A Day of Discovery on the Delaware

I’ve been trekking in various vessels on the Delaware River since 2000, and never before have I learned so much as I did late last month when I joined the Upstream Alliance (aka Don Baugh and family) on a 3-day paddling odyssey. The trip was organized for leaders interested in stewardship of the Delaware River, ranging from NGO environmental educators to elected freeholders to the chair of the William Penn Foundation board of directors. My kayak-mate turned out to be none other than Cindy Adams Dunn, Secretary of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Amazing people aside… the learning too was amazing!  We dropped a net at the river’s edge as we launched out from Beverly, New Jersey. Just feet from the river’s edge we found dozens of wriggling fish – including the babies of signature fish such as striped bass, shad and perch.  The shad fry in particular appeared energetic and ready for their long migration to their juvenile and adult lives in the oceans before they return to the Delaware for spawning.

The views and historic sites along the river as we paddled were extraordinary.  I have previously studied many important sites – such as Glen Foerd and Andalusia — but was introduced on this trip to the Red Dragon Canoe Club, among the oldest groups of its kind in the nation. I also encountered the oldest fishing club, the incongruously named State of the Schuykill Club, which now overlooks the Delaware.  That quaint old board and batten structure built in 1732 was relocated in the mid-19th century due to the deteriorated water quality on the lower Schuylkill.

With a dramatic change in the weather intensified by the “squeeze” between a Canadian high and Tropical Storm Maria off the coast, we had an intense day of paddling.  Winds were a consistent 10-15 miles per hour with greater gusts, and at times the sky darkened like a winter squall.  Seventeen miles of paddling on flat water (albeit with the tide) is challenging, but in those windy conditions, it was HARD!

I’m amazed how much I learned about the Tidal Delaware, and I thought I already knew a lot.


We managed nonetheless to make it on schedule to Palmyra Cove for lunch and a freshwater mussel identification exercise.  I have long heard about the value of mussels to water quality, but little did I realize that the tidal stretch of the Delaware has some of the richest mussel habitat in the watershed, and it appears to be growing if not thriving. We were challenged to collect mussel shells and identify them from a written description.  Though we found several species of native mussels, perhaps the most eye-opening finding was that 80% of the shells we collected belonged to one non-native species: the Asian clam.  I had begun the exercise thinking ‘well, this is easy,‘ only to find out that all of the specimens in my bucket were Asiatic invaders!

Approaching Center City, we entered a familiar landscape of industrial artifacts, dominated by the huge former power plants at Port Richmond and Penn Treaty Park, as well as the amazing Reading Railroad coal “gangway” and, of course, the majestic bridges.  As much as I love the Ben Franklin, the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge provides a cross-sectional view akin to an enormous cathedral knave – it is spectacular viewed from the new Kensginton-Tacony Trail or from a river kayak.

It was a great day!  At the end, we shared words about what we saw: “Opportunity!” “Majestic!” “Changing!” were just some of the words shared.  I’m amazed how much I learned about the Tidal Delaware, and I thought I already knew a lot.  Thanks, Captain Baugh!