Article and photos by Joe Mish
As elated as Lewis and Clark upon reaching the Colombia River, Jimmy and I proudly pose with our intrepid craft , “The Wild Turkey”, in the back of an old Ford Pickup
The eternal waters of the South Branch flow with memories and reflections, kept safe for those who have opened an account along its banks and written their story upon its waters.
I have a longstanding account, opened years ago, from which I make occasional withdrawals. The memories are recalled, polished with reflection and returned for safe keeping.
Hazy events, prompted by a scrap of paper that fell from one of my books, brought a canoe journey made decades before, into sharp focus. The lined, yellow paper, in my handwriting, was a record of time and places noted on a trip down the South Branch to the sea with my good friend Jim Serchio.
Jim worked across the hall from me in the pharmacology department at J&J. Intrigued by my stories of paddling solo to the mouth of the Raritan River; Jim recruited himself to join me on another run to the sea.
A hasty plan was hatched and a day chosen. We would launch from Main st in Clinton and paddle down to Keasbey. I would then walk to ‘Billy Vack’s Loop In’, an old iron workers bar located under the Parkway bridge, phone my brother-in-law, and get a ride in his pickup truck to my parent’s home, about three miles away.
The chosen canoe was my old canvas covered 1910 Old Town OTCA 16 named the “Wild Turkey”. Now stripped of canvas and covered with fiberglass, the hull was painted a flat, dead grass green and weighed in at about 85 pounds.
No cooler, just a couple of blue cushions and two guys in the canoe headed downstream. Jim was brilliant guy, studying biomedical engineering. I suppose it was his scientific inquisitiveness which finally prompted him, once we were underway, to ask, how long would the trip take. In my best carefully calculated estimation, I answered, “pretty much all day, we should be there before dark”.
As we passed under interstate 78, just after launching, I noted the time on my scrap of paper. Every time we passed a landmark, clock time was recorded.
Route 202 was reached at 9:23 am.
Looking over the sequence of shorthand notes, I now realize we had paddled under and over landmarks that are now gone or restored differently from their original form. Many of the metal bridges have been reconstructed over the years, their fieldstone supports now replicated by fieldstone veneer. I counted five bridges between Clinton and rt 31. The old dam we portaged below Dart’s mill is now essentially washed away. One bridge downstream of Neshanic station was not yet constructed. The scenery on the same trip today would be quite different.
Route 206 was reached at 1:09 pm
One entry made at 2:45 just before the second downstream pass under interstate 287 makes me smile; I wasn’t smiling then. I recorded the word ‘surgery’.
There was the wreckage of an old wooden bridge just before the last pass under I 287. It blocked our passage so we had to go up and over. As we set the heavy boat down on the rough planks, we did not see a huge spike that punctured the hull below the water line on the starboard side. The situation was looking grim as we were about to enter tide water on the last six hours of the trip. This meant navigating a running tide and staying clear of the main channel to avoid the large wakes churned up by tugboats and deep hulled pleasure craft.
Undaunted, we set the boat back in the water and began down river to see how bad the leak was. It was bad, real bad. How were we possibly going to finish. Pulling to shore, we looked around the debris, left by high tide, for a possible solution. Seeing a piece of yellow polypropylene rope, I had a flash of brilliance. As a kid I loved playing with fire, burning all sort of material including little plastic soldiers. The drops of melting plastic would quickly cool to form rock hard globs and even make a neat hissing sound as it dripped. On a hunch, I took the piece of rope, set it ablaze and dripped the plastic into the large hole in the hull. A perfect watertight fit and we were on our way.
At 4:30 we passed under rt 27, the low water encountered from 287 to Landing Lane Bridge road really slowed our progress. Now we had to deal with the wakes of large watercraft, which showed no mercy to two guys in a canoe. The resultant waves forced us to divert course, turn the bow into the wake and then re-correct to head downriver.
We passed the old drydock across from Crab Island at 6:15 and finally reached our destination under the New Jersey garden state parkway bridge, the former site of the Keasbey Outboard Motor Club, at 7:05pm.
While Jimmy entertained the bystanders, I headed up to Billy Vack’s to call my brother-in-law.
When I returned to the boat and Jimmy, someone asked where we put in. We were actually embarrassed to say, Clinton. We figured they wouldn’t believe us.
Our ride soon arrived and we could finally relax. We did it! Paddled from the NJ highlands to the Mouth of the Raritan river in about 12 hours in a 1910 Old Town canoe pressed into service for an epic journey to the sea.
Jimmy passed away a few years later from a medical procedure gone badly.
I still have the canoe and think fondly of the epic river journey shared with my good buddy Jim. The diary of times and places serves as a reference for memories and the ever changing river landscape.
Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.