A canoe trip along a river not far from industrial America reveals that the footprints of human history have been all but covered over by what looks like a primeval paradise
We slid the canoe into the river just above Skinner’s Falls, which is not really a falls but a rift, the word locals use for rapids. I had tried once before to run it and got hung up halfway through, cutting too close to the right bank down what looked like a safe channel but turned out on closer acquaintance not to be. This time I very much wanted to make the run cleanly. That was my son, Evan, sitting up in the bow, and while he knew me too well to be overly impressed by anything I did, it would have been nice to have, however modestly, shone. And it shouldn’t have been that hard. Skinner’s Falls rates a two on the official difficulty scale, which runs from one to seven. It wasn’t as if we were trying to shoot Niagara.
But if Heraclitus is right and you can’t step into the same river twice, you can certainly make the same mistake twice. We cut too close to the right. It was my fault; I was in the back steering. Seduced by the same nonexistent channel, I stranded us on what must have been the same rock, which, if there were any justice, ought henceforth to bear my name. No amount of pushing with paddles, shifting of weight, or cursing delivered us. Evan finally got out of the canoe, stood on the rock, and pulled us off. The force of the current then swung my end around, and we wound up navigating the rest of the rift going backward. It was, of course, intensely embarrassing.
“A rocky beginning, eh, Dad?” said Evan, a cheerfully sardonic young man, when we were through.
For seventy-five miles, from Hancock to Port Jervis, the upper Delaware is a long series of rifts and eddies (as the locals call the occasional deep pools) and stretches of just plain shallow river, clear mountain water running between the tall, wooded slopes of the western Catskills on the New York side and the eastern Poconos on the Pennsylvania. The water is clear because the soil in these mountains is poor and thin, and the forest holds firmly to what there is of it. Richard Smith, who descended the river by birchbark canoe in 1769 with two Indian guides, called the land “hilly, stoney, broken, barren, and little worth.” That was in the days before scenery like this was thought to be beautiful, but the description is still accurate. It was of such little worth that there were virtually no settlements then. There aren’t many now. The water is clean and clear, and the rocky bottom of the river is visible at depths of up to eight feet. You can also see the trout, which are plentiful, poised among the stones, and the pods of shad, twenty, fifty, one hundred fish moving upstream about as fast as a man can walk. And if you lift your eyes from the water in some particularly empty stretch and look around at the dense mix of pine and maple and beech on the slopes and the river disappearing ahead of you around a bend and there is nothing else, maybe a family of mergansers hugging the shore, two or three turkey vultures riding updrafts overhead, you can imagine that this is the way it must have been in the beginning; this is what the river must have been like before it had a history.
To do so, of course, you have to ignore the history that did transpire here. One of the fascinations of the upper Delaware is that it is so characteristically American a landscape, so much a place of stunning natural beauty that it looks to be, but is not, a remnant of the aboriginal paradise the continent once was. This is, on the contrary, a recovered beauty, the kind that returns when history has passed over a place and then passed it by. All the dense forest is second growth. One hundred years ago not a tree stood on these hills; they had been completely logged out. In the evening it is common to see deer come down to the river to drink. By the end of the nineteenth century deer in this area had been hunted nearly to extinction. Wild turkey abound in the woods, but they are the product of restocking by state agencies. So too with the trout. In the 189Os shad was taken from the river—nineteen million pounds a year at the peak. In 1950 fishermen caught a grand total of ninety-three shad on the entire river above Trenton. The fish are back now because water-pollution levels in the lower Delaware have been reduced sufficiently to allow them through, and because we have long since forgotten our craze for shad roe.
We forget almost everything. History is one of the few resources Americans haven’t fully exploited. You have to dig deep in county histories and the accounts of obscure local writers to find out that Skinner’s Falls is named after Daniel Skinner, “lord high admiral” of the Delaware. Skinner was granted that title by popular acclaim when in 1764 he ran the first raft of white pines from the upper river to Philadelphia, where there was a great demand for white pine for spars for sailing ships. Skinner got four pounds sterling apiece for his logs, and his success opened the upper river to exploitation by lumbermen. By 1828 as many as a thousand rafts, fifty million board feet of lumber, were coming down on each year’s spring freshets, when a raft could be taken through the rapids. Skinner, it is said, put his title to good use. No one was free to engage in rafting without the admiral’s consent, which you bought with a bottle of claret. A second bottle, and you could go as a steersman.
The raftsmen named everything in their day, every rift, every eddy, every turn, every boulder. By the end of the nineteenth century, when there were no more trees, rafting was dead. Most of the names have been forgotten.
The paddling was easy once we got through Skinner’s Falls. We had driven up the evening before, taken a room in Milford, Pennsylvania, at the Tom Quick Inn, a classically funky place that has never, thank God, seen the hand of a decorator, and we arrived at Skinner’s Falls around tenthirty in the morning. We stocked the canoe with potables and edibles—ginger ale, potato chips, other health foods—arranged to have our car driven to the Ten Mile River landing, where we would put ashore, backed through Skinner’s Falls, and life turned lazy. You don’t go especially fast down this river. It takes two and a half days for water from the Pepacton Reservoir, which is the farthest one upstream, to reach Milford, where the Delaware river master makes daily readings of the flow. Through its reservoirs New York City takes up to eight hundred million gallons a day from the Delaware Basin, but a 1954 court decree requires the city to maintain a flow of 1,750 cubic feet per second at Milford. That’s enough for canoeing, but just barely. Only after heavy rains, or in the early spring when the snow is melting, is the water high and swift. We were canoeing on a mild, sunny Saturday in mid-May; it hadn’t rained for two weeks or more, so the river was low and lazy. The slopes had only just filled out, and the greens of the foliage were still fresh and varied. You could feel as if you were inside an Impressionist painting.
Evan sat in front, and he would notice the fish first and point them out to me: trout, shad, eels. There are eel weirs in the river that date from Indian times, long wide Vs of rock that aim downstream to force the eels into traps laid at the points of the Vs. You can’t canoe over the weirs; you have to go around them. After a while you come to know something about the rocks; you read the surface ahead and look for their wake, which is a V pointing upstream, not down. The rocks won’t break the surface, but the V will still be there, a gentle undulation in the water, a permanent wake, something to avoid. Sometimes if the rock is broad enough, it won’t make a wake; you look down, and there it is, looming up, climbing toward the surface right beneath you, and you just skim over it. The feeling is strange, not quite fear—because there’s almost no danger—but something like the feeling of driving fast along back roads in the country and passing other cars going equally fast the other way. You round a bend, and suddenly they’re upon you, and if the road is narrow, the margins are bound to be thin. Not fear but a quiver—a small but satisfying thrill.
Skinner’s Falls had taught me to pay more attention to the rifts, and we ran them without much trouble thereafter. Most of the rifts on the upper Delaware rate only a one on the difficulty scale. A few rate a two, including Skinner’s Falls. We did get hung up briefly on one rift but pushed off the rock with our paddles. We got caught in an eel weir, too, and had to drag the canoe over it. In another spot the river ran so shallow we had no choice but to get out and walk. Depths are unpredictable on the Delaware. You’ll pass a river island, scraping your aluminum canoe over shallows where the depth runs in inches, then find yourself in an eddy where the water is 20 feet deep. It’s that way at Narrowsburg, six miles below Skinner’s Falls; you come around a big bend, then another where the river has ground into the hills and carved a sheer slate wall that’s full of tiny caves the size of a fist; then you pass under a bridge, and suddenly the water is black. It’s called Big Eddy, and it’s 113 feet deep. Then, just as suddenly, the rocks loom up from underneath, and within a quarter of a mile you’re maneuvering through shallows again.
I took the same trip years ago with some friends on a weekday, when no one else was on the river, and we kept coming upon a great blue heron that would take flight when we approached and land a quarter mile farther on. Two or three times this happened, until at last the bird swung around us and flew back upstream. Later I found in the writings of John Burroughs a description of a trip he had made on the upper Delaware eighty or ninety years before, and there is that same heron “that kept flying up in advance of me. Every mile or so, as I rounded some point, I would come unexpectedly upon him, till finally he grew disgusted with my silent pursuit, and took a long turn to the left up along the side of the mountain, and passed back up the river, uttering a low, hoarse note.”
The last panthers were hunted out in the early 1800s. Somewhere I came upon the story of one that followed a woman for miles through the woods, making a sound like a crying baby the whole time. In 1837, which was a year of financial panic in the United States, the beechnut crop was astonishingly plentiful in the upper Delaware Basin and passenger pigeons descended on the area by the millions. The forest was littered with beech branches broken off by the weight of the birds, and the settlers said that the noise they made was so loud you could fire a gun into their midst and it would not be heard a hundred feet away. The locals killed them by the hundreds of thousands—shooting them, clubbing them, capturing them in nets—and shipped them downriver. They made more money from pigeons that year than from rafting.
We didn’t canoe as far as Minisink Ford, but we stopped there after we picked up the car and looked at the old battle site. During the Revolutionary War a group of Indians and Tories under the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant defeated a band of pursuing militia. It was a foolish battle; the militia was outmaneuvered and outfought, and should have stayed home; of eighty militiamen, only thirty survived.
Brant’s biographer tells us that as the chief wandered around the battlefield after his victory, he found one Gabriel Wisner, “a gentleman of great respectability,” mortally wounded but still conscious. Brant could see that the man was dying, that he couldn’t save him, and that he couldn’t leave him to the wolves either. “The thought … that Wisner might be torn in pieces while yet alive, seemed to him even more than savage cruelty.” Distracting the man with conversation and diverting his attention, Brant “struck him dead in an instant, and unperceived, with his hatchet.” Wisner and his fellow dead were not buried, incidentally, until 1822, when their bones were gathered and taken to Goshen, New York, for interment.
Minisink Ford is also where the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which carried coal from the hills of eastern Pennsylvania to the Hudson River near Kingston, whence it was taken to market in New York, crossed the Delaware on an aqueduct. The aqueduct still stands. Today it is owned by the National Park Service and has been restored to its original appearance, except that now, instead of barges, cars cross it—one at a time. Opened in 1849, it was the work of John A. Roebling, who later designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge, and it is the oldest cable suspension bridge in America.
We stopped to look at it, and a park ranger gave us a brief account. When it was an aqueduct, he said, it supported 2,000 tons of water, but Roebling so overdesigned the bridge—each cable is made of 2,150 wrought iron wires—that it could have taken a lot more. Each boat held 130 tons of coal, and it took four or five days to walk one through the 108-mile length of the canal.
The canal has attracted a lot of attention from historians, but the Roebling bridge is all that remains of it. The railroads ultimately drove it out of business. In the valley of the Neversink River, about ten miles northeast of Port Jervis, stand the piers of another Roebling suspension bridge that carried the canal over that river. Part of the D&H Canal Park, they rise in the woods like Mayan ruins, large abandoned masonry structures that cannot help evoking a kind of nostalgia for all the life and labor here irrecoverably lost to time. You can see the last surviving piece of the canal nearby and visit a small museum on the site.
Five miles below Big Eddy we ran our last small rift and I pulled over to the landing at Ten Mile River. We had traveled eleven miles and been on the water about three and a half hours. It was a peaceful trip, mildly adventurous here and there but never particularly dangerous, nor was the paddling any real effort. We passed one short freight train going north, its sound filling the valley long before it appeared. The rifts are loudest after you have gone through them. On this Saturday in the middle of May, the river, while not crowded, was well populated, so if you like your rivers lonely, weekdays are best. But even on busy days the upper Delaware doesn’t get the visitors it once did. In the late 1800s the tiny village of Shohola, with a permanent population of fewer than a thousand people, boasted no fewer than twenty-six hotels, boardinghouses, and eating establishments catering to one hundred thousand tourists a year. Now Shohola has one surviving hotel. Whereas the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, south of Milford, gets more than four million visitors a year, the river above Port Jervis is, comparatively, practically unknown.
A mystery that so lovely a wilderness should remain so neglected in the populous East. Port Jervis is only seventy miles from New York City, a hundred and fifty from Philadelphia. But rivers are mysterious by nature, and not just because you don’t know what’s around the next bend. The ancients believed that four rivers flowed from a single source in the earthly paradise, and could you but follow one of them toward the source and bathe in those purest of waters, you would remain forever young. There were rivers, in other words, that could reverse the inevitable wasting away that attends us, that were a metaphor not for life but for immortality. This river is no such miracle, but as a metaphor it will serve. We imagine our paradises to be natural now, not a garden but a wilderness, and here it is, unexpectedly restored to us so close to home. The panthers are gone, but not the bears. The water is low but still navigable. Perhaps we forget the history on purpose, since there is little noble about it; we would rather think this wilderness had never been tamed.
In a way it never was. Even the Indians didn’t settle on the upper Delaware. None of America’s great landscape artists ever painted it. It still looks a little raw, as if the glaciers had only recently receded. Its history has left little mark. Maybe this is indeed the way it was in the beginning, and the place can stand for all in the way of paradise we have elsewhere lost.