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Perspectives from the River

Tue Jun 29, 2010 / Sierra Gladfelter

The river is full of boats gliding past each other, paddles dipping in the slivers of water between kayaks. We are one darting flock of colored vessels: yellow and orange and red buoyed on the current like dried autumn leaves beneath the glowing tunnel of trees. There are over one hundred people on the river today, all paddling with the Schuylkill River Sojourn- an annual 112-mile guided paddle trip the length of the river from Schuylkill Haven to Philadelphia.

Launching 100 canoes and kayaks is an orchestrated act of chaos, as everyone is shoved into the current and slowed under the hanging branches until we are ready to move downstream. A guide leads and another sweeps. We follow, a serpentine line of kayaks winding with the current until we bunch up at the throat of a rapid.

River guides marked with trailing orange and pink flagging ribbon maneuver their boats into eddies below rocks marking obstacles, shouting direction and encouragement as each boat torpedoes through the rush. Those who have already gone through, bob in the calm pools below, and cheer for the paddlers receiving the greatest lap-full of water. Rocking and dragging our boats through shimmering shoals of rocks, we remind ourselves of something one of the Sojourn’s veteran paddlers, Fran Griffin said earlier,: “A boat without scratches has never lived.”

The participants on the Sojourn come from towns and cities up and down the watershed. Some have been doing the trip for years, and reunite with their friends on this annual pilgrimage. I am on the Schuylkill Sojourn for the first time in order meet other paddlers who share a connection to the Schuylkill River, for I have grown up paddling the streams and upper branches since I was a baby.

Although I came alone on this Sojourn, I was adopted immediately by couples and cousins, and pairs of mothers and daughters who ushered me over to their patches of grass at lunch to talk about our paddling pasts. Sitting our wet bottoms on warm concrete we pop grapes and lemon cookies. Some of our boats are just attracted to each other crossing flat water and when we aren’t distracted with our eyes on rapids, we paddle mindlessly and chat.

Crossing the still water above Landingville, thick with ripe algae and floating plants, I catch sight of a bald eagle poised regally in a snag across the reservoir. Hot weather and burning sun promise water wars. Hordes of “river pirates” in our midst emerge with super soakers bungeed to the bows of their kayaks. Nothing like a blast of river water in the face: blink and don’t swallow. Sometimes water guns don’t cut it, and we slip out of our boats to sit on the riverbed with our feet bobbing up to the surface and the current rushing over us.

Stretching toward Reading, we slip under a string of bridges, some active and rumbling with traffic. Others are desolate and dripping creosote with “Reading Lines” from the days of the railroad stamped on their face. Dark water wraps around the concrete bases plastered with fading graffiti as the current drags us on to Philadelphia. Old mills, factories and warehouses with tiny squares of glass punched out are visible through thickets of invasive knotweed fringing the banks. Relics of the Industrial Era drift past.

As we paddle downstream in a parade of colorful boats, families come out to stand on bridges and the edges of lawns that roll down to the edge of the river. From lawn chairs set out on the riverbank they wave and cheer us on. “Where you from?” they holler, kids hanging over the rails above us on bridges. “You made our day!”

In the evenings we sit around smoldering fires and visit with some of these people, locals and community members in charge of maintaining the river parks we sleep in. Big-bellied suspendered men relate their granddaddy’s history working the canal, lamenting the changes. But the river keeps running and they linger maintaining a playground where balls roll over the bank and get whisked away in the current.

Each day new people join our group for the day, sometimes a few as others leave to return to work, home, and their lives back on land. But others hammer on, committed to paddling the whole trip from source to mouth. As our group of fellow paddlers from up and down the watershed fluctuates each day I’ve tried to capture a few of their faces, a piece of their story and their connection to the Schuylkill River.

- Sierra Gladfelter


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Great Stories!

Wed Jun 30, 2010 5:46 PM / Susan Fordyce

Loved reading the stories about the Schuylkill. Next time I see Ted Danforth - outfitter who was responsible for the evening campfires - I will let him know you described his fires as "smoldering"!! HAHA! Sue F