River of Life: Paddling Gets Into Your Soul

Every river has its stories, and the Delaware is no different. There’s the one about the logger Daniel Skinner who, in the 1760s, made an 80-foot raft of logs and set off from the Catskill Mountains to the shore of Philadelphia, some 200 miles downstream.

That story was told in Trenton June 24, during a presentation on land preservation at the Trenton City Park and Boat Launch, when President and CEO of the D&R Greenway Land Trust Linda Mead was named Lady High Admiral of the Day.

The naming tradition dates back to Skinner, who was honored as Lord High Admiral of the Delaware when he reached Philadelphia more than 250 years ago. Since 1997, the Delaware River Sojourn has bestowed the title on individuals who have made outstanding contributions to protect the health of the Delaware River and its environs.

Ms. Mead, a cofounder of the Delaware River Sojourn, has raised more than $100 million in private funding to match New Jersey’s public funding for open space and farmland preservation, protecting thousands of acres of land along the Delaware and its tributaries. In Trenton, Ms. Mead spoke of the importance of purchasing, protecting and stewarding the land – building trails and controlling invasive species.

The Delaware River Sojourn started 17 years ago to celebrate the “River of Life.” The goal is to heighten awareness of and appreciation for the ecological, historical, recreational and economic significance of the river, which flows 320 miles through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The Sojourn combines canoeing/kayaking, camping, educational programs and historical interpretation. Thanks to the Sojourn, elected officials have paddled the Delaware and its tributaries, coming away with a better understanding of the importance of protecting this resource.

The Delaware has been named Pennsylvania’s River of the Year for 2011, and Gov. Tom Corbett proclaimed June “Rivers Month” to raise awareness of conservation needs.

Sojourners paddle each section (upper, middle, lower, and estuary), taking detours along historic canals, tidal marshes and scenic tributaries. Area naturalists enlighten Sojourners about the river’s ecology and ties to local communities, as well as how we can become stewards of this great resource.

The eight-day expedition begins at Kellam’s Bridge, Pa., and finishes in Bristol, Pa. I joined on Day 7, meeting up with the group at Washington Crossing Park in Titusville. On the bus to where we put in in Yardley, Pa., I spoke with fellow paddler Ken Schultz, who has written 18 books on fishing, including Ken Schultz’s Fishing Encyclopedia & Worldwide Angling Guide (John Wiley & Sons, 2000). Ken and his wife, Sandy, come all the way from their home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia to paddle the Delaware for all eight days.

Sandy worked as a superintendent for the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreation River when Ms. Mead, Matilda Harrison and Nancy Robertson founded the Sojourn. Ms. Mead was at that time the founding director of the Delaware River Greenway Partnership.

“We wanted to engage community officials, provide education and highlight the projects of naturalists, historians and educators at each section, turning recreational canoeists into environmentalists,” says Ms. Mead. “The Sojourn steering committee is comprised of public and private agencies engaged in protecting resources along the river.”

“My job was to organize the Upper Delaware section,” says Ms. Schultz, who continues to serve on the steering committee. Over the years, “we’ve met the objectives to introduce people to the river, but two of the unintended consequences are that people are buying boats now, and many canoeist have switched to kayaks, which makes the river more accessible.”

Another positive outcome, she says, are the relationships built between partnering organizations, who have gained appreciation for each other’s missions and purposes. “We keep coming back,” she says. “I dream about it every year.”

After a safety briefing by a member of the National Canoe Safety Patrol, a volunteer group that paddles alongside the Sojourners, we chanted a blessing and took off. Our group included everyone from a grade-school angler in a camouflage fishing hat and a young man who will begin at military high school in the fall, to retired school teachers and B&B owners from the Poconos. There was a gentleman who required crutches on land but paddled mightily in a Klepper, a German folding kayak that can be turned into a sailboat.

The Delaware is the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi, and supplies water to five percent of the nation’s population — more than 15 million people. White pine, hemlock, silver maple, elm, sycamore, river birch, oak, sugar maple, beech, black walnut and hickory are among the trees native to the region.

More than 260 species of birds can be spotted along Delaware, which is part of the Atlantic Flyway, including the American merganser, the American Bald Eagle, red tailed hawk, owls, osprey, herons, belted kingfisher, gray catbird, Baltimore Oriole and turkey vultures.

Black bear, white-tailed deer, bobcat, coyote, fox, beaver, otter and aquatic insects and dragonflies are at home here. The upper Delaware is one of the finest fishing rivers in the U.S., with shad, bass, walleye, pickerel, American eel, turtles, frogs, newts, salamanders and snakes.

During the mid 1900s, the Delaware’s shad population was decimated from depleted oxygen in the water. Since the late 1980s, the shad have been making a comeback, thanks to pollution control measures, and their return each spring is celebrated at Lambertville’s Shadfest.

In Trenton, we pulled off onto a small island, where we saw morning glories, nightshade and baby American toads. Sarah Berg of Delaware Canal State Park told us how we’d soon be passing Trenton Falls, where the freshwater river would turn into a tidal zone. It gets very interesting where fresh water mixes with saltwater, and the shad is one of few creatures that survive in both. Shad live in the ocean but travel upstream to spawn in fresh water.

“We have better tasting fish available now,” says Ms. Berg, “but it was a wonderful food source for Washington’s troops during the Battle of Trenton.”

Soon, we paddle through Trenton Falls. OK, it’s not Niagara Falls, but after the placid paddling it was pretty exciting to go through the rough water.

We stopped for lunch, catered by McCaffrey’s Supermarket, at Trenton City Park and Boat Launch, where I met John Flynn, project manager for the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program. Mr. Flynn talked about the great partnership between the D&R Greenway and his organization in preserving the Sourlands Ecosystem, Wickacheoke Creek and Lockatong Creek. “We are now moving into broader areas in Burlington County, such as Crosswicks and Blackwick Creek,” he said. At the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh, the Green Acres Program gave $500,000 toward the renovation of a house into an interpretive center, slated to open in 2012. It is presently used as headquarters for the Friends of the Marsh. Green Acres also works with D&R Greenway on the administration of the N. J. Trails Association.

“Green Acres has been our best partner in doing this,” Ms. Mead says. “In New Jersey, your open space tax dollars go to good use.”

Howard Wolf, who founded the Green Acres program  50 years ago, was named Lord High Admiral. “The TV series came after us,” he told the crowd of paddlers. “New York had the first Green Acres program but it petered out. Our 1961 bond issue is alive and well… We make everyone participants in the program. We now have park commissions in 21 counties. The enjoyment of living in New Jersey is what Green Acres brings to the state.”

The enjoyment continued back on the river, where we paddled more vigorously as storm clouds threatened. In the distance, we could see the RiverLine and the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh, preserved with the help of the D&R Greenway.

Just as different land preservation organizations work together, so do paddlers on the Sojourn. Someone let me borrow a waterproof bag so my camera and notebook would stay dry, and others helped to pull each other’s boats on to land.

As we pulled into the Bordentown Yacht Club, some paddlers spotted a peregrine falcon perched under an elevated highway. The wandering bird of prey typically nests on a cliff or, these days, on manmade structures such as this concrete support overlooking the water. It eats small mammals, reptiles, insects and medium-size birds. The peregrine falcon became endangered from rampant use of pesticides, but since DDT was banned it has made a comeback.

Those canoe safety volunteers know what they are doing – then ended our Sojourn just before a major storm pulled in.

“You have to do it for more than one day,” Ms. Schultz told me. “When you spend several days paddling along the river, the shoreline fades away and nature takes over. The river gets into your soul and becomes the new normal.”



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2 Responses to River of Life: Paddling Gets Into Your Soul

  1. Dan says:

    Other adventures await. We race on the history and mighty Missouri River each year from Kansas City to St. Louis, Missouri. This is a 340-mile race that good paddlers finish in 50-60 hours. Racing on a river such as this also changes one’s perspective of the natural resource — and the power of water.
    Check out http://www.rivermiles.com for information on this epic annual canoe and kayak race.


  2. Carolyn Foote Edelmann says:

    Ilene, what a treat to read anew of your delight in the Delaware River Sojourn, in the River herself. I just created a blog today on taking my sister on an auto tour of the River Towns, starting with Roebling, finale in Riverton. ‘Walking on Water’ from Bull’s Island to the Black Bass Inn and back, another day. What a treasure we have in that river! What reasons it gives us for restoration and preservation.

    Best to you,


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