Paddlers’ Playground

The Delaware River beckons all ages with clear water, easy rapids and unspoiled beauty.

Paddlers encounter a modest chop in a wide section of the Middle Delaware.
Photo by Cindy Ross.

As soon as we push off into the Delaware River, I am struck by its clarity. On the river bottom, the current combs long green eelgrasses straight. Fish swim amid rocks. Freshwater mussels nestle in the crannies. No matter how deep the water, the bottom is easily visible.

I’ve witnessed this kind of free-flowing clarity in mountain streams, but the Delaware is what those who spend time on rivers call big water—and in the East, that usually means pollution and dams.

The Delaware is the only major river on the Eastern Seaboard that is not shackled by dams. There are few big factories and power plants in the upper reaches. All that helps explain why the water is unusually clean and clear.

The natural beauty is only one of the reasons my family and friends chose to paddle the 40-mile stretch of the Middle Delaware that lies within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. There are no difficult rapids here, making it excellent for beginners. A few riffles pop up for excitement, but the river at this point is mostly glass smooth year-round. And river access points in this area are conveniently located every four to eight miles for easy day trips.

Yet the Delaware, seemingly pristine and unspoiled, has not escaped modern perils. In fact, the conservation group American Rivers declared the upper reaches of the Delaware a Most Endangered River last year. The group and other environmentalists say the Delaware—which (after treatment) provides drinking water for 17 million people in four states, including 3 million in New Jersey—faces the threat of toxic pollution from natural-gas drilling in Pennsylvania and New York. For now, there is a moratorium on drilling while the Environmental Protection Agency completes an impact study. We want to experience the river, celebrate it—and call attention to this possible threat in hopes of preserving this priceless recreational and natural resource.

My party of paddlers will spend three days and two nights on the Middle Delaware, covering about 36 river miles before reaching our final destination, the Kittatinny Point Visitor Center in the Water Gap. We will be camping at primitive sites maintained for paddlers along the river. Our daily distance will vary from 10 to 16 miles, depending on the availability of campsites, which are abundant but are up for grabs on a first-come, first-served basis.

We have two canoes and two kayaks for the six of us. Canoes are excellent for carrying bulky items like coolers, but the kids (ages 10 to 18) prefer the kayaks, which keep them low and close to the water. They also enjoy the sense of personal power and accomplishment that they get from captaining their own craft. Plus, it’s convenient to be able to swap boats when our arms or butts grow fatigued.

Our trip begins at Milford, Pennsylvania. Moving out onto the river, we stroke the silvery water and get into a comfortable rhythm. This mode of transportation has been enjoyed for centuries on the Delaware dating back to the Lenni Lenape. We pass islands that bear Lenape names: Minisink, Namanock, Shapnack and Shawnee. The Lenni Lenape built longhouses along the river, tilled the nearby fields and traveled the river in dugout canoes, which they hollowed out of tulip poplars—known in early times as the canoe tree.

Luckily, the landscape here remains largely unspoiled. The national recreation area was established in 1965 to ensure preservation of the area, with Congress securing 70,000 acres of land for public use on both sides of the river. As a designated Wild & Scenic River, the Delaware must be preserved in its free-flowing condition and protected for future generations. To gain that designation, its surrounding environment must have outstanding scenic, geological, recreational, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural resources. The Delaware fits the bill in every category.

A white egret flies down the center of the river, spooked off its fishing post by our presence. Kingfishers dart and dive. We see ospreys, turkeys, and our favorites, the bald eagles, easily recognizable by their brilliant white heads and their squeaking cry. At these times, all paddling ceases, and we look skyward, watching the eagles interact in flight; they seem to be playing in the sky.

The American bald eagle has made a stellar comeback along the Upper and Middle Delaware. Today, the area is one of the largest and most important inland bald-eagle wintering habitats in the Northeast. Their nests are located on the Upper Delaware, but their fishing grounds encompass a large territory.

More than 250 species of birds are known to frequent the river area. The surrounding valley is an important segment of the Atlantic flyway for migratory birds and provides cover and space for breeding and nesting. Although we will not experience any migrating birds during this summertime paddle, the warmer months are the most fun on the river because of the excellent swimming. The Delaware is one of the few rivers in the East that reaches swimming depth all summer long, no matter how infrequent the rainfall.

A low roar alerts us to some lively water ahead. The boys get excited. After one of them—11-year-old Davis Holliday—successfully steers his kayak through the white water, he announces, “No more lake paddling for me.” This is Davis’s first river trip and he is entranced by the force of the current and the changing scenery.
We find that the kids—with their short attention spans—need to get out of their boats about every hour. So we stop for a break on Tocks Island, and the boys immediately head for the shallows in search of flat, smooth rocks. A skipping contest is followed by a jump into the refreshing water. There are no computers, cell phones or video games in sight.

In 1962, Congress authorized construction of a dam at Tocks Island that would have plugged the river and flooded much of the Walpack Valley, creating a 37-mile -long reservoir that would have backed-up almost to Port Jervis, New York. But the proposed dam met with fierce opposition from conservationists and, in the end, the Delaware remained a free-flowing river.

As the sun descends, the swallows come out and acrobatically pursue insects just above the water. It’s time for us to look for a campsite. There are more than 100 free sites along the Middle Delaware. Tent-shaped signs, numbered and nailed to the trees, indicate their locations, some on the New Jersey side, some in Pennsylvania and some on islands. The National Park Service provides steel fire grates and a few latrines, but other than that, the sites are primitive. Stays are limited to one night at each area. An excellent river map available from the park service (see sidebar) indicates the plentiful access points, beaches and campsites. When you spend multiple days with a river, seeing it at sunset and dawn, sleeping by its side, you really get to know it personally.

We pass our days in leisurely fashion. Since the river usually moves at a snail-like 2-3 miles per hour, we don’t have to paddle constantly to stay on course. Occasionally the headwinds pick up, making paddling tedious, but there are plenty of sand beaches on which we can take breaks. (Plan on a 2-miles-per-hour pace when figuring distance and time.)

For those new to the sport, the Middle Delaware is a safe and undemanding place to get started. You’ll enjoy the company of an occasional person in an inner tube, floating along like molasses on the current. In the southern end of the recreation area, you might come across a fisherman with a small motorboat, but mostly you will encounter nonmotorized craft. There are not many consistently deep areas or natural lakes in the river, so motorboats can easily run aground if they are not careful.

There are more than 20 rental services along the Delaware, which also shuttle groups of canoers, kayakers and tubers to or from their starting points. But the liveries are spread out and never make the river feel crowded. Some rental liveries give basic instruction; feel free to ask for pointers and investigate various strokes before you hit the river. And go easy on yourself. It takes awhile to learn how to work together and read the river, detecting shallows, exposed rocks and other hazards. The important thing is to have fun, relax and take your time.

The scenery is stellar all along our trip, but we have saved the best for last. As we near the Water Gap, more islands fill the river, which grows steadily wider. As a stretch of white water carries us under I-80, we marvel at the dramatic cleft in the Kittatinny Mountains.

The Gap becomes even more impressive when you know the story of its creation. Geologists tells us the land was a level plain until it uplifted and eroded to form ridges and valleys. An ancient river, whose waters originated near what is now Trenton, flowed backward toward the Kittatinny Ridge. The river found the point where the rock was weak and fractured and cut through to establish the present course of the Delaware. The water continued to cut downward and widen the small cleft into a mile-long chasm. Then, about 20,000 years ago, a continental glacier of thick ice extended south and exaggerated this gorge even more.

When our canoes enter the tight S curve, our jaws drop. The dark green wall of a mountain looms startlingly close, rising directly out of the river. Mount Tammany on the New Jersey side imposes itself, pushing and crowding the flowing waters.

Although this gorgeous place marks the end of our adventure, we can return in any season to paddle and enjoy. We hope the right choices will be made to insure that the river will always run clear and clean, home to the eagle and the shad and to all the people.

Canoe Tips:

When planning your trip, the first source of information should be the National Park Service. You can print a free river guide from the website (nps.gov/dewa). The guide lists access points, campsites, mileage between points, and rules and regulations. For additional information, call 570-426-2435. Just before you go, check the river-conditions hotline: 845-252-7100.

The Kittatinny Point Visitor Center (908-496-4458), located off I-80 on the New Jersey side, is another valuable resource. Here you can get a list of more than a dozen commercial outfitters providing boat rentals and shuttles, as well as a roster of commercial campgrounds and state parks in the area.

Canoe and kayak rental rates run about $40 to $45 per day per person, including the shuttle fee. Two-day rentals are $65 and climb higher on weekends. If you rent, the outfitter will arrange to shuttle you back to your vehicle. If you bring your own boats, you are on your own, so bring multiple friends in multiple cars to create your own shuttle.

After planning your route, allow for changes to accommodate weather and a paddler’s ability.
Here are other key points to remember:

• Make sure all your gear is waterproofed. For canoers, clean, 5-gallon buckets with snap lids are an inexpensive way to store gear.
• You can canoe in all seasons on the Delaware, but when air and water temperatures added together are below 100, wet suits are advisable. Going overboard can result in hypothermia.
• Plan for sun (sunscreen, hat, light-colored clothing, sunglasses) and rain (rain jacket, hat and pants).
• The river water, although clear, is not potable. Bring plenty of fresh water, especially if it is going to be hot.
• On an extended paddle, you will need to purify your water (iodine tablets, filter, boiling).
• Drinking alcohol and boating do not mix.
• Wear your life jacket. It can’t save a life if you don’t have it on.
• Get off the river before nightfall.

Cindy Ross is the author of six books on adventuring in the wild. She has a difficult time coming indoors.

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