Floating classroom makes a SPLASH on the Delaware River

A view of the paddlewheel in action aboard the steamboat SPLASH on the Delaware. VIDEO BY MEG McGUIRE

Splish SPLASH splish SPLASH splish SPLASH. The eponymous boat says her name as she paddles in the Delaware River near Lambertville, N.J.

She's called SPLASH, as you might have guessed, an acronym for Student Participation in Learning Aquatic Science and History.

It's a steamboat and a paddleboat. Maybe she's not as impressive as the The Delta Queen, a sternwheel steamboat that plies the Mississippi, offering tourists a taste of boats familiar to Mark Twain, nor as ramshackle as the romantic African Queen, which co-starred with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in a movie made in the '50s.

But neither of those impressive crafts were floating classrooms, and this boat is dedicated to education.

She was built in the 1970s in Ohio, and she changed hands a couple of times before she was found and bought by Bart Hoebel, who brought her to the Delaware. She needed extensive repairs, but he found people who shared his enthusiasm for the idea of a floating classroom on the Delaware. You can find out more about this boat and Bart Hoebel here.

But what he told The Trenton Times when the classroom welcomed its first students aboard in 2004 sums up his mission: "The main idea (of a floating classroom) was to inspire kids and to get them involved in learning.

"There are many potential lessons to be learned on the water." Biology and water science, of course, but Hoebel said that history could be taught – for starters, this part of the river played a role in the Revolutionary War – and math, too, learning how to calculate river speed, horsepower and turbulence.

On a fine Saturday in May, nothing so challenging was offered to the adults who were on one of the theme cruises (among the offerings – a Mark Twain cruise and a number of firework cruises). Today's theme was shad fishing and Eric Clark, the executive director of SPLASH and a scientist himself, introduced the topic, explaining the relationship of the fish and the river, and some history.

The spring shad migration was always relied on as a significant food source until overfishing and pollution reduced their numbers. The industrial boom of the world wars created hideous pollution in the Delaware, which was rescued by the Clean Water Act of 1972 as well as by the many hundreds of organizations dedicated to getting and keeping the river clean. Shad are a great indicator of how healthy the river is since they are very sensitive to pollution.

Steve Meserve describes some of the fish found in the Delaware to the SPLASH's visitors. VIDEO BY MEG McGUIRE

The lack of dams on the Delaware has also contributed to the shad's return, Clark noted. Especially the defeat of the Tocks Island Dam proposal in the 1950s and '60s which would have stood upstream of the Delaware Water Gap and prevented the fish from getting to their spawning grounds in Hancock, N.Y.

Steve Meserve, spoke about shad fishing from first-hand experience with Lewis Fishery, which is the only commercial shad fishery in New Jersey. He inherited and learned the business from his grandfather, Fred Lewis, who in turn inherited the business from his father, William, who founded it in 1888. Meserve still uses the same techniques as they did in the 1890s.

Back then, shad was big business. Not so now. Though the numbers are slowly climbing back from the lows of 1953 and 1956, when no shad were caught at all. Meserve continues the tradition of writing about the catch most days and recording the daily numbers, and you can look at the history of the shad catch at this website.

Still, catching shad these days is not a money-making operation. The fish are caught in nets as they make the run up the Delaware to spawn in early spring. Here's a great video of the process Meserve uses.

The fish return to the ocean — if they're strong enough — after the spawning. They recuperate for three to five years in the Atlantic before making the return journey. Meserve said that the fish might make as many as three trips but most do not. Shad tend to return to the site where they were spawned.

Meserve served up some of the fish, warning that they are bony so care needs to be taken when eating. I'd say they were quite tasty! Here's a clip from Bizarre Foods (Travel Channel) which shows Meserve cooking a favorite shad recipe.

We had two teachers on our tour. The second was Dr. Charlie Groth, a folklorist who specializes in the shad culture that continues on the Delaware. She spoke about what a folklorist does and what she looks for, which is basically stories. She enjoys the various people that show up at the fishery to buy the day's catch, a multi-cultural crowd that lends its experiences to the stories of the people who do the fishing — many of them volunteers.

All the while, the steamboat slowly slides through the water, keeping to a limited stretch of the river between Lambertville, N.J. and Lumberville, Pa. Clark said that the river can go as low as 3-to-4 feet in the summer, but SPLASH is a shallow-draft vessel and requires only 18 inches of water to operate.

The SPLASH website lists an impressive roster of educational staff, so there's plenty of people on hand to give lessons to students as Hoebel would have wished.

Engineer Pete Burns shuts down the SPLASH's paddlewheel.VIDEO BY MEG McGUIRE

There are also a good number of people listed who actually run the boat. Clark said that there needs to be three. The Coast Guard is very fussy about the boat itself and the qualifications of the crew. Today's crew is Captain Jennifer Haydt, engineer Pete Burns and mate Ray Nichols.

Everyone involved in SPLASH is a volunteer, except for the captain and the engineer.

Haydt comes with experience of the river in Philadelphia with Ride the Ducks, the amphibious land-and-water tour boats. Nichols wears two hats, being both a crew member and a scientist. Burns is in charge of the steam engine, perhaps the most vital since that's what makes the boat move.(Don't worry, if there's a problem with the engine there's a battery backup.)

"A boat like this is a maintenance nightmare," said Burns. He stayed at the ready for the full two-hour voyage, listening to the engine and for the bells that are important messages  from the captain.

"The captain steers," he said. "I'm the gas pedal." He made the comparison to a car, with the driver sitting in the front seat and the person who operates the gas pedals sitting in the back.

All the while the splish splash of the paddle wheel punctuates the conversation. As does the murmur of voices as the boat and the learning go on.

If you're interested in the work of SPLASH or going on one of its tours, check out the website. And there are all sorts of possibilities for a SPLASH tour here.

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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