Tag Archives: paddling

State Parks Strengthens Niagara River Island Ecosystem

Just upriver in Erie County from Niagara Falls State Park lies New York State’s third largest island. Home to more than 20,000 people and split by Interstate-190, Grand Island is 28 square miles and divides the Niagara River into east and west branches.

Industry and commerce dominated this river and its shoreline for more than a century, leaving a legacy of water pollution, fish unsafe to eat, and loss of wildlife habitat so extreme that in 1987 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the entire 36-mile river an Area of Concern.

That federal listing set the stage for years of remediation efforts by New York State to clean up the river and shoreline. And now, it has led to State Parks, working with several partners, to begin the next chapter in healing the river – the restoration of several wetland areas of habitat along Grand Island critical for many fish and bird species that rely on the river for survival.

Grand Island is in the Niagara River between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

These projects focus on two State Parks on the island – the 895-acre Buckhorn Island State Park on the northern tip, a nature preserve which has some of the island’s best remaining marshland wildlife habitat, and the more-developed, 950-acre Beaver Island State Park on the southern tip.

With funding support from the EPA under a plan finalized in 2018, Parks staff have finished two habitat restoration projects at Grand Island and two more are under way this season.

At Beaver Island in the south, offshore rocky reefs have been added in the river to an area called East River Marsh to protect the shoreline from further erosion caused by boat wakes and wind. Thousands of native plants have been planted by hand to provide important habitat for fish and other wildlife.

In the north, Buckhorn Island has one of the largest remaining cattail marshes on the Niagara River. At a place called Burnt Ship Creek, contractors hired by Parks have created open water channels and “potholes” in the marsh to provide pathways needed for fish such as Northern Pike to feed and spawn. The new open spaces also allow sheltered nesting sites for such secretive marsh birds as the threatened Least Bittern, which prompted the conservation group Ducks Unlimited to partner with State Parks for this restoration project.

Habitat restoration projects on Grand Island by New York State Parks and other entities are shown on this map. Buckhorn Island State Park is at the northern tip of the island, and Beaver Island State Park is at the southern tip.
Completed habitat restoration project at Burnt Ship Creek at the northern tip of Grand island near Buckhorn Island State Park.

This season, parks crews are working at a place called Grass Island, which is not actually an island at all, but rather an area of shallow water filled with cattails and other aquatic plants, both above the water and submerged. Sometimes also called Sunken Island, Grass Island is just east of Buckhorn Island State Park across from the city of Niagara Falls.

In addition to cattails and other plants visible above the water, Grass Island is also made up of many acres of submerged plants, predominantly a species known as water celery or American eel grass. This plant provides food and cover for several types of fish, including the Muskellunge, the state’s largest freshwater sportfish, which spawns among the eel grass each spring. The Upper Niagara River is one of state’s most important habitats for this fish.

Above the water, many species of waterfowl and marsh birds use the island for nesting, feeding and nighttime cover. Pied-billed Grebes, a threatened species in New York, nest and raise chicks there in the summer. During the fall migration of Purple Martins, the birds will roost in the cattails by the thousands.

Grass island, as seen in a drone photograph. On the above map, Grass Island is at the top right of Grand Island.

Together, Grass Island forms a 20-acre ecosystem designated as a protected wetland by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). While Grass Island provides some of the most important habitat in the Niagara River above the falls, this area has been steadily shrinking in recent decades due to wave erosion caused by boat wakes or wind. Between 2007 to 2018, Grass Island shrank by more than a third, losing an estimated 1.5 acres of its above-water vegetation.

Use the slider bar to show the decreasing size of Grass Island. The left image is from September 2018, while the right image was taken in August 2007.

This season at Grass Island, Parks contractors are constructing underwater rock reefs similar to those successfully constructed at East River Marsh. Once the reefs are finished, crews will add submerged tree trunks with the roots still attached (called rootwads) to provide underwater structure needed for good fish habitat. Also, large numbers of native wetland plants will be planted behind the protective rock reefs to expand the area with dense vegetation.

Also this summer, similar rock reefs, rootwads, woody material, and native plantings will be installed along the shoreline at Buckhorn Island State Park to restore and protect coastal wetlands. And finally, another similar project is in the works for the shoreline along the new West River Shoreline Trail at Buckhorn.

These projects join other ongoing conservation efforts at Grand Island being done by DEC, and the Buffalo-Niagara Waterkeeper, a not-for-profit conservation group. Find a FAQ on the projects here.

Buckhorn Island State Park is also a listed Bird Conservation Area, with its marsh providing important nesting habitat for threatened species such as Least Bittern, Northern Harrier and Sedge Wren. The marsh serves as a feeding, resting and breeding area for ducks, coots, moorhens, and rails. Common Tern find suitable habitat for foraging here. Additional birds of interest include a variety of species of ducks, herons, coots, moorhens, and rails. Spring and fall migrations along the Niagara River corridor can bring large numbers of gulls to this site.

Some of the birds of Grand Island known to be in the Bird Conservation Area.

Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter

The Niagara River is well-known as an international destination for its tremendous waterfalls, which form spectacular ice formations during the winter. Perhaps a lesser known fact, however, is that the river is also a critical haven for migrating birds during this time of the year. Gulls, in particular, are a common sight along the Niagara, … Continue reading Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter


Together, these wetland restoration projects at Grand Island aim to maintain and strengthen this urban island ecosystem in a river that fuels the spectacular waterfalls only a few miles away that draw millions of visitors each year.

If a visit to Niagara Falls is in the works, consider also making a trip to Buckhorn Island State Park and Beaver Island State Park, both of which have car-top boat launch sites, to see this part of Niagara River and witness some of the efforts to help restore it. Please remember that these are sensitive ecological areas and habitats for secretive wildlife, so be respectful and take care when visiting these special places.

As always, whenever hiking, or in this instance, more likely paddling, consider “Leave No Trace” principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Learn more on how to practice “Leave No Trace” by clicking on this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog.

Beaver Island State Park: This park has a half-mile sandy beach for swimming, adjacent 80-slip marina with both seasonal and transient boat slips, fishing access, car-top boat launch, multiple canoe/kayak launches, about four miles of bike and nature trails, nature center, playgrounds, picnic areas, athletic fields, horseshoe pits, an 18 hole championship disc golf course, an 18-hole championship golf course. In winter, visitors can snowmobile by permit, cross-country ski, snowshoe, sled or ice fish. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in-season by permit.

Also located in the park is the River Lea house and museum, home to the Grand Island Historical Society and built by William Cleveland Allen, cousin to Grover Cleveland who visited the family farm on several occasions.

Buckhorn Island State Park: For a wilder experience, try this less visited park, which is a nature preserve of marsh, meadows and woods that mark the last vestige of once vast marshlands and meadows that bordered the Niagara River. There are nearly two miles of nature trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing. The preserve includes two launches for kayaks and canoes. There is ongoing restoration to re-establish wetland cover and water levels and increase the diversity of native flora and fauna. This effort aims to increase public access with more non-intrusive trails, overlooks and bird watching blinds.


Cover shot: A work barge involved in habitat restoration at Grass Island. All photos courtesy of NYS Parks.

Post by David Spiering, Great Lakes Habitat Restoration Coordinator, NYS Parks

The 3 Season Paddler: Safety Tips for Extending Your Boating Season

The tang of a slightly warm breeze rattled the yellow leaves of the cottonwoods under a dome of grey clouds welcoming an intrepid group of fall paddlers chasing the last vestiges of summer at Schodack Island State Park on the Hudson River near Albany.

“We weren’t planning to go out on to the Hudson River for this trip, but were headed to the kayak launch at Schodack Creek on the eastern side of the island,” Ro Woodard recalled. “It has tidal waters like the Hudson and snakes through the phragmites reeds and cattails swamp under the mighty bridges of the CSX Railroad and NYS Thruway.  It was exciting to think, as I drove over the Thruway bridge and looked down to the creek, that I would be soon seeing the secrets of the marsh from a water’s eye view rather than a bird’s eye view.”

Warm fall and winter days might tease paddlers into heading for their favorite open water, but the warm air temperatures can deceptively mask the dangers of the cold water surrounding our boats as we paddle. NYS OPRHP would like to remind paddlers and sportsmen who venture out on the water between November 1 and May 1 that everyone in boats less than 21 feet in length  (this includes motor boats, too) MUST WEAR a US Coast Guard approved life jacket while underway.  OPRHP also recommends that everyone wear a life jacket if the water temperature is less than 70o F.

All boaters (and, yes, paddlers are boaters) should be aware of the possibility of a sudden unexpected swamping, capsize, or a fall overboard into the cold water. At the onset of a sudden cold water immersion there is an initial uncontrollable gasp reflex leading to hyperventilation and increased heart rate and blood pressure which can result in immediate drowning. Go to Cold Water Boot Camp to see what this reaction looks like.  A life jacket may save your life by keeping your head above water and your body floating you while you get your breathing in control.  Next you should attempt self-rescue by getting back in or on your boat.  You have about 10 -20 minutes depending on the temperature of the water before your muscles and nerves cool down and stop functioning;   even good swimmers can’t control their movements and ultimately experience swimming failure.   Again, the life jacket can make all the difference because it will float you.   This is a sobering message for those going out for what they hope to be a fine day on the water.  Remember to wear your life jacket, because it can make all the difference.

Late season paddlers should dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature with either a wet suit or dry suit under your life jacket.  Bring along safety equipment to help with rescue in case of a capsize: pump, rescue bag, sling, paddle float, whistle, visual distress signals, and a VHF radio or cell phone is a waterproof bag.  Also take a course to learn how to use the equipment and how to rescue a paddler who is in the water, empty the water from their boat and get them back inside before you head out for your cold season paddling trip. It is important to have essential skills and equipment, which we hope we never have to use, with you when you kayak and canoe.  The American Canoe Association has a variety of courses for all level of paddlers.

Always paddle with a group if possible and be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you are expected to return.  Take a boating safety course and refrain from the use of alcohol when paddling.  Boating safety courses can be found at http://nysparks.com/recreation/boating/boating-safety-class.aspx  and a free online paddle sport safety course at www.paddlecourse.com.

Click on an image above to enlarge it and read the caption.

The properly dressed and equipped group enjoyed a pleasant afternoon sweeping upstream on the incoming tide, sharing summer paddling stories and watching the sky hoping for a glimpse of one of the many eagles which inhabit the shores of the Park.  They passed under the bridges to the sound of a honking horn.  The honking must have come from a sharp-eye paddler who was crossing the bridge in his or her car and spotted us paddling. After encountering a tree across the narrowing creek, they turned around to head south just as the tide was turning and the current carried them back to the launch ramp. No eagles on this trip, but a flock of crows soared over head as we finished our day.

The fabulous fall padding season has wound down. The air temperatures are dropping and so is the water temperature.  Though lots of us summer paddlers put away our kayaks and canoes until spring, many hearty paddlers continue to enjoy the late fall paddling until ice forces them off the water. If that paddler is you, remember to wear your life jacket, let someone know when and where you are paddling, dress to stay warm, bring your safety equipment, don’t drink alcohol while out on the water, and paddle with a group if possible.   The rest of you, we’ll see you in the spring!

Post and photos by Ro Woodard, Marine Services Bureau, OPRHP.

Explore NYS Parks’ Waterways

Now that the ice is finally gone and the water is warming up, those of us who love paddling are heading out to our favorite spots. Where better than to check out the ponds, lakes, and waterways than in New York State Parks? Whether just for exercise or to enjoy the sun and sky while paddling across the water, getting out in your kayak or canoe is a chance to relax and see a little of the world that can only be experienced from the water.

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Kayakers at Grafton Lakes State Park. Photo courtesy of OPRHP.

Dog in Kayak with life vest_Lilly Schelling
Life vests are also available for pets! Photo by Lilly Schelling, OPRHP.

The Marine Services Bureau of State Parks has just conducted training for Park staff who will be offering American Canoe Association kayaking lessons and tours in parks this summer.  Check out for their kayak program schedules.

Marine Services Bureau is also hosting two paddling events.  W.O.W. (Wear it On the Water) Paddle Fest will be held in two locationson Saturday, July 11 at Gilbert Lake State Park and Saturday, August 15 at Fair Haven Beach State Park.  This free event will feature free kayaking lessons, a Life Jacket Flash Mob, and Sport Fishing Clinics along with other family fun and friendly activities to help you enjoy the water.

Whether exploring for turtles, watching for osprey, fishing, or listening for the slap of a beaver’s tail, we want to remind you to be mindful of the safety of yourself and others who are paddling with you.  Take a free online paddle safety course at www.paddlecourse.com.  Don’t pack it, but wear your life jacket, be boat sober, and leave a float plan letting someone know where you are paddling and when you will return.

Marine Services Bureau encourages all paddlers to obtain an IF FOUND Sticker to identify your boat.  Write your name, cell phone and alternative phone number on the sticker and affix to your boat.  It’s a great way to return a lost boat or help law enforcement rescue a capsized kayaker.  Get your IF FOUND sticker by sending a legal sized self-addressed stamped envelope to NYS Parks, Marine Services Bureau, IF FOUND Sticker, Albany, NY 12238.

If Found
Photo by Ro Woodard, OPRHP.

So grab your life jacket and paddle and head out to the nearest lake or pond to enjoy the serenity and natural surprises that are just a paddle away.

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Post by Ro Woodard, Marine Services Bureau (OPRHP).