Category Archives: Find the River

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

Peace Through Power: USS Somerset on the Delaware

Focus on the ship, not all the riverfront surface parking
Focus on the ship, not all the impervious riverfront concrete and macadam

As a matter of posting more content and connecting with the other stuff I do, I really oughta link over to the essays I publish on the Hidden City Daily. Is there a way to put an RSS feed for a specific author on a site like Hidden City? [Let me google that for you.] [Thinks out loud.]

After a week calling Philadelphia home, the USS Somerset will officially become the US Navy’s newest warship this morning at a commissioning ceremony. Docked at Penn’s Landing since arriving last week, the Somerset (LPD-25*) is a San Antonio class amphibious transport dock, named for the victims of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.

*The LPD series stands for Landing Platform Dock.

(Side note: my late grandfather DJ Maule is from the village of Bakersville in Somerset County, about 15 miles from Shanksville, and we went to family reunions at a picnic ground there when I was little. Additional side note: the Oakhurst Tea Room has called Somerset home for over 80 years, and to this day it is still the most incredible, gluttonous German smorgasbord I’ve ever seen. Highly, highly recommended for your next drive across the Pennsylvania Turnpike.)

Peace is life, buoy
Peace is life, buoy

USS Somerset was built at Avondale Shipyard on the Mississippi River near New Orleans in Louisiana, the last Naval ship to leave that facility whose fate is uncertain. The Somerset was the last Navy contract Avondale had, and a shipyard workforce that once totaled over 5,000 is now down to 700 with no major contracts secured. (New Orleans Times-Picayune.)

As a warship, the Somerset will transport Sailors, Marines, and supplies. Its flight deck is large enough for two V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to land/depart simultaneously, a feat the Navy demonstrated with the landing of an Osprey and a SuperCobra attack helicopter during the media tour on Thursday.

A 9/11 theme pervades the deepest interiors of the ship, from the massive “Let’s Roll” facing the flight deck to Heroes Hall (the mess hall); from a quilt memorializing all the passengers of Flight 93 to items collected across Somerset County, including road signs, maps, and photos. It’s also got a commemorative bell emblazoned with “PEACE THROUGH POWER”.

Following today’s commissioning, the Somerset will set sail for the homeport of San Diego. For a full photo essay of the ship in its Delaware River surroundings, check it out on Hidden City HERE.