18 July 08: Seeking the source

Finding the headwaters of the Delaware River was not a particularly easy task. Well, let me back that up. In our internet age, it was a hell of a lot easier than it would have been ten years ago. But it was still challenging by modern standards.

Poking around online in hopes of finding an essay about some spiritual enlightening at the place where the water bubbles up from the ground to begin the Delaware River's 360 or so mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean, I came up relatively empty. I found a photo of a New York state historical marker for Utsayantha Lake, an unassuming small lake near Stamford, NY. But in looking at Google Maps' satellite imagery (and better, the terrain feature), it's clear to see that that lake is fed by a small stream (the Delaware) coming from further upstream.

Popping over to Wikipedia was the best option yet. It lists the source as being near the town of Jefferson in Schoharie County, in the northwest area of the Catskill Mountains. Closer still, the Wiki entry for the Delaware's west branch (the longer of the two, so the furthest point from the mouth, therefore considered the source) includes the source's lat/long, 42.4537° & -74.6070°, marking it on an unnamed pond.

Knowing our route home from the honeymoon in Montréal to Tyrone would take us along I-88 through the Catskills, I convinced the wife that stopping through here would be a good idea. Strictly for research purposes for the Summer of the Delaware, y'understand.

After following New York state route 10 across the rolling hills of the western Catskills and passing maybe one other car, we came to the stop sign at the main intersection in the town of Jefferson, population 1,285 (2000 Census). Jefferson was founded in 1803 and named for the nation's president at the time. It has a village green with a gazebo, a still-standing one-room schoolhouse, and a general store right out of the wild west.

About three miles deeper into the woods, we find Velley Road, a public road that dead ends on a private farm. Knowing we were coming close to the end, we could see the unnamed pond through the thick green trees as we approached a clearing near the farmhouse.

There's a pond out there. It's almost the headwaters of the Delaware.

Up in the Catskills, there was a refreshing, cool summer mist. In the time it took me to check out the scene and see if the land was posted (it was), the wife stayed in the car and an old man emerged from the farmhouse about 100 yards up the hill. She pictured a "get the hell off of my damn lawn" scenario with buckshot fired into the air; I was hoping for a conversation with someone who knew. As I came nearer, I waved and introduced myself as Brad from Philadelphia. He shook my hand and said, "I'm Otto, from right here. You're looking for the Delaware, aren't you?"

He'd done this before.

Otto Geiger tells me he's lived on this farm since 1943, and that a couple times a year, cars will stop short of his property, like I did, and people will get out of their cars to look curiously across his land, like I did. He's been there long enough to remember when National Geographic magazine sent a writer and photographer to the farm to take a photo of his uncle and cousins standing next to its sap house. NGM's July 1952 issue featured a 30+ page spread called "Today on the Delaware; Penn's Glorious River" and its souvenir map was that of the Delaware River basin. (My efforts to track the issue down before this writing have proven unfruitful -- the Fishtown Branch of the library doesn't have it and I haven't been to the central branch, but suffice it to say there are tons of photos in the article, including a great one looking across Camden's port pre-Walt Whitman Bridge at the 50s Philly Skyline.)

Pointing out to the pond I'd come to see, he says, "that's not even a pond, really. Beavers made that dam about thirty years ago. The spring is about a hundred yards up into the woods." Then he jokes, "I've been threatening to shut off that river for years."

His name is Otto and he likes to get blotto.

But as with any joke, there's a little truth to it. Otto and his wife Lisa, who graciously pulled from their library a copy of the National Geographic and a book called "Once Upon a Memory: The Upper Delaware" (published in 1987 for the Equinunk Historical Society), tell us that while they certainly appreciate living on such an important piece of land, it also comes with an enormous cost. Labeled as the "Delaware Head Farm" by the New York state department of conservation of natural resources (whose office, it turns out, is directly across the road from Lake Utsayantha, downstream about two miles), the farm is subject to extreme rules and regulations any time they make any changes to their property -- on their own dime.

It stands to reason, considering the Delaware's watershed not only covers over 13,000 square miles, but it also provides the drinking water for 17 million people, including those from New York City (who get their water from two reservoirs in the Catskills), Allentown, Trenton and of course, Philadelphia. "The watershed has been unfair to locals like us," Lisa Geiger tells me with nary a hint of self pity. Bigger than just the Geigers' farm, she says, "New York City has been able to convince the state that it needs the land along the banks of the upper Delaware for reservoirs," explaining that eminent domain has claimed the best farmland in Schoharie and Delaware Counties since, of course, the most fertile farmland is that closest to water.

Still, the Geigers are perfectly happy with their home where the end of Velley Road marks the beginning of the Delaware River. I relate that my new wife and I live in a home just three blocks from the same river that starts in their back yard. I ask if they've ever been to Philly, which they're quick to answer, "just last year. That's some traffic you've got there . . . and then the parking. By the time we were able to park our car, we were ready to leave," Lisa jokes.

"I like Philadelphia," Otto says, somewhat to my relief. "But I was ready to leave." Fair enough, I thought, and by this point I think my wife and I were ready to do the same, else we wear out our welcome in the generous strangers' home.

"Don't you want to see the spring?" Otto asks.

"I do," I tell him, "but let's save it for next time."

* * *

Something I'd loosely planned on doing when I found the Delaware was . . . well, let's put it this way. I thought it would be funny and/or a little therapeutic to find the headwaters of the Delaware, strip nude and get a photo of myself from the backside jumping into it. This was all before I met Otto and Lisa Geiger, of course. I thought it would be a little weird to ask a nice elderly couple if they'd mind if I ran naked across their property, so I didn't.

Well, what do you know.

I returned from my honeymoon and vacation to a new story from Nathaniel Popkin, his take on his Summer of the Delaware. It included some nice photos of the Delaware Water Gap, the island he camped on, and his kids having fun frolicking in the water. And, well, this consolation prize, which I sincerely dedicate to longtime Philly Skyline reader Maureen.

–B Love


• 14 July 08: All this is mine
• 27 June 08: Welcome to the Summer of the Delaware