Photo Credit: Jerry Monkman

From the Ground Up: June 2014
The Making of a River Rat

From Canada to Georgia, behind every project and every acre OSI protects, there are people. Whether they’re lifelong environmentalists or new to conservation, each person has a connection to the land that has inspired them to protect it. Their stories are as diverse as the landscapes they are dedicated to protecting.

In this installment of From the Ground Up, OSI’s Peter Howell takes a trip down the Delaware River.

Peter Howell Delaware River header 
Peter Howell and the Delaware Sojourners cast off.


June 25, 2014 - I had just come through the Mongaup Rapids and was frantically bailing out my kayak when the paddler next to me pointed upward to the sky. I looked just in time to see a mature bald eagle glide by with a fish in its talons, clearly headed for a tasty lunch.

I wondered what the eagle made of us – 100 or so kayakers and canoeists making our way down the Delaware just above Matamoras.

Peter Howell Delaware River Matamorus

The second coming of Washington and his troops? Though every bit as rag-tag as his crew, we certainly had the General far outnumbered. No, our aims were more benign. Like the eagle, we were also headed for lunch, midway through out seven-mile paddle on Day 2 of the Delaware River Sojourn, a seven-day trip down the Delaware River.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Sojourn, which is designed to raise awareness about the ecological, historical and economic significance of the Delaware River, the longest free-flowing river in the eastern US. The Sojourn attracts its share of serious river activists, but it’s also one big floating social event where die-hard Sojourners reconnect and “newbies” like myself are welcomed, where elderly couples mix with young kayakers, and people come to recreate cheaply, or sometimes just commune with nature.

I, and three of my colleagues paddling on Day 3, had come ostensibly as a “professional.” The Delaware River Basin is the focus of a major initiative that OSI is involved in to protect and restore water quality there. Launched with a seed grant by the William Penn Foundation, the Open Space Institute is managing a $10M fund to protect lands in the basin – including in the Poconos-Kitatinny, the New Jersey Highlands and the Upper Lehigh - that ensure water quality and quantity. The region also makes up part of a focus area for OSI’s Resilient Landscapes Initiative, created with $12 million from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to protect land that can facilitate wildlife habitat to climate change. If I kept paddling ten miles downstream, I’d go through Walpack’s Bend, where OSI recently approved a grant to protect an important "resilient" parcel right on the water within the Delaware Gap National Recreational Area.

If there is a ground zero for protecting water and dealing with climate change, it was probably right where I was kayaking. It is a diverse, largely unfragmented and forested landscape that supports diverse wildlife and contains highly productive watersheds that are the source of significant clean water. 

Peter Howell Delaware River  0701

As we progressed through the series of rapids below toward our eventual destination at Matomoras, you feel like you’re anywhere but 1 hour and half from Manhattan.

Right where the Mongaup River enters the Delaware, we encountered high standing waves before the Hawk’s Nest, a dramatic gorge with steep cliffs on both sides. This is what the region must have been like millions of years ago. Sure, you see an occasional house, and locals will point out the spot on Route 97 far above us where motorcycles race and one crashed over the rail years ago.

The Lenape used to roam this landscape centuries ago and every four years paddle the entire 331 miles of the river from Hancock to Delaware Bay. The Lenape were probably a little more adept at paddling than our crew. Four or five kayakers flipped over in the rapids on this day, and without the expert seven-person safety patrol, bedecked in red shirts, there might still be a kayak or two on the bottom of the river.

Peter Howell Delaware River  0688
At lunch, I have a chance to stretch my legs and learn more about my fellow Sojourners. There’s the elderly couple who’ve come up from Maryland, having heard this was a cheap and active vacation. The man who lost his wife a couple years ago and was looking for ways to connect with Nature, and with people. And the bubbly nine-year-old girl who leads the flotilla this day, with an American flag planted in her kayak’s stern and an eternal grin on her face. They were all river rats of a sort.
Peter Howell Delaware River  (0697)

We also heard from a scientist at the National Park Service about the scarcity globally of fresh water. We’re in a place with plenty of fresh water, but despite various protections under the Wild and Scenic River Act, one man stresses the need for more. He catches the scientist a little off-guard with a longish soliloquy on water, fracking, politics and the need for increased regulation.

Peter Howell Delaware River  0698

Back in my kayak, I find myself alongside one of the Sojourn’s founders, 20 years ago. She marvels at the increased visibility of the Sojourn, and the increased and more diverse group of paddlers it now attracts. Each of the Sojourn’s seven days is drawing about 100 paddlers, up significantly from years ago. And the entire event if organized and run by volunteers.

Nearly everybody I met had a story about their connection with the river. Some lived far downstream and were concerned about pollution; others had fished and swam in the Upper Delaware as kids and were determined it stay clean. Still others had bought second homes in the region and discovered the joys of being on the river and had become hooked.

As I paddled toward the put out at Matamoras, gently bumping into my waterlogged fellow kayakers, I was struck by the potential power of this group. Here was the nucleus of a constituency that appreciated the river and was inclined to keep in clean, could vote and pressure politicians to do the right thing, and help keep us professional conservationists focused on what was important. And they also knew how to have fun in the process.
Delawre River Trip Abby Ryan BIll
OSI staff Ryan, Abby, Jack and Bill

Read Part 2 Abby Weinberg's notes on the Sojourn

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Delaware River Trip Abby Ryan BIll
Read more about the Sojourn Abby Weinberg's notes.


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