Delaware Canoe Trip–1st let
A river, even a small stream, makes me wonder, Where does it go? Where could it take me? A brother-in-law (we’re married to sisters) and I got a map and thought, We could paddle 120 miles to Philadelphia, then into Delaware Bay, take a right into the Delaware-Chesapeake canal, and head south to our father-in-law’s farm near Annapolis, Maryland. Could we do about 250 miles in a week? I bent pipe cleaners along the curves of the river and straightened them along the mileage scale. I kept getting different results. Benjamin, twenty years my junior and a tri-athlete, said, “Let’s go to Philadelphia and see.”
After finding a good bowman, the next thing is a good canoe. 18 feet, Kevlar, only 34 pounds. Shake-down cruise of fifteen miles. Eleven minutes a mile. Exuburance.
Noon, day one. The Delaware Water Gap, often visited and painted in the 19th century, is still gorgeous, even with an Interstate crossing it. The steep dark hills are so closely set the perspective is foreshortened as in an old Chinese landscape painting. As soon as we’d got through the Water Gap it began to pour. Water came down the sleeves as we lifted our arms to paddle, down our collars. Three inches of water around our feet. Where the hell are we? The map, tucked in my pocket instead of in the waterproof bag, was mush. We hauled the canoe out and drained it. Pulled ourselves up the bank by roots and branches. Found a church-benefit hot-dog sale under a tent. Portland, Pa. No where near our first-day goal. We shook ourselves dry and devoured hot dogs. Knee deep in the river to re-launch, I was shivering. We were cheered by a flock—a swarm of swallows swooping and dapping the river.
The rain stopped. Flat water and wooded banks. Three little boys told us we were in Belvidere, NJ. Go on? Too dark. I found the Belvidere Hotel a half mile up the hill. White carpenter’s Gothic. The hotel owner let us stow the canoe in a storage room. Hot-shower bliss. Pizzeria. Bed bliss.
Breakfast at Uncle Buck’s. Stacks of pancakes and sausages. (We ate 5000 calories a day, lost weight.) Old guy at next table, said, “I live on a steep hill. Right over Foul Rift. Sit on my front porch and laugh my head off at up-side down canoes. Foul Rift is the first rapids you’ll come to. Stick to the Jersey side for the first half, then cut hard for the Pennsylvania side. Some make it.”
We hit a set of rapids soon enough. Not so bad. We paddled. Benjamin said, “But I didn’t see a steep hill.” I said, “These old guys…” and stopped. We both said, “Oh shit.”
There was a jagged wall of white water, waves jetting up between boulders. We couldn’t see the end. Halfway I yelled to Benjamin, “Pull right! Harder!” We paddled furiously for the Pennsylvania side. “Last bit and we’re through!” Except for a ledge between the boulders. We hung, teetered, then swept through on our beam end and rolled over. The current pulled our shoes off. We scissor-kicked the canoe to shore. I cut my foot on a rock. At noon we got to where we’d hoped to get to the night before.
Easton, Pennsylvania on one side, Phillipsburg, New Jersey on the other. Phillipsburg had an easier landing place. I limped up to find a drugstore. Phillipsburg is a sorry town. Abandoned factories, stores closing, Social Security office open.
But the sun was out and we were drying in the breeze. We only slowed when we saw a bridge. A bridge meant a narrow place and a narrow place meant white water. Benjamin, way forward in the sharp bow, felt as exposed as a ball-turret gunner. At the sight of a bridge he would start to dab rather than stroke. I’d crane to see which line to take.
Still not many towns, only every seven miles or so, but we were getting into the boutique zone—Tea-time meal was bruschetta and smoked salmon. Heading for New Hope, Pennsylvania, but where were we? Climbed up to find a road sign. Centerville. Only 4 miles from New Hope, but it was getting dark. There were four quaint inns, all closed for the season. We stashed the canoe in the woods, thought of walking to New Hope. Because Benjamin’s good looking, and because I was limping, a woman gave us a ride. Next morning for the same reasons we got a lift back to the canoe. Flat water to New Hope. Met a woman in a single scull. She said,” Watch out for the dam. There’s a chute on the left. Kayakers do it for thrills.” We’d had enough thrills. Benjamin reconnoitered, found a canal that took us around the dam and the boulder field below it.
Lunch at Washington’s Crossing. Warning: dangerous rapids at Trenton. We lost an hour while Benjamin scouted on foot. Hard to get passers-by to talk—we looked battered and feral. We pushed on. Nothing but a few jounces, then tidewater.
Trenton is only 25 miles from the north edge of Philadelphia, but there is almost nothing in between. A factory or two. A yacht club. Mostly the big wide river and woodland. Around a bend we see a mountain of coal and there’s the black stern of a freighter, the Clipper Stamford out of Hong Kong. In case she backs up we zig to the other bank. Out of nowhere—three shots. No whine of bullets. Shotgun? Overhead a vee of geese, heading south. A wing beat or two later one plummets into the water. Amazing splash. We zag back towards the Pennsylvania side.
The sky is turning violet. Benjamin has to get back to work the next day. We’re sure we’re almost to Philadelphia, but we have to find a suburb, a town—someplace where Benjamin’s wife (who is conveniently visiting their daughter in Haverford Pa) can pick us up. We pull harder, gurgle along. We’ve reached that tiredness in which the body is moving of its own accord. It’s the Red Shoes effect—can’t stop dancing.
A beautiful sea wall on the Pennsylvania side. An acre of perfect lawn. A mansion. In the dusk we make out a man pushing a lawnmower. He stops, starts to roll it toward a shed. Benjamin sprints. I hold the painter and melt into the sea wall. The river, now running out with the tide, is lovely as it darkens. I don’t want to leave it.
Benjamin comes back and says, “Guess whose house this is.” I have a crazy hope that it’s someone one of us knows, who’ll give us a beer, a sandwich.
Benjamin says, “William Penn.”
That’s even better. This could be the very sea wall where the Lenai Lenape brought their pelts after canoeing down from pre-Milford. The groundskeeper is just closing the gate to the estate, now a museum. He thinks we’re twelve miles from Philadelphia by car. He’s never been by boat.
I say, “Close enough.”
Benjamin says, “Annapolis next spring.”