Back to the Schuylkill
An end-of-summer blowout on Pennsylvania's most historic hard-to-spell river
By Eugene Buchanan
So you’ve survived another summer, and the kids are getting ready to head back to school. Before they do you still have time to cross the “Take a Canoe Trip with the Family” item off the bucket list and help them learn about our nation’s history in the paddling process.
To pay homage to both paddling and the US public education system, we combed the country to find the most “schooly”-sounding river we could where you can take your family for a pre-fall float. The winner by a mile: the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania (pronounced School Kill). What better way to kill the last few days of summer, or extend it into September, than by paddling a similarly theme-named river?
From American history to wilderness, the 128-mile Schuylkill, part of the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area serves up both culture and prime canoeing for the whole family. With the American, industrial and environmental revolutions born along its banks, your kids will learn about our nation’s history every stroke of the way. En route you’ll pass through Gettysburg and Valley Forge National Parks, learning about everything from the formation of the Continental Congress to Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge. And what all these historic sites share in common is the Schuylkill River, coursing quietly along as history played out on its banks.
To boat among the birthplace of the movements that shaped our nation, you can follow the route of the 112-mile, annual Schuylkill River Sojourn, which this year celebrated its 15th anniversary, or tackle more bite-sized portions. The route begins in Schuylkill Haven and ends as many days later as you want in Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row (the Sojourn paddles it in seven). Broken down into roughly six different sections—including Pottsville to Hamburg; Hamburg to Reading; Reading to Pottstown; Pottstown to Phoenixville; and Phoenixville to Philadelphia—the trip ranges from to mild Class I-II whitewater to meandering currents, with camping and/or hotels available in townships along the way.
“It’s a great trip, no matter what section you do—especially with all the history it traverses,” says Schuylkill River Heritage Area Executive Director Kurt Zwikl.
Zwikl adds that if you can’t get around to it this year, there’s plenty of room to join in on next year’s 16th annual sojourn right after school ends in June.
“Over the past 15 years, the Schuylkill River Sojourn has gained a reputation for being one of the best sojourns in Pennsylvania,” he says, adding that it’s introduced more than 3,000 registrants from 20 states to paddling the Schuylkill. “It begins every year in rural Schuylkill County and ends a week later at Boathouse Row in Philadelphia. In between, participants encounter a variety of paddling experiences, including a few rapids, beautiful scenery and even a ‘lock-through,’ a restored historic canal lock. Many paddlers keep coming back year after year.”
Even if you can’t make it out for the sojourn, he adds, you can paddle bits and pieces, or even the entire sojourn route, throughout the summer and into September and the school season.
Sidebar: Dates Not to Miss
Aug. 28-Oct. 18, 2013: Scenes of the Schuylkill Art Show
Aug 31, 2013: 10th Annual Taste of Hamburg-er Festival
Sept. 6-7, 2013: Chile Pepper Food Festival
Sept. 7, 2013: Philly Fun Fishing Fest/Dance on the Falls Bridge
Sep 15, 2013: 30th Annual Lyons Fiddle Festival