Monday, August 20, 2007

One Small Piece of the Delaware

Since we enjoyed ourselves so much on last Sunday's float down the Raritan, we decided to explore another area waterway this weekend. After some deliberating, a trip down the mighty Delaware River was selected. The weather forecast was favorable for both days, so this time we figured we could add camping into the mix. This trip was a bit longer (about 27 miles) and took us both Saturday and Sunday to complete. Since we would be spending an overnight in the woods, it naturally required a little more planning as well. One issue we faced was whether to drive two vehicles up there and do our own shuttling or hire one of the local rental outfits to take us and our boats upstream. At current gasoline prices, I calculated that it would cost $62 round-trip in fuel alone for the second vehicle, and after several telephone inquiries I discovered that it wouldn't be THAT much more to have someone else do the shuttle part.

We woke early and drove two hours up to Marshall's Creek, PA where we paid the $80 freight to have our two kayaks, our gear, and ourselves taken upstream to our selected put-in at Dingman's Ferry. We then drove back across the bridge to the Delaware Water Gap Visitor Center where we planned to end our journey, advised a ranger that we intended to leave our vehicle there overnight, and waited for our shuttle driver. We didn't yet know that there were already several other groups ahead of us and waiting too. When the shuttle van-trailer combo arrived a short while later there was no room for us. However, we were assured the next shuttle would be by in only 15 minutes. So we waited... and waited. After 30 minutes I called the company and was told that they were a little behind schedule because one of their trucks had gotten a flat tire. Uh huh. At the one-hour mark I was assured by the dispatcher that our driver's arrival was imminent. Right. We ended up waiting there an hour and a half in total. That was AFTER having to drive over to Pennsylvania, wait 30 minutes in line at their actual place of business to sign a stupid waiver form and remit our money, then drive back across to New Jersey to park. This is precisely what we had feared about relinquishing control of any part of our trip to one of these liveries that make their business renting watercraft to tourists and ferrying them to and from the local access points along the river. We expected to lose some time when we decided to play it this way, but we didn't figure it would cost us three whole hours. My advice to anyone contemplating this or a similar trip is shuttle yourself if you possibly can.

It was 2:00pm when we finally pushed off from the boat ramp at Dingman's. Our original plan was to split the 27 miles approximately in half. Our pre-trip research indicated that there were five campsites located on Depew Island which suited our plan well, but now with this late start we would have to adapt and just wait and see how far we got. We knew there were other campsites along the banks which were closer, but our driver told us while en-route to Dingman's that since all those sites are free and on a first-come-first-served basis, they would likely be snapped up early, especially on a Saturday. This was not at all what we wanted to hear. After the long wait we just encountered, that news was like rubbing salt in our wounds. He recommended stopping no later than 5:00pm to improve our odds at getting any site at all. That only gave us three hours! Well, we were here to have fun so we just let all that go and figured whatever happens, happens. We left all of our misgivings and aggravation on the shore and headed south with the current.

Once underway, our attitude adjustment was immediately helped along by gorgeous blue skies, a perfect-for-anything 78 degree summer day, and a 10mph tailwind. Life was suddenly good again! The water was clear enough to see the bottom to a depth of about six feet, which meant that most of the trip we had a good view of the rocky floor zooming by below us. There are deeper eddies here and there, but mostly the river is wide and fairly shallow. We even touched bottom two or three times on gravel bars, but never got stuck anywhere. We zipped along at what felt like a brisk pace and never paddled hard in an effort to "make up time".

One huge difference between this trip and the last one was the amount of people on the water. There are dozens of livery outfits up and down this river who (it would appear) make a killing renting out boats by the hundreds. I couldn't begin to count how many people we saw floating along with us. That's not to say it detracted from our enjoyment at all, even though both my wife and I normally prefer to seek our adventures well OFF the beaten path. The Delaware is plenty big for all who want to experience its charms, at least it was on THIS section, on THIS day, for US. Perhaps the heavy traffic could be a problem in other sections. I certainly wouldn't want to have to wait my turn to run through a rapid or sluice, but that never happened on this trip. Then again, maybe it was because by the time WE came along, everyone had already quit for the day to claim their free campsite?

Speaking of rapids, there are many on this stretch of river but none rated higher than class I+. The guidebook says that this section is suitable for people with little or even no paddling experience. Since neither my wife nor I have a desire to run real whitewater in our kayaks, we felt this section would be a nice relaxing choice. The longer riffles and choppy sections, combined with the occasional two foot standing waves, still managed to quicken our pulse as we traversed them even though we have had our boats out on open bays in much more challenging situations. Don't forget that you can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

hunger pangs reminding us to eat

After two hours on the water we began to think about food. It was already four o'clock and well past the time we had planned to stop for lunch. All we had eaten since breakfast at 8:00am was one tomato each. Our food bag was stored in one of our hatches so we pulled up side-by-side in the middle of the stream and dug it out. We decided that rather than stopping and losing time eating on the riverbank, we would just eat in our boats while drifting with the current. So, apart from an occasional stroke here and there to keep ourselves aimed downstream, we did just that. It was actually quite comfortable, perhaps even more so than what we would have found ashore.

a capable pair at rest

Around 5:30pm we had made it a good 13 miles and all the way through "Walpack Bend" which is a giant S-curve in the river where it reverses direction twice. This bend adds a full three miles to the length of the river. We had made it much farther than we expected after that late start and had somehow managed to make up all that time without even trying. I suspect the tailwind was responsible. We could have even made it to our original target, Depew Island, but there was some question as to whether the campsites there had been obliterated in last year's flood. Without knowing for sure what awaited us downstream, we decided to take the next open site on the riverbank IF we were fortunate enough to find one unoccupied. Every site we had passed up to this point was taken so we had our doubts. But sure enough, a mile or so later we came upon a group of sites on the New Jersey side, saw an open one, and claimed it by beaching our craft on the adjacent shore. The next boater came along only two minutes later and took the site next to us which I believe was the last one available in this group of twelve sites, so we felt somewhat fortunate to get what we got.

stairway to heaven

The campsites in this area are on a shelf of land which is a short but nearly vertical twenty-foot climb up from the water. Ours had makeshift steps carved into the densely packed soil, as well as some exposed tree roots to grab onto that made the trip up and down a bit easier. We transported all of our camping and cooking gear up the hill and set up the tent. It is surprising how much stuff fits in the hatches of our kayaks. We brought a three-person tent, two sleeping bags, FOUR full-sized sleeping pads (in case we ended up having to sleep on a stony surface), a camp stove, a two-quart pot, an extra bottle of stove fuel, two Nalgene bottles, a water filter, miscellaneous items of clothing, a bunch of safety equipment (bilge pump, PFD, etc.), and many, many smaller items (plates, bowls, utensils, flashlights, camera, guidebook, toilet paper, a collection of personal items, etc). ALL of this fit inside the yaks except for one sleeping pad each and my wife's camp chair (and of course the PFDs which have to be easily accessible if they are not worn). We had pre-loaded the boats with all this gear before we left home which added maybe 15-20 pounds to each and made putting them on the roofracks a two-person job, but at least we didn't have to deal with all that at the put-in site. When we were back in the parking lot at the visitor center and everybody was loading their stuff onto the trailer (we were being shuttled along with several other people who were doing the same route as us but were using rented canoes), it was almost comical watching the other boaters haul their heavy coolers and seemingly endless garbage bags of equipment and supplies to the trailer. As the shuttle driver and I put our two boats on his racks he asked, "Where's all your stuff?" My normal joking self would have feigned naivety and replied, "What stuff?", but since the long wait was anything BUT funny, I wasn't in a joking mood.

flat, dry, tastefully appointed, and private... no complaints

But that was then and this was now. Our camp was high and dry and very comfortable. The site was private enough -- only our neighbors to the north were even visible -- and the view from our perch overlooking the river was very pretty. We sat and stuffed ourselves with a wonderful pasta meal as the last light of the day shimmered off the water's surface. A few paddlers were still straggling by, no doubt desperately searching the banks for any sign of a suitable camp. Certainly all the "official" sites were gone by now and they would have to make-do with something less. I have been there and done that on previous trips, so I am well acquainted with what they were feeling. After a bit of cleanup and organizing things around camp, we sat quietly for a few minutes to savor the feeling of accomplishment. We were both exhausted and had eaten too much so we decided to forgo exploring our surroundings and were instead comfortably ensconced in our warm sleeping bags by 9:00pm.

part of the view from inside our tent

check out those cool shoes!

check out these even COOLER shoes!

The morning brought with it an overcast sky, and it even sprinkled briefly while we were still lounging in our tent. Maybe it will clear up as the day progresses we thought as we casually reviewed the guidebook, memorizing which route to take around each island we would encounter on the remaining portion of our journey. We eventually got up, prepared and ate the oatmeal we had brought for breakfast (quick and easy is the rule we follow when deciding what foods to take with us on camping trips), and then began to pack our stuff back in the boats. Most of the other campers around us had already left by the time we hit the water trail again. When I checked the forecast the night before we came up here, it called for a partly cloudy day with no rain expected until late Sunday night, but the sky suggested that rain was coming sooner than that. How much sooner was the question but we were not gonna worry about that now. It would have been easy to add a poncho to our caboodle, but silly me believed the weather experts and decided to omit that piece of equipment on this trip. Lesson learned. As it turned out, there were only a few spritzes during the course of the day and thankfully the real rain held off until after we were finished and on our way home.

on the "road" again

We enjoyed the second day of leisurely paddling and even stopped a few times to explore islands, including Depew where we had intended to camp. It was a good thing that we camped where we did because we did not find any good spots here, although we didn't completely circumnavigate it so we may have missed something on the eastern shore. Still, from what we DID see on our twenty-minute recon, it looked like the flood had taken its toll on this little piece of high ground in the middle of the river. There were piles of debris wherever strainers had been created by the raging flow. One could sleep here in a pinch, but there are much better spots to spend the night.

P B & J anyone?

We stopped for lunch at a small park along the Pennsylvania side called Smithfield Beach. There are picnic tables, a guarded swimming area, and restrooms available here, and since we arrived by boat we avoided the fee charged at the gate to use those facilities. There were a few little kids skipping stones from the shore when we pulled up and they were curious about our boats and our journey. After some friendly questions and answers, I charged them with the task of keeping an eye on our boats while we ate since they would be out of our field of vision.

target acquired... fire when ready!

There is a three-mile long stretch of quiet water upstream from this park that (according to the guidebook) is popular with motor boaters. We only saw one while passing through this section. There is a string of buoys to keep the motorized craft away from the paddlers. Downstream from the park we passed several more islands that looked worthy of exploration, but we left that for another day. We cruised past Worthington State Forest Campground on the eastern shore. At one point there were several unseen kids making very loud and realistic animal sounds from somewhere along the heavily-wooded bank. We mused that this must be where the famous Delaware Water Gap Zoo is located. Eventually we made our way into the actual "gap". This is a very picturesque spot with mountains rising up dramatically on either side of the river. The well trodden Appalachian Trail passes through this notch, and in previous years I have had the pleasure of hiking and camping along that trail in both directions from where I sat now. It's quite a different thing to see the gap from the vantage point of floating through it and I feel blessed to have experienced both now.

the I-80 span

It was with some measure of sadness that we came ashore for the last time, marking the end of this adventure. It was also another thoroughly enjoyable trip from start to finish, assuming we could forget that livery fiasco, which was much easier to do now that we had accomplished our mission. It took only fifteen minutes to empty our boats and load everything on the Jeep. As we pulled out on to eastbound I-80, we were already looking forward to the next trip.

the infamous Delaware Water Gap

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