In the summer of 1970, three friends and I decided to go on a canoe trip on the Delaware River. We had talked about it for a while, intending to go the previous spring, but we thought the river would be swollen and cold with runoff. So, we set our sights on a summer trip.
Bob, Steve, Phil, and I were members of Boy Scout Troop Seven, based at Saint Paul Roman Catholic Church in Clifton. Bob, at seventeen, was the oldest. I was sixteen, and Steve and Phil were fifteen. We were part of the core of the troop and we had leadership positions. We all worked our shifts at the annual Christmas tree sale, the troop’s major fundraiser. We earned merit badges and climbed the ranks. Steve and I had earned the canoeing merit badge one previous summer at scout camp. I don’t recall if Bob or Phil earned that badge, but they had others on their sashes. I achieved the rank of Life Scout, the rank immediately below Eagle.
The canoes, paddles, life vests, tents, and cooking gear were property of Troop Seven. We bought dehydrated food from a mail-order catalog. Bob, if I remember correctly, acquired a set of maps of the river that showed where the rapids were and how challenging they were on a scale of zero to six. Considering ourselves well equipped, we convinced our parents to let us go. The conditions were fairly simple: We would telephone one set of parents each day from a pay phone in a town along the way, and the parents whom we called would call the others.
On the appointed day, a Saturday, we loaded our canoes, gear, and supplies into Bob’s father’s ’55 or ’56 Ford pickup truck. My Dad drove his ’61 Ford station wagon. Our Scoutmaster, Frank, came to see us off. We drove up NY Route 97 to Hancock, New York, where the Delaware splits into East Branch and West Branch. We found a spot where we could park, and launched the canoes. Many years later my Dad would remember thinking, as we drifted around the first bend and out of sight, “What have I just done?!”
For the next eight days we paddled and drifted and sometimes walked our canoes through sections of the river that were too shallow to float them. We paddled through every set of rapids that we encountered, with one exception. At Skinners Falls, the only level-six rapids on the upper Delaware, we watched as several other canoes capsized or were swamped, and we decided to carry our gear and canoes around. (A few years later I went back through Skinners Falls with another friend, and we took on some water, but we made it safely through. Still later I nearly drowned my then bride-to-be when we capsized in a level-five rapids a little farther downstream.)
Breakfast and dinner came from the supply of dehydrated food. The food was nothing like our mothers’ home cooking, but it kept us going. We stopped midday and bought lunch from whatever store we could find. We camped on the riverbank and built cooking fires with whatever firewood we could gather. We almost certainly were trespassing on private lands many nights, but we were never chased away.
We had two canoes, one aluminum and one canvas-covered wood. I was the stern man in the wood-and-canvas canoe. Our evening routine included applying sealer to any scratches we found on the bottom of the wood-and-canvas canoe to keep it from leaking. The black splotches in one of the photos are sealer; that photo was taken late in the trip.
We drank water from the river, without any filtration, and with only halazone tablets for purification. We didn’t bring fishing equipment and we did little swimming. Near the end of the trip, though, we decided to take a swim. I remember swimming for a while and getting winded. For some reason I remember that as the moment I decided to give up whatever little tobacco use I indulged in.
Probably because we were teenage boys, we didn’t think much about our personal safety. Bob’s uncle had loaned him a single-shot .22-caliber pellet gun that looked like a large semiautomatic pistol. It wouldn’t have done much good if anyone decided to do us harm.
We managed to call home every day except one. We reached our destination, a cabin in Walpack, NJ, a day ahead of schedule. We used the free day to walk from the cabin to a nearby general store (Cal’s Country Corner?), where we bought supplies for a spaghetti dinner. Along the way we bought a basket of peaches at one of the many farm stands that dot the roadsides in that part of New Jersey. We finished off that basket, then stopped and bought another on the way back to the cabin. After a week of freeze-dried vegetables, fresh peaches never tasted so good.
The next day Bob’s father and his Uncle Bob came to pick us up. None of us had done much about hygiene in those eight days aside from brushing our teeth, so I can only imagine what we smelled like as we rode home.
I’d like to say that it was an important rite of passage and that we all formed permanent bonds that lasted us well into our adult lives, but it was really just a lark. We all got along and stayed in touch, but our later teens brought jobs, college, girlfriends, and other connections that took us away from one another and from the Boy Scouts. I last saw Bob a few years ago at the memorial viewing for one of our scout leaders. I connected with Steve in 1999 in Beaver, PA. I had learned that he had opened a sandwich shop in nearby Beaver Falls, and when Jody and I took our daughter Betsy on a college tour that included Geneva College, we spent a few minutes with Steve and his wife. I can’t recall spending a lot of time in Phil’s presence after that, and I lost touch with him.
Many times I’ve wished I could go back and be sixteen years old again. I would like to have made better choices for higher education and career (although I would not want to change how my marriage and family have turned out), but there’s probably part of me that wishes I could take that trip again, too.
Thanks for stopping by.