Delaware River - The Lower River

River of the month #96

author: Pat Reilly
date: April 2007

Here we go with part three of our Delaware River virtual tour. And in keeping with the previous two months, we’re going back in time as we progress down river. Now since this is a virtual tour time doesn’t really matter but for the record we’re launching at 3:00 pm on February 17, 2002. And we’re putting in at the same place we took out last month (er... I mean next year), Erwinna Park, about 6 miles up river from Point Pleasant and the mouth of the Tohickon Creek.

The wind is really howling, but it’s at our backs and we’re fairly sheltered in this neat labyrinth of islands that goes all the way to Point Pleasant. I enjoy weaving in and out of the islands and exploring narrow channels that look more like creeks. Most of these islands appear to be private with camps or homes and ‘no trespassing’ signs; glad we don’t need them for camping. Wind, fast water and easy riffles help us maintain a 7-mph pace - not bad! We need to make good time, it’ll be dark by 6:30.

What’s that up ahead? With the water rather slack, there appears to be some type of uniform riffle coming up. That could mean... yes, we’re at the first wing dam. Two wing dams, the only two dams on the entire Delaware, only partially hold back water with their ‘wings’ extending out from either shore. This leaves open water in mid river. Watch out though! The wings are generating ominous looking hydraulics at this level. The chute in the middle is narrower than I pictured (only about 1/5 the total river width) but not hard to hit, just cruise with the strongest current and follow the wave train.

Check out this foot bride spanning the river just below the dam. It connects two towpath bike trails on either side of the river. At this point there are two canals (with 2 trails) paralleling the river. The one on the Jersey side, the D + R canal, connects (or did connect) to New York City crossing New Jersey using the Raritan River and water from the Delaware via the wing dams. I’ll explore both canal trails on the bicycle shuttle.

Just 5 miles down stream from the first wing dam we’re at the second here in artsy New Hope. As the town and its fancy restaurants materialize on river right, it becomes apparent that we are in an impoundment and the winds are now whipping up some decent sized waves. Look, you can see the wings of the dam sticking out of the water on both sides crossing the river in a diagonal line. This means all water is channeled to the center where, uh oh, things are getting big! Yipe, it looks almost like Falmouth on the Susquehanna in here. Watch out for big rocks and pour-overs, not to mention all these big waves.

Whew! That was unexpected, and more than a little dicey in the ole’ wildwater boat. A swim here would have been long and cold and I probably would have had to kiss the boat goodbye. That is without a doubt, the heaviest rapid on the Delaware. And no wonder, it is where the belt of diabase rock crosses the river.

With Bucks County, Pa. on river right and heading toward Trenton, NJ on river left, I expected more development. But the river banks are rather ‘parksy’, with spacious lawns, groves of large trees and only small towns. And now it looks especially groomed as we paddle past Washington Crossing State Park on the Pa side. If you don’t know what historic event took place here you must’ve flunked history.

With darkness closing fast we’re grabbing this island just above Scudders Falls, the last rapid on the Delaware. The temp is dropping through the 20s, better change clothes and get a fire going - fast. (For a list of items taken on this camp trip as it pertains to a discussion of river camping equipment, see River of the Month #57 on the Blue Mountain Outfitters website)

This thicket of vines would be a spot to avoid in summer but with no foliage it will provide some shelter from the wind. We’re closer to main roads than I like to be, but what can you do down here on the lower Delaware? At least the wind noise prevents us from hearing traffic and from our site we get a nice view of the lights of Trenton just downstream. Tonight we’re cooking pasta.

Underway before 7:00 am and over Scudder Falls, a nice medium sized wave train. Now urban conditions set in with Trenton on river left and Morrisville on river right. Under the downtown bridges and over a few rocky riffles that are the last on the Delaware. Nothing but tidewater now as we begin to see barges and buoyed channels.

Plenty of industry to see on the Jersey side, but the Pa side has lots of thick bushy swamp land cut by some channels that look inviting. But don’t be fooled. This whole area just north of Philadelphia intrigued me when scanning it on topographic maps. There’s a big body of water - Van Sciver Lake, smaller ponds and open space without city streets or buildings. ‘What goes on here’, I used to wonder? Well, that can be answered in one word – landfill. Yes, the area on river right is where they build small mountains out of Philly’s trash. It’s dotted with some old fishing clubs and even a small state park, Pennsboro Manor, the site of William Penn’s house. I used the manor’s spacious and quiet riverfront to stash my shuttle bicycle. So here is where this trip ends. We won’t pick it up again until fall.

We meet again for the last section of river. Seems like most of our launches on this trip have been late with little daylight left. Well this time the launch is flat out in the dark. It’s 5:30 pm on the last day of November, 2002. My bike shuttle from Camden took longer than I thought. It was interesting though, peddling over the gigantic Ben Franklin Bridge, through the endless ghettos of North Philly, the suburbs of Levittown and on to Van Sciver Lake and its mountains of garbage.

Paddling in the dark should not be a problem. There's no boat traffic to speak of, just the occasional barge or tug like that one going by now. Lots of lights on both sides of the river as we paddle past industry, docks and suburbs. Sometimes it’s hard to get your perspective and the strange shapes on shore look a bit ominous, but I feel safe, there is adequate light and nothing to run into. Nothing, that is, except tidal flats. With low tide we are sometimes running into mud bars. Low tide also means it will soon be coming in and running against our progress.

Past Bristol, Pa and under the second bridge. Oh brother! look at the current around that bridge pier. The incoming tide is good and strong, probably 2 mph, much more than I had anticipated. No wonder progress has been slow. Well, Neshaminy State Park is coming up on river right. We’ll pull over there for some sleep and continue this thing when the tide changes.

Looks like nice lonely river bank here at the park. Yes, I know we’re trespassing with the park closed, and that camping is not allowed. But we’re just going to lay out a sleeping bag and get some rest here along the river and wait for the tide change. With no camp fire, no one will know we were here. I don’t see the problem.

We slept through the outgoing tide! It’s 4:45 am and it will be coming in again shortly, dang! The wind has really picked up and now is screaming in from the southwest, the exact direction we are paddling.

There’s mixed feelings as the sun comes up over the cityscape. The scenery is interesting with big docks and factories mixed with residential areas and parks. But the paddling is tough. This rather short plastic boat is slow and the howling wind and tide are both against us. Ice is adding to our weight, really building up on the deck and sprayskirt as big waves crash over the bow.

Progress has slowed to no more than 2 mph as we grind our way under the Betsy Ross Bridge into downtown Philadelphia. I can’t believe the size of these waves. The river is much wider down here but is still not as wide as the Susquehanna. Yet, there are very few times where I’ve encountered waves this big and this steep back home. I believe it has to do with the water depth which is dredged deep to accommodate big ships.

Trying to take some refuge along side this tall bulkhead on river right makes matters even worse as the waves bounce off the wall and get very chaotic. Making any headway is tough bobbing around like lost flotsam with steep-sided waves slamming us from both sides. Whoa! I just realized that huge ship up ahead is slowly moving toward us. Look, there are tugs maneuvering her into position alongside this very bulkhead. We gotta get outta here or get crushed. I can’t bear the thought of turning back so were going to cross the river.

Oh man, what I wouldn’t give to be in a real sea kayak at this point rather than this river boat (a Prijon Beluga). With the waves slamming into the side, I can barely keep this thing upright. I wonder if the pilot in the wheel house of that tug can see me and if he’ll call for rescue if I capsize. Put those negative thoughts to rest and concentrate on big Petty Island there near the Jersey shore.

Whew! We’re stopping here in the lee of this big industrial island. Not your typical Delaware River island, Petty Island has a petroleum-tank farm on it! But we can use it to take a break, wait for the sun to melt the ice off the boat and hopefully for the wind to die.

Under way again, things are easily manageable here on the east (and leeward) side of the island. But as we round the southern tip we’re back into the main river and the waves are bigger than ever and once again bouncing off bulkheads. That’s it, I’m not going the 8 miles to our planned take out at National Park, NJ. We’re heading up little Cooper River here into Camden, taking out and calling a cab. We had to call a cab anyway to get to Woodbury where my family is. The Cooper River will work, there is enough tangled wooded banks to hide the boat until I can return in the car.

This aborted trip’s tough finish is the end of our Delaware River tour. Good paddling continues for a long way past Philadelphia. My partner Mike and I have paddled down to Delaware City, De, well down in the Bay (but that’s another story). Unlike the Susquehanna which ends abruptly at Havre de Grace, it’s hard to say where Delaware River ends and Delaware Bay begins. But above Trenton, in non-tidal water, there is many a good river trip awaiting the exploratory boater.

Pat Reilly

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