My new favorite kayaking hour has become 5:30 p.m. Although a life-long morning person, the twilight hours have lately come to enchant me on these sacred preserved waters.
Stillness surrounded us, as yet another ‘virgin kayaker’ and I glided out of the Turning Basin at Alexander, heading south on the shimmering D&R Canal.
On both sides, and reflected in curiously profound waters, the banks were still garbed in high summer’s uninterrupted green. Lush and bountiful ‘wine-dark’ greens negated hard trunks, melded single leaves. It was as though some mad decorator had strewn enormous sofa cushions all along our route.
At outset, there were few clouds — but that billowy forest did a superb and startling role as stand-ins. Here and there, the long red throats of trumpet flowers (hummingbirds’ favorites) punctuated the text of the forest. As clouds arrived, their reflections and those of canalside trees, reminded us first of Monet, then Constable.
The old maritime word, ‘williwaws’, came to mind, as gentlest breezes wrinkled first one side of the water, then the other.
Its color fascinated — various rich tones of grey, beyond pewter to black pearl. One or two curled gold leaves had somehow materialized, bobbing along like miniature watercraft, turning this way and that against the darkness.
Silence was everywhere. Time stopped.
Ever since Sandy scoured these historic banks, we have been deprived of many wildflowers and most turtles. Reparations brought in new stoniness, so far inhospitable to most blooms. Furious torrents swept all the slanted turtle logs downstream, (up-canal). Downed trunks have yet to reappear, making it hard for turtles to emerge from the depths, bask in the light.
Marsh mallow was our first floral gift. Because it was twilight, pink blooms, then later white ones, were “folding their tents like the Arabs.” Twined, from a distance, these towering hibiscus-like plants seemed more lily than mallow. I told my (enormously skillful already) kayaking companion, “The Lenni Lenape made a sweet out of their roots, which was white and sticky. We named marshmallows after those roots.”
Goldenthread vines wove in and out and over and under on the banks to our right. It seems to smother the plants that it covers. But late light on gold webs was stunning. Long ago, a woman from Jamaica told me, “We use this plant to treat prostate problems in my country.”
A few double kayaks of new paddlers gave us pause along this usually empty route. Their skills led them repeatedly toward the tangled banks, rather than up-canal or down-canal.
I was deeply aware, listening to their laughter, of the sounds we were not hearing — no wood thrushes, though evening. No kingfisher, rattling in his fishing dives. Not a goose yet — proving again that we are still in summer’s hands. Not even a mourning dove, although neither of us unfortunately ever needs to be reminded of mourning.
Only a few round tight golden spatterdock blooms remained among the lily pads. About the size of ping pong balls, these waterlily blooms will never enlarge. They seemed to be playing hide and seek in the shadows.
I had alerted my traveling companion to be on the lookout for shy cardinal flower. Fondest of deep shade, often solitary, these slender stalks hold tiny trumpet-y flowers the color of the bird for whom they are named. In sunlight, they can be visited by ravening hummingbirds.
She found the first stalk, and most thereafter, until my eyes adjusted to such minuscule splashes of crimson hidden in underbrush. It reminded me of snorkeling – when you don’t even realize there are tiny fish at first; and then, they are everywhere. We lost count of cardinal flower last night.
For all the high heat days we have had lately, the canal water was surprisingly cool. I always dip eager hands into that secret-keeping surface, ritually baptize my legs with her waters. A certain communion with the canal is essential.
This night was the most contemplative of all my shared ‘rides’. There is such a thing as ‘walking meditation.’ I think we were given ‘paddling meditation’. Occasional companionable talk, –of art and of camping, of books — drifted from her chartreuse craft to my cardinal-flower-hued one.
Two deer, mirrored in the canal, strolled down to sip. Being in their calm presence was either mirage or tapestry.
I had told her, “If we’re lucky, we might see the green heron at this hour.” Riding tall and proud as a skilled Lenni Lenape, her bright eyes missed nothing. My friend discovered this wild herald, high overhead, exactly matching leaves in late light. Silently, it coasted more than flew, from its observatory branch, angling down along the bank to our left. The lowering sun was taking on subtle flame hues itself, highlighting its coppery feathers.
We had been wondering what would be our turning point. The green heron was the deity we had awaited.
I’ll soon be writing an article on this for the Packet, for Anthony Stoeckert, a delight of an editor, on the first kayaking of Spring.
But I must let NJWILDBEAUTY readers know, I made it out there on our canal last evening, (Sunday, May 3) from five to 6:30. There may be no lovelier way to end a day!
‘There’ is the Alexander Road station of Princeton Canoe and Kayak, canoenu.com, (also up at Griggstown, where I learned.) I’ll give you more info later.
Meanwhile, welcome to Tranquility Base!
It’s kayak time — what are you waiting for? (609-452-2403) Ask for Steve and tell him Carolyn sent you!
Thursday, February 26th, everyone who loves the Raritan River and its exquisite and storied canal may hear Judy Auer Shaw, Ph.D., at D&R Greenway Land Trust, on the river’s history, industrial importance, aesthetic value, importance to our water supply, and current perils. Dr. Shaw is a legend in her time, on many fronts. Her current passion is this river, and her life is devoted to preserving and improving. it.
Dr. Judy Shaw, The Raritan’s River-keeper
The presentation is from 6:30 to 8 p.m., with a light reception. To register for this free evening of information and delight, please use firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Shaw’s book will be for sale and she will sign copies that night.
The Delaware and Raritan Canal was created in the 1830’s to carry coal from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley safely to New York (by Raritan Bay) and Philadelphia (via Delaware Bay.) The pre-canal route meant rounding Cape May and daring dangerous shoals, en route to and past Sandy Hook. At one time our canal carried more tonnage than the legendary Erie!
The Raritan River begins at the confluence of the North and South Branches of the Raritan. All along that waterway, wildlife should be able to thrive. Dr. Shaw is doing everything in her power to see to it that the River’s natural benefits to are region are restored and enhanced.
The North Branch of the Raritan is one of the most exquisite features of the state of New Jersey. Up near Califon and Clinton, it ripples, clear as gin, over time-smoothed rocks, hiding and nourishing trout.
Ken Lockwood Gorge is astounding for hikers as well as trout fishermen. My friend Tasha O’Neill is famous for realistic and abstract images of the Gorge. To walk there is to move well beyond the 21st Century, in fact back to the time of the Lenni Lenapes/Algonquins who fished these shores long before we did.
The sheer beauty and vibrancy of trout in the Raritan at its source – by Tasha O’Neill
My Ordinary Scene of Ken Lockwood in Autumn
Even if you have known the Raritan, as I did, –having lived above it in New Brunswick, you may find these images hard to believe. But they may explain, partially, why I’ve been in love with the Raritan since I met that river in 1964. At the time, I knew nothing of the Raritan’s history, had never heard of Lenni Lenapes, and didn’t even realize that was a canal down there!
I walk the Gorge with many friends — the above is Anne Zeman’s dreamy view of the Raritan in all its pristine beauty.
We moved into the tall apartment (Colony House, first Buccleuch Park Towers) at Landing Lane Bridge in New Brunswick. Our apartment wrapped around the corner, so we woke to the Raritan, and supped in its sunset. The river was frequently mist-covered. Sunrise would tint dawn’s mist pink, and sunset tended to fill the rivermist with coralline hues. My daughters, toddlers, would wake from naps, rushing to see “The boys in the boats on the reevah.”
People who’d always lived in New Brunswick would stride into our apartment and say, “Well, Carolyn, it’s beautiful, but it’s not New Brunswick.” I didn’t know enough then to tell them that the Raritan is far more important than New Brunswick!
Never would I have believed anyone who would insist that I’d be living near that river and its canal for most of the rest of my life. That the Towpath would inspire, nourish, even heal me through almost overwhelming tragedies. That a friend would teach me to kayak on the canal above Griggstown. That the Raritan River and its Canal create a feast for all seasons.
Peaceful Prow on D&R Canal near Princeton, by Tasha O’Neill
Autumn Harvest, D&R Canal Style, near Princeton
Tumultuous Water, the Delaware — by Brenda Jones
My Tremulous Storm Scenes above the Millstone and the Canal:
Wild Storm, Floodwater High Across Canal Road, north of 518
Ponding on the Driveway, High Water, Canal Road, north of 518
Neither my friend, Brenda Jones, nor I, spends much time outdoors in rain, –at least not intentionally, and not with our cameras.
Hers is far better than mine in chronicling wild water. I lived on a hill high above Canal Road, and the waters came up from the flood plain, over the Millstone River, over the Road, and far up the driveway, drowning its protective metal rail, in recent storms.
Last night, in a rather ordinary storm, poles went down, and wires with them, all over the Princeton Region.
My 5.5-mile ride from Lawrenceville to work took 90 minutes this morning. “Rosedale Road is closed,” declared the policeman (yes, I had ignored the closed sign and bright lights- I had to get work!) It would be closed from 2 hours to 2 days. Still closed when I left work this afternoon.
Thanks to human greed, burning of fossil fuel, refusal by our country to take the lead and reverse catastrophic climate change, we basically never have normal rain any more. Read Elizabeth Kolbert’s masterworks, “The Sixth Extinction” and “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” for the best science writing yet on what we are living through, what we are causing. “Among the few irreplaceable volumes written about climate change,” declares Bill McKibben, “Kolbert offers the best summary yet.” Other experts praise “Sixth Extinction” as our century’s “Silent Spring.”
You all know the reasons — glacial melt. Freshwater (light) on top of saltwater (heavy), –therefore more evaporatable water; more precipitation; more frequent precipitation; more violent precipitation. Changes in sea and river currents, which change air currents and the Gulf Stream. Which alter our planet, our very existence. Pogo said it long ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Forget “the new normal”! There ISN’t any normal any more. Not in any season. Not any time of day or night.
When we were little, we could go outside in bare feet and little homemade swimming outfits and paddle in bright puddles. Soft rain blessed our shoulders, tickled our backs, rinsed our long curls in the best conditioner ever. Tornadoes began with Flint when I was 11. “One day, clouds went both ways, fast!”, I wrote of being out precursors to that tempest. Nothing was ever the same.
Rain was something we liked. Something to play in!
Not an excuse for weather gurus to use smarmy voice and smirky smile to order us all “Stay safe…” and “Shelter at home…” If you notice, they also tell us when to shop and what to buy, and show pictures of shopping frenzy to stoke the coals…
Basically there isn’t any safe, any shelter, any more.
There used to be wonderful cadences to thunder. A soft vacuumy hush before the first rumble. The excitement of thunder as it grew nearer and nearer. Counting between lightning and thunder – “one one hundred, two one hundred” — something about the distance between bolts and ears.
The other night – not EVEN last night with all the downed trees of Princeton, all the sparking, smoking wires of morning — there was not even time to say “one”, let alone “one hundred” between ceaseless stabbings of lightning throughout the greensward here at my new dwelling and the explosion of thunder.
I never wanted to be someone who yearned for the “good old days.”
But I yearn for good old rains.
Even for a poet, there are times when words are not sufficient to convey the experience and the emotion. This may be one of them. I’ll start with the images from last Sunday morning’s kayaking on the canal below Alexander Road (Princeton) with a friend who’d trained out from Penn Station. As I picked her up, we heard the dinky (tiny traditional commuter train from Princeton Junction to Princeton town) tootle its little horn as it left for town. By the time it tootled for the return jaunt to the Junction, we were on the water.
Prow and D&R Canal South of Alexander Road
We’d stepped into this magic, as usual, by going to Steve and his wonderful helpful crew of young kayak assistants at Alexander Road, near Metro North. Princeton Canoe and Kayak opens at 10 on weekends. In our experience, the earlier the better. It is not costly, and timeless time on the water is sheer enchantment.
Friend Janet Black, fresh from Penn Station, out on the water
We were this close to wildflowers, such as the water lily called spatterdock
Other wise souls were out there with us — most of us enchanted that turtles don’t jump off their logs when passed by kayakers!
Alexander Road Bridge as kayaking excursion ends
Well, is it true? Is a picture worth 10,000 words?
Realize that the D&R Canal and Towpath are a New Jersey State Park. That they were preserved by a number of courageous, prescient organizations, including D&R Greenway Land Trust, where I work. That New Jersey is FULL of WILD BEAUTY, and your support of your local land trusts will protect what’s saved and lead to new preserves.