Hidden River.

July 23, 2010 at 9:36 am (adventure, urban exploration)

I rode my bike to Jameson’s house and locked it to his front railing. I went inside to admire his roommate’s ironwork and listen to a ghost story, and then we stole that same roommate’s truck. It was an ancient thing, practically burnt out on the inside. Given his profession as a smith, I can imagine a few scenarios in which that actually could have been the case. We didn’t need a key: Jamie climbed into the truck bed, opened the small window in back and contorted himself in order to squirm inside, unlocking my door for me once he’d managed it. I’m not sure what he used to turn the engine; a screwdriver, perhaps? The seat belts no longer worked. I’m under the impression that the tags might be forged, that the fishmonger-gone-puppet-maker might not have a license. But we lowered the canoe and paddles down from the deck on the roof of his house, secured it to the truck using nautical knots I’ve been practising, and carefully made our way to the entrance to the Schuylkill River bicycle trail where we intended to shove off.

While our adventures in the truck ignored all possible legal formalities, Jamie had called the river authorities to ask where we might be allowed to drop the boat. They assured him that the river belonged to everyone, and we could start anywhere. They warned us that if we tried to start from Boathouse Row the rowing teams would likely try to tell us otherwise, but they would only be misinformed or putting on airs.

We put on our life jackets once we’d brought the canoe to a shallow spot where the river met the grass. I climbed inside and pushed with my oar while he pushed from land. I didn’t see how he climbed in while or after he’d done so. Perhaps it involved getting his shoes very wet? We set off with much laughter. He’d done this once before bringing me out, but neither of us could quite make sense of the fact that we were paddling under Market Street, next to Thirtieth Street Station, rowing in the very centre of the city. I’d always been under the impression that Schuylkill was a Lenapé word, but it is Dutch. It means something like Hidden River, and that felt accurate. I’ve ridden the bicycle trail on the shore a thousand times, as it is the closest means I know of getting to trees and wild growing things from my neighbourhood, but I’d never explored the river quite so intimately. It felt like discovering a secret, like going into a room you’d somehow never before noticed at the end of the hallway in your house.

We saw fish leap out of the water next to us. We rowed under the arching branches of trees between the banks and the places where their leaves touched the water, and touched the stones of the bridges and waved to people and to ducks. We wondered aloud how deep it was, what the river gods were called, how far in any direction we could row before we’d be stopped by a dam.

We started out against the stream but with the wind in the direction of the art museum and the Waterworks. The first dam met us there, so it wasn’t the longest of trips. On his first time out the tide had been much lower, and Jamie and his brother were able to explore the rainwater run-off tunnels that feed into the river. He showed me the tops of the entrances they took when they poked above the level of the water. We only came close to tipping out of the canoe twice, and righted ourselves both times.

There is an island downstream, and we thought about rowing there on some other trip in order to go camping. Jameson has since been back to explore. He found a floppy disc next to a long since abandoned camp fire, and no other evidence of human exploration. Next time we’ll row out with a tent.

Philadelphia Waterworks and Fairmount Dam

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