Paddlin’ the Passaic

Parts 1 – 11 (all of ’em)

1 – Intro 

Passaic mist 2

 

This weekend I took a beautiful solo kayak trip down a river.  I started in the hills of a county park, paddled through wilderness, two long sections of class 1 rapids, open stretches of sun bathed wild meadows, and dense forests.  I passed deer, fish (jumped on my kayak even) herons, Canada geese, hawks and bald eagles.  There were many trees leaning over the water, to kayak around and under.  On the first day I passed only three other craft, two kayaks and a canoe.  There were a few short stretches of houses along the river, and about a dozen bridges, including some ancient stone railroad structures.  I slept by a great meadows park and ended near a former water powered industrial city nestled aside a mountain.  It was a 46 mile stretch of almost all wilderness.

I live in northern New Jersey with my family, a little less than an hour’s drive west of NYC.  I work in Manhattan on weekdays as an Architect. So where did I go to get away from it all and have a long run of wilderness paddling?  Pennsylvania?  Upstate New York, Western Massachusetts, Vermont or beyond?

Nope.  On Saturday morning my wife drove me 20 minutes west and I put in at the headwaters of the Passaic River.  I went downstream in a day and half to Little Falls, just upriver of Paterson and its famous falls.

Wait, you ask, the Passaic River?  Isn’t that the toxic Newark superfund site, the one with the century of pollution including an Agent Orange plant?  Doesn’t that river go through the densest populated state in the nation?

Yes, that same river.

 

A little background –

I’m 51 and have been an outdoors soul since I was able to walk.  Hiking, biking, canoeing, anything outdoors.  In recent years, I’ve looked for greater expanses of wilderness, land where I can roam for long stretches, where I can experience and really feel the land.  It’s a counter point to being a City Architect to be sure, but it’s also about hearing the land around me.  In a quiet way.  There’s so much to hear.

For a little more than a decade, I’ve been taking the commuter train to the City.  We cross over the Passaic River in the heart of the Newark toxicity.  The river is walled in, covered with bridges every 50 yards – with innumerable pipes draining who knows what directly to the river.  In the midst of this mess, I still find much beauty.  The tidal rising, the changes in the season, even what floats down.  And a voice.  The river has a voice and I’ve tried to understand what it has to say.

Two years ago, we moved from South Orange further west to Chatham.  We’re now close to the 5,000 acre Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.  And a five minutes’ walk from the Passaic River.  Well upstream from the Cities, the river is 10-20 yards wide, and often seems to move slowly if that.  The water’s silt and pace often makes it an impenetrable brown sheet of rippled glass.

Driving around for errands, visits, exploring, I’ve noticed the Passaic over and over.  Sometimes winding through the parks we’ve explored, but also alongside and under busy roads en route to shopping centers.  There is a long stretch of Central Northern New Jersey where the Passaic is ubiquitous, yet almost entirely unseen.

Last winter the idea popped into my head to canoe the whole river, from the headwaters to the Paterson falls.  I had no idea if this made any sense.  Was there enough water?  Did downed trees block the way every few yards?  Where there falls unknown and potentially dangerous?   On weekends I started scouting locations where I could see the river, mostly parks and bridges.  It was a hard set of images to connect and I didn’t have a good sense of what I was dealing with.  Asking around for information, I was met with mostly blank stares.

On a train ride last winter I met a kind and creative independent film maker.  He told me about Mary Bruno, a North Arlington resident turned ecological activist and writer who a decade ago had paddled the river from its headwaters to the ocean.  It had been done.  That was all I needed.  I would figure the rest out.  The trip was on!

 

As I studied google maps in anticipation of a summer trip, I found that while the river went through many parks, they made up a small part of the total distance.  Subdivision and industrial roads seemed to crowd the river in.   Was there any beauty left after all that development?

I love the parks nearby in Northern New Jersey.  South Mountain I can get happily lost in all day.  Great Swamp has a calm that’s hard to fathom in such a busy part of the world.  Watchung, Passaic River County Park, Lord Sterling, they’re all amazing.

But at the end of the day, they are limited in size.  You can wander and explore, but stray outside and you’re right back in suburbia.  You need a very good sense of direction to stay ‘lost’ in these woods and out of built up areas.  I’ve longed for more expansive realms nearby – the ability to just roam for days.  It’s surprisingly hard to find such stretches of land in the northeast.  Many of us have our favorites (the Ossipee Mountains in NH are one of my mine) – but it takes effort to find them.

What I have to report to you is this – such stretches exist right in our backyard.  Literally under the bridges we cross over each day.

I was stunned how far I felt from civilization.  However it happened, the river has barriers from the development around it almost the whole way.  Beyond the known and lesser known parks, there are stretches of forest large and small that buffer almost the entire waterway.  It’s an amazing network and I’m stunned at how well it all connects.  I was pleasantly astonished the whole way.  I really encourage you to get out and experience this yourself as much as you can.  If you’re local, you’ll understand the region in a way that will lift your heart and connect you to the land.

I’ll write some posts about my experience, and some will be important for kayaking and canoeing – water levels, rapids and drops, trees and poison ivy – some sections require a degree of experience.  But also about some of the magic I encountered.  I encourage you to get out and experience the graceful joy of the Passaic River.  It’s right next door!

 

2 – Putting In

 

putting in

I launched from the Southeast corner of Lord Sterling Park in Sterling.  The Passaic goes a ways further on up into Basking Ridge.  Beyond Osborn pond the River is really a small stream, and doesn’t look passable via watercraft.  The stretch from Lake Osborn to where I launched passes through Load Sterling Park.  I considered making this part of the trip, but with potentially lower water levels in the summer, I thought it might not work.  Also, I’d have to portage over several beaver dams.  I’ve had a special relationship with beavers since I was a kid in New Hampshire, and I didn’t want to disturb them.

I had planned to leave on Friday, and postponed to Saturday based on weather reports.  Friday night I went to bed with a fever.  This was not a surprise.  In the past before big adventure days I’ve sometimes had fevers or the runs.  The great day cycling Big Sur or the first night of my trip in Liberia come to mind.  When I was younger I saw this as unfortunate, then later as a test of my resolve.  Now I understand it a cleansing – purging and burning off certain impurities to prepare me for the day ahead.  It feels almost ritualistic, and by morning I am fine.

About 4 AM on Saturday the heavens erupted with heavy sustained rain and thunder.  I shut off my alarm and decided to see how things are in a few hours.  In the week leading up to this trip, I had a strong feeling all would be fine for a Saturday launch.  The storm didn’t seem to fit in with that, but come 7 am. the rain had stopped and I felt clear that it was over.  We drove to the launch site, and I realized on the way that the timing was perfect.  The brief heavy rain had swollen the river.  I now had a little speed below my craft, and some added depth over the shallow parts I had scouted.  The sun would soon follow.

For the start I experienced the lush and misty depth of old Jersey forests.

Jersey forests are really a treasure to roam.  They have a phenomenal variety of trees – species typically found from down south up to northern New England.  The underbrush is just as varied.  The sunny days are joyous and provide a great speckled light show in the foliage.  But in the mist and grey skies the subtle differences amongst greens begin to radiate – revealed as an incredibly rich palette.  Right in front of me, with eyes adjusted, I am witness to a truly great display.

There are trees that have fallen across the river – every hundred yards or so at times.  I had thought beforehand that this might require a lot of portages, significantly slowing my pace, perhaps to a crawl. But I am elated to find that people have gone through and cut off what were the top branches, leaving a narrow path around, opposite the trunk.  There is a clear way through, and it’s a fun one, a mellow slalom.  I’m reading the river, its currents, eddies, the occasional hiding obstruction.  It’s a joy to be on a river again.

I only had two portages in the first stretch.  The first was for a tree that covered the river from bank to bank – 2’ above the water at the sides and 1’ in middle.  I pulled up parallel to the low point, got out of my kayak and straddled the trunk.  I pulled the kayak over with surprising ease and the craft held tight to the trunk in an eddy while I jumped back in.  It was surprisingly quick and good fun.

The current I’m guessing is about a mile per hour, and I’m paddling well.  Soon I cross under a very old stone railroad bridge that seems to rise to an improbable height.  It has the appearance of a relic from ancient times, yet I understand it is still in use.  This is the start point of the first drop.  The sloped banks of the river rise up from a few feet to 30 or more and the pace of the river quickens.   It’s a lot shallower – I can see bottom – and it’s full of rocks.  Without the morning’s downpour, I’d be scraping a lot.  Reading pillows, eddies and rocks sticking up I cruise through for about a mile.  It’s exhilarating – one word pops up over and over – wheeeeee!

 

3 – Herding Herons

 

tree bridge

I’m passing several great blue herons.  Well, not quite passing. These are majestic birds with a 6’+ wingspan.  They fold into a body the size of an elongated football with long spindly legs and a longer neck.  The unfolding of their blue grey wings is a dramatic moment against a relatively still green background.  They live along waterways, spearing fish, insects and small mammals with their beaks.  Here on the Passaic, they wait still on downed trees and stones for the right moment to strike.

I approach them from upstream.  They’re a visible and distinctive silhouette.  Watching me, at the last moment they unfold their great wings and head down stream and away.  A half mile later, we repeat; over and over.  At one point another joins and they taking off together.

I’ve become a heron herder.

In retrospect, it was obvious.  Their wingspan is too great for easy passage through the forest.  So they head away from me and downstream.  Eventually, perhaps annoyed, they head up high and over the trees, looping back behind me.

The same happens with separate flocks of Canada Geese.  Now that’s a show – a dozen big bellied great geese doing their panicked waddle across the water in what seems a doomed effort to get airborne, only to improbably launch out of the water at the last possible moment.  They get points for effort with me.

 

4 – The Flats and the Meadows

 

meadows 1

I’m out of the rapids and into the flats and meadows of Sterling, headed south to the Passaic River County Park.  This is a gracious stretch.  The river still has a good current from the rain.  I’m paddling under the angular arches of fallen trees – occasionally portaging over trees that completely block the river.  There are trees that offer a path through dense sections of smaller branches and floating masses of logs.  I developed a technique where I reach far forward with my paddle, securing it on both ends to whatever I can and then pulling my craft forward.  It’s like a reverse bench press and it works surprisingly well. Best of all, it’s a lot faster than a portage, and it keeps me engaged with the river.

As I make the turn east just above route 78, I’m in the Passaic River County Park.  This is a truly wondrous stretch.  The sun has come out.  The trees bending over the river are radiant in their shades of translucent green and I float through them at every turn.  The river seems broad and shallow, and the sun seems to make it translucent through to the bottom.  I can’t see the bottom, but I can sure feel it.

The water has risen up over the banks and the swamp maple tree trunks are now in the river.  It’s great fun to paddle around them.  There are so many, I can only imagine this stretch in full fall foliage.  Trip anyone?

There is a stretch along the Warren Township Planning Incent.  Don’t let that mouthful of a name dissuade you from visiting.  This is a good sized track of meadows and forest with the Passaic passing through.  The light, open space and general grace of the land is delightful.  It’s the section of the whole trip where I feel most connected to the river, it’s very alive and I am welcome paddling over it.

I continue along with a good current, into what should be a much more built up area.  But again, while there are a few stretches of houses, a ball field and a sewage treatment plant, deep forests are the overwhelming experience.

As I get closer to home in Chatham, the bridges and other surroundings become familiar.  I pull under the Stanley Street Bridge at Stanley Park and beach my kayak.  I check my phone for the first time.  It’s 1 p.m.  I have just covered 17 miles in 4 hours.  I had hoped to go this far in a day.  Doing so in 4 hours with portages and log hops is a stunner.  It’s an expansive day – I feel like I’m soaring through – this unknown wilderness opening up in front of me at every turn.  Wow.

I call home, and my wife Maia and our boys James and Chris ride down to join me for lunch.  They bring water and cookies.  I regal them with stories and we walk along the river bank.  After hugs a plenty, and with my legs working normally again, I’m back in the kayak.  It’s time for what I now call the Chatham Chop.

meadows 2

 

5 – The Chatham Chop

 

Stanley 1

This next stretch of river goes from the Stanley Street Bridge to the Canoe Brook reservoirs, just north of Route 24.  It’s my home town, and the area I have best scouted, or so I thought.  I knew to expect some choppy rocky areas, and am relieved that the morning’s rain will provide enough depth to kayak the whole way.  After a typical long summer stretch without rain, this section might involve a lot of kayak dragging.

Stanley 1.5

Back in the water, there is a 2’+ drop right away.  There is well enough current to go right over, and my family is right there on the side, watching and sending me off, video recording for fb posterity.  The drop goes well with not too much water coming in, my go pro making it look worse that it was.

Stanley 2

I bought a gopro for the trip. It’s a cute little 1 ½” cube that I’ve mounted on the kayak, and it’s voice activated.  While not as interactive and hilarious as Siri can be, I’m still finding it amusing in the peaceful moments of solitude to be having a conversation with my camera.

Stanley 2.5

Right after the Stanley drop, I’ve come up to the NJ Transit Chatham Train Bridge I go over and back each day.  I know it’s tall but I’m not prepared for what I see.  This is an all stone block bridge rising up improbably high with a long graceful arch.  No concrete, this is a fitted stone masterpiece of great strength and grace.  It could easily be Roman.  Then passing under I let out a loud sound as I have under each bridge to see what kind of echo, if any, I get back.  This great stone curve responds with incredible smooth reverberation.  It’s a mystifying sound, haunting in a positive way.

Stanley 3

Up ahead there is little time to pause as I’ve hit the rapids.  At the outset there is a rock in the middle that I look at most days from the train atop the bridge to gauge the water level.  I maneuver and get a good touch of this rock, and am surprised by the unexpected surge of energy I get back.

The rocks are now all over and I’m actively negotiating a path in this shallower faster section of river.  The river is wide, with great branches sweeping over.  There are roads close by, including River Road, but there’s so much going on I hardly notice.  It’s a great stretch with a few calm parts.  Between Chatham Road and Main Street there is a dam with a 1 ½ -2 foot drop.  It’s at the end of a straight fast stretch and has concrete embankments on each side.  I pulled over to scout.  On the left side there is a concrete platform at the bottom of the drop that has the real chance of wrecking a kayak in certain conditions.  It’s clear on the right side where I went over and was fun.  This is a section that must be scouted and assessed for the conditions of the moment and the skills of the kayaker.  Portaging is a good idea.

A few more rapids and I’m under Route 24 and into the Canoe Brook Water Reservoirs.

 

6 – Canoe Brook Water Reservoir to Great Piece Meadows

 

canoe brook 1

The Canoe Brook Water Reservoir is a great tract of wild land from Chatham up through Livingston.  It supplies water for many towns in the area and has lots of ‘keep out’ signs.  It’s been on my list of places to roam for a while.  Now I’m cruising through on a kayak.  I’m riding a wave of euphoria as I’m well ahead of where I had planned to be.  I’m also in a long stretch where I’ve been unable to scout very much.  I had expected this stretch to be slower, meandering and crouched in by sub-divisions.  Boy, was I wrong.

canoe brook 2

There are a set of open spaces along the river – the Canoe Brook Water Reservoirs (1 and 2), the Central Valley Wetlands, the Troy Meadows Wetlands, the confluence with the Rockaway River and many other large tracts of undeveloped land.  There are great expansive natural meadows for miles.  A bald eagle flew yards over my head and perched above the river to watch me (the first of two eagles I saw).  There were trees to wind around, over, underneath.  There are many birds, including one with a squared off tail and a distinctive bounce up and down while on the ground.  It’s like a salsa dancer that keeps their hips moving without realizing it. The current is a bit slower but still conducting me through new lands with ease.  The grace and beauty of this stretch was totally unexpected.  Euphoria is flowing full on.

I had hoped to make it to the Great Piece Meadows by the second night. Now it’s feeling like it will be the first night.

canoe brook 3

 

7 – The Great Piece Meadows

 

The Great Piece Meadows are a large tract of land the Passaic winds back and forth around from the West and then deep within to the north.  The river is wider now and the current a bit slower.  It is evening and the sunset lights warms patches of riverside grass and trees.  These bright patches contrast with sections that are now in full shade.  Each bend in the river is made more dynamic by the play of warm light and darkening forest.  It is a wonderful culmination of the day’s adventure.

The riverside stretches of grass look very inviting to camp.  On close inspection, however, they covered with PI, poison ivy.  I’m not sure how this will play out.  An interesting development as I approach the Meadows is a reduction in my ability to steer.  The bow is a bit high and as I check the stern I find it 2” underwater at the tip.  There is no danger of sinking, but I’m not level and the current batts me around.  Pulling over I realize my rental kayak has a 7” crack along the back of the keel.  The rear compartment is full of water.  I drain it and continue on, but the water rushes in and I’m back to where I was.  Perhaps I should be concerned, but I’ve dealt with worse and this seems manageable, if less than ideal.

te, I consider a muddy bank and more sections of tall grass, but none fits well.  Finally I find a section of mowed grass, 30’ wide and 12’ deep up an embankment on the backside of someone’s property.  It’s a very deep lot and there is a good section of forest between the river and the house for privacy, so I decide to pitch for the night.

The last few years I’ve often favored a bivy sack over a tent.  Mosquitos don’t bother me too much and a bivy is certainly lighter.  So I’m set up for the night in no time and eating a MRE.  I’m thankful to be able to pass on cooking.  I’m still elated, though my shoulders have let me know that I’ve gone way beyond what I’m in shape for.  Of great relief, my back is rock solid.

It’s been about 35 miles for the first day.  Wow.  I didn’t expect to be able to do that – I had one 10 mile practice run before the trip.

Throughout my life I’ve been able to go way beyond the limits of my physical ability.  I’ve never been quite sure exactly why.  I know I have a high threshold for pain.  It might be my will, or it might be that I don’t experience pain in the same way as others.  I do know that when excitement and euphoria are flowing, I can suspend limitations and embrace the moment; whether it’s a short college crew race or a long day of paddling.  Limitations are ultimately our constructs, and when they get separated from reality, opportunities are lost.  There are consequences to this, of course, including major back surgery in my 20s.  The invincibility of my youth caught up to me earlier than most.  But with more balanced training (a lot tai chi and tango dancing) I’ve been able to extend a very vigorous lifestyle past 50.  My arms will hurt the next day, but for now the joy is overwhelming and with a little advil, I’ll sleep well.

Surprisingly, I stay awake sitting cross legged by the river well past sunset.  It’s a full moon and I watch its rise through the trees.  I’m enjoying being outside along the river so much that I think I would sleep outside even if I had brought a tent.  As I drift off, I’m thankful my gear in the rear compartment stayed dry.

 

8 – Second Day

 

second day 1

I’m up early.  With another MRE I’m packed and off before 6.  If yesterday was the great party, today is the hangover. My shoulders and forearms are quite stiff.  The river has now widened significantly and the current has dropped off to very little.  The kayak is quickly full of water in the rear compartment.  Taken together my pace is much slower.  I feel a bit more wizened than euphoric.

But it’s an amazing morning.  There is mist across the river.  The sun is streaking in horizontally through clear skies.  Some patches of the water are brightly lit, others quite dark in the shade.  The mist moves in amazing sweeping curves at the slightest change in the air.  If I could dance like that . . .  There are sections where it twists up in narrow columns 6” wide and 6’ tall.  These are slow spinning twisters, tornadoes not of destruction but wisps of utter grace.  Up close they are pairs of mist coils, twisting around each other. It’s a delicate, sensual dance.  I feel as if I’m intruding on their intimate moment together.

The banks of the river are lined with grass and plants with big fish just below.  As I take the inner river curves tightly, I’m clearly in their territory.  They splash out of the way, one so close that I get a loud smack on the side of my craft.  The hawks are out, as are the herons and ducks.  I’m still herding them, despite the river’s width.  In this northern section of the Great Piece Meadows, the Passaic River runs through the middle. It’s one of the farthest on this trip that I’ve been from civilization on both banks.  It’s a peaceful place.

second day 3

At one point I have to portage around a tree.  After draining my kayak, I drag it over a section of grass to the other side.  To my surprise, the grass has filled the crack and I’m able to kayak normally for a longer stretch before filling up.  Around the tree, caught in the branches, in addition to logs and the like, there is now a degree of garbage.  Still, the river has been very clean, and it feels disconnected from the built up areas around it and all their detritus.

second day 4

At the end of the Meadows, I start passing some kayak fishermen and even a couple of slow moving motor boats.  I can hear Highway 80 here and there to the south.  As I leave the meadows, I pass under Highway 80 and Route 46.  The river is now very wide.  A ways further I pass some kayak fishermen.  They’re great guys who provide some gorilla tape for my keel.  The patch holds for the day and I’m up to full speed.  I power through wide stretches with houses on the left and roadways to the right.  Another 4 or so miles and I come around a big turn and arrive at Little Falls.  Don’t let the ‘little’ fool you – while smaller in height than the great Paterson Falls a few miles downstream, they’ve got a 7’ drop onto hard rock and concrete, followed by a set of drops and rocks that look about class 4 rapids or so.

I first am aware of the falls by their roar.  Then the mist rising up 30’ above the thin flat line that signals a drop.  I’m safely over to the side with ease.  I have to haul my craft up through dense PI.  Scouting, I realize I’d have a half mile or so portage to get around the falls.  I’m not confident in my kayak with the crack, especially with anticipated rapids to get to Paterson.  I am done.  It’s 10 a.m. and I make the call to my wife to be picked up.  My phone is water damaged and this is the last thing it does before going out for good.

It’s been about 46 miles of almost all wilderness in the middle of built up NYC suburbs.  The exhilaration of this discovery is the joy of a lifetime.  I can’t wait to share the stories and videos with family and friends.  The bulk of the trip was on Saturday, but it feels I lived a lifetime of adventure.  I really can’t believe all that happened in a day.  And it happened where I would not have expected it.  It wasn’t a river run hemmed in by back yards and industrial parks.  Somehow, miraculously, the Passaic River from Little Falls up to Sterling has been preserved in a natural state.  This is a real treasure in our backyard, and I hope enjoyment of the Passaic River expands to include many many more people.

Who knew?

Now I do.  And I hope you’ll discover it too.

 

9 – Canoes vs. Kayaks

 

I debated whether to take a canoe or kayak on this trip.  Canoeing has been second nature to me from my early years.  Be it rapids, wind, aggressive tides; I have few concerns about my skills in a canoe.  Even with the craziness of the Mullica River in the NJ Pinelands, I’m fine (another great paddlin’ story).

The motion of canoe paddling is a near spiritual experience for me.  I get to sit up (better view), with my knees down and against the gunnels and good form, my whole body feels engaged.  It’s an ancient rhythm.  I feel I could just as easily hoe a field or build a house with a similar motion.  You reach up and out – expanding – and bring the paddle and the water back in and then past you.  It’s an endless series of embraces of the air and water.  Bringing them in, compressed and then released.  Throughout this motion there is space in front of me, a round ball of volume.  Maintaining this space is one of the tenets of tai chi that I learned in my 30s, and it turns out I’ve been doing it while paddling since I was a kid.

The problem of course is that canoes are made for two paddlers, and I was planning a solo trip.  Single kayaks are well suited for all water situations, except when carrying heavy large loads.  They are faster and have a much smaller profile against headwinds.  I was concerned their lower position in the water would limit my views above the riverbanks.  The extra foot and a half I’d get from a canoe might make a big difference.  This turned out not to be an issue.

My other concern was having less experience in a kayak.  I had been around ocean bays by kayak on recent family vacations and for my 40th birthday I took a week trip in the Broken Island Group on the west coast of Vancouver Island in BC.  We had open ocean 6’ swells – alternating between lofty views and being deep in a water valley.  But winding rivers and rapids, I’m not so sure. In the end, all worked very well.  As well known to kayakers, the crafts are enormously maneuverable.  They’re fast, light and can be hauled over obstacles with relative ease.  The motion has a good grace to it as well.  While I’m not on top of the paddle like canoeing, there is good leverage, a clean ability to connect to all our body’s major muscle groups and a nice rhythm to the stroke.  Which will I use on my next trip?  It’s not quite as clear as before.    🙂

 

10 – PI – Poison Ivy

 

I’ve had a long relationship with PI – Poison Ivy.  One of my parents is very allergic, so my early awareness was less than relaxed.  I react to the oils on PI’s leaves, vines and trunks, though not quite as badly as others.  Still, I avoid it, and use Technu to clean off the oils after yard work.

We live in the Garden State.  Everything grows here.  Everything.  That means PI too, very well in fact.  PI likes sun.  It thrives in meadows, and suburban gardens.  Its berries are favored by birds.  Find a place where birds perch, and you’ll often find PI growing below.

It also has an interesting relationship with trees, especially those along the edges of open areas.  PI and its cousins are often small ivy like bushes, and bush like ivies.  But when attached to a tree it takes on a whole new supersized life.  There the vines rise up 30, sometimes 50’ high.  On trees, its little vines grow monstrously thick- up to 5 inches – and sprout lots of little roots all along.  Side branch vines cantilever out 10, sometimes 15’ – quite the embrace if you’re not looking where you walk.  They take advantage of the sun on the lower part of the trunk where branches have broken off with age.  It’s an interesting relationship, using the branchless lower part of a tree.  Some types of trees I’ve noticed typically have PI growing up them, others rarely.

The vines rising up trees still need the sunlight, so they tend to climb trees near open spaces –meadows, or rivers.  It’s easy enough to avoid the trees with PI on the side of a river.  The trees that are vertical that is.

Early on my first day I can across a fallen tree that covered the entire river.  There was a spot that I thought I could pass through.  It looked like a recent tree fall as the leaves were still full.  Then I noticed vines that the leaves were growing from and their telltale little roots.  Back paddle!  Back Paddle!  I just missed going through a gauntlet of PI.  I portaged around, stepping carefully on grass and avoiding the smaller PI clumps.  This came up again a few times later on, and I just had to be careful.

It also made for a challenge when finding a campsite.  Proper campsites make efforts to remove PI.  But along the river I was going to simply find a space for the night.  This turns out to be harder with PI, as the open grass and meadow areas that looked attractive have lots of the stuff.  All worked out in the end, and despite a lot of exposure I had no PI outbreaks when I returned from my trip.

So while I have concerns about PI, I have also grown to have a (grudging) respect for it as well.  It adapts to various NJ conditions and spreads around with its berries.  But the part that I think is missing is how much I sense it has expanded since human cultivation of the land.  Our state was once heavily forested.  You could say it is nature’s revenge for our expansion and cutting down the once great canopies.  Or you could say it’s like a set of brakes, weak ones, on our expansion, maybe it’s just a reminder of what we’ve done.  There’s more to understand here about Poison Ivy.  Though perhaps from a distance!

 

11 – a bit about trees

 

Trees were ubiquitous on my trip.  They make up the forests around the river, and lean over it, more and more until they fall in.  Countless plants and animals make them their home.  They made my trip special in so many ways.

And despite the wilderness feel of my trip, they’ve been cut down around us to the point where only a few small tracts of old growth remain in the Northeast.  The great forests nearby are surrounded by much larger suburbs, and none is old growth.

The suburbs have magnificent single trees in yards and cleared parks.  With space around them, they really expand into great specimens.  But these trees are solitary.  The forests are lost with development, and the new forests are a ways yet from the rich heritage of large old growth expanses.

It’s in the great forests where I feel the richest life.  They have their own rhythms and qualities that have evolved physically and spiritually over untold millions of years.  Sadly, we’re strayed a long way from understanding their true value and majesty.

I came across a perspective a few years ago about trees.  Some ancient cultures and sections of modern science say that hundreds of millions of years ago there was too much carbon dioxide in the air for mammals to thrive.  Over a great period of time, an untold number of trees and plants absorbed our atmosphere’s carbon and stored it.  When they perished they were covered by successive trees and plants – in forests, swamps and other biomes.  Eventually, geologic forces compressed and moved these carbon deposits deep below the ground, transforming them into oil, gas and coal.  Over a great period of time the air changed.  Mammals, and recently humans, were able to thrive.

There are two things that humans are doing now to reverse this.  We are cutting down forests at an alarming rate.  The great filters and collectors of carbon dioxide are being significantly reduced in number.  Just as significantly, we are going through great efforts to unearth those ancient interred carbon deposits and burn them, releasing them back into the atmosphere in a geological blink of an eye.  A process that took hundreds of millions of years to bring about is being rapidly reversed from both sides – capture and storage.

Trees have been of service to us in ways and to an extent that are hard to fathom.  Yet we cut them down, and by burning fossil fuels we undo their work.  Still though, incredibly, through all this, I don’t feel they are angry at us.  That’s a lot of grace to have in the face of a chainsaw, especially when you’ve, in part, made the existence of humans possible.

The truth is that humans are going at it full tilt, altering our world.  And we’re simply not there in understanding the repercussions of our actions nor even having interest in understanding.  Our super-efficient abilities have raced ahead of our spirituality and self-awareness.

Yet I have to ask, is this too part of a grand design akin to what the trees around us have done?  Is there purpose and possibly grace in our rapid self-destructive mess, in our radical transformation of the world?  Just what is behind what humans are up to?

In a curious way, I think the forests know much more about what’s happening then we do.  Especially the old growth forests.  I believe they understand and have perspective about our arc.  And where we are in it now.  I hope I’m open enough to hear what they have to say.  I’m certainly interested.

Thanks for reading – I welcome your thoughts and comments

Tom

 

Author: paddlingthepassaic

Architect, husband, father, outdoorsman, tango dancer, tai chi-er and cook. paddler too :)

One thought on “Paddlin’ the Passaic”

  1. Hi Tom,

    I have also worked a long way down the Passaic. I started at Osborn Pond in Basking Ridge and have completed downriver to the head of the Little Falls. Next I plan to put in at the bottom of the falls by the water plant and continue to Great Falls. I expecting some low water in the section. I’ve been doing it by canoe. If you are interested in going on to Newark let me know.
    HS

    Like

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