Over the mountain, round river bends and down gravel roads, camping and kayaking, safety sessions and natural history lessons -- it’s all part of the eight-day Delaware River Sojourn.
The 26th annual sojourn was held August 6-14 and began in Hancock, N.Y. The Delaware Sojourn is a seven- to eight-day kayaking/canoeing “staycation” trip down the Delaware River. The trip is open to paddlers of all levels as they connect with nature, learn about the importance of conservation and stewardship of the river.
During my three-hour drive north from home to Hancock, I went back and forth between daydreaming of an amazing kayaking journey or nightmares of falling into the river. I have never been kayaking before and I am particularly clumsy. That created some anxiety knowing I would be paddling roughly 24 miles over the course of the weekend we spent as part of the Sojourn.
Early Saturday morning, my fiancé Novel (yes, like the book) and I met with the Delaware River Sojourn registration team at Hancock Access, our first launch site -- Deejay Branch and Troy Bystrom were friendly and informative. After registration, we followed the day plan and drove our car to Buckingham Access, the first end point and approximately a 10-mile drive along the Delaware River from where we were starting.
While there, we checked our backpacks and awaited the shuttle for our return to Hancock access. At the access, and every morning thereafter, we spent time talking with others over brunch and attended morning safety meetings. The food was great with gluten-free and vegetarian options, as well as cereal, eggs, bacon, and sausage. While brunch was winding down, those who had personal flotation devices (PFD) cooled off in the Delaware River.
The daily morning meetings began with the park ranger, Ingrid Peterec, chief of interpretation for the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, introducing the importance of the Delaware River and teaching us about the area. I was surprised to learn about the number of bald eagles’ nests along our river journey. Then Jacqui Wagner, a local school teacher and head of safety for the sojourn, began to discuss PFDs and introduced each of the 13 safety team members. My anxiety of getting lost or drowning in the Delaware River decreased because there were 70 other kayakers -- most experienced “river rats” -- in addition to the large safety team.
New to kayaking, Novel and I made the mistake of renting a tandem kayak. We quickly learned its nickname -- divorce boat. There were many loving arguments, and we learned to value the safety team and utilized them as a crutch. Two safety team members of many local sojourns and a kayaking instructor for 40 years, paddled next to us and guided us on how to master the divorce boat.
There were eagles (we lost count at 8 on Saturday and even more on Sunday), herrings, green herrings, fish, and water plants! Once a threatened animal, the eagle population has been booming along this stretch of the Delaware. The climate makes a perfect environment and allows for eagles from Canada and Alaska to migrate here during the winter.
As we navigated class one rapids, the lowest level on the rapid scale, which goes up to five, we began to get the hang of the tandem, but nowhere near mastered it! Before we knew it, we reached the Buckingham Access and fellow kayakers and the safety team assisted everyone to bring their kayaks to shore. As we returned our PFDs, we were met with snacks, water, seltzer water, and soda.
Settling down for the night: “Staycation” bliss
After we were settled, we drove out away from Buckingham access through forest roads to NEWE, Northeast Wilderness Experience, where we would pitch our tent. As we turned left on River Road, we were met with a gravel bendy road. The gravel was not a problem for our sedan though and we followed signs for the Delaware River Sojourn and continued through a hay farm to the campsite. At NEWE we were overwhelmed with the smell of the river, farm animals, and pure “staycation” bliss. The land was open with bright green grass. The chatter and banter reminded me of old friends at a reunion. Just after 4:30 p.m. our tent was pitched, and we were ready to relax.
Our campsite was next to a trailer-converted camper and two other tents. The campers were part of one of the many safety team families: Jenn (mom), Dean (father), Emma (daughter), Ashton (son), Nick (family friend), Jim (cousin/nephew), and Dave (grandfather). They are generational regulars of the sojourn. Jenn began making the journey after meeting Dean, whose family has been coming since the early days of the Delaware River Sojourn. The sojourn has been running for 26 years, skipping their 25th anniversary during 2020, and at most hosting 150 participants.
Dinner was just as fantastic as brunch. We were met with an Italian spread of fish, chicken, stuffed shells, and salad. While waiting in line I heard excitement and surprise from fellow newcomers as the selection was not traditional camping meals. As the sun set and the dinner chatter quieted, campers returned to their campsites to sit around campfires. Firewood was generously provided by the sojourn. Laughter and songs filled the night sky as shooting stars were seen above us.
Sights on the Sojourn
We heard songbirds early on Sunday morning and the campers were also off to an early start. Sunday was the first long stretch we were set to paddle -- 18 miles. First, we had a similar breakfast to the day before and the shuttles met us at the campsite. We traveled back to the Buckingham access and would be paddling to the access behind the NEWE campsite. This was our last kayaking day, so Novel and I were excited that the river access was a 5-minute walk from our tents.
Novel and I wanted to try the single kayaks as we did not want the divorce boat to be a bad omen before our wedding day. Dan Corrigan, Northeast Wilderness Experience and the leader of the sojourn, was kind enough to bring extra boats for a seamless swap.
The single kayaks were much easier to control as one paddler oversees the steering and speed, unlike the tandem where the person in the back controls the speed while the front controls the steering.
While floating down the river, we were joined by 102 other participants, including safety guides. The river was low and in some places the kayak sat no more than a foot over the rocky surface. In the shallowest of spots, the kayak glided over the shallow pebbles, at some points scraping against the bottom.
One kayaking mishap
During this trip there was only one minor casualty on the water. Of course, it was me.
When you are kayaking, it’s important to monitor if there are any “V” water formations with bubbly and rougher waters. This visual indicates there is a disturbance in the water, likely a rock. While I was busy talking with the safety team and other kayakers, I did not notice the “V” shape and found myself at a full stop sideways on a rock. The rock was flat and slightly sticking out of the water ripples. Though the slight slant of the top was enough to leave me “rocklocked.”
One important takeaway from the safety meetings is that if you ever hit a rock while kayaking, lean into the rock. For example, the left side of my boat was on the higher part of the rock. I leaned to my left while I was stuck to prevent myself from falling. If I were to lean to the right, the boat would quickly fill with water and I would capsize.
My beginner’s knowledge of kayaking didn’t free me, but one of the more seasoned kayakers came towards the rock, grabbed the front strap of my boat and quickly pulled me back on track.
Our lunch break arrived quickly as we pulled to shore, hiked up a creek through a tunnel, and up a trail to a parking lot. The safety team was consistently reminding us to fill our water bottles as the sun was hot on the river. After we finished eating, we were allowed to swim in the river. I found a shaded spot in the creek we had hiked through to cool off.
Continuing the trip to NEWE, one of the last tough spots is Long Eddy. Long Eddy is a stretch of class-one rapids which all the kayakers travelled in a single line, 3-4 boats apart. Keeping these parameters ensured safety for anyone who might get stuck on rocks or sideways. Paddling through Long Eddy is the closest thing I experienced to a ship in open water during a storm. The water was rough but fun to navigate. While most kayaking is rather relaxing, during rapids, paddlers must quickly and constantly paddle to avoid becoming stuck. While at first intimidating, the waves crashing into the boat was refreshing and completing the stretch was empowering.
After spending from 11 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. on the water, it was time for Novel and I to head home. While we were both exhausted and sun kissed, we both were extremely bummed to leave. After our short visit, the sojourn continued for the remainder of the week — ending on August 14.
We created lifelong friends and are anticipating our return. This trip taught me about the Delaware River, endurance, and perseverance. I am still in awe of the welcoming family atmosphere and the shared love of the environment. I learned many things about kayaking and tips on camping and sustainable living. I am eagerly waiting for Sojourn's 27th year to return to the water.