I steered the old-fashioned green canoe from the back of the boat while Will plowed us forward, gliding us in the same direction as the barely apparent current rippling up the D&R Canal. Sarah had been paddling for awhile, but was now resting between us, taking in the sights of the surrounding vegetation and cloudy blue skies through her oversized sunglasses, hydrating with a PBR from the cooler between her legs. Trying unsuccessfully to stick to the shade, there was more sun than shadow now burning through our sun block, despite multiple reapplications. Strange, long-legged bugs skimmed along the top of the water. The constant buzzing of cicadas was punctuated here and there by the sounds of our grunts and the gentle sloshing of the oars. It was getting on high noon without another soul in sight – a rare treat in the middle of the country’s most densely populated state.
The D&R is a manmade waterway that connects the Delaware, the river dividing Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and the Raritan, the river which empties into the bay just outside New York. “The big ditch,” dug between 1831 and 1834 – thus predating a whole lot of US history – was carved across New Jersey to improve the shipment of goods from the inland of the relatively new country out to the Atlantic. Its peak use was in the decade following the Civil War. As New York entered the Industrial Revolution, the city required tons and tons of anthracite coal from the abundant mines in Pennsylvania. However, the canal eventually fell to abandonment as steam locomotives replaced boats to be the primary mode of cargo transportation in the United States.
Today, the D&R has been transformed into a long but narrow state park that cuts clear across New Jersey, with hiking trails and historical markers running parallel to the otherwise disused waterway. Passing one of the many entrances to the park on my daily commute, I started to daydream about traveling on it, and then one day determined that I wanted to go from one end to the other. I decided to do it once summer had officially started.
Knowing I couldn’t go it alone, I convinced my longtime friend Will and my then-girlfriend-now-fiancée Sarah that I had a great idea. I didn’t have to sell it too hard. Will, always up for a historical adventure, and Sarah, a canoeing enthusiast, both agreed to the trip without much prodding. I tried to fill them in on all the information, like that it was going to be a tough trip and it might take all day, and that there would have to be some finagling back and forth with multiple cars; that there was no current on the canal because it’s a canal and not a river, and that there was going to be some portage involved around the locks (whatever that meant). But life was keeping everyone busy, and until the day finally arrived I couldn’t quite get them to grasp the finer details. All they knew was that we were going out on the canoe.Forgoing at the last minute my grand schemes to be on the water by sunrise, we started from the south and drove north, positioning my car, the Rusty Growler, at the northern tip in New Brunswick. We made it back down to the southern end near Trenton around nine in the morning. It felt early, but it was a pretty late start. There was some griping about the driving back and forth, and now that the picture of what was happening was clearer to everyone in our gang, I worried things were off to a bad start.
It didn’t get better trying to drop the canoe into the water – which indeed filled a canal, and not a riverbed like my companions had imagined. The concrete banks were overgrown, slimy with mud and scum, and we were up to our knees in skanky sediment before everyone had finally teetered into the boat. It wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t fun. Everyone was pissed off and worried about leeches.
It got better, though, and pretty quickly, too, actually, once we determined there were no leech bites. There’s no such thing as drinking too early when you’re in a canoe, and the beer went a long way towards deescalating that morning’s tensions. The weather was gorgeous, too. We slid along the water, ducking our heads under low bridges and admiring wildlife like big white herons and overgrown box turtles sunning themselves on broken logs. We’d pass through industrial, urban decay covered in graffiti and then slip right back into the wilderness, or else spot colonial buildings and relic canal houses just over the trees. Once in awhile we’d pass someone taking a jog along the parallel trail, or boaters like us going along a smaller section at a faster clip, but for the most part we were alone to enjoy the sun, the water, and the exercise.
We spotted a decent bank to pull up on, so we took a break for a picnic lunch – submarine sandwiches and potato chips, plus the beer – and Will did a little fishing, hauling in a bite sized trout which he threw back after a photo-op. A quick bit of calculating against the map to check how much we’d already done showed that there was a slim chance we’d be able to finish the entire track that day. It was past lunch, but we were only a third of the way there. Moreover, the sky had changed from a sunny, pale blue to a more ominous gray. A dull yellowish-green, summer-storm pallor was cast over everything. Not yet deterred, however, we pressed onward and soon came to the first lock.
When digging a canal, it’s difficult to maintain an even water level because of the varying altitudes of the terrain it cuts through. To negate those effects, a system of locks and dams are put into place to stop up the water and raise boats to the next stage of the canal so they can smoothly continue on their journeys. The locks in the D&R aren’t functional, anymore, though, because the D&R isn’t really a canal, anymore, so whenever we came to one of these spots – five in all – we had to stop and portage. Each lock was a little different, but the process of portage, or carrying a boat, basically involved rowing for dear life away from a waterfall dam that could crush us, somehow pulling the canoe out of the canal, and then hauling it a hundred yards to the other side, where then we had to re-create the same plunging mess from that morning to get back in the boat. It was extremely hard to do after rowing all day. Will and Sarah didn’t know what portage was before the first lock, but they quickly learned the meaning of the word. They requested – in so many words – that I learn how to explain things before getting them involved in any of my adventures from now on.
Back on the water, it started to rain, and after swamping the boat while trying to pull up on the banks of Carnegie Lake in Princeton, it felt like we had probably had enough fun for one day. We took a long break while our equipment dried out, checking out historical markers, fishing, and taking photos. But we weren’t anywhere near the car we had left at the other end. We had to go on, willing or not.
We pressed hard and made a good distance, working in stride to get farther than we had earlier in the day. The rain even stopped! But it was getting dark by the time we reached an unforeseen bend in the canal, and we knew we couldn’t make it before the sun would actually set. Calling it quits about three quarters of the way was as good as we could do. We called a friend who picked us up and brought us back to the Rusty Growler. Then we brought the car to the canoe and strapped it to the top, which took about a million hours and several thousand curse words.I felt defeated. After having gone about fifteen miles in a beat up canoe, we still hadn’t reached the end. In fact, up until this instant of writing, I’ve always felt a little embarrassed to tell about the story, because at the time it seemed like so much had gone wrong. But now going back over photos, and looking at the distance on a map, and recalling how much we actually DID accomplish that day, I’m kind of proud. So what if we didn’t reach the arbitrary goal? We paddled and portaged and swamped and fished. We drank and ate and laughed and worked. We felt good enough about it to vow to go back one day. And I can live with that.