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 🙂