An eco-tour boat full of adults and children chugged toward the Ben Franklin Bridge on a sweltering July afternoon. Aside from an osprey nesting in a rusted-out trawler, some deer grazing along the banks, and a lone Jet Ski approaching on the starboard side, they had one of the busiest stretches of the Delaware River all to themselves.

The driver of the Jet Ski pulled up close and waved. Moms and kids waved back. Then the smaller craft sped off and its passenger stood and dropped his shorts, revealing a full moon, well before noon.

Such is life out on Philadelphia’s big river: beautiful, industrial, resurgent, and at times, a little crude.

Aaron Diaz, of Trenton, NJ, cruises along the Delaware River in Trenton, NJ on August 5, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Aaron Diaz, of Trenton, NJ, cruises along the Delaware River in Trenton, NJ on August 5, 2019.

Up north at its source in the Catskills, south to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and along towns like Milford and New Hope, the Delaware is a playground for boating, tubing, and paddling.

But getting out on the urban river can seem daunting, and with good reason. Strong tides and currents carry dead trees, trash, and legitimate traffic: boats, barges, and cargo ships as long as football fields. By comparison, the smaller Schuylkill, which feeds the Delaware, is famed for competitive sculling, friendly to beginning kayakers and replete with trails, greenery, and public art.

The hardiest, however, say skipping the urban Delaware is akin to peeking at a master’s painting through your fingers.

“If you have a kayak and life jacket, and are comfortable with the tides, it’s a really interesting and informative way to see the watershed,” said John Anderson, an avid kayaker who spends most of his time on the river’s tributaries. “You’ll really see that ‘Wow, I’m right in the middle of downtown Philadelphia and downtown Camden’ and that this is a truly wonderful river.”

A group paddles out of the marina during the Independence Seaport Museum’s kayaking eco tour on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, PA on July 18, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
A group paddles out of the marina during the Independence Seaport Museum’s kayaking eco tour on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, PA on July 18, 2019.

And, if you happen to fall in the water, your skin won’t melt. But try not to gulp too much and get out — this stretch doesn’t meet “swimmable” cleanliness standards.

“People are definitely using the river in the city,” said Tracey Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which is surveying the river. “They wade in the river. They swim in the river. They tube in the Philadelphia section. Some even snorkel in the city.”

Getting on the water in the city doesn’t have to be expensive or even that difficult, and there’s plenty of starter programs for novices. The Independence Seaport Museum offers eco-tours both by boat and guided kayaks and anyone can rent a kayak in its protected Penn’s Landing Basin for as little as $8. The museum hosts a kayak club, and longer, extended tours. On Sunday, Aug. 18, kayakers will take a guided tour to the Three Sisters shipwreck just north of Pier 78 in South Philadelphia.

To simply get out on the water and glimpse the Ben Franklin Bridge’s underbelly, day cruises and dinner cruises abound. Sailing is even possible — imagine tacking into the wind with views of the South Philly Walmart.

Emily Camp-Landis, center, checks the sail, as Ray McCahery, right, guides the boat along the Delaware River on June 25, 2019 in Philadelphia, PA. They are members of SailTime Philadelphia, a sail boat membership program. Cherie Kemper-Starner, left, sailboat captain and co-owner of SailTime Philadelphia, keeps an eye on their progress as they learn to sail.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Emily Camp-Landis, center, checks the sail, as Ray McCahery, right, guides the boat along the Delaware River on June 25, 2019 in Philadelphia, PA. They are members of SailTime Philadelphia, a sail boat membership program. Cherie Kemper-Starner, left, sailboat captain and co-owner of SailTime Philadelphia, keeps an eye on their progress as they learn to sail.

“If someone wants to go sailing after work, they don’t have to drive three hours to get to the Chesapeake Bay. They can go right here,” said Cherie Kemper-Starner, of SailTime Philadelphia, a franchise that lets people buy into a sailboat, like a time-share.

SailTime Philadelphia charges up to $9,500 per season, roughly six to seven months, and allows would-be sailors to schedule time on the river and weekend-long trips depending on their experience level. On a recent summer afternoon, Kemper-Starner took members Ray McCahery, a Philly firefighter, and Emily Camp-Landis, a city employee, out on a 37-foot sailboat, instructing them on the finer points of sailing.

“This river needs to be respected,” she said.

Liberty Sailing School, operating in the city since 1993, takes out novices in smaller sailboats, for $439 per person. Students leave with an American Sailing Association 101 certificate.

If the urban river still intimidates, consider that things aren’t always so peaceful on the northern stretches of the river.

Above Trenton, tubing culture is strong on the Delaware and easily the most enjoyable, stress-free way to spend a day on the river. Unless you own a tubing tour operation.

“Our first season, in 2003, we did about 500 people all summer, in a three-month span. In 2012, we did about 48,000 people,” said Yuuji Crance, of Delaware River Tubing, in Milford.

Crance’s father, Greg, is one of the river’s most colorful characters, known by thousands as the “famous river hot dog man.” Why? He sells hot dogs from a boat, about halfway through the tubing trip down the river, keeping it simple for three decades with ketchup or mustard toppings. He can chef up around 5,000 per day.

While the city’s river is full of Jet Skis on summer weekends, there’s almost nowhere locally to rent one. Vince Sanginiti sells them at Philadelphia Cycle Center, a little over a mile from the river in Port Richmond. But he doesn’t sell many and doesn’t recommend taking them on the river.

“The river is a mess,” he said.

But that’s merely an opinion, a minority one for the people who frequent the urban river.

“There’s not a lot of traffic, you know, the occasional tug or barge,” said Steve Mink, owner of Liberty Sailing Club. “It’s relatively calm, I wouldn’t say quiet, but it’s usually calm. It’s wonderful.”

Editor’s Note: “From the Source: Stories of the Delaware River” is produced with support from the National Geographic Society, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and the William Penn Foundation. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.

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Neil Sullivan, of Northern Liberties, in the background, checks the sail during a lesson with Liberty Sailing School on the Delaware River on July 6, 2019 in Philadelphia, PA.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Neil Sullivan, of Northern Liberties, in the background, checks the sail during a lesson with Liberty Sailing School on the Delaware River on July 6, 2019 in Philadelphia, PA.