This June day is as hot and humid as any dog day of August, but the river is mostly shaded by the high banks, and the air above the water is cool. This is the first time I have taken my kayak out this season, and I brush the winter’s cobwebs from the seat.
The slowly flowing river is silent. Footpaths run along the top of each bank and picnic tables lie beyond, but all this is hidden from my viewpoint low on the water. In the heat of the day, no one is out. There is no sign of civilization. As my kayak cuts gently through the water, blue iridescent dragonflies rest momentarily on the bow and fly off. It could be a thousand years ago.
I love the distinctive smell of river water, even though it is only the smell of rotting vegetation in the wet mud lining the banks.
Never step on a rock covered with mud. Wet river mud is as slippery as ice.
Eons ago, volcanic islands stood off much of our Mid-Atlantic Coast. Plate tectonics pushed them onto the continental crust, scraping the ocean sediments before them and folding them into huge mountains as high as the Rockies are today. These mighty mountains eventually eroded flat, leaving only their bedrock. The Brandywine River flowed down from West Chester through the soft former ocean sediments, hit the rocks outside of Wilmington, and diverted along them until it could find a crack to continue on its easterly journey to the Delaware River. On one side of the Brandywine where I kayak are huge boulders, the other side soft dirt. The boulders are gneiss, the metamorphic “blue rocks” of Delaware, the remnants of those ancient islands.
An occasional snake slithers across the river, head held up out of the water. It looks like a leaf curiously moving perpendicular to the other leaves floating downstream. The snakes are not scary. They clearly feel vulnerable and are focused on reaching the safety of the opposite bank.
Other commonly seen wildlife are muskrats, chipmunks, ducks, geese, and a great blue heron. The heron is very skittish and flies off with an angry squawk while I am still far off. Less often seen are deer, bald eagles, kingfishers, and beaver.
Two black men on the bank are showing a group of inner-city boys how to fish. Three of the boys are already bored and have wandered downstream, picking their way along the gravel in search of what? They will only find more gravel.
Part of the dam next to where I put in has collapsed and more of it disappears each year. The water flows around rather than over it, and the level is about two feet lower than it was years ago when I first kayaked there. All of the dams along the Brandywine are now being allowed to deteriorate, returning the river to its natural state, they say. But after a dam has been in place for over a hundred years, what is the natural state?
I can see clumps of leafy debris in the branches about ten feet above my head. That was briefly the water level in one of the periodic floods that happens several times a year. The water rises over the banks and fills the floodplain. The normally peaceful Brandywine becomes unrecognizable. After a period of heavy rains, I often watch the raging flood waters from the Rockland Bridge. Occasionally, the flood is so high and swift the police close the bridge.
I paddle next to the banks in the cool shade of the overhanging trees. In the mile that I paddle, I count five huge trees that have fallen into the water. It takes several years for one to break up and wash away, and only one or two fall in each year.
About ten years ago, a kayaker, a young man in his 20s, was killed when one of the trees lining the banks fell on top of him. He and his friends were drifting downstream with the current. He had gotten ahead of the rest. He grabbed onto a low, overhanging branch to wait, and this small tug was enough to topple the tree. His friends were athletic, but not nearly strong enough to lift the tree, and they helplessly watched him drown.