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The Seal Ride

David Meltzer | Published on 1/28/2019

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There is a saying that you often hear from 5BBC riders -  "You never know what you will see on a ride." 

Interesting things always seem to happen when you place a group of cyclists in strange environments. 

And few areas of NYC are stranger than Dead Horse Bay. 

Now part of the Gateway National Seashore, Dead Horse Bay was never exactly a scenic part of New York. 

As the New York Times stated, “Dead Horse Bay sits at the western edge of a marshland once dotted by more than two dozen horse-rendering plants, fish oil factories and garbage incinerators. From the 1850s until the 1930s, the carcasses of dead horses and other animals from New York City streets were used to manufacture glue, fertilizer and other products at the site. The chopped-up, boiled bones were later dumped into the water. The squalid bay, then accessible only by boat, was reviled for the putrid fumes that hung overhead.”  

As in so many NYC stories - then came Robert Moses.  He plowed under the fish oil plants, the horse rendering operations and the dumps.  He capped the landfill, and covered it with a layer of topsoil.  But alas, the landfill cap broke, and since the mid 1950's, the beach has been littered with the trash of the past.  Mostly, there are bottles.  Lots and lots of bottles.. Intact bottles, pieces of bottles.  Bottles from before you were born.  Let's just say, you are not going swimming here.

And so, on a cold January day, a group of 15 5BBCers went to Dead Horse Bay - and ended up with an experience none of us will ever forget. 

To get here by bike you take the Plum Beach Bike Trail, Cross over at Flatbush and head to the Marine Park Bridge.  Then the fun begins.  You have to just know where the small trail starts - and which of the side trails to take, to get here.  This is entirely off road and unmarked.  As we navigated through this wilderness trail, Brooklyn seemed to fade away.  We were surrounded by trees and marsh weeds as we cycled this undulating sandy trail.

We arrived at the bottle strewn beach at low tide, perfect for revealing it's treasures. 

I headed off from the group to a pile of rocks by the old jetty.  I was greeted by a pair of soft brown eyes.  To my astonishment, right in front of me was a little pudgy seal.  We looked at each other for a while, both sort of curious.  The group came over to check out our new friend.  What was this little fellow doing on this gross beach?  The seal rolled on his back, and I so wanted to pet his belly - but the members all yelled "NO MEL!"  I called the police and made one of the strangest 911 calls ever.  "Hello, 911 - what's your emergency?"  "There is a beached seal at Dead Horse Bay who may need help."  "What?...Who? ... Where??"  After assuring them this was not a prank, I gave NYPD my number and was assued that someone would help our little friend.

The next half hour, I received calls every ten minutes from NYPD.  Where is this?  There is no road there.  Have fun trying to direct people down a trail that really wants to remain hidden.  But by the time we got to lunch - we saw a picture of two NYPD officers, grinning as stupidly as we were, when they also encountered the seal.  A News 12 reporter came to the scene and interviewed a club member.  We found out that this was not an actual emergency - just normal seal behavior.  When the water gets cold - they warm up on dry land.  This seal just happened to chose Dead Horse Bay as his landing spot.  We were told that the seal would just go back to the water when it wanted to.  

The seal brightened up the lives of all those who encountered him [or her - not really sure how seals work].  It was all we were talking about at lunch - and I expect for days later.  A little bit of the unexpected, in a place that you never knew existed.  I certainly do not expect a seal on every ride I do - but it is the unexpected things that I see on every ride that always have me wanting to do more.  To continue to visit the strange corners of our urban world. 

Again - you never know what you will see on a ride.