Mississippi East
© 1994

The river beckons, and I answer its call. It happens on that rare special day with a clear sky and the thick buzz of insect life complaining of the heat. I break the raft out of storage, patch the holes a winter of neglect has produced, and head for the river of my youth.

My choice of clothing has become a uniform—cut-off shorts and sneakers with no laces, the silt of previous expeditions forever trapped in the fabric of the lining. A threadbare dress shirt serves as my only protection against the sun. Tom Sawyer, Black Avenger of the Spanish Main, never wore sun block and neither will I. Preferring to feel the sun on my back, I use the shirt to carry my lunch: an apple, a peach, and a loaf of hard crusted bread—simple fare worthy of a simpler time.

I stand at the river’s edge and look upstream and down for river traffic. Labor Day has passed and tourists in inner tubes are gone as are the rental canoes that slip downstream in loosely formed schools. As I watch, a great blue heron, neck doubled back, wings its way upstream like some prehistoric creature.

The river itself is as low as I’ve ever seen it. The summer’s drought has bared rocks and their crowns stand dry above the surface. As I look for the fast water where the channel runs deep, I hear Mark Twain’s words: “It would be a plausible river if they would pump some water into it.”

This is not the mighty Mississippi—it is the Delaware. Nearly two thousand miles shorter than the Mississippi and only five hundred feet from shore to shore, it is, nonetheless, my river.

I wade into the river pulling the raft behind me on its tether. The water is bathtub warm as it spills into my sneakers. Near the far shore, the river bed drops sharply at a deep channel where the water is swift and deep. I leap into the raft and it bounces like a soft bed as my knees dig into the rubberized canvass floor. It reminds me that one does not need a thousand miles of water ahead and behind to feel a kinship with the river. A raft bends and flexes with the waves and the rider bends and flexes in response, forming an intimate relationship absent with kayaks and canoes. But there is more to that kinship than the feel of the waves—it is the accumulation of memories, and I am drawn to the river to reminisce as with an old friend and to escape the stress of modern living.

For a the next few minutes, there is little to do. I slip the oars into the oarlocks and position the blades inside the raft. My lunch, rolled in my shirt, is tied to the motor mount. On longer journeys, the four man raft is powered by a three horse power outboard, but for this journey, that would be a sacrilege. The motor is at home and the empty mount is a perfect place to keep things high and dry.

As the raft slides under the mesh bridge at Belvedere, New Jersey, this modern Tom Sawyer prepares to “look his last” on civilization. Although only 390 miles long, the Delaware is remarkably preserved as a wilderness river and it is the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi. In the Forties, a dam was proposed at Tock’s Island to create a reservoir and all privately owned land along a 40 mile section of the Delaware was acquired by the government. In 1978, Congress designated that section of the river as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and the dam project was decommissioned. The result is a river relatively untouched by man, and although it forms the western boarder of one of the nation’s most densely populated states, it is as unspoiled and undeveloped as it was when the first settlers arrived in the area.

My section of the rivers falls outside the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, but I will still pass through sections of the Delaware where there are no bridges, power lines, cottages, or boat docks. The river looks as it did to the Lenape Indians who traveled the Delaware before being pushed westward by the White man. I lounge in the raft as the hum of tires from the bridge fades into the distance to be replaced by another sound, faint at first but constant and ever growing—the roar of angry water. I am approaching Foul Rift.

The Delaware River contains several stretches of rapids ranging from Class I to Class III in difficulty. Foul Rift is a Class II+ section marked by three foot waves, and a rift which cuts diagonally across the river. This rock ledge creates unexpected changes in the current that has challenged generations of canoeists. In high water, the rift is unnoticeable under a level plane of flat water. In low water, it’s jagged edge is visible in all but two places where the water spills over a two foot ledge like milk from a pitcher. At the present level, even the narrow spill way may be dangerous to my raft.

I kneel in the raft, facing forward as the current picks up speed and the wide river funnels into a narrow channel bordered by thirty foot cliffs on the Pennsylvania side. Here the water rolls like ocean waves about to break, and I am swept past a moonscape of jagged rocks pitted like cheese from eons of erosion. I am no longer Tom Sawyer. The romance of that image has faded with the dangerous swells. I must read the river with an intensity worthy of a Mississippi riverboat pilot.

Locally, the river has claimed seven lives this summer. The drought has made the river seem harmless and shallow, but it is a deadly deception. And although I don’t intend to be the eighth victim, I have tempted fate. My only concession to boating safety is a single flotation cushion with two straps which serve as handles. I am kneeling on it. I have tied the raft’s tether around my wrist with a slip knot. Should I fall overboard, I will still be able to regain the raft. It is dangerous and stupid and I know it, but a life jacket would break the spell of this day, and for this one day, I’ll risk it, relying on my knowledge of the river.

Mark Twain knew 1,200 miles of Mississippi River, memorizing the locations of reefs, sandbars, and channels and the subtle changes in their appearance in different seasons, water levels, and times of day. I know a twelve mile section from Belvedere, New Jersey to Sandt’s Eddy, which I run only on warm, sunny days. I marvel at Twain’s accomplishment and understand the well-deserved pride he took in it—it is a pride I share in miniature. No Horace Bixby stood behind me, cap cocked at an angle, tooth pick in mouth, giving guidance. Near misses, punctures, and several spills taught me what I now must do. As the rapids subside and the river widens, the rift comes into view. The spill way I seek is well into mid-channel and I must position myself well above it to shoot through unscathed. Within a few feet of the spill way, the nose of the raft catches on a submerged rock and it swings around just before entering the chute stern first. A wave crashes over the motor mount, soaking my bundled lunch. I escape with my dignity in tact, excusing the swing around as the result of unusually low water, taking pride in that I navigated the chute at all.

The cliffs fall away, and I enter calm water where large boulders lay like the backs of whales on the surface. In higher water, bathers stand on these rocks looking as if they are walking on water. The river opens to a large expanse of slack water which takes its name from the rapids above. This spot is favored by boaters who water ski and swim. Summer cottages line both shores.

I unwrap my lunch and spread my shirt out to dry. The bread is is slightly damp on one end and I perch it on the motor mount. Then I stretch myself out, content to sun myself as my lunch dries and the current takes me past the civilization I’ve been avoiding. My eyes are shut, but I cannot stop my ears from hearing a high energy buzz as I pass the power plant on the Pennsylvania shore. It is one of the many industries that borrow water from the Delaware which supplies water to 10% of the nation. Strict regulations govern the use, and the water quality has returned to what it was 200 years ago.

Presently I enter another unpopulated section of the river. I have been lucky. If I am sharing the river with others, we are traveling downstream with enough water between us for them to be out of sight. I survey the river up and down as I always do at this point, marveling at its untouched beauty, awed by the thought that this vista has remained the same for thousands of years. It is one of my favorite spots on the river.

This section also contains an island whose description can be lifted almost verbatim from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It is a “long, narrow, wooded island, with a shallow bar at the head of it. It was not inhabited: it lay far over toward the further shore, abreast a dense and almost wholly unpeopled forest.” This is my Jackson’s Island, unchanged since my boyhood. Twain’s island, three miles below Hannibal, is no longer there and I can only imagine Twain’s remorse when Glasscock’s Island was washed away by the Mississippi.

Keifer’s Island is where I choose to eat my lunch. I pull the raft ashore at a sandy clearing. Previous campers have left a circle of stones surrounding the black remains of their fire. I am pleased that the site is relatively clean and litter free. It is good stewardship to leave the river with more trash than is created and today I am traveling light. My lunch contains no wrappers, and the only thing I leave behind is a peach pit. This I bury somewhere near the countless others from previous trips. There should be orchards by this time, but for some reason the seeds never germinate. Perhaps this one will.

I cast the soggy remains of my bread into the water for the fish. At one time, the Delaware contained only 16 species of fish. Conservation efforts have increased that number to 36. The forest surrounding the Delaware is the home to over sixty species of mammals including white tailed deer, black bears, and an occasional coyote The waters are fished by ospreys, blue herons, bald eagles—and countless sportsmen.

I have always suspected that men go hunting and fishing not for the sport, but for the solitude. That is why I have come to this spot, and as I listen to the sound of silence, I am transported to a world which is a strange mixture of present reality, the pages of fiction, and my own boyhood. “There was a delicious sense of repose and peace in the deep pervading calm and silence of the woods. Not a leaf stirred; not a sound obtruded upon great Nature’s meditation.” The setting, described so well in Tom Sawyer and preserved so well in reality, has transported me to my boyhood.

Ghosts of generations past play pirate, swim naked, and frolic in the water before me—and Mark Twain’s mission is complete. I am pleasantly reminded of what I once was myself and I smile sadly—not because those days are lost forever, but because they are so easily recaptured.

The magic of this moment is frail. I am distracted by a sound and I think of three boys likewise hiding from civilization on Jackson’s Island. “For some time now the boys had been dully conscious of a peculiar sound in the distance, just as one sometimes is of the ticking of a clock which he takes no distinct note of. But now this mysterious sound became more pronounced and forced a recognition.”

For me, the sound is the distant shouts of canoeists at the head of Keifer’s Island. Without knowing why, I pull the raft deeper into the clearing and tuck it behind a clump of bushes. I stand by the raft waiting for the canoes to pass, embarrassed by my antisocial behavior, praying they won’t beach their canoes.

They don’t, but it is too late—the spell is broken. Perhaps it is just as well. I am tired and thirsty. My skin feels stretched tight across my back and shoulders, but I am wonderfully refreshed.

I wait until the shouting canoeists are gone and push the raft into the stream. Civilization is just around the bend where my wife and car and cares await. In a few days my sunburned skin will fade to brown and then to winter white. Likewise, the glow of this special day will fade and my spirit will wilt with the weight of life until—one hot summer day—the river beckons again.