River in the Veins, a Meditation.
Before I became a professor at Norwich, before I bought a home on a little lake in Vermont, I was a child of the Delaware River. I swam in its warm waters each summer. Most days that the river was unfrozen, I’d push my battered aluminum canoe into the river, and I’d paddle the stillwaters near Jack’s Hill. Other days, through the class III rapids of Foul Rift. Once, some cousins and I flipped a canoe there in Foul Rift, wrapped it around a rock. We ended up swimming.
But my history with the Delaware stretches back further than just my birth. Eleven generations before me, my seven-times great-grandfather moved from Germany to the Rift. So the Delaware is not just my birth river, it is my historic river. Where others have blood in their veins, my heart pumps silty river water.
Nearly a decade ago, I decided to canoe all 200 miles of the Delaware, to learn my river. So one July day, I slid a Wenonah canoe into the current near Hancock, N.Y., and pushed into the riffles, waving good-bye to mother, sister, and niece. Soon, I was gone to the pull of the river.
Those first days, I paddled the wide, shallow Delaware. Hours, I’d push the canoe downriver. Nights, I’d slide my canoe into weeds, find a patch of sand for my bivy sack. After a quick dinner and a swim, I’d watch the stars unfold.
Some days my mother joined me. At a curve in the river, we watched a doe and a fawn swim. Later, we paddled Skinner’s Falls, which, according to the guidebook is “one of the most severe on the Delaware River.” Before we knew it, we were on the other side, wet and smiling.
After Mom left, I serpentined through the Delaware River National Recreation Area. There, I passed Tock’s Island, a nondescript landmass of gravel and trees. Decades ago, the government envisioned a dam here, a reservoir, a nuclear power plant to feed the power-hungry beasts of New York and Boston. But activists stopped that project before the first shovel stole dirt. As I passed Tock’s Island, I said a quiet prayer that sounded like “Thank you” or “Never again.” The Delaware is forever America’s longest undammed river, a free river.
On the sixth day, I neared home, in the exact middle of my journey. The sky wore the gray, red, pink, and orange of sunset. Two eagles circled overhead. As recently as a decade before, there had been no eagles on the Delaware. Or herons, beaver, or bear. Driven off by years of industrial pollution, the wildlife had at long last begun to return. I stopped paddling and realized the river had ceased flowing. Not forward, not backward, not the sideways of an eddy. Completely stopped. A minute. Two. Three. Unmoving. A heron jumped from the bank. Flew upriver.
Only then did the river release me.
After a night in my own bed, I put the canoe back in for the second half of the journey, the final hundred miles. The canoe, the current, the pull of the ocean, carried me between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. That tangle of islands. Quiet beaches. Buckshot stars through sycamore branches.
Then the urban buildup of Trenton, brackish water, a railroad bridge. My mother, sister, and niece waving from shore. The final rapids. The rocky river bottom. The canoe scrapping land. I stepped out and drew the canoe ashore. My legs wobbly from canoeing. My legs, my heart, pleading for more river to paddle. –s.p.