Paddling Chernobyl? A case for exploring polluted waters

Put In - Destination

This story is featured in the August 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.

Words: Conor Mihell
Photo: Carolyn Cole

Put In - Destination

Photo by Carolyn Cole

When Andrew Blackwell wanted to look deeper into the area devastated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, he took to the water. Noticing that the barbed-wire fencing did not span the Pripyat River, the Brooklyn-based author and canoeist scored a rowboat and ventured into the heart of 1,000-square-mile “exclusion zone.” A day spent drifting through the Ukrainian forest (and being exposed to a chest X-ray worth of radiation in the process) changed his attitude about the place.

“There’s no denying that Chernobyl is beautiful—at least in the spring, when I visited,” says Blackwell, whose recent book Visit Sunny Chernobyl documents his travels to the Ukraine, India, Canada and other ecological disaster zones around the world.

The unlikely beauty in Chernobyl sums up the rewards of pollution tourism. Blackwell has experienced similar revelations on industrial- and human-waste ridden waterways in India and close to home on Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, an EPA Superfund site that is among America’s most polluted waterways. “There’s just something about finding these places that are totally ignored because they’re supposedly disgusting, and then discovering that they’re quite interesting and not nearly as disgusting as you might expect,” Blackwell says. “My message is one of engagement and sympathy. It’s about caring for and experiencing places that are supposedly not worth caring about.”

Here’s Blackwell’s list of 5 polluted waterways worth paddling:

Gowanus Canal, N.Y. Depending on the wind direction, this channel bisecting Brooklyn might smell bad, but Blackwell calls it the “most peaceful little waterway on which to canoe in New York City.”
Athabasca River, Alberta Northern Alberta’s Athabasca River flows through lush boreal forest, and the industrial moonscape resulting from widespread strip-mining for oil sands.
Port Arthur, Texas If you don’t mind the smell of oil refineries and can deal with a bit of tanker traffic, the convoluted tributaries of the Gulf of Mexico at Port Arthur make excellent sea kayaking.
Yamuna River, India Blackwell floated the Yamuna through Delhi, meeting a hidden culture of people still clinging to life on the waterfront. His bucket list trip: Rafting the Yamuna from Delhi to Agra.
Mill Creek, Ohio Cincinnati’s Mill Creek has been pumped full of enough effluent over the past century to garner the distinction of being conservation group American Rivers’ most endangered urban river. That’s enough to rank it high on Blackwell’s list.

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