Schuylkill Sojourn

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)

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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.

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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