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.

 

 

 

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

3 – Herding Herons

tree bridge

Herding Herons

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.

2 – Putting in

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!

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 next 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 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 (Ossipee Mountains in NH, one of my favorites) 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!

 

Tom Gilman  🙂