Morning On The Upper Delaware

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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.

 
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.

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.