OLINVILLE — Volunteers descended into the the Bronx River Forest, a section of dense, old-growth woods surrounding the Bronx River north of the New York Botanical Garden, Tuesday morning armed with rubber boots, gardening gloves, shovels and bug spray.
The group crossed a shallow section of the river onto an island and got ready to tackle one of the forest's biggest threats: the Japanese Knotweed. It's a plant so invasive it can grow up to 10 feet in height and spread so quickly that it crowds out native plant species.
"It kind of takes over wherever it grows," said Arlon Pinckney, of the Parks Department group Natural Areas Volunteers. "It doesn't really allow anything else to grow."
In it's first year of operation, NAV organizes and trains residents and community groups to help maintain and improve the city's vast expanse of parkland, hosting weekly restoration projects across the city, like weeding or tree-planting. The program aims to connect residents with their local ecosystems, and give them the opportunity to perform a different kind of volunteer work.
"A lot of people were going to soup kitchens and other urban settings," said NAV leader Matt Genrich. "Our idea is really to get people outside, to really get their hands dirty."
Along the Bronx River, that means managing the prevalent knotweed plant, which covers the forest floor along the river's bank, recognizable by its broad green leaves, pinkish stems and thick, bamboo-like stalks.
Knotweed can increase riverbank erosion and shade out other species of trees and plants, which the city and other local environmental groups have painstakingly planted in the area over the last several years as part of a larger, ongoing effort to revitalize the Bronx River. The Parks Department works continuously to combat knotweed, sending out teams to chop and uproot the plants every few weeks.
"This is a process that takes many, many years," Genrich said, adding that they may never totally eradicate knotweed from the area. But its maintenance is still of the utmost importance.
On Tuesday, NAV volunteers used shovels the dig the plants out by their roots, filling bucket after bucket.
Bronx resident Angel Camareno was among those helping out. He'd seen an ad calling for NAV volunteers online and decided to join the group.
"Someone has to pick up the gauntlet," he said, adding that this stretch of Bronx River is part of his daily walking path. "It's given me so much pleasure, so it's a small thing to do."
Sky Khan and her 4-year-old son, Nash Flammang, came all the way from Manhattan to help out because they couldn't find a comparable, kid-friendly volunteer project in their own neighborhood.
"We've been talking about volunteer opportunities, talking about saving the earth, helping the environment," Khan said.
Nilka Martell, who runs the Parkchester-based beautification nonprofit G.I.V.E, is a frequent volunteer, and considers herself a Bronx River regular. She and her two children started helping out a few years ago after Martell lost her job as a paralegal and, unable to find work right away, decided to spend her spare time giving back.
"I wasn't getting any calls back," she said. "I was bored."
Shovel in hand, Martell recalled the Bronx River of her youth — a very different river than the one that exists today.
"I grew up here. My whole life, this river was absolutely disgusting," she said, remembering a waterway clogged with debris and garbage, abandoned cars and refrigerators.
Over the last decade, thanks to the efforts of local advocacy groups like the Bronx River Alliance, the waterway has been transformed into an urban oasis and a popular spot for canoeing, walking, bike-riding and other recreation.
Still, Martell says not everyone knows about the environmental gem in the borough's own backyard.
"I still get e-mails asking me, 'Where is the Bronx River?'" she laughed.