As much as I love being outdoors, I’ve got, not a love-hate relationship with water, but maybe a love-uneasiness relationship. I can swim OK, but I’m not a strong swimmer. None of this hulking waterfalls stuff: I’m happy canoeing on flat water. If we had a boat – and of course more time – we’d have a canoe, or perhaps a kayak for each of us. But I don’t have a place to keep boats: my yard just isn’t big enough.
We rolled up to the put-in spot, adjacent to the Joe Grill ball field on Willow Ave. in Pompton Lakes. Barclay had two canoes atop his vehicle. One for us, the other for Paul Teshima and his son. Little by little, 12 like-minded souls congregated, unloading canoes or kayaks from their vehicles. The boats ranged from the sit-on-top style kayak to a couple of nicely restored vintage canoes: a 1920s Pecaco and an Old Town from the 1930s.
The trip was organized by the Pequannock River Coalition, a group that works to clean up the river and develop greenway. The feature trip was a paddle down the Three Rivers Trail, a boat route that covers parts of the Pequannock, Ramapo and Pompton rivers.
Founded in 1994, the Pequannock River Coalition conceptualized the trail in 2007. Executive director Ross Kushner told me, “We wanted to get people out on the river and there just wasn’t anything available.”
The waterway they targeted passes through Riverdale, Pompton Lakes sand Pequannock. Kushner told me that all three towns bought into the idea of a greenway.
Much of the initial work involved floating the proposed trail at different water levels, both to see what was safe and what was navigable. “We wanted it to be floatable but safe,” Kushner said. He recommended using the Three Rivers Trail at no more than 70% of flood stage.
In addition to testing the water levels, many downed trees were cleared so that boaters would have a clear path down the river. While clearing the waterway isn’t a daily task, it still occurs periodically. Barclay and others trimmed obstructive branches during the week.
After everyone got themselves ready, we schlepped our boats down a steep bank and shoved off. Upstream from Joe Grill park, the shallow, clear water is billed as a class one trout stream – surprising when you realize that through the trees, cars are flying down nearby Route 23. Trees overhung the river banks and the shore vegetation was tangled and dense. No bushwhacking through that stuff unless you want a good case of poison ivy.
Due to low water, we had to push the canoe over gravel bars in a couple of places. Otherwise, it was an easy float – not even really much paddling was necessary in the gentle current. We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar littered with mussel and razor clam shells.
After lunch, we negotiated a narrow, 120-degree left turn and continued on our way. I spotted a turtle swimming towards our canoe, head out of water and legs scrabbling. But he dove underwater before I could get a picture.
The river gradually widened, and I noticed signs on the trees. “Three Rivers Trail.” Several intersections and tributary streams make navigation a challenge, so the signs were welcome.
At one point, instead of the benign blue and white signs, we saw orange. “Dam ahead, don’t go over the dam.” The water level was below the lip of the dam, so that wasn’t a risk. Barclay and I crept up to the dam, snugged the canoe alongside it and alit. On the other side, the river continued, 15 feet down. Paul came by in his boat, and he and Barclay walked to the far end of the dam.
When I think of dams , I think reservoir or old mill. But this particular dam, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, had been a feeder dam at mile 71 of the Morris Canal. Running 107 miles from Easton, PA to Jersey City, the canal was a conduit for anthracite coal from Pennsylvania. A combination of locks and inclined planes got boats up and over the intervening hills. Negotiating 1600 feet of elevation change, the canal was considered an engineering feat when it was built. The feeder dam helped to maintain consistent water levels in the locks downstream.
After exploring the dam, we continued up the trail and eventually made another turn on to the Ramapo River. Here, we paddled upstream for about a mile. Houses along one bank still showed the effects of last August’s flooding from Hurricane Irene. Some houses, seemingly occupied and unscathed, stood next to others that were boarded up and damaged.
Our take-out spot was a small playground on a residential street. We did a shuttle trip back to the ball field to collect everyone’s cars. Was it a huge workout with bragging rights for VO max or hours trained? No. But it’s another unexplored part of the world that I’ve been privileged to explore.