Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Paddling the Raritan River

I guess the best place to start the first post of my first blog is with my most recent experience. This past Sunday, my wife and I paddled our kayaks along a section of the Raritan River in central New Jersey. Although I now live about 90 miles from this location, I grew up in a little town called Hillsborough which borders this waterway. In all those years I spent living only a few miles from its banks, I never once had the pleasure of exploring it by boat... until now.

Our day began by shuttling a second car (belonging to a relative) to our take-out point at a small park in South Bound Brook. This enabled us to traverse a longer section of the river since we would not have to turn around and paddle upstream to get back to our vehicle. Once the second car was in place, we drove out to our starting point on Blackpoint Road at the western edge of Neshanic Station. We had scouted this put-in a few days prior from the comfort of our home using Google maps. We toggled to the satellite view where you can zoom in quite close for amazing detail. For example, when I look at my own house, I can clearly see the trampoline we have in our backyard. Anyway, it is a very useful tool when planning adventures of this sort.

Conveniently, we were able to back our Jeep up the 100 or so feet through some tall grass right to the riverbank to unload everything, then parked the car closer to the country road in case others wanted to do likewise.
It was a clear day with plentiful sunshine on tap, so a little strategically placed sunscreen was in order. We loaded up the yaks with a few essentials and pushed off at 10:30am. We were immediately immersed in the experience we had come for: solitude, peace, and quiet. Cornfields to the left of us, a dense forest to the right of us, and the only sounds to be heard were natural in origin. I can't adequately describe how relaxing it was once we got going, so soothing, like an antidote for the hustle and bustle of our busy lives.

a pastoral setting

About 20 minutes worth of serenity later, we came to the Elm Street bridge where we encountered a small set of rapids through a few boulders. I think this may be the site of an old dam, but I'm not sure about that. In any case, after helping my wife portage her boat around this, I decided to give it a whirl. I made it through just fine and this turned out to be the most challenging water we would encounter all day. If it's whitewater you are looking for, this is not the trip for you
. I know that the water level on this river varies greatly with season and rainfall amounts, so consequently any descriptions given here that are affected by the flow volume may not be useful to someone who happens to stumble upon this blog. That said, my wife discovered a useful website for checking water levels. The site is playak.com and there you can find both current and recent historical data for many rivers, including the Raritan. Incredibly, the info is updated several times a day! According to their graph, the flow rate on the date of our trip was approximately 400 cfs as measured at the Manville bridge. We encountered a few shallow spots (mostly west of the confluence with the Raritan's North Branch) where our boats brushed the gravelly bottom, so you might want to consult that website before selecting your put-in location.

one of many

We did encounter many other brief sections of easy rapids during the course of the day, but nothing that required any skill to negotiate. Again, a water level change of only a foot or two might result in a considerable difference, so keep that in mind.

We pretty much had the whole river to ourselves... I only remember seeing 4 other boats all day. The current swept us along at a decent pace, so half the time we were just gliding silently, soaking up the summer sun and seeing how close we could get to herons before they took flight. They were plentiful but never let us get near enough for a good picture. Most of the time we had the sense of being way out in the country even though this stream drains some of the most densely populated real-estate in New Jersey.

coulda gone around, but what fun is that?

We had to portage around a total of 4 dams, each of which took 30-45 minutes by the time we scoped it out and performed the task. Any subsequent trips on this stretch would require less portage time since we now know which side of the river offers the easiest detour
around those pesky obstacles. "Duke Island Park" is located almost in the center of our route, so we had a nice, relaxing, one-hour lunch of deli sandwiches and fresh cherries at a picnic table not twenty feet from the scenic riverbank. All day my wife and I were wondering how it can be that there are ALL those hundreds of thousands of people living within a 20 minute drive of this beautiful natural resource, but yet so few were out there enjoying it with us on this picture-perfect summer afternoon. Oh, well... their loss and our gain! We were never bothered by bugs of any sort, unless you count colorful dragonflies as pests. We rather enjoyed their company and didn't mind letting them hitch a ride on our boats for as long as they cared to. Aside from the occasional fisherman casting for trout, we saw very few people actually IN the river. During the late afternoon hours we passed a group of three friendly high school or college-age boys who were chillin in their tubes, enjoying a slow meander down a REAL lazy river (as opposed to those fashioned from concrete). A short while later, we came upon a huge pack of maybe 20 younger kids climbing like monkeys on an old iron railroad bridge, then screaming and leaping off from astonishing heights into the water below. If their mothers only knew where they were and what they were doing! But it was quite entertaining for us and we regret not getting any pictures of this.

three down, one to go

When we got to the last dam on our route which was located just downstream from where the Millstone River adds its volume to the Raritan's, the most convenient option seemed to be to portage the boats over to the canal which parallels the Raritan from this point to New Brunswick. We were now within two miles of our final destination. Shortly after entering the canal, my wife spied an apple tree overhanging the water so I went over for a sample. They tasted as good as store-bought so I used my paddle to dislodge a few of the larger and higher-up fruit from their branches and then plucked the ones I didn't catch out of the water. We could have brought home enough for a dozen pies if we wanted to. My sweetie got a good laugh at my expense when about ten fell at once like bombs splashing all around me.

lovin' every minute

When we finally pulled the boats out for the last time, it was exactly 7:00pm and we were 17 river-miles from where we started. As you can see, we did manage to get a few pictures here and there. Since we didn't have any way of protecting our camera out on the water, we took it out sparingly and only in flat water, so unfortunately there are only a few. Also,
my wife was the keeper of the camera on this trip so (sadly) I ended up in more pictures than she. I think if you click on the images you can view the full-sized versions for more detail. The bridge shot makes a nice desktop background.

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