Upper Delaware National Wild and Scenic River

author: Pat Reilly
date: February 2007

Come with me, if you will, on a tour of the Delaware River. Since my travels down this long waterway have all been solo trips, I'd like to share the experience and invite you along for a virtual tour. We'll begin at the top and cover the river in 3 months. Sit back and relax, this is one lovely river.

At last, Hancock, New York. We'll put in on the West Branch on the other side of town in Pennsylvania. Hancock looks to be a mellow river town, check out all the fly-fishing outfitters. Some of them use dories like western river outfitters.

Finally on the water at 6:20 PM and right away here's the confluence with the East Branch, the official start of the wild and scenic river. Now that we're actually paddling it feels so much better! All that lousy driving and messing with details is behind us. What a beautiful river. Look, right off there's a bald eagle, and downstream another one! Wow!

It's striking how different this river is from our Susquehanna. The Delaware is so variable. For starters, the width ranges from 100 feet to ½ mile with the main current all over the place, varying from one side to the other and braiding around many grassy islands. And the water quality – this river runs so clear! You can see bottom in 7 feet of water which allows you to note the number of deep holes. Sometimes the river runs dark and deep for long stretches. Other times we must pick just the right channel to get through ½ mile of cobble formed riffles. The 'mile-wide, foot-deep' Susquehanna seems almost monotonous by comparison. The difference is due to the fact that the upper Delaware was under a huge ice cap just 20,000 years ago while the Susquehanna has been running undisturbed for millions of years.

There's not a lot of water for June. May, 2005 has been very dry. We just have to really read the river.

There's the mouth of Equinunk Creek. The town of Equinunk is supposed to be here too. I suppose those few houses are it. The cliffs there on river right look magnificent lit by the fading sun.

Now here's the secluded stretch I picked out on the topo maps. And none too soon, it's nearly dark. We'll go for that nice sandy beach. It's surprising how little land is posted from the river, especially considering all this land is private. The river sure is posted from the road making it nearly impossible to get to the water without using designated access spots. The National Park Service does not own land up here. They are here to regulate land usage and keep the river 'wild and scenic'. They do not provide camp sites.

Technically, we're camping in the river bed! It's a long walk from the water's edge to the actual wooded river bank where there is fire wood. All along this river you will often notice large areas of grassy sand bar or exposed cobble between the flowing water and the steep tree-lined river bank, again differing from most familiar rivers where the water generally flows right up to the banks. Yet another difference is the mud, or lack of it. It seems like every time you step out of your boat expecting to sink knee deep into the ooze, you encounter firm sand instead. That welcome change is due to the Delaware's upper watershed being locked up in protected forest land. With many of the river's reservoirs supplying water to New York City, the forest around them is preserved to maintain good water quality. So the Delaware carries a lot less silt (aka mud) than other eastern rivers.

Less silt equals clearer water, but another factor contributes to the Delaware's extraordinary water clarity. It's the strange relationship between river mussels and eels that club members who attended the January, 07 meeting will have learned about from river-keeper Mike Helfrich. It seems an abundant population of mussels and clams can filter the water and help keep it clean. But native species of these mollusks rely on eels to host their larvae. And eels no longer migrate up rivers with dams. Thus the dam-free Delaware is blessed with clean clear water while our Susquehanna rarely has visibility over 2 feet.

The mac and cheese dinner went down well. That worked out okay, cooking up on the river bank where the wood is, then negotiating the tall grass (and the stinging nettles) back to the beach to eat. Can't remember doing it that way before, but whatever works. The mosquitoes aren't bad but those darn ticks, that's the 5th one I've pulled off my legs! Check out the leopard frog sitting in the water, that species is rare on the Susquehanna. And listen to all those green frogs grunting. This river is just full of life! Pass the scotch, another sip and I'll sleep like a baby in this soft sand.

Crunch, bang! What the ...? Oh, it's those other campers we passed last evening in their noisy aluminum boats. Well, it is 7:00 am and time to get on the water.

It's easy to see where Long Eddy gets its name, there's over 2 miles of very deep slack water here. No help from the current, but who cares, it's just beautiful. Plenty of green mountain side mixed with a bit of open pasture. Development is confined to occasional old river homes and rustic camps. The railroad is not very disturbing, I think I heard just 2 trains last night. The paralleling shuttle road (route 97) is seldom visible or loud and sometimes leaves the river for miles where it humps over mountains.

Wow, we're passing the aluminum folks already, over on the wrong side of the river, out of their boats and dragging. Learn to read water, guys! What's this, a rapid where the river necks down to Yellow Breeches width. Maps don't list this one, but it looks powerful and pushy, albeit short. Whatever, it sure spices up the morning. Looks like that little tributary on river left flooded recently kicking out all this debris, choking the river down and forming a brand new rapid. That's something else you won't see on the ultra-wide Susquehanna. Interesting!

Finally, the bridge at Callicoon, New York, time to re-supply Gatorade and have some lunch. Eating here under the bridge, we see a multitude of mollusks. The sand bars are full of clams and mussels. Man, it's chilly for June, where's the sun?

Back in the boat, we've got to keep moving. Lots of braids and islands keep things interesting in this stretch. There's the bridge that signals Skinners Falls, the upper Delaware's most famous rapid. Stop so I can put on my spray skirt. Scout? Nah, it's straight forward enough, I ran it 2 years ago with the family in our open canoe. Eddy left behind those ledge rocks below the drop, I want to get a picture.

Back to more flat water. Check out the eel trap, this one is still being worked forcing us into this narrow channel. See that mountain gap ahead? Once through it, we'll be in Narrowsburg where the river bottlenecks between two rock outcrops and is reported to be 170 feet deep!

Another water stop at another quaint little Delaware River town – Narrowsburg, New York. Now we've got 4 named rapids on the final 12 miles of the day and I'm looking forward to them. But first, we're faced with these tedious shallows just below town.

Railroad Bridge Rapid sure ain't much, a big long riffle. Masthope is disappointing too. Okay, here we go, Colang Rapid is a good one with big waves on river left, head for the meat! Kunkeli is even bigger, this one rivals Skinners, technical and long.

Now all is serene as we approach the Lackawaxen River with Zane Grey's old house just below the mouth signaling our take out. Just downstream is the famous Roebling Aqueduct, now an auto bridge.

Besides the lack of extensive development, notice the lack of purple loosestrife, that stifling invasive plant that is choking off native wetland vegetation everywhere else? Instead there are plenty of patches, fields even, of tall green grass (saw grass, is it?), the kind that can almost cut your legs when you walk through it. There is also plenty of that other common riverside invasive, Japanese knotweed. In fact, I used a bunch of it to hide the bicycle here at the take out.

Forty mile day, but it's not over yet, there's some biking to do before the next camp. Afterward I'm meeting my sister for a 5-day trip to Vermont, leaving my car and gear with the Delaware's biggest outfitter, Kitattinny Canoe. I'll meet you there in 5 days and we'll knock off the rest of the river.

Okay, here we go again chasing daylight as it's even later than when we put in at Hancock. Yeah, Vermont was good, but I missed not having a boat. Gotta turn my sister into a paddler.

Leaving Lackawaxen behind, we have nice constant riffles for 2 miles to the first named drop – Cedar Rapids. There, just above the rapid is Kitattinny Canoe Barryville campground where I've twice car camped with my Thai wife, some friends and about a zillion other Thai folks, mostly from New York City. That worked well, spend all day on the river and all evening at the 100-foot long buffet table. Thais know how to eat!

Now comes Barryville and some development on river left. It's gone as we paddle under the bridge and head toward Shohola Rapid and its big waves. Whoa, not very big today due to low water level. Those cliffs on river right are called Elephants Feet. Note how deep this pool is.

We need a camp spot and now. There's no homes through here and the road is way up above the river so we'll grab that flat spot atop the steep bank on river left. That's right, the bank with the poison ivy, it'll have to do. No wonder it's so steep, it's the side of the old Delaware Canal and we're camping right on the towpath. Cool! Lucky the canal, cut into the side of a cliff at this point, is too dry for mosquitoes to breed. Okay, the plan - fire, dinner, relax a bit and sleep. Tonight it's leftovers from Vermont - noodles and broccoli in Alfredo sauce.

Wow, check out the morning fog! This will be fun paddling if we can manage to read the river. As the fog lifts we see more river side camps than on the upper stretches. But not many people in them. Some are not even open. For that matter we've not seen many boaters this whole trip. We're paddling weekdays, true, but it's mid June. Is this not peak season? I believe this river only really gets out of hand on July and August and then only during weekend afternoons when all the rentals are out. Excursions from the Thai camps at Barryville during August weekend mornings were fairly lonely with more fishermen than paddlers. Overcrowding on this river just doesn't seem to be as bad as reported.

Here's another old eel weir, we'll run this one right down the middle of the 'V' and through the chute. Nice cruising again with sparse development but lots of slack water. Duh, I guess that's what one would expect when paddling 'Pond Eddy'.

Here we go, the rapids are starting up again with Staircase. Seems every river has a Staircase Rapid, eh? This one is long, if not big, with good views of the cliffs at Hawks Nest.

On down to the Mongaup River which is releasing today adding some welcome flow to the Delaware. Looks like a nice rapid right here at the mouth. Whoa, check the size of that wave! Can't believe I wimped out and skirted its big foam pile. This is a well known rodeo boaters' park and play spot.

The reservoir on the Mongaup is one of many that can release water into the upper Delaware. It releases to generate power, but most reservoirs are for water storage. They can and do release to keep the Delaware flowing at a decent level all summer long, meaning this river is never too low to paddle.

We must stay river right of the island here to get the best part of Cherry Island Rapid, a bit juicer than the others thanks to the additional flow from the Mongaup. This railroad bridge below the rapid signals the end of the wild and scenic river. But we've got a few more good miles featuring some scenic cliffs and another rapid before development sets in at Port Jervis.

Here's our takeout at the town beach, wave to the lifeguard. The bicycle is stashed up in town, locked to a tree. What, no shuttle again? You'll miss the scenic ride over Hawk's Nest with photo-worthy views of the river. In any event, hope you'll be back next month for the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2007 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.