Delaware River Source to Sea

A quest to paddle the Northeast’s 5 longest rivers can mean camping in Camden

By Erik Schlimmer

I would have kicked my own grandmother for a better campsite. Or at least safer one. Located on Delaware River shoreline in the industrial outskirts of Camden, New Jersey, my improvised site was the worst I had ever bedded down in—and that’s saying a lot. I was warned not to camp near Camden, and I ended up wedged between an oil refinery and a parking lot, directly under a freight train bridge. Littered with trash, broken bottles, and an occasional dead animal, there were only a few modest bushes to hide my tent behind, and even the bums’ shantytown that I had passed a few miles back seemed more appealing. Life was not good where I was, 300 miles from the source, 60 miles from the sea.

But life had been good during the last 10 days. On Oct. 16, I stood on top of a 2,700-foot hill in upstate New York with the front wheel of my mountain bike pointed toward the ocean. The first 20 miles of the river being too narrow and shallow for my solo canoe, I pedaled next to the river to the tiny town of Bloomville and put on that same day. With a 25-pound duffel bag of food in the bow and my drybag in the stern, my boat was trim and neat. I hoped to complete the 360-mile trip in less than two weeks. With a successful source-to-sea run, I would have two rivers down, three to go, on my quest to paddle the five longest rivers in the Northeast.

Soon I learned of the Delaware’s Napoleon-esque attitude. The Delaware knows it’s not the longest in the Northeast (that’d be the Susquehanna) or the most well-known (Hudson). To make up for its lack of stature and status, though, it delivers difficulty. The upper section possesses twisting stretches with strainers, the midsection is home to rapids, and the lower section—from my Camden campsite to the head of Delaware Bay—is the most difficult, known for its strong tides and winds, with very few options for camping.

As I hid in my ramshackle Camden campsite on October 25, I mentally prepared myself for the final 60 miles. It would be a super-sized game of cat and mouse: me in my 17-foot Hornbeck canoe darting my way past 600-foot-long vessels that draw 40 feet of water and put out 6-foot wakes. I would also have to evade speeding motorboats, avoid enormous ports, and deal with tides that change four times daily.

So I packed up camp the next morning, peered out at vessels cruising up and down shipping lanes as if they were trolling right for me. I felt overwhelmed. But there was nowhere to go but downriver. I prayed for this damn river to end.

On October 28, it did. I pulled into Fort Mott State Park, N.J., incredibly thankful that I did not get yanked out of my boat by a sweeper, swamped by Class III rapids, or smashed by a 30,000-ton vessel. But it didn’t take me long to start thinking about my next river trip, where I knew the camping would always be better than it was in Camden.

— Erik Schlimmer is an inspirational speaker and outdoor educator based in Oneonta, N.Y. Read more on his adventures at erikschlimmer.com

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