When the ranger said we could participate in the park’s Earth Day celebration by volunteering to pick up trash on our walk, we delightedly took him up on it. Several other volunteers had picked up trash as well so we only filled our bags about a third full, but it felt good to be out doing something good for the planet for a few hours on Earth Day. We also enjoyed one last bit of nature before diving into the hustle and bustle of New York City. That post is coming up next.