The Old Man and the Swamp: A Mushy Tale

Leo Koncher is an 83-year-old resident of Kearny, N.J., who spends his days exploring the creeks and marshes of the New Jersey Meadowlands. He seeks out industrial relics, pirate treasure and remnants of the old cedar-plank highway that once crossed the great swamp. He travels by canoe, bicycle or on foot, using a sort-of swampshoe he has affixed to a bucket and a milk crate to make sure he doesn’t sink into the muck. When the water freezes, he rides his bike on the ice with an inner tube around his waist. He writes letters to local newspapers describing what he sees.

As soon as I read about Leo Koncher in a new book called The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of the City , written by a 35-year-old swamp fan named Robert Sullivan, I wanted to get out there myself and have a look around. I had this great idea: I’d go out to the Meadowlands, paddle around with Leo and then write about it.

The problem, I soon realized, was that Leo and the Meadowlands belong to Bob Sullivan.

So I called Mr. Sullivan (at 1-888-NJSWAMP), who said he was coming to New York to attend a party in his honor at Moomba, of all places. He seemed to like the idea of ducking out to the Meadowlands to stage a reunion with his material.

A few weeks later, Mr. Sullivan picked me up at home in a rental car. He was wearing an altimeter watch and a North Face hat. He gave me some topographical maps of the Meadowlands to look at as we drove up the F.D.R. Drive to Fordham University, where he taped a radio interview for the college radio station, WFUV-FM. In the studio, I sat off to the side while Mr. Sullivan told the interviewer about his quest for what he called Meadowlands Moments: instances when the ecological resiliency of the region brushes up against its reputation as the world’s most famous repository of trash, heavy metals and dead bodies.

The Meadowlands are also littered with failed schemes to turn the swamps into something other than a noxious gap between New York City and the rest of the continent. Mr. Sullivan mentioned one New Jersey governor’s plan to build a futuristic city there. “He predicted a mass exodus from New York,” Mr. Sullivan said into the microphone. “That did not, to my knowledge, happen.”

When the interview was over, we left the Bronx and crossed the George Washington Bridge. Mr. Sullivan was worried he’d sounded like a know-it-all in the interview. But as soon as the highway curved south and we passed the first stand of phragmites (the tall reeds that thrive in the marshes), he forgot himself. The car swerved a little as he pointed out things Meadowlandish: a mountain of garbage, a cluster of AM radio towers (salt marshes conduct radio signals) and the stumps of cedar trees chopped down a century ago. “Look at that! Look at that!” he said breathlessly. “See Mount Arlington in the distance? O.K., we’re coming up on Berry’s Creek Canal.”

He checked his altimeter watch. “We’re 10 feet above sea level!”

We pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike at the Kearny exit. As we approached the toll plaza, he noticed a wall of concrete erected between the last toll booth and the beginning of the phragmites. Mr. Sullivan had not noticed the wall before. He seemed almost relieved that there was a feature in this landscape for which he had no explanation.

He asked the toll taker what it was. “It’s a windbreaker,” the man said. “If it wasn’t there, the wind would blow the money right outta here.”

This revelation enthralled him. He repeated the exchange out loud, taking mental notes. I used my notebook.

We rolled into Kearny and found our way to Leo Koncher’s place. Leo lives up the hill from the Kearny Marsh, on a street with a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. From there it was possible to conclude without irony that the Meadowlands are beautiful.

Leo came to the door and invited us in. The place was just as Mr. Sullivan had described it: cluttered with marsh loot, exploration gear and old records ( Kate Smith Today , Ezio Pinza Sings Verdi ). I took note of details already recorded in Mr. Sullivan’s book. Leo seemed happy to have us around.

The three of us drove to the Gunnell Oval, a park bordering the marsh, and retrieved Leo’s canoe from a backyard belonging to a woman who had taken pity on Leo after watching him carry his canoe up and down the hill to and from his house. Leo had a system for storing the boat, and he waved us away impatiently as he unwound bungee cords and put in place his custom-made padded seats. He rested the canoe on a wheel rig he’d built, two wheels on a single axle, and we walked it the 250 yards or so to the launch site in a muddy clearing.

As we made our way to the marsh, I asked Leo if he’d read Mr. Sullivan’s book. “Twice,” he said. “Everything was right but one thing. It says I’m 5-8, but I’m 5-6.”

Leo helped us push off but opted to stay on shore while Mr. Sullivan and I paddled around in the marsh. We headed south, and we did what people in canoes are meant to do: We identified things. Desk chair, crow, foul stench. I pointed out a bird riding the thermals high above the phragmites and wondered if it might be an osprey. “Redtail hawk,” Mr. Sullivan said. A 747 passed low overhead, on its way to Newark Airport. “Lufthansa?” I asked. “Northwest Airlines,” he said. Then we paddled up on a sports car sticking half out of the water, surrounded by garbage. The car was stripped clean. “I think it’s a Ford,” Mr. Sullivan said.

We paddled as far as we could, up to berm of trash and soil. Little bits of colored garbage floated in the water like Fruity Pebbles in a bowl of chocolate milk. Mr. Sullivan tried to remember if this was where his favorite fetid sewage canal was. He stood up in the canoe to look, and said it wasn’t. I was disappointed. We turned around and paddled back to Leo with the wind at our backs.

After we’d put the canoe away, Leo said he wanted to show us the grave of one Capt. William Sandford, who 250 years ago had owned most of the land in Kearny. It turned out the grave was in somebody’s backyard, so we viewed it over a fence from a small parking lot. There wasn’t much to see. The site was unmarked, but Leo pointed out a pair of cinder blocks and said that the captain’s remains were in the ground somewhere between them. “Imagine owning all that land,” Leo said, “and you can’t even save your own grave site.”

Mr. Sullivan liked that line. Later, as we headed back through the Holland Tunnel, he said that it captured the spirit of the Meadowlands. That’s when I made the mistake of using a word I shouldn’t have to describe some of the stuff we’d seen. I almost didn’t use it. I stuttered over it, pulled back from the brink, but then gave in because I couldn’t think of anything else. “Ephemeral.”

At first, Mr. Sullivan let it pass. But outside the tunnel, he was talking about his book party at Moomba the next night. He was worried that with a couple of drinks in him, in the company of all the media swells that were supposed to be there, he might finally let down his guard and say something really pretentious about the Meadowlands. “I might use a word like ephemeral,” he said.

Then he dropped me off on Canal Street and went off to get ready for a reading.

The Old Man and the Swamp: A Mushy Tale