Risk, Rapids and Rainbow Sprinkles on the Delaware River


I thought I would scout Skinners Falls unless an obvious route presented itself. But by the time I might have pulled over, I was entering the swift water. You do a quick visual scan when you “read and run” a rapid. You find a line through rocks, a tongue of smooth water, and a path after that. There are micro-adjustments to make, a flick of the paddle to tilt the boat this way or that. The pulse quickens, the body reacts. A gut drop when you first enter.

The water to the left pillowed over large rocks, roiling waves and a gnash of spray, cascading. I stayed right but then drifted toward the center. Sully had been lying down under the front seat. When she heard the roar of waves, and as the boat rocked and took on a little water, she rose quickly to look at the circumstances.

Not liking what she saw or the splash of water, she wanted to hop into the stern with me, maybe in my arms. But that would rock the boat more, raise our center of gravity. I went to my knees to lower it, yelled, “stay!” while pivoting between rocks, no eddy or safe harbor to rest in. I could see a dangerous hydraulic to the left I wanted to avoid so I dragged my paddle on the right to swerve the boat away. When we crashed through one last big foamy plume, a woman sitting in the middle on a rock gave us the thumbs-up.

In the eddy at the base of the falls, I looked back to see what we had come through. A rapid always seems worse at the top, with a drop ahead of you, the unknown, than at the bottom. No big deal, you think, having made it, your heart beating fast in your chest, the spit in your throat a little dry.

You always remember the spills. Replay them again and again. The mind churns through the missteps, the what-might-have-beens.

At last, after rounding a bend, what was once Big Eddy, the deepest eddy on the river, now Narrowsburg. The foam flecks swirled in the eddy before the ramp, reminding me of time-lapse photos of the night sky.

Pulling into Narrowsburg, I had a song in my head by the Band, feeling ’bout half past dead. I really did just need a place to lay my head. Tired and sore, thirty miles behind me, including a lot of flatwater paddling, I trudged up the boat ramp to pay my campsite fee. Although the ramp was littered with rafts, paddles, and life jackets—likely the weekend’s spree—I had the large lower area to myself.

Dinner was pasta with pesto, made on my camp stove. Restored, I walked around some, hearing that there was ice cream nearby. I caught Nora’s Luvin’ Spoonful as they were closing. In fact, they were closed and cleaning up. And I had a card but no cash, and they didn’t take cards. I did have one check in case of emergencies, and this was one. My signature and $2.67 got me a vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles, jimmies.

I walked back to camp through the trees sifting the night. The air was still warm, even at nightfall. Then, I had yet another song in my head, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream.” What a night for it. The trees were saturated with shadow. I had come a long way. In the flyless tent, the moon and stars, the whole shining collection appearing to hang motionless over the still water, this boy dreamed.

Back at camp the next morning, I caught up with Rick Lander, the owner of the campground and Lander’s River Trips. I asked about what Gail told me yesterday, their record year last year.

Skinners Falls beach, he told me, was their Jones Beach. Because all the water parks were closed, Hershey Park closed, people came here. New York had strict regulations about leaving the state, but he was in-state, and while families couldn’t gather inside, they could get ten relatives and a few campsites and get together around a campfire. Just two hours from the city.

Rick claims that they were there first. Kittatinny, the other main outfitter, “had two Jon boats behind a bar.” Lander has seen many changes to the industry, from canoes to kayaks to rafts and SUPs. The rafts are more social, and you don’t flip. Too, some of the conflicts, the “divorce machines” as they can be known, when couples disagree on which way to navigate obstacles, can be minimized.

His customers still came from Brooklyn, like his father, but they are Central American, Eastern European. And as many as they had last year, a hundred or more years ago people also flocked to the area. Then, as now, a disease ran people out of the city. One recommended cure for highly infectious tuberculosis was fresh air.

In the deep water, I pulled my paddle through the foam-flecked river and pointed Margaret downstream. An eagle made a move on the rocky outcrop, dropping a feather that I steered over for and reached to pick up. I stuck it in the seat back behind me.

I had a big day ahead, with some twenty-five rapids in front of me, including Ten-Mile, West Colang, Narrows Falls, Big Cedar, and Shohola— all Class IIs. This section of the river would descend over a series of bedrock ledges through the Appalachian Plateau.

At the start of it, yet more eagles. It seemed like I could get closer to the juvenile ones, almost near their perch. The “bald” in the eagle comes from an older meaning of bald, “streaked with white,” as in piebald. When I approached, the white-headed adults hid in the tops of trees or took flight. But sometimes, the juveniles, mottled brown and white, would wait until I was just upon them before fleeing. Several times, I saw what looked to be a parent come by to screech at the youngster, chase it in flight, as if to say, “what were you thinking? Letting that human get so close?” Or so it seemed.

This had me thinking about whether young eagles were like young people, their reward system overtaking their impulse control. A love of the new and novel leads directly to useful experience and possible reward. That same hunt for sensation provides the inspiration needed to get out of the house or nest. Taking a risk meant that young eagle found a new section of river to inhabit, like its parent before. Long ago, an eagle took a chance on the river itself, flying up from the Delaware Bay.

Last summer, on a kayaking trip to the Chattooga, the famous river where Deliverance was filmed, I dropped over a Class IV ledge and started to flip at the bottom. I braced on the leaning side, the upriver side, ready to roll if I had to, but also trying to prevent turning upside down. My paddle jammed into a rock below, the kayak drifting downstream, increasing my arm angle, and my shoulder slipped out of joint. When it gave, I pulled the skirt and ejected, felt not so much pain as lack of function, and swam toward shore with the good arm.

On a rock, the shoulder seemed to wind back into the socket. I emptied my boat of water, adrenaline shaking my knees. I thought I was fine—no big deal. But several hundred yards later, the tissue now weakened, it happened again in a small wave, just paddling. This time, it was even more painful. Luckily, we were near a ramp and not far from the put-in. So, with the help of a friend, we walked back to the trucks at the put-in and found ice for the shoulder.

A year later, the joint felt pretty good, near full strength. And a canoe paddle angle is lower than a kayak one. But I wondered what would happen if I did need help. My stroke, that forced reckoning with my own mortality, was always in the back of my mind, the lingering effects still to some extent unknown. I wondered about my ability to misread the warnings, the severity of what lay ahead, or if I would overestimate my skill. From what I had read, everything downriver was Class II, meaning waves and some obstruction, but pay attention, and I should be fine.

My sixties map had its own scale from I to VI, with six representing simply hazardous and “swift flowing.” Someone might think that if they completed a III on the Delaware, “riffle,” they could on any river. That series of maps was eventually upgraded according to the international scale of river difficulty created by the American Canoe Association.

Whitewater is basically air trapped in the water, making it appear opaque or white, usually the result of a change in gradient or flow. The system rates an individual rapid (or a stretch of river) according to six categories from Class I (easiest and safest) to Class VI (most difficult and most dangerous). The grade reflects both the technical difficulty and the danger associated with a rapid. The higher the class, the bigger the drop and the bigger the “consequences.” There was risk involved in coming on this trip, the many rapids to cross, but there was risk in not coming too, the regrets I might have.

Know what else is risky? Going just about anywhere, any day. And it’s especially risky to stay at home, being a vessel of the expectations of others.

For the next rapid, Shohola, I stood in the canoe to scout, and instantly had a plan: Scoot left, then back to right, follow the channel, try not to be mesmerized by the high rocks on the left side. I just missed a giant pour-over in the middle, and at the base, noted a pretty good campsite on river right with a view of the bluffs called Little Hawk’s Nest.

It was still hot, although after six, so I took a delicious swim in the current below the rift. I opened my eyes underwater to look for small minnows, the occasional bass darting away or holding fast in the current. Some wriggled their whole bodies; some used their caudal or tail fins like rudders, as I did with my paddle.

While opening my eyes underwater, I could see Sully’s paddling paws coming near. She has competing instincts when swimming: an urge to join me with a fear of moving water, simultaneously viewing me as life raft and drowning threat. She swam close to check on me and then escaped to the safe shore.

While we both dripped dry, I swept out some of the river cobble with my paddle to make a tent site, like a dog scratching out and circling its bed. Where to sleep is an old argument among river trippers: sandy beach or pebbly one? One soft but sand everywhere, the other hard but relatively clean.

I smoothed out a pad as best I could and then sat on my stool, tall hemlocks behind, view of high bluffs, soothing river sound. I picked up a few stones and tumbled them in my hand like those Chinese Baoding (meditation) balls, staring at the starry flecks, the streams of white. Gritty smooth like eggshells. Never mind the world in a grain of sand. Here, it’s in a handful of rocks.

I slid a premade foil packet on the embers. Potatoes and carrots and other mixed veggies. I sat on my chair, dug my feet into the stones, and waited for the sizzle. The meal came out of the embers steaming, and I half blew on, half inhaled the feast. Sully took great pleasure in licking the charred bits in the discarded foil clean.

Here was reason enough to come: the contrasts of wet and dry, soft and hard. To watch the flames crackle and leap and glow as darkness moved in, the cliff walls across the river already steeped in shadow. The fire smoked and smoldered into ash as the river rushed past, hard and clean and full of force.


Editors note: From Borne by the River: Canoeing the Delaware from Headwaters to Home, by Rick Van Noy, a Three Hills book published by Cornell University Press. Copyright (c) 2024 by Rick Van Noy. Included by permission of the author and publisher.

Rick Van Noy is also the author of Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate-Changed South, and A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature Through the Season. He is a Professor of English at Radford University in Virginia.