All posts by Bradley Maule

Schuylkill Sojourn Day 2: Racing the Storm

You look like I feel.
You look like I feel.

“It’s gonna be a wet one,” I told the two fellow Sojourners I ate breakfast with at the Port Clinton Fire Company, before finishing the thought… “but aren’t all kayak trips on a river?” I wasn’t sure if it was a punchline or some stoner philosophy, but man, it was true. After walking back from the bountiful fire hall breakfast, while watching my second bald eagle of the trip fly by on a bridge over the Little Schuylkill River that also carries the Appalachian Trail through this part of Pennsylvania, we put in to the Schuylkill in a Pacific Northwest mist.

Rain was the theme of the day, in all its Pennsylvania forms. The misty morning gave way to a steady rain, followed by will-it-or-won’t-it overcast conditions, followed by enough of an afternoon sun to make you curse yourself for not taking off the black rain jacket under your PFD (personal flotation device, AKA life jacket), followed by the blackest clouds and not-very-distant thunder you ever did see and hear on a kayak.

Heading down the day’s home stretch toward Jim Dietrich Park in Muhlenberg Township after 18 and a half river miles, we watched those clouds roll in to beat us there by 8-10 minutes, every last person drenched as we made our way up to an excellent and very welcome spread of Mexican food presented by the Muhlenberg Lions Club.

Sunset on Jim Dietrich.
Jim Dietrich Park, after the rain.

Trash wise, the river was nigh pristine, a Schuylkill River National Heritage Area vision of Yosemite or Yellowstone. (The evening’s program centered on the history of the National Park Service, presented by Independence National Historical Park ranger Matt Ifill.) There was very little trash to speak of, some bottles here and there, and the typical large film plastic wrapped around exposed tree roots. I think 90% of these are those large clear plastic ‘bags’ that come around microwaves and TVs inside the boxes they’re shipped in. But beyond that, just a few observations on trash:

• One problem trash spot was on both sides of the river at Peace Rock, an otherwise gorgeous rock formation and swimmin’ hole that’s covered in graffiti, including a prominent peace sign. Clearly it’s no news in Port Clinton that this area is a party spot, but the used diaper next to a discarded t-shirt with an eagle on it and a pile of pool noodles was pretty gnarly.
• A second problem spot was just below the Kernsville Dam. A largeish pile had collected in a boil and the Sojourn caravan was already moving such that I couldn’t get a photo.
• Only four tires today, and two of those were on the landing at Jim Dietrich Park.
• One shopping cart, one dishwasher…

And that’s about it. I’m happy to have the problem of too little trash to report.

Speaking of missing that photo of the trash pool at the dam, I do have a number of photos taken on the waterproof Nikon Coolpix AW130 that Schuylkill Action Network provided me for the trip. Unfortunately, getting it to communicate with my iphone has proven difficult, the one technological gadgetry I haven’t been able to pull off. All the pics so far (and presumably through the rest of the week) have been from my phone, carried in my pocket in a Seattle Sports waterproof protective case that has been okay. It’s kept the phone dry but the plastic gets a little bunched up and blurs up the photos sometimes. First world problems. I’ll make a photo essay from the Nikon pics after my return.

Finally today, a great blue heron followed (warned?) our group for a bit, flying overhead and clucking at us. A muskrat(?) swam along the starboard bank during the sunny interlude. The I-78 bridge was pretty cool to pass under until we came to Peacock’s Lock Viaduct, an amazing bridge built by the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern division of the Reading Railroad in the 1850s. Visual highlight of the Sojourn so far. Here then are some of today’s visual highlights…

Put-in at Port Clinton.
Put-in at Port Clinton.
Peace Rock, upstream.
Peace Rock, upstream.
Peace Rock, downstream.
Peace Rock, downstream.
Kernsville Dam, today's portage.
Kernsville Dam, today’s portage.
I-78 Bridge
I-78 Bridge
Sojourn scene
Sojourn scene
Lunch presented by the Hamburg Rotary did not include Hamburgers, but it DID include Lebanon bologna.
Lunch presented by the Hamburg Rotary did not include Hamburgers, but it DID include Lebanon bologna.
Farm scene at Peter Yarnell Landing, Hamburg.
Farm scene at Peter Yarnell Landing, Hamburg.
See? What a bridge! Peacock's Lock Viaduct. Not sure who Peacock was but his or her name is befitting this pretty bridge.
See? What a bridge! Peacock’s Lock Viaduct. Not sure who Peacock was but his or her name is befitting this pretty bridge. This is where we end because this bridge can’t be beat.

Schuylkill Sojourn Day 1: A Drink at the Chutes

Pretty little Schuylkill
Pretty little Schuylkill

Schuylkill River Sojourn 2016 is officially under way. Last night my girlfriend Liz and I got a pre-Sojourn look at the UPPER upper headwaters of the Schuylkill River, exploring the 12-15 miles of the river above the Sojourn launch point at Schuylkill Haven.

As nearly as I could tell, the highest source of the main stem of the river is off of “Mining Trail” off of US-209 (adjacent to which the unpaved Schuylkill Valley Heritage Trail follows)… turns out it’s on private land owned by an explosives company that works with the coal companies nearby. A mile or so down 209, the wee Schuylkill passes under the road for the first time unceremoniously through a culvert without so much as a PennDOT sign reading “Schuylkill River.” The photo above is just off the road, the nascent Schuylkill surrounded by ferns and rhododendrons.

The river winds its way through small towns like Port Carbon and New Philadelphia (there’s a New Philadelphia?!?) on its way to Pottsville. We spent the night at the Pottsville Ramada after filling our bellies on Roma’s wood-fired pizza and, obviously, Yuengling beer brewed with Schuylkill River headwaters. (Lord Chesterfield Ale for me.)

Enough of the intro; on to the Sojourn.

And we're off: putting in at Schuylkill Haven
And we’re off: putting in at Schuylkill Haven

Four miles below Pottsville, the river enters Schuylkill Haven, all of it in Schuylkill County. Between all of this and the hashtags #schuylkillriver #schuylkillsojourn and such, I’m starting to experience semantic satiation: the repetition of a word to a point it loses its meaning.

Here in Schuylkill Schuylkill Schuylkill Haven, the Schuylkill Sojourn began with intros, breakfast, a greeting from the town’s mayor, the (very important) safety instructions, and at last, put-in. The early morning fog began to burn off by the time several of us saw a bald eagle perched in a tree, not 20 minutes after launch. Within the same timeframe, I started noticing trash.

Typical post-storm trash eddy
Typical post-storm trash eddy

But it wasn’t horrible. The Schuylkill Scrub must have done a nice job on the upper river, because all told, it was pretty clean. The day’s ~16-mile paddle was split in half, lunch held above the Auburn Dam. Below the dam all the way to take-out at Port Clinton, there was next to no trash. But above the dam, some samples included…

• 35 tires (those were just what I could see – certainly more were submerged)
• 3 shopping carts
• and at least one each of: cooler, large rusted appliance (fridge? washer or dryer?), yoga ball, bowling pin

There were of course several plastic bottles, and big sheets of plastic or synthetic burlap wrapped on exposed roots. But all told, pretty clean.

In these upriver towns, folks really enjoy the Sojourn, coming out to the river banks and bridges to see the spectacle. Tomorrow, we’ll hope to see some more on Day Two to Jim Dietrich Park in Muhlenberg Township.

* * *

Some additional pics from Day One…

Standard view
Standard view
Two of 35 total tires
Two of 35 total tires
Above Auburn Dam
Above Auburn Dam
Below Auburn Dam
Below Auburn Dam
Approaching "The Chutes," a legendary rapid passing under a disused railroad bridge. I may or may not have dunked here.
Approaching “The Chutes,” a legendary rapid passing under a disused railroad bridge. I may or may not have dunked here.
Take-out in Port Clinton, just before spaghetti dinner and $1.25 Chesterfields at the Port Clinton Fire Company
Take-out in Port Clinton, just before spaghetti dinner and $1.25 Chesterfields at the Port Clinton Fire Company

Sojourning The Schuylkill

It's all connected: the confluence of the Wissahickon Creek and Schuylkill River
It’s all connected: the confluence of the Wissahickon Creek and Schuylkill River

Before I moved to Philadelphia 16 years ago, I might have heard of the Schuylkill River; I definitely didn’t know how to pronounce it. Despite an obsession with maps and geography from an early age, it somehow remained to me a hidden river, its more-or-less literal translation from the 17th Century Dutch who inhabited the region. In the time since, the Schuylkill has become synonymous with my Philly experience, especially in Fairmount Park. But starting this Saturday, I’ll get to know this river a lot more intimately on the Schuylkill River Sojourn.

From its uppermost headwaters near rural Tuscarora, PA to the confluence of the Delaware River at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the main stem Schuylkill River flows roughly 128 miles. For the past 17 years, kayakers and canoeists have paddled 112 of those miles—from Schuylkill Haven to Boathouse Row—on the Schuylkill Sojourn.

At a pace of 15–18 miles a day, sojourners can paddle for a day or for the full week. And while paddling the river is the main attraction, the Sojourn also comes with three meals a day, designated campsites, and programs like guest speakers and musical performers for the evenings after taking out of the river. The trip involves lots of moving parts—river outfitters, transportation of gear between sites, food preparation, safety instruction—and it’s coordinated by the Pottstown-based Schuylkill River Heritage Area. This year, the Schuylkill Action Network, a program coordinated by the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, is sponsoring the inaugural Sojourn Steward, a scholarship whose recipient will take lots of photos, document problem trash areas, and post reports online and on social media. This sounds familiar.

Philly Skyline, 2016
Fairmount Water Works and Philly Skyline; Schuylkill River, 2016

Throughout 2014, I took lots of photos, documented problem trash areas, and posted reports online and on social media for One Man’s Trash, my project in Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley Park. The trails in the park follow the contours of a valley formed by the Wissahickon Creek (and its tributaries), which empties into the Schuylkill River four and a half miles above the Fairmount Water Works. In that 200-year-old municipal water facility that’s now an environmental interpretive center, I held a two-month exhibition of all the litter I collected, along with photos, maps, and data. One Man’s Trash dovetails nicely with the Schuylkill Scrub, an initiative coordinated by the Schuylkill Action Network (SAN) with the PA Department of Environmental Protection, Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful and others.

As a collection of hundreds of cleanups throughout the Schuylkill River watershed’s 2000 square miles, all in Pennsylvania, the Schuylkill Scrub makes a major impact in clearing the river of debris. In 2015, over one million pounds of trash were removed during the Scrub’s March–May duration. That’s a lot of trash for one river in one state in one season.

Much like visiting Devil’s Pool the day after a Friends of the Wissahickon cleanup, the Schuylkill Sojourn will make for an interesting (and perhaps a little disheartening) observation of how much trash has collected in the Schuylkill so soon after this year’s Scrub. Documenting the problem areas with a GPS-enabled waterproof Nikon camera will not only continue to raise awareness of Pennsylvania’s notorious litter problem, but more notably it will help SAN identify mapped locations for groups to hold cleanups and incentivize local action.

So hello: I’m yer 2016 Schuylkill Sojourn Steward. I’m honored to represent SAN on the river in real time. Beginning Saturday, June 4th, and running through Friday, June 10th, I’ll post reports of that day’s activity with notes and photos here on Philly Skyline. In the meantime, though, follow along on Instagram—I’ll be posting on my @mauleofamerica and at @schuylkillwaters with #sojournsteward. Be sure to follow SAN on Facebook too.

I'm not pressed, I'm on a peaceful journey. (RIP Heavy D)
Schuylkill sunset: I’m not pressed, I’m on a peaceful journey. (RIP Heavy D)

* * *

Logan Circle’s Swann Fountain provides a spectacular focal point for the Ben Franklin Parkway, from the subject of postcards in the early 20th Century to the opening montage of It’s Always Sunny. Sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder adapted “river god” tradition in the form of three native Americans representing the three major waterways of Philadelphia: the Delaware, the Schuylkill, and the Wissahickon.

In 2008, a series I called the Summer of the Delaware turned into an obsession that carried over to the next year, a full exploration of the Delaware River and Bay from the Catskills to Cape May. And my underlying motive for carrying out One Man’s Trash in 2014, with a different hike every week, was to get to know all of the Wissahickon, a goal I largely accomplished.

With the Schuylkill Sojourn, I’ll tip my cap to Calder and complete the trifecta, this time with a fisheye view. Schuylkill Haven, Port Clinton, Allegheny Aqueduct, Reading, Limerick, Valley Forge, the Philadelphia Canoe Club, tributaries and bridges, dams and locks… there’s a lot to see going two miles an hour down an old historic river. Follow along and see it with me.

* * *

SCHUYLKILL RIVER SOJOURN, DAY 1: A Day at the Chutes
SCHUYLKILL RIVER SOJOURN, DAY 2: Racing the Storm
SCHUYLKILL RIVER SOJOURN, DAY 3: Rapids, Reading & Ruins
SCHUYLKILL RIVER SOJOURN, DAY 4: Smooth Sailing and a Storm
SCHUYLKILL RIVER SOJOURN, DAY 5: It’s a Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall
SCHUYLKILL RIVER SOJOURN, DAY 6: Turtles & Dragons, Tires & Balls
SCHUYLKILL RIVER SOJOURN, DAY 7: Home Sweet Home Stretch

The Flat Earth and the Philly Skyline, Far Out

Shoutout to Atlanta rapper B.o.B for his courageous campaign against a spherical Earth. He’s doing God’s work (or perhaps not!), and in at least one case, he’s bringing the Philly Skyline into the discussion to back his claims.

As you can see in his tweet above, B.o.B uses a photo of mine to explain that the skyline is visible 40 miles away at Apple Pie Hill in the Pine Barrens because, of course, the Earth is flat, and if it was a sphere, the curvature would hide it. Never mind that the buildings visible—from atop a 200-foot fire tower—are all over 500 feet tall. Plus Apple Pie Hill is actually about 32 miles, not quite 40. Oh, and . . . well, that photo is not from the Apple Pie Hill fire tower. It’s from a helicopter in North Jersey, somewhere near Metuchen, closer to 75-80 miles.

Chopper Jerz
Chopper Jerz

This photo’s a little blurry because we were flying pretty fast, and the hatch was closed, so the curvature (of the hatch, not the Earth) made it a little difficult to shoot through. Also, I shot this with a 200mm telephoto lens at full zoom, and the edited photo is slightly cropped.

One can see the skyline from the fire tower at Apple Pie Hill in the Pine Barrens, though.

Mmm, Apple Pie
Mmm, Apple Pie

This photo was taken with the same 200mm telephoto lens, but it was panned back a bit to maximize the canopy of pygmy pitch pines in the late day light. Apple Pie Hill is about 32 miles from Center City, about the exact same distance as the Ridge Road overpass on the PA Turnpike Northeast Extension near Lansdale.

Over the years, folks have alerted me to distant skyline views in Boyertown, Holland, and other places like the Delaware Memorial Bridge near Wilmington, DE. My friend the kayaker Rob Danner once told me that you could see it from the fire tower in Reading, PA. Knowing that Reading’s a good 60 miles away, I said no way. I was wrong.

Whoomp, there it is
Whoomp, there it is

Visiting the William Penn Memorial Fire Tower requires pretty precise calculation, as it’s only open one day a month. A lot of people know about the Pagoda, a tourist attraction built in 1908 that stands on the edge of Mount Penn above Reading; it’s a symbol of the city. It was even an alternate logo of the Reading Phillies for a time.

Billy Penn goes even higher in Reading
Billy Penn goes even higher in Reading

A little farther up the ridge, the Fire Tower stands 120 feet tall and 1,015 feet above the Schuylkill River. Built in 1939 of stone and concrete, it was used by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry until 1988, and is now cared for (along with the Pagoda) by the nonprofit organization Pagoda Skyline (no relation).

On a clear day, you can see over 60 miles in every direction, all the way to Pottsville in the north, way down past the cooling tower at Limerick facing southeast, the Philly Skyline. (This is to say nothing of the stellar view of Reading and the Schuylkill just below.) I measure it to be about 52 miles in a straight line (58 by car); you can clearly make out the tops of Comcast Center, One and Two Liberty Place, Mellon Bank Center, and the Bell Atlantic Tower. Soon, Comcast Innovation & Technology Center will join the view.

Here’s the full crop:

Hey Philly Skyline
Hey Philly Skyline

Needless to say, the view is pretty spectacular, and at the right time of year, the very distant skyline reflects the sunset. Plan ahead and make a day of it in Reading. The fire tower is open the third Saturday of each month, noon-4pm.

Click any of the thumbnails to launch a mini-gallery of the William Penn Memorial Fire Tower and Reading Pagoda.

(Thanks to Doc for the heads up, and to Nick Vadala for checking in with Derrick Pitts on the matter.)

Pope Francis Visits Philadelphia

pope_intro

What a weekend in Philadelphia. Pope Francis visits the city of brotherly love in the third and final stop of his American tour. Many fled, many complained, and many of us stayed and enjoyed ourselves. I seriously had a blast. Some observations…

– Re: the Pope himself, his biggest critics on the right are putting their politics over their faith (see Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, George Will), and in a party where faith apparently guides politics. That’s absurd.

– Mayor Nutter, STFU. You made your bed.

– Apropos of the Ben Franklin Parkway and its many flags, there were so many flags of pilgrims, visitors, tourists, hustlers: Dominican Republic, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, New Mexico, Uganda, and of course The Vatican.

– I didn’t make it down to see the Jade Buddha, alas. And the Dalai Lama has canceled his visit. A speedy recovery to His Holiness. (Er, that His Holiness.)

– So many restaurants and bars sounded off like whiny bitches. Dawg you had six months to plan. Either close down for two days and cut your losses, or throw down block party style like Village Whiskey did. They got it right.

– I’ve never seen so many different types of cops — Philadelphia police, PA state troopers, MontCo cops, HSI (Homeland Security Investigations), TSA, FBI, National Guard, National Park Service, Allied Barton (seriously), many others. Most of them were friendly.

Untie a knot, say a prayer, share a burden: the knotted grotto
Untie a knot, say a prayer, share a burden: the knotted grotto
– Meg Saligman’s “knotted grotto” installation at the Basilica was beautiful and full of heartfelt sentiments: “Peace in the Philadelphia community,” “please help my family get out of debt,” “please bless Eddie’s cat,” “Pope Francis I believe you are the second coming of Christ.”

– Protesters of the pope came from both sides of the aisle, but the ones at Franklin Square took the cake: I believe there is some Westboro Baptist Church affiliation, and these folks, who called Pope Francis the antichrist, claimed responsibility for the distribution of the Great Controversy books this summer. They had more here, and left them all around town, including at the Convention Center.

– It was wild to see Philadelphia’s staggering backdrop of cranes — Comcast Innovation & Technology Center, FMC Tower, East Market, 1919 Market, CHOP, that ugly ass building next to the Ben Franklin Bridge — for such a world event.

– So many pope billboards: Wawa, Dranoff Properties, Michael’s Way, Visit Philly, St Joseph’s University (who referenced Francis’ Jesuit education)

– I’m glad I got to walk across the Ben Franklin Bridge since I missed the 75th anniversary party in 2001. I wanted to ride my bike across, but the National Guard was making people walk their bikes, although cops could still ride, of course. John Pettit called BFB “Philly’s hottest new popup park.”

– It took me one hour and 42 minutes to get from the beginning of security to my ticketed seat for the Festival of Families on Saturday night. It was worth it.

– The Bob Brady pope glass theft was absolutely hilarious.

– But not as hilarious as The Onion’s coverage of Francis’ visit.

– I am sorry, but I still think scrapple is disgusting. Reading Terminal Market had a tray of it in bricks for visiting journalists, and hardly anyone tried it.

– Jim Kenney, I know you loved these open streets, let’s keep that momentum going.

* * *

All told, a fun and positive weekend in Philadelphia. I made a photo essay with about 100 photos on one long, scrolling, easy to use page. If you’d like to view that, you may do it…

HERE.