Morning On The Upper Delaware

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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.”