I strained to picture the scene that Andy was describing. Like so much wild habitat in New Jersey, the wetlands that surround Newark Bay have been manhandled over time. In most places their transformation is so complete that discerning the natural features of the landscape is an exercise in extreme imagination. The once sinuous outline of Newark Bay, scalloped by coves and inlets and the mouths of its tidal rivers and creeks, is now ruler straight thanks to a century-long parade of large scale public and private development projects. “You can see how geometric the shoreline is,” said Andy, tapping the chart. “These are big fills.”

The transformation of the Newark Meadows began in 1914 when the city of Newark, hungry for real estate, began reclaiming the marshland along the western shore of Newark Bay. Port Newark came first. The city dredged a mile-long shipping channel in the bay. They mixed the dredgings with garbage and ash and heaped the malodorous blend on top of the salt marsh until the landfill was firm enough to support the docks and warehouses that followed. By 1974, the Newark Meadows had completely disappeared, buried beneath the Port Newark/Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the Newark Liberty International Airport, and the New Jersey Turnpike. Similar landfill operations soon claimed much of the eastern shore of Newark Bay too. Signature stands of white fuel storage tanks now occupy acres of former salt marsh in Bayonne. Welcome to the Garden State.

This massive industrial footprint is the first impression that most visitors to the state will have, certainly the millions who arrive and depart by way of Newark airport. And it’s a lasting impression. The industrialization of the Newark Bay marshland has done more to stereotype New Jersey than all the jokes about big hair and the mob. Newark Airport, Port Elizabeth, the N.J. Turnpike, and the Bayonne and Elizabeth fuel tanks are, alas, the icons of my home state.

My fellow Aqua Patio passengers seemed unfazed by the industrial sights and smells. Most were there on business. The environmental engineers were reconnoitering the Passaic for a client that just bought riverfront property; the scientists were exploring the Passaic, Hackensack and Hudson River estuaries for a larger survey of New York Harbor; the lawyers were compiling an inventory of structures and businesses along the Passaic. Janice and Martin were just looking for something interesting to do on a pleasant autumn afternoon. “Marty loves to be out on the water,” said Janice. The couple read about the Baykeeper tours in the newspaper, and drove out from their home in Manhattan.

They couldn’t have picked a better day. The sky was an aching, cloudless blue, the temperature a delightful 75 degrees F. It was the kind of Indian summer evening that can make even the Passaic River look good. And it did look good. The water was actually blue. Its surface, miraculously free of debris, rippled and sparkled with every breeze. The sun was slipping lower in the sky. Three fingers from the horizon. Now two. The light was sharp and golden. We were sailing through honey.

Shipping containersShipping containers are just one of the industrial eyesores along the Passaic River in Newark.Photo: Mary BrunoWe passed abandoned factories and rotting docks on the Newark side of the river, and a junkyard with towers of pancaked sedans, and acres of red and blue shipping containers stacked seven high. Backlit and spectral, each eyesore had its own sad beauty. Together, they recalled a vanished era, the mid-19th century, when Newark was the king of U.S. manufacturing and the banks of the Passaic teemed with commerce.

About three miles upriver, just north of the Benjamin Moore paint factory, we came to the Diamond Alkali superfund site. The address, 80 Lister Avenue, is on the far eastern edge of Newark, in the city’s historic Ironbound district. Bill maneuvered the Aqua Patio in closer to shore, and shifted the engine into neutral. Most of the passengers stood — to take pictures, pay respects. Diamond isn’t the only superfund site along the Passaic, but it is by far the most notorious. For Passaic River advocates, 80 Lister Avenue is a battle cry.