By Paul Kusko
One cool morning in June, six years ago, I found myself standing in a dewy field with people slathered in sun screen, clad in puffy, multi-colored life vests, listening intently to a river guide describe the protocols of river sojourning. Then, with a circular wave of a canoe paddle held high over his head and a cry of Head 'em out!, I was officially anointed. I was a Schuylkill Sojourner.
River sojourns are well-organized, guided, canoe or kayak trips that take place over several days. The Schuylkill trip allowed participants to paddle just one day or the entire seven-day journey. One leg of the sojourn followed the river right through our own backyard.
I was skeptical, I must admit, when I first heard about it. The Schuylkill just didn't pop into my mind along with the Jersey Shore when it came to planning my vacations. But despite my doubts, I signed up, and I've participated in the sojourn every year since. Three grandchildren and two sons-in-law have gone with me over the years, and all will accompany me this year.
On the initial trip, our first task as sojourners was to climb into a fleet of bobbing canoes and kayaks at Island Park in Schuylkill Haven, where the Schuylkill was about as narrow as a neighborhood street. We were a logjam of enthusiastic, earnest, and chatty folks of all ages and abilities sitting in a bumper-car ride. Then, with another magic wave of the guide's paddle, we headed into the river's current. Our adventure had begun.
Novice paddlers zigzagged and bumped their canoes from riverbank to riverbank, while experts danced their boats through rapids and gracefully pirouetted into eddies. In short order, the flotilla formed into an orderly and disciplined line of boats and settled into the business of wending their way from Schuylkill County toward Philadelphia.
To my delight, and in spite of the occasional cold blast from a poorly aimed water cannon (a hand pump that sucks up water and shoots it long distances in a heavy stream), the next six days were filled with a potpourri of mini-adventures, historical discoveries, educational experiences, and an environmental immersion all wrapped up into one wet pair of soggy paddling shorts.
To be sure, the sojourn is not a Carnival cruise; we powered the boats. It was more of a Club Med trip, with portable potties and sports drinks. Our accommodations had water views but they were a bit on the rustic side - camps with pop-up tents along the river bank.
We socialized and dined in friendly fire halls, park pavilions, or under shady trees, but we ate well. Showers . . . well, mostly we didn't take them. The sojourn was an urban wilderness experience where we melded with the river and, as the saying goes, would go with the flow.
As to the river, the Lenape Indians got it right. They referred to the stream as Manayunk, meaning "where we drink." That is as descriptive a relationship for municipalities along the Schuylkill today as it was when the Lenape camped on its banks 400 years ago. The very water I was floating in comes into my home; I brew my coffee with it; and I found that by following its watercourse, I gained a new perspective on how "we the people" impact our own water supply.
The history of what we as a society do, and did, to the river is recorded up and down the Schuylkill in its bridges, dams, canals, industries and communities. That story unfolds neatly before the sojourner, stroke after stroke, mile after mile, like turning pages in a book. For this sojourner the lesson of the sojourn became not so much the river, but the river in my cup of coffee.
To me the Schuylkill was once just a background: the river under the bridge, the one by the expressway or in front of the art museum. It was not often thought about unless it had too much or too little water. But in the end, the river became my river.
Today, I wince when I see chemicals being applied to a lawn because now I also see the inlet to a storm drain that will carry them quickly to Schuylkill. I wince because it's where we drink - and I'm very particular about what I take with my coffee.