In the summer of 2003, with his marriage disintegrating, Ted Danforth decided to do something special with his teenage sons. So, through L.L. Bean, he booked a kayak camping trip in Maine.
For three days, Danforth and his boys - Matt, then 19, and Ben, then 17 - paddled the pellucid waters of Casco Bay. They ventured out into the ocean, to Eagle Island, the summer home of arctic explorer Robert Peary. They saw seals sunning themselves on rocks. They reveled in absolute silence and were lulled to sleep at night by lapping waves under star-studded skies.
It was intended to be a bonding trip, and it accomplished that and more. His boys said it was the best thing they'd ever done. Danforth fell head over heels in love with Maine, and kayaks.
Today, he expresses that passion through Hidden River Outfitters, a business he launched to teach kayaking skills and lead kayaking tours of the Schuylkill (Dutch for "hidden river").
Since organizing the first tour in the spring of 2005, in conjunction with the Schuylkill River Development Corp., Danforth and his fellow guides have introduced more than 5,000 people to the joys of kayaking and the beauty and lore of the Schuylkill. From May to October, the weekend tours depart from the Walnut Street Dock on the east side of the river under the Walnut Street Bridge, and from a dock at the Manayunk Brewery & Restaurant.
"Most people see the river from the road," Danforth says, "but when you see it from the water, you get a whole different perspective. If you tune out the sounds of the highway, it's amazingly pristine and wild."
Joseph Syrnick, president and chief executive officer of the Schuylkill River Development Corp., calls Danforth "the perfect guy" to run kayak tours of the Schuylkill because he is safety-conscious, innovative, and committed to the organization's mission – opening up the waterfront and drawing people to the river. Says Syrnick: "You can't get closer to the river than being in a kayak."
Hidden River Outfitters has its headquarters in Pottstown, in a former machine shop on the banks of the Schuylkill adjacent to a public boat launch. It's also where Danforth, a 54-year-old resident of Schwenksville, plies his day job as an environmental consultant specializing in wastewater treatment plants for food-processing firms.
When Danforth returned from Maine in 2003, he couldn't wait to tell Andrea Stevens, then his girlfriend and now his wife, about his new ambition: to go back again soon and paddle the coast solo.
Stevens, a plant ecologist who was familiar with parts Down East after having served as a ranger at Acadia National Park, was succinct: "You're nuts."
She elaborated: He had no idea how difficult and dangerous ocean kayaking is, especially off the coast of Maine, with its frigid water, and treacherous tides, currents, winds, and waves.
Danforth, a native of Strasburg, Lancaster County, is the sort of endearing man in whom enthusiasm and reason are constantly at war. This time, he surrendered to reason and heeded Stevens. That fall, he enrolled in a sea kayaking symposium on Tybee Island, Ga., taught by expert kayakers from Britain.
"The first day, it was all I could do to stay upright," Danforth recalls. "After five days of getting my butt handed to me, I realized I had a lot more to learn."
He remedied his ignorance with ferocity, taking every kayaking course and symposium he could find. He traveled to Florida and Michigan, and joined the American Canoe Association and soaked up all its offerings. He practiced on the Schuylkill and at Marsh Creek State Park in Chester County, and Lake Nockamixon in Bucks County. By 2005, his skills were sufficiently developed that he earned certification as a kayaking instructor.
In 2006, he felt ready. In mid-April of that year, he launched his kayak at Portland, Maine. His goal was to paddle to Machias, a coastal town about 160 nautical miles northeast, including detours and digressions.
Trained as an engineer, Danforth had planned meticulously. Each day, he would paddle to an island about two or three miles offshore and camp overnight. Every three days or so, he would return to the mainland, where he would meet his wife, rest and reprovision.
April in Maine is still winter. The water temperature was 35 degrees. The ocean was often sullen and rambunctious, the 12-foot tides and whipsawing currents, relentless and hazardous. Danforth knew enough to be cautious. His objectives were conservative: to paddle four to six hours, five to 20 miles a day, to avoid danger and enjoy the experience.
"In the ocean, the forces are so big you can't fight them," Danforth says. "To me, that's the magic of solo kayaking - yielding to nature rather than trying to beat it."
Still, he had his share of unsettling adventures. Where the churning Kennebec River pours into the Gulf of Maine, he had to dodge logs and tree trunks unleashed by a recent nor'easter. For navigation, he relied on charts and a compass.
Off Damariscotta, he paddled for hours and seemed to be heading farther out to sea. His instincts balked, but the deck-mounted compass confirmed that his course was right. Defying the device, he turned back. Wise decision: In repacking the kayak, he had stowed a can of beef stew under the compass, deranging its readings.
Near Rockland, 10 days into the trip, Danforth called it quits. His body was weary, and ahead lay a long, challenging crossing of Penobscot Bay. He loaded the kayak atop his car and drove to Stonington, where he paddled on short day trips to nearby islands. Relieved of pressure and fear, he savored the natural splendor fully.
He returned home with heightened respect for the ocean - "The truth is I was scared to death most of the time," Danforth says. "It was easy to lose your bearings" - and undiminished fervor for kayaking.
Lately, his kayaking sideline has become such an all-consuming business that Danforth, who, with his wife, recently adopted a baby girl from Kazakhstan, has scarcely had time to kayak by himself, to experience the delicious solace of solitude, "to let the drumbeat wind down and see how many strokes I can paddle without making any noise."
Still, there are compensating satisfactions.
"It's fun to leverage my own passion and get people out on the water," Danforth says, especially inner-city children who have never been on the river before, let alone in a kayak.
"It's neat to see the glow on their faces," Danforth says. Invariably, they respond just the way his sons did six years ago. Reports Danforth: "Some of them say it's the best thing they ever did."