Week 16: I Kayak on the Schuylkill River
Every year, the organization I work for, the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, holds a weeklong, 113-mile paddle down the Schuylkill known as the Schuylkill River Sojourn. It’s a major event and a tremendous amount of work for our small staff of six, so none of us actually get out on the water much. Still, every year I try to participate in a small piece of the sojourn, just to keep in tune with what it’s all about. (And, hey, I get to kayak in the middle of the working week!) This year, I chose a short section I’d never done before–a stretch of the river that spans from Douglassville to Pottstown. Here are ten things you might find interesting about my experience.
1. I am not a kayaker. My experience in a kayak is limited to the three other times I’ve ventured out onto the water during the sojourn, as well as a few paddles around a small lake in upstate New York. Oh yeah, and one fairly terrifying float onto Long Lake in Maine, when a sudden storm brought on rough water that left me and my kids spinning in circles. Fortunately, my husband, who has spent a lot more time in a canoe, guided us out. But you get the idea–I’m basically a beginner.
2. About the sojourn. Paddlers on the sojourn travel about 14-18 miles a day. Usually, there are anywhere from a maximum of 100 people on the water to about 75 people–most of whom only do part of the trip. They range from experts who have paddled all over the world, to novices who have never even picked up a paddle before. It’s a guided tour, which means there are safety boats, and it’s led by an organization called Canoe Susquehanna, run by Allan and Betsy Quant. Allan stays at the front and steers everyone safely through and around all obstacles. Betsy paddles the sweep boat at the back of the group. I always wind up near Betsy, because I am slow and don’t have great control of my kayak so if I’m in with a cluster of kayaks I bump into people. Also, I like Betsy.
3. About the Schuylkill This is the 13th year our organization has held the Schuylkill River Sojourn. Why would a nonprofit group devote so much time and energy to taking people on a weeklong trip from Schuylkill Haven to Philadelphia? Well, here’s something you might not know–rivers used to be dumping zones. Up until the middle of the 20th century (that’s right, less than 100 years ago) industrial waste and raw sewage were poured untreated into the Schuylkill. Coal production sent so much coal silt into the river that the water ran black. Beginning in 1948, the river was cleaned up through a major environmental undertaking called the Desilting Project. And in the 1950s, sewers were constructed and the Clean Water Act was enacted, restricting pollutants from being dumped into the water. So what does this have to do with the sojourn? The sojourn allows people to see for themselves that the river is beautiful and that it’s much cleaner than it once was. And research shows that people who spend time on a river are more likely to respect it and protect it.
4. Now, back to my experience: I’m really good at worrying, so I do it a lot. Even though I’ve paddled in the river before, I usually put a lot of energy into worrying about it right before I get on the water. Mostly, I’m afraid that I’ll lose control of my boat and go careening downstream or into something I shouldn’t be careening into, like a felled tree. So far, this has proven to be a groundless worry. Sojourners get breakfast, lunch and dinner on the trip (the food is so good that some people complain they gain weight despite paddling six to eight hours a day!) The piece of the river that I chose to do started after lunch at Old Morlatton Village, in Douglassville, and ended at Riverfront Park in Pottstown. I attended the lunch, which was awesome fried chicken served up by Union Township EAC on the lawn outside the Mouns Jones House. Tablecloths, candlelight and Vivaldi were included. Nevertheless, I was too busy worrying to eat much.
5. The lunch program: The sojourn has an educational component, so every lunch and overnight stop includes a presentation. This year, programming was organized by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, with a focus on conservation. The lunch presentation I attended was about gardening. The speaker talked a lot about her own really interesting garden, and about the importance of native plants. I was impressed by the fact that she had multiple rain barrels that can hold, altogether, 600 gallons of rainwater, and she uses this to water her garden. I took a pause from worrying to decide that I would order a few rain barrels for my garden.
6. On the water: After lunch for the sojourners and a goodly amount of worrying for me we finally headed to our kayaks. Mine was provided by our outfitter, HRO Adventures, who kindly placed the kayak by the water for me, at the end of a long trail. I’d already made friends with one of the safety people, a young woman named Sarah, who assisted me in getting into the water and advised me to stay at the back of the group. And then, I was in the water and I had one last moment of worry that I was going to go careening out of control. But I pretty quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen, and that the real challenge might be keeping up with the group. In any case, I settled easily into slowly paddling along.
7. Paddling: Sarah came along and gave me a few paddling pointers, noting that I shouldn’t be using my arms so much as my torso. This made absolutely no sense to me, but I spent much of my two hours in the water attempting this feat. I was also fortunate enough to meet up with Positively Pottstown blogger, Sue Repko–also a novice kayaker (but not, I noticed, as good a worrier as me, since she seemed pretty comfortable with her paddle). You can read her wonderful blog about the sojourn here.
8. Where are we? I am incredibly familiar with the area between Douglassville and Pottstown. However, seen from the river, it is a different world. And it is a really beautiful world. It’s been reported to us that people have seen eagles along this stretch of the river. The banks of the Schuylkill are lined with trees that block out views of roads and buildings. Your only landmarks are bridges, and it’s not always obvious which bridge you are passing under. So there you are, on a river that sits between Routes 724 and 422, and you are suddenly in a lush natural paradise. It is amazingly scenic. What’s more, temperatures were in the 90s but a cool breeze blew off the water and I never felt real hot. It’s also an easy piece of the river, with no dams to portage around and no other obstacles to manuever through (Although it’s worth mentioning that rivers change based on water levels and flood situations, so a fallen tree can create an obstacle where there wasn’t one the day before).
9. This was fun. People who go on the sojourn every year often talk about how much they love paddling–and many also say the Schuylkill River Sojourn is their favorite sojourn. Now I know why. It’s fun paddling with a group. You get to meet people, enjoy the scenery and get your exercise at the same time. And kayaks themselves are fun because they are lightweight and colorful and easy to manuever. Overall, being in the water on a beautiful day is just a very pleasant experience.
10. Please don’t tell my co-workers. It would be best if they didn’t know how much fun I had. Our entire staff works incredibly hard during the sojourn. Virtually all of my co-workers tell me they can’t even spend half a day on the water because they have so much work to do. I tell them that I’m only doing it for research purposes (I am the staff writer, so it helps if I know what I’m writing about). Still, when I return to the office I try to make it sound like being on the water was just okay. So if you read this and you know my co-workers, please don’t let them know that I really had a blast and that I have absolutely no regrets about abandoning my work for the day to spend a couple of hours in a kayak on a beautiful stretch of river.