My favorite way to experience the Delaware River is paddling my own canoe, whether by myself or with a large group. This story is about the later type of experience.
It was March 1992 that I began serving on the staff of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. In the first week Cyntia Poten, who was the Delaware Riverkeeper at that time, laid a folder on my desk. "Here John, organize this."
"This" was a three-day canoe trip with two nights camping -- somewhere on the Delaware River -- for about 90 ninth graders and a dozen or so teachers from the United Nations International School. Among all the logistical challenges one issue stood out like a sore thumb: liability. How can we safely guide a hundred mostly inexperienced non-paddlers from thirty-some nations down the river? Would there be language barriers? Where would we camp? How would we serve meals and what role would education play in this adventure?
Reaching out to the Mohawk Canoe Club I learned about the National Canoe Safety Patrol and as it turned out they had a training session coming up. So there I was at the end of April '92 in Barryville NY meeting members of the NCSP, as they were practicing in-water rescues, during a heavy wet snow. The NCSP is a volunteer organization that provides safety and instruction in the Upper Delaware National Wild & Scenic River, in partnership with the National Park Service. They would become the foundation for this ambitious canoe trip and for many to come. Other logistics fell into place when we identified Point Pleasant Canoes as our livery service, and we identified two camping sites that could accommodate such a large group.
The first United Nations International School Delaware River Canoe Camp was born and went fairly well without any serious mishaps. Four years later I moved on from Delaware Riverkeeper to work for the Musconetcong Watershed Association. Fred Stine took over the UNIS trip and I continued to participate as a safety officer. The trip eventually was moved from the Lower Delaware River to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, between Dingmans Ferry and Knowlton NJ (a few miles below the Water Gap).
Last week (September 13-15) was the 26th Annual United Nations International School Delaware River Canoe Camp.
Over the 26 years our group of safety officers and Riverkeeper staff have introduced over 2,300 teenagers from around the world to the Delaware River. We've guided them through blinding rainstorms, high water, low water, hot sunny weather, cool cloudy weather and regardless of the conditions, the flotilla of students and teachers have fun. For each class the river trip is a transformational experience, bringing the students together to paddle the long 14 mile first day, pull the 60 plus canoes out one by one to be stacked on the river bank, setting up and breaking down camp and launching for another long day. Social cliques melt away as these students really get to know one another. Along the way they are treated to multiple sightings of bald eagles, herons, mergansers, kingfishers, osprey, fish jumping, the occasional black bear, and gorgeous scenery. The students always express amazement at the beauty of the lush greenery surrounding the river.
The class size has grown (this year we guided 108 students) and while being responsible for so many young people on the river isn't exactly relaxing fun, the safety officers and staff are rewarded by the knowledge that these students have experienced the rhythms of the river. Enduring friendships are made and they'll never look at a river the same way again.