Reflections from a Guided Nature Hike


Written by Jessa Orluk, Seasonal Programming Associate

One sunny Sunday morning, my co-worker and I led a guided nature hike at Freshkills Park. We met at Schmul Park, an open section of the Freshkills Park project. As we waited for others to join us, we watched kids climbing up and down the slide and their parents sit in the shade. A few kids ran through the sprinklers. It looked like one of the park renderings had come to life.

None of our attendees had been to the Park before. When I brought out the activity waivers all visitors must sign, they looked skeptical. “For a nature walk? Does this mean it’s not safe?” Understandably, we get this question a lot. A lot of people’s first reaction is, “This can’t possibly be safe.” It seems impossible to take hundreds of thousands of pounds of garbage and turn it into a park, but the site’s environmental engineering, monitoring, and design make it very safe to visit.

At Schmul, we showed our participants how the playground was designed with the environment in mind. Native grass mix was planted on the Parks’ borders. The walkways and playground were made from permeable materials that reduce run-off. Behind the basketball courts, we peeked through the fence at the baseball fields being constructed.

After piling into the van, we drove inside the closed section of Freshkills Park. By entering near West Mound—the last part of the Park to be capped—we were able to begin a discussion on how elements of landfill infrastructure are used as building blocks for restored ecosystems. “I can’t believe how complex this is,” one person said, “You look at it and it’s just land; you don’t realize how much thought goes into the thing.”

As we drove to the trail, we looked for wildlife. The osprey nests were empty—by late August the chicks have fledged. A turkey vulture spread its wings on top of a telephone pole, trying to cool off in the mid-morning heat. Geese napped in the established retaining ponds filled with rainwater. A beaver scuttled across the road, narrowly missing our van. Herons and egrets stood tall along the muddy shores of Main Creek. The residents of Freshkills Park were enjoying their Sunday.

Once we started to hike, our trail led us along the water. A patch of butterfly weed was living up to its name. Dozens of yellow and white butterflies hovered nearby. To our left, we heard a loud rustle. We turned just in time to see two fluffy white deer tails bob up and down in the late summer phragmites, now several feet tall.

“I can’t believe how quiet it is. It’s like you’re not in the middle of everything,” a guest noted. We continued walking, noting any birds, bugs or mammals that came across our path. Mostly, we were enjoying the nature that’s hard to find in the New York Metro area.

There’s a moment on each tour when everyone realizes how big the Park is, how nature is slowly reclaiming this space—and then they remember this is still in New York City. This moment is one of the best parts of my job.

We ended the tour by driving to the top of North Mound where the landscape of Staten Island, lower Manhattan and New Jersey can all be seen. Our visitors took in the view, “I’m so glad this is going to be a park,” they agreed. “I can’t imagine this being anything else.”

To learn about upcoming opportunities to visit closed sections of the park, see the Calendar.

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