Second leg of canoe trek
A year later I car-topped the canoe to Trenton Benjamin and I spent the night there in motel, hired a cab to drive us to Pennsbury Manor at 4 a.m. The driver, an Afghani, was pleased to hear we were canoeing from our mother-in-law’s house to our father-in-law’s. He approved of family ties and pilgrimages. It also seemed to give him confidence in the way we lashed the canoe on top of his cab.
We put in at 4:30 a.m., top of the tide. An easy distance for the first day. Pleasant paddling past small towns and yacht basins. The tallest buildings in Philadelphia came into view, and we thought we’d be there in an hour. After an hour, the buildings didn’t seem any closer. It began to get hot. The buildings disappeared. We came round a bend and we were abruptly on the Philadelphia waterfront. I spotted a motel where I’d stayed when racing on the Schuykill. We pulled into a yacht basin. The guy in charge wanted us to pay as if our 18 foot canoe were a yacht. Next marina the same. The third place we put in was flanked by two abandoned warehouses and, on the street side, only a hundred yards from the motel, an office building. There was a ramp leading to the street. When we were half-way up the ramp, a man warned us off. He disappeared. Benjamin, a law-abider, suggested we move on. We did. The next marina also had an office building along the street. I persuaded Benjamin to carry our knapsacks, while I put the canoe on my neck and shoulders. I said, “We can go through the double doors.”
I got into an empty office. A man came in. He was startled to find and 18 foot canoe going by his desk. Then he laughed and said, “Let me hold the door for you.” He walked us through the building onto the sidewalk.
The desk clerk at the motel asked us for our license plate number. We pointed to the canoe just outside the glass doors. She shrugged and said, “It won’t fit in your room.” We carried it to the parking lot where the attendant, who had a West African accent, was as interested as the Afghani cab driver in our trip. He patted the canoe and said we should store it next to his shed. “No one will touch it, I promise you. I like what you are doing.”
The next morning at 4:30 a.m., there was a fine rain. No one up and about, so we carried the canoe down the forbidden ramp. Ha! When we got on the river, the wind picked up. We put in once again at the top of the tide, but it hadn’t begun to run hard. It was eerie—lots of lights in the city but the river was dark. My theory was that we’d get a bit more current in mid-stream than at the side.
Near Camden, New Jersey the light from the oil refineries’ vent flames and beacons was swirled in the wind-driven rain. The Delaware Water Gap had been a beautiful Chinese landscape, but this was more beautiful—as beautiful as the wildesr Turner painting. I was so mesmerized and at such length that Benjamin turned around and said, “John, I beseech you. Get us out of the shipping channel.’
Indeed. We couldn’t see far enough ahead to avoid a ship or its four or five foot wake. We got close enough to the port of Philadelphia piers to look up at the names of berthed ships. “Aegean Glory”, “Maersk Harmony”.
Then came sheets of rain. We had to pull onto an islet to dump the ankle-high water. The river was turning into a wide bay, and we weren’t sure which way to go in the next-to-no-visibility. We heard a roar. We finally recognized the sound—a jet plane landing at the Philadelphia International Airport, a third of the way to Wilmington. The invisible jets served as an audible aid to navigation.
By the time the airport was off our stern, Benjamin was proved right—there were ships coming upstream. A friend of mine who’d been a lighthouse keeper a bit south of where we now were had written me, “Delaware Bay is simultaneously the most boring and the most dangerous body of water on the Atlantic Coast of the U.S.” Among the dangers he mentioned were the shoals that were just far enough below the surface to be invisible but near enough to make waves break or create unpredictable eddies.
The closest we came to capsizing was when we turned into the sizeable wake of a ship, aiming to take it at a slight angle, not head on. The wake came toward us, we paddled toward it. We didn’t see the underwater shoal. We reached it just as the wake broke over it. The canoe rode up nicely into the boil, but came down hard into the trough. We’d learned after Foul Rift to use our paddle-blades as outriggers, which kept us upright for the sled ride. We paddled hard to get past the shoal and onto the next wave before it broke. Another abrupt up and down, some pitching and rolling, but we were clear.
A thing I knew but hadn’t thought of: islets and points of land don’t end at the water line. The islet is just the above-water part of a below-water ridge. So we steered clear of visible islets, but how to avoid the completely invisible shoals? One answer is that there aren’t shoals in the shipping channel. A correct but dangerous answer. Next answer: hug the shore—but not too tightly since the shore is the biggest shoal of all. But at least we could get safely to land, even if upside down.
Just before the sun burned off the mist a long sleek kayak came across our bow. It was the only craft our size we’d seen since New Hope. The kayaker was headed for shore, intently windmilling his genuine Inuit paddle.
No more ships in sight. We stopped for a lunch at a desolate industrial site. Some off-color liquid was draining into the mud. We ate in the canoe. Then we had a taste of the boring part, paddling parallel to I-495. We were now hours out of Philadelphia and the tide was going to turn. We put on some speed to get to the Port of Wilmington. We reached the mouth of the Christina River at slack water. Benjamin had two questions. 1) How far to Wilmington ? 2) Where could we stash the canoe for the night? Answer 1) farther than we thought. Answer 2) The Lord will provide. We paddled past a lot of ships and cranes, then past some woodland. There was a confluence, and we luckily chose to go left. We saw a small boathouse and a man putting in a single shell. I said, “Let’s ask.”
I said to the man, “How do you like your Hudson?”
He looked up. “Fine.” He looked at my Rivanna Rowing Club tank top. “What do you row?”
“A Van Dusen.”
We did some more back and forth, mentioned some names. In the small rowing world there are far fewer than six degrees of separation.
We came to the crucial question. Could we stow our canoe in this boathouse? He said, “I’m afraid not. I’m locking it up for the season. But if you follow me, I’m going up to the Wilmington Rowing Club boathouse. That’ll work out. I’m the coach.”
Another slow mile or two and there was a huge boathouse. After we put the canoe inside, the man asked what time we’d be leaving. Five a.m. was perfect, he was taking out an eight then. He said if we’d follow him upstream another three miles, he had a spare bed and a couch at his house. We thanked him, but another three miles up, and then back in the morning…He gave us a tip on a cheap motel only a mile away on foot, and on a good place to eat.
We strolled along the riverfront, working the kinks out. Benjamin said, “It is as if you’re both Free Masons.”
A hot shower, another stroll to crab cakes and beer. To bed at twilight.
The coach and a crowd of rowers wished us good luck. The trip back down the Christina River was the best part of the third day. After that it was hot and unchanging all the way to Delaware City. A long lunch to wait for the tide to go our way again through a small barge canal that linked to the Delaware-Chesapeake Canal. When we go to the big canal we didn’t have more than 15 miles to go but the temperature rose to 90 degrees, and the headwind felt hot and stuffy. The canal is straight and unrelenting. The tugs pushed by barges put up only moderate wakes, but the powerboats—motor yacht ranging from 30 to 50 feet– churned out steep high waves. The drivers often didn’t know the rules of the road and would cut across to take a look at us. Some of the time there were stands of old pilings nearby and we’d race to get behind them. We used up a lot of energy and time running away from motor yachts. And where the hell was Chesapeake City? We got more and more tired. There was no Red Shoes effect, just doggedness. We got there, but with not enough steam to be pleased that we’d reached the state of Maryland. Benjamin had to get back to work, so he got a local taxi to take him to the Wilmington train station, a short trip along the hypotenuse of the triangle of which we’d paddled the two legs. I had a room in a quaint bed and breakfast. I arranged for someone to drive me and the canoe to Trenton to retrieve my car and take the canoe back to Milford, Pennsylvania. After supper I sank into bed, stunned with sun and fatigue. The next day I was back in Milford in 5 hours, including loading, unloading, and reloading the canoe. It seemed a mockery.
But the day after that, as I waded into the Delaware River to launch my single for a short row, I stood for a while in the current. I was still a little drunk or hung over from paddling in rain and sun. I dipped my hand in the water. I knew where it was going. Our trip was homage to our parents-in-law, but also, it occurred to me, to the river. Before it was re-named the Delaware it had many names in Algonquin. My favorite is Lenapewhihituck—The Swiftwaters of the Lenape.