Canoeing Sketches

John Boyle O'Reilly

From Athletics and Manly Sport,
Boston: Pilot Publishing Company, 1890, 261-301.

1. Canoeing the Connecticut
2. Down the Susquehanna in a Canoe
3. Down the Delaware River in a Canoe
4. Canoeing in the Dismal Swamp

Down the Susquehanna in a Canoe

"THIS river runs palpably down hill!" said my friend in the other boat, as our two canoes rounded a sweeping curve, and ran down an unbroken slope of half a mile.

So it did. Beautiful! That first air-borne sensation of a sheer slide was not beaten on the next hundred miles of river. The water was not three feet deep; clear as air--every pebble seen on the bottom, and none larger than your hand; and the whole wide river slipping and sliding like a great sheet of glass out of its frame! At the foot of the sloping water was a little rapid, our first on the Susquehanna, which is even more truly a river of rapids than a river of bends, though the latter is the meaning of its melodious Indian name.

We had stopped paddling on the "palpable hill," and we let the stream carry our canoes into the noisy rapid at its foot. Zigzag it crossed the river; and as I led into a well-defined rushing V, aiming at the angle, I felt the first grumble of a rock along the keel. Next moment we were pitching on sharp little white-caps below the rush, and scooting down toward the swift, deep water.

We had launched our canoes at Binghamton, J. Smith and I, because the river above is too low in September. Shame that it should be so! The beautiful hills above Binghamton, that a few years ago were clothed with rich foliage for unbroken leagues, are shorn like a stubble-field. The naked stumps are white and unsightly on the mountains, like the bones of an old battle-field.

A monster has crept up the valley and devoured the strong young trees. Every trunk has been swallowed; and the maw of the dragon is belching for more. On both sides of the river, and through many of the valleys that open back to the farm-lands, the railroads wind like serpents; and every foot-long joint in their vertebræ is the trunk of a twenty-year old tree. The hills stand up in the sun, cropped and debased like convicts; their beauty and mystery and shadowed sacredness torn from them; their silence and loneliness replaced by the selfish chirp of the grasshopper among the dry weeds. Never did the hard utility of civilization appear less disguised and less lovely. An Indian warrior begging on Broadway; a buffalo from the wilds yoked to a market-wagon; any degrading and antagonistic picture of life were more endurable and more hopeful than these majestic ridges stripped and burned into commonplace and repulsive bareness.

But the injured hills, like all old and strong children of nature, curse their destroyer as they die. The railroads have killed the trees, and the death of the trees is as surely killing the river. Year by year its life-blood decreases it grows narrower, shallower, yet more fitfully dangerous. Scores and hundreds of miles it runs, drinking in the volume of the streams; but in all this distance its own volume does not increase.

Marvellous and shocking! The Susquehanna is no deeper at Harrisburg than at Towanda. Its evaporation equals its growth. The shorn hills can hold no moisture. The rain and dew are dried in the morning sun like a breath on a mirror. But when the heavy clouds roll in and rain for weeks, there are no thirsty roots to hold the water, no myriad-leafed miles to be drenched before a rill is formed below. Then the dried veins are suddenly and madly filled, tearing down to the lowlands with unchecked violence. The river, swollen with drunken fury, becomes the brute that civilization is always making--leaping at the bridges, devouring the fields, deluging farm-houses and streets, until its fury is glutted on the blind selfishness that gave it birth.

Pittsburgh riots and Susquehanna devastations are children of the same parents,--Greed and Ignorance. Beautiful trees and beautiful souls, steeped in the coal-pits, scorched by the cinders, thundered over by the roaring wheels that carry treasures to the cultured and luxurious, there is a curse in your defilement and mutilation. Yet our moralists and socialists will not listen and understand.

But who shall be didactic in a canoe on a river that laughs into little rapids every few hundred yards? It was delightful to see Smith take his first rapid. He had only canoed before in still water. A few miles below Binghamton we heard the break of the water, and saw the zigzag line ahead. Not knowing the nature of the thing, whether it was a dam, an "eel-rack," a wood-shoot, or a natural shoal, I paddled ahead, and took a look at it. There was just one place in the line, about three feet wide, where the water rushed down like a sluiceway; and we must go in there. On one side of this passage, a thin spur of black stone rose above the surface, and made a good mark to steer by; but on the other side of the sluice was a great round stone, covered with about six inches of rushing water. I paddled back and asked Smith to observe exactly where my boat entered; and, turning her head, I let her go in "with the swim." It was a delightful little shoot of about fifty yards, and when I had reached the smooth water, I turned to see my friend coming down. He neared the rapids, not letting his boat drift, but paddling with all his force, and moving at tremendous speed down the swift water. He was not heading for the opening, but was coming straight for the big stone at the right side. No use shouting the din of the water drowned all other sound. I expected to see him strike and swing round, and probably get upset. and rolled over; but instead of that, the bow of his plucky little boat rose at the stone like a steeple-chaser, till I saw half her keel in the air,--and then over she came, without a scratch, and buried her nose in the deep water below the stone, while the canoeist sat straight, laughing with excitement, and dripping with the shower of spray from the plunge.

"How did it feel?" I asked.

"Glorious!" he shouted.

He thought he had come down secumdum artem. But before night he knew all about it, for the river was so low that every shallow had an angry brawl. Next day, with a steady hand and cool head, he found the way out for me when I had got into a bad place.

It was in this way: I had gone in first on rather a long and rough descent. There was a bend on the rapid, and in going round I struck heavily and unexpectedly, and swung right athwart the race, amidships fast on a huge brown shelf-rock. The divided water caught bow and stern, and held the canoe against the stone. I got one foot out against the rock and stopped her trembling; and there I was, fast. I could hold her steady, but could do no more. The stone was so shaped that I could not stand on it. The water ran deep and strong, and if I pushed off altogether I should be apt to go down broadside or stern first. So I sat thinking for a second or two; and then I looked back to wave to Smith to keep off. I saw his boat, but not him. He was swimming, "accoutred as he was," right across the river above, to give me a hand. His judgment had told him that I was badly placed. In a few minutes he had reached the head of the rapid, stepped from stone to stone till he caught hold of my "painter," and next moment my bow came round to the race, and down I shot like a rocket. In a few minutes he followed in the same course.

Just below that rapid we had an unpleasant experience,--the only one on our whole voyage. We fell in with a sordid lout, and up to this day I am sorry we did not thrash him or duck him in the river. We had gone up to a farm-house on the bluff to buy milk and eggs for dinner. Two old women had very kindly served us, and we were coming away when the lout appeared. He was evidently the master of the place: a big, raw-boned, ragged-whiskered, and dirty-skinned brute. He had just caught a snake, about two feet long, and he held it wriggling in his hand, while he laughed a vile chuckle, and opened his filthy mouth in derision as the older woman, his mother, probably, fled, almost screaming with terror. Then he came toward us, and seeing Smith's bare ankles he deliberately put the snake down to bite them, chuckling all the time, and mumbling "You hain't got the sand! He won't bite. I ain't afeard. I've got the sand. I ain't afeard o' snakes," and so on.

We stepped away from him, and at last told him, in a tone he minded, to drop the snake. He did so at once. His mother said to him from the door: "If you did that to me, and I was a man, I'd kill you!"

Then the brute insisted on selling us ten cents' worth of honey, which he called "Th' bam'f a thaousand flaours" (balm of a thousand flowers); and, coming to the boat, he begged for a drink, and, at the last moment, wanted us to buy a gallon of "old stock ale, seven year old."

It took us some hours to forget the barbarian. A handsome young trapper, logman, and railroad worker, lower down, who knew him well, told us that the lout was known along the river as a coward, a braggart, and "a man that was no good, anyhow."

The Susquehanna is, in one respect, quite unlike any other river on which I have canoed. There is an endless recurrence of half-mile and mile long deep stretches, and then a brawling rapid. The river rarely makes a bend without shoaling to a foot or two of water; and this is invariably ended by a bar, with a swift descent beyond. These shallow places have been utilized as "eel-racks," by driving stakes or piling stones in a zig-zag line across the river. From Towanda down to Wilkesbarre, with a bold, wooded hill, or "mountain," always on one side, and sometimes on both, the deep stretches become deeper and longer but in a very few places is the "slow water" more than two or three miles in length.

We had brought a small tent with us, and we carried some provisions, prepared coffee, Liebig's extract of beef, a jar of delicious butter (which we broke and lost on the third day), a can of corned beef, some "hard tack," and some bacon. We had tin cups, a little alcohol stove, and a bottle of very old Jamaica (for the malaria).

We had two canoes of the "Shadow" model, Mr. Smith's, a Rushton, decked and hatched; mine without hatches, and built by Partelow, of Riverside, Mass.,--both good boats of their kind, from good builders. But the "Shadow" is not a good kind of canoe for river work. Her keel is too long and too deep. This makes her heavy in turning sharp curves; and, when she runs on a stone,--even a round or flat one,--the keel throws her on one side; and this is really a canoe's unpardonable sin. A canoe should have no keel. The "Shadow" model is really not a canoe at all, but simply a light boat.

The Indian round-bottomed, birch-bark canoe is the best model for American rivers; and it is a pity that our builders do not keep it as their radical study. It should be modified and improved, of course; narrowed for double paddling, and shortened and lightened for portage but its first principle, of a bottom that can run on or over a stone without capsizing, ought never to be forgotten. In my opinion, paper will win against lapstreak in the canoe of the future; all that is needed to insure this is a method of patching the wound on a paper bottom.

Never have I seen river-water so clear and wholesome as the Susquehanna. One of our daily pleasures was to dip our bright tin cups into the river, drink a mouthful, and pour the rest into our mouths without swallowing.

The sun flamed on the water every day of our trip; the records ashore made it the hottest fortnight of the year. So we lovingly hugged the banks when there was any shade; and, unexpectedly, this habit led us into the two greatest pleasures of our voyage.

The first occurred a tew miles above the village of Appalaken. We left the main river to run to the left of an island, where the stream was only twenty feet wide. The island was perhaps three-quarters of a mile long, and the trees on both sides reached over, interlaced, and made the stream as dark as late evening. There was a turbulent little rapid at the entrance, as we swung in from the big river and the noonday blaze; and the water all down the narrow stream ran with incredible rapidity. When we felt ourselves carried along in this silent cool shadow, and looked up at the light sifting through the dense foliage, we both exclaimed, "This is too lovely to be repeated!" And the word was true. Such a superlative canoe-ride one could hardly ever expect to enjoy twice. We laid down our paddles, only fearing to come to the end of our marvellous green archway, with its dark gleaming floor; and when, at last, we did sweep out into the broad glare of the river, we sighed and looked back wistfully, as men will. Ten minutes later we were wading over a shallow place and hauling our canoes by the painter.

The other peak of our enjoyment was reached about four miles below the town of Athens. Ah, me! how we did enjoy our evening in that little town! But let the tale bide a little. We had gone down some miles below the bridge at Athens, where the river widened out and grew consumedly slow and commonplace. There was an island, with a narrow opening to the left and a rough little rapid at the entrance,--almost a repetition of the Appalaken archway. After that other experience we did not hesitate, but turned from the big sheet of water, and shot into the narrow turmoil, to the left of the island. Again we dashed into a splendid sweep, but about three times as wide as the Appalaken archway. The water was about four feet deep all the way down, and the bottom was of small pebbles, every one as clearly seen as if laid on a mirror. Once more our paddles were crossed before us, and we sat in profound enjoyment of water, wood, and sky, as we were swept along by the current. Half-way down, we landed on the island, intending to float in the water and be carried down after the canoes, holding on by the "painter."

And here we made a discovery that will redound to the fame of Athens,--a discovery which we present to that town in memory of the genial hospitality of one of its chief citizens, the Rev. Father Costello, who gave us an evening not to be forgotten. Here let me tell how, baked and burned and tired and hungry and thirsty, on the night preceding our discovery, we walked up to the house of the good priest at sunset, and were met at the open door with outstretched hands of welcome; and how, before a word was spoken, we were handed two great goblets filled with iced wine,--rich, fruity, American wine; and how we sat down to a dinner for epicures, even if it were Friday; and how we then were taken into the little moonlit garden, with good cigars, and other comforts, while our amiable and accomplished host charmed us with quaint fancy and strange learning, and played for us on the flute so softly that it could not be heard fifty feet away, but so exquisitely that we knew we were listening to the soul of a poet and a master; and how simply and tenderly he told us that he had discovered a similarity between his little Athens in the Pennsylvania hills and the immortal Athens of the Acropolis. river runs 273

"Look around," cried Father Costello, pointing to the perfect circle of bold mountains, that were blue even in the moonlight "those hills are a perfect coronet. This, too, is the City of the Violet Crown!"

Now for our discovery: we give it to Athens with only one condition,--that henceforth the citizen who shall call his town Aythens shall be disfranchised or excluded from good society, or both.

Half-way down between the island and the shore we plunged into the swift current, intending to float after the canoes, holding on by the painter,--a most enjoyable and interesting thing to do. When you lie at utter rest in the water and watch the shore go by, it seems too delicious for waking life but this is not the best. Let your whole body and head sink well under the surface, keeping your eyes open; the river becomes an aquarium,--you see the weeds, the stones, and the fishes as clearly almost as if they were in the air. This is because you have no motion except the motion of the water itself; your eyes are fixed in a crystalline medium, and nothing can express the sense of ease, of utter luxury, which the supporting fluid gives to every limb. You are lolling on or in an air-cushion without surface or friction. The mere swimmer can never feel this, nor even he who is towed after a boat,--though that is an ideal method of taking an invigorating bath. To see the river's inner life, and to enjoy this complete luxury of resting in the water, you must float in and with the stream, without effort or motion, supported by the painter of your boat.

But our discovery waits: half-way down this lovely and lonely island passage we plunged in, as I have many times said; and we had no sooner struck bottom than Smith uttered a strange shout and threw up his hands. I was startled till I looked at his face; and then I was puzzled beyond measure by his motions and expressions. With his hands above his head, he seemed to be dancing on the bottom of the river, and with every step he gave a shout of pleasure. While I looked at him, astonished, I began to feel the infection of his strange conduct. A thrill like soft music ran through me, and seemed to tingle in my ears and under my tongue; and every movement I made brought a repetition of the inexpressible sound, for a sound it was, like a musical echo.

What is it?" I cried at length. " This is wonderful!"

"It is a musical beach,--a singing beach!" he answered. "And I should say it was the finest in the world!" And then he said, for by strange chance he knew something about such a queer thing, " I believe there are only two or three 'singing beaches' known in the whole world; and this certainly must be the best."

You may be sure we lingered over that mellifluous swim. We pushed the boats ashore, and went in for the weird, sweet music of the stream. It was enough to make one howl with sheer sensuous enjoyment. As we pushed or scraped the pebbly bottom with our feet we felt or heard, I hardly know which, a rich resonance passing through us, clear and sweet as the soft note of distant cow-bells. The slightest displacement of the gravel brought it up, as if it had just escaped from the earth.

When we had tried it a hundred and a thousand times, it occurred to us that neither could hear the note caused by the other,--we only heard the sound of our own feet. Again the tenacious memory of my friend found an explanation. He remembered that divers can only talk under water by placing their heads on the bottom.

Another discovery here: you can't get your head to the bottom of a four-foot stream, unless you catch hold of a stone on the bottom and pull yourself down. You can dive, and get your hands or feet or knees down ; but not your chin. We are both good swimmers, and we tried in vain. While under water, on the dive, or crawling along the bottom on hands and knees, the river was a drear and silent sluice. At last we got our chins on the bottom, each on a stone, and we heard it,--oh! we heard such melodious discord, such a mixture of near and remote echo-like sweetness as can only be imagined in dreams. The river became as full of music as it was of water, and the inexpressible fusion of notes played through our senses like intoxication. Smith was twenty or thirty feet from me, and in deeper water; but every sweep he gave the pebbles sounded to me like a thousand cow-bells melted into liquid harmony. Never, until we go to the same spot again, shall we hear such strange, suppressed, elfin music.

Now, Athens, go down and bathe at the place where we had this intoxicating bath; and believe that never was there siren or naiad in the rivers or springs of old Athens to ravish with sweeter melody than your own beautiful Susquehanna holds for you.

It would be better, perhaps, if I could follow the river features seriatim, as we saw them; but then there are so many miles of every river that are only one uninteresting feature. No one cares for the names of little unheard-of villages, themselves quite featureless. Some whole days we did nothing but run insignificant rapids, until at last we came to despise them, so that we sometimes ran our canoes at them without searching for an opening, and for our pains always narrowly escaped upsetting, and always, too, had to get out and wade. The rapids of the Susquehanna teach as much patience and wariness as the logs of the Connecticut. You can manage both, like little children, when you take the trouble of finding the right way; otherwise they will crush your boat and you like the insensate brutes they are when opposed.

About ten miles above Towanda we entered on a memorable experience. The river was wide, about half a mile, and we heard an unusually loud rapid about a quarter of a mile ahead. It was noon, and we landed on a pretty shaded bank on the right, to eat our dinner. The day was hot, and the shade was luxurious. We gave plenty of time to cooking and eating and swimming and smoking, and, like Brer Rabbit, " enjoyin' the day that passes."

About two o'clock, a poor-looking fellow, in a poorer-looking old flat-bottomed boat, drifted past, going towards the rapid water. We asked him on which side the current ran.

"Don't know," he answered, sounding all his r's like a true native: "I was neverr hearr befoarr. I'm a strangerr!" Amid, looking anxiously ahead, he drifted towards the breakers. We were then dining, and we watched him for our own instruction as we ate. We saw the swift stream take him, changing his course a little, and carry him into the rapid. He went down a few boat's lengths and struck. He jumped out, and saved the scow, hauling his boat back. Why he did not try to drag her down, instead of coming back was a mystery. At last we forgot him and an hour later we got afloat. The first thing we saw was the old boat, empty and aground, at the side of the rapid. The man was nowhere to be seen. What had become of him? He could hardly have been drowned in three or four feet of water, however rapid. And yet he had said he was a stranger. We paddled to the other side of the river and shot down a rare piece of swift water without difficulty. We were in a hurry, for the sky behind us was "black as thunder" with an enormous cloud, and already the air was filled with dead leaves from the mountain, carried out on the river by the first gusts. A few heavy drops of rain struck our faces and arms, and made little towers on the river.

The river was running with extreme rapidity, and the increasing wind, right behind us, ruffled it into white-caps in a few minutes, and drove us ahead at an exciting pace. We hardly knew what to do, being ignorant of the manner of storms in those parts; but as the gale was in our favor we simply steered straight, and held on. The stream ran "palpably down hill," deep and swift. On our left was a grand mountain, almost precipitous, but wooded to the top, and black with the coming gloom. The river almost ran under its brow.

As we plunged ahead we heard the sound of rapid water above the roar of the gale; we had no time to search for an opening; but fortunately the water was deeper than usual. We kept to the left, as the river fell toward the mountain and dashed for the rapid. Two fishermen in a boat were running before us, about a hundred yards ahead. Suddenly we saw them lurch forward, while the boat swung round and the water leaped into her. They had kept two yards too far to the left, but they had shown us the way. They were in the water up to their waists, holding their boat, as we shot past them without a word. They looked at us with grim faces, quite silent, as if dumbfounded. We were fairly lifted over the stones of that rapid by the wind and waves; and a few minutes later we knew what reason we had to be thankful, when the whole fury of the storm burst on us.

We had learned that an unbroken stretch of river lay before us, clear to Towanda, six miles away. We could see the spire of a church against the lurid sky far down the valley. The sky ahead was fast filling with heaps of dark clouds, racing faster than I have ever seen clouds move. Behind, from horizon to zenith, the air was like a slate colored cavern, with masses and feathery sheets of dark-brown vapor, tumbling and rushing low down, so low as to strike the mountain. There was no rain--nothing but wind, and it was right astern, and held there by the towering mountain on our left. The waves combed out before us, higher than the boats. We could not have kept a quarter of a point off such a blast. We felt the gale on our backs like a physical pressure. It was a magnificent race. We had not even to steer. We sat still and were driven straight ahead, and, had there been a bend in the river, we should have had to run ashore. As quickly as the storm had risen, it subsided or passed. Far sooner than I would dare to write, we saw the tall bridge at Towanda half a mile ahead of us. We had run down five or six miles of river in as quick time, I think, as canoes could safely travel.

Before we reached Towanda the storm had crossed the mountain and the sun was out. We kept to the left of the river, ran under the bridge, round an island, and then dashed through a splendid little rapid, right in front of the city, and ran across to a boat-house.

This reminds me of one of the greatest pleasures of canoeing on the Susquehanna--the courtesy and kindness one meets from every one, farmers, townsmen, rivermen, or railroaders. Only one class of men want to take advantage--the expressmnen. They are the same, everywhere--exorbitant, if not dishonest, in charge, and careless in work. It is not to the credit of the express system that a traveller must truly say so harsh a thing.

At Owego, or Ah-we gah, as we found its old Indian name to be, we went to the hotel for dinner. We were roughly dressed, sunburnt, and hungry. The landlord, an old man with a singularly pleasant face, observed us as we ate. Then he went out, probably to see the canoes, which were down at the wharf before his house.

"Having a good time, are you?" he said, as he returned.

"Yes," we told him; and we outlined our plan for him as we went on eating his excellent dinner.

"Forty years ago," said the old man, "I went down the Ohio River in a dug-out, just for fun, as you are doing. We had a splendid time; but we got strapped,--do you know what that is? We spent all our money, and for days' and days we hadn't a cent. But every one was kind to us, and we never wanted for anything. We enjoyed it all; and I hope you'll do the same."

He shook hands with us warmly. When we went to pay our bill, the clerk said, "All paid for, gentlemen. Glad you came to see us. Pleasant trip down the river!"

The kind old landlord was "getting even" with the Ohioans, who had treated him well forty years ago.

Another pleasant memory from Owego when we went down to the canoes we found that Smith's boat was leaking, probably strained on a stone. He went to bail her out with his tin cup.

"You want a sponge," said a handsome big fellow, in shirt-sleeves, standing in the little crowd on the wharf. We hardly answered, the need being obvious.

"You can't get a sponge between here and Harrisburg, "he added.

"That is not very consoling."

"But I'm going to give you a big sponge," he continued. "Come with me and I'll fix you out."

One of us went with him; he was the chief livery-stable-keeper in Owego; his name was Dean. He gave us a tremendous sponge, which was of very great service.

"Good-by, Mr. Dean; good-by, all of you," we said, as we swung out.

A little dark-faced man had just come down the wharf. He was in a hurry.

"Oh, I say!" he shouted; "I bring you the compliments of the Owego Rapid. Wanted to interview you on the political situation!" (I may say here that our voyage was made during a heated National campaign, of which more hereafter.) And we heard Dean and the crowd laughing at the little man, who waved his note-book and pencil.

It was the first we had heard of "the political situation" since leaving Binghamton. I might have mentioned that when we launched our canoes near that city we were accompanied to the river bank by quite a number of well-wishers, and among them two gentlemen from the daily papers of Binghamton, who industriously wrote down our "views." As we paddled away from the wharf at Owego we congratulated ourselves that we had broken the last link, and henceforth could go along like sensible men with no "views" to air. But the "situation" had not done with us yet.

Of our nights on the banks of the river the details are too varied to be written. We enjoyed them intensely after the first three days, when the heat of the sunburn had abated. The only drawback was caused by our own persistent mistake; we did not pitch our camp early enough, and the darkness closed on us before we were quite ready for rest. We were tempted each day to go on paddling till the sun had reached the tops of the mountains; and we had not realized how the mountains hurry on the sunset.

The story of one night will do for all. We pulled our canoes ashore under a wooded bank, twenty feet high, and pitched our camp in a lovely little meadow above. It was six o'clock when we left the boats. The river was exceedingly beautiful from our meadow, reminding me of the Connecticut in its superb reaches below Northampton. Across the river, against the distant hills, rose the spire of a church; but there was not a house in sight. The nearest village was Tioga Centre, five miles away. The current in the river was almost still; the water under our bank was about ten feet deep. Though we had much to do before we lost the sun, we could not help giving a few minutes to drink in the extreme beauty of the evening scene.

Firewood was not to be had for the picking up, as usual; but we found a dead tree, partly fallen, supported by its fellows fringing the river. We cut it down in quick time with our axe, chopped off some punky lengths of the trunk, tied one of our painters to the remainder, and "snaked" it out of the underbrush. The dry branches broke and burned like tinder, and the larger ones, with the trunk, made us a roaring fire till morning. That night for supper we broiled some bacon and boiled some tinned beef, putting in a lot of Liebig's extract. Then coffee, eked out with our precious but ill-fated butter and marmalade.

Then--let us tell the truth, so that the price may be paid--we went to a stack of coarse hay in the meadow, and took two great armfuls, which we spread in our tent, and which was softer that night than down-of-eider. About the hour of this dark deed, the full moon rose over the hills and sailed into a sky black-blue, starlit, and absolutely clear from mist or cloud. The only vapor to be seen was a slight smoke that clung in a thin, wavy line to the middle of the river. The only sound, except our own voices, was the screech of an owl on the hills and the leap of the bass in the water.

The night was breathless; but we raised the bottom of the tent, and made a pleasant draft.

Before ten o'clock we were asleep. How long that sleep lasted I cannot tell--perhaps three hours; but it was ended in a most awful uproar. In my sleep I had heard for hours, so it seemed, the thunder of rapids and falls greater than Niagara, into which the canoe was slipping against all my power to steer or stop her. Nearer and nearer the horror came; there were people on the shore shouting, and one of them blew a whistle that would wake the dead, and I sprang up in the tent at the same moment that Smith jumped to his feet. Without moving farther we saw the cause of the disturbance. Within forty yards of us ran a railroad, along which was thundering one of these interminable coal trains, that are longer, I am sure, than any other trains in the world. The noise had affected us both in almost the same way; and we were so completely awakened that to sleep again seemed out of the question.

So we piled up our firewood till the flames illuminated the sombre hills. Then we mixed with sugar and water a stiff dose of our remedy for the malaria; but before enjoying this, the night was so warm and lightsome and the river so tempting, I plunged into the deep water for a short swim. When I came in, Smith was singing; and we sat by the fire and sang on and on, and the screech owl stopped to listen; and the fire and the tobacco burned as if they enjoyed it; and it was well for the malaria that it did not come around that that night.

Say what you will there is no other form of outing that makes possible, within sight of conventional life and labor, such days and nights of utter freedom, health, natural beauty, and manly enjoyment.

But the river proceeds--as the canoes could not--below Towanda. There were immense stretches where the river widened, and the depth nowhere exceeded three or four inches. There was little pleasure in wading and dragging our boats till the bottoms were worn out; so we carried them up to the railroad (which hugs the river all the way), and shot the iron rapids till we came to fair water again.

It was sometime in the forenoon when we ran into Wilkesbarre, passing through that lovely historic valley,

"On Susquehanna's tide, fair Wyoming."

Surely, in all the world, there is nothing to exceed the quiet, large beauty of this valley, that is enriched with so many forms of wealth; with the stamp of sublimity from the hand of God; with the deep coloring of pathetic and patriotic association, and with the priceless mineral treasures that lie deep in field and hill.

"This is the richest valley on the face of the planet," said a Wilkesbarre man to us; and he was only thinking of the coal-veins hidden in its bosom.

But let there be a few uncivilized ones, at least, who shall retard the shafts and chimneys and hideous coal-heaps as marks of desecration and disease. Wealth and civilization, you say; aye, wealth and civilization for the owners of the mines, for the lordly "coal operators," whose summer palaces are set on the shoulders of the noble hills. But for the thousands of workers in the bowels of the earth; for those whose minds and souls, as well as bodies, are darkened with the coal-grim; for their wives and little children, existing that a race of subject-workers may be perpetuated, what portion of our wealth and civilization belongs to these? Does civilization necessarily mean the degradation and starvation intellectually and spiritually of ten, for the luxury and over-development of one?

Civilization impinges on humanity in Pennsylvania perhaps not more unfairly or cruelly than elsewhere; but the contrasts are shockingly apparent.

But we came to look at the hills and the river, not at the social relativities. And the hills are as sadly marked as the human moles who burrow into them. There is no desecration of a mountain so blighting as the sinking of a mine into its heart. The dark mouth of the shaft, high up on the side of the hill, is repulsive as a cancer to the eye searching for beauty. Storms might shatter the forests, or fire sweep them, and the grandeur of the hills would be untouched. But in the midst of billowed foliage, and within sound of the rills, the puff of a steam-engine beside a black hole in the mountain-side robs the scene of all loveliness, and hurries the observer out of sight of the profanation.

But where was I? At Wilkesbarre only! We put our boats up at a pretty boat-house above the bridge, and we thought we should stay an hour to see the city, and then proceed. It is very pleasant to recall the manner and face of the man who kept that boat-house, and who was, we learned later, no other than "Comnmodore Brobst, of the Wilkesbarre Navy," a well-known and popular person. He was very kind indeed; but while he was showing us his handsome boats, his little boy was scudding off to a newspaper office, and "The Commodore" seemed to enjoy himself hugely when, a few minutes later, a reporter stepped down to the float and said:-- "Gentlemen, we have been expecting you. The editor of my paper is coming here presently to welcome you; and also a committee of reception, which was appointed three days ago."

Upon hearing this amazing announcement we sat down upon the float to gaze at the reporter. Within ten minutes his astounding words were made true.

"Gentlemen, you will speak here to-night in the court-house, on the political situation. You will have an immense audience!"

This was the first word that impressed itself on my mind. We could not laugh, and we could not boorishly get into our boats and paddle away; so we weakly listened to the voice of the seducers, who would draw us from our beautiful rapids and woods and hills into the narrowing wrangle of worldly ways. But the editor was such a clever and earnest fellow, and the chairman of the committee was so genial and hospitable, that, after hours of entertainment and enjoyment, we compromised: we promised to return two days later and make political speeches in Wilkesbarre! It was then noon of Monday; we would go on our way down the stream, and come back for Wednesday night.

From that moment we knew that a beauty had departed from the river. It seemed to sink and become commonplace. Some charm of fidelity or sympathy was broken. We were disloyal to the Susquehanna; we could not, as yesterday, look the beautiful river in the face.

But we went along, and, in keeping with our new prosaic feeling, we hooked on to a little steamer running down to Nanticoke, and escaped nine miles of paddling. At Nanticoke we could not cross the dam,--so we went into the canal which begins there. Deeper and deeper we were sinking into the prosaic; and the sense of a departed sympathy made us silent and almost irritable. I heard Smith repeating to himself the sad lines of Wordsworth:--

"The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath passed away a glory from the earth."

We regretted the promise that bound us to return, and necessitated at least some preparation. We resolved to telegraph back recalling it. But there was no telegraph-office for a long distance down the canal. The current was slow, but in our favor. We paddled steadily ahead, almost silent, till the sun bent down to the mountains, and the canal seemed to become a mere gloomy ditch. Then we began to think of camping and getting supper; but for miles no suitable place appeared. Just about sunset we overtook a canal-boat, and asked the man at the wheel where he was going to stop for the night.

We don't stop ; we go on all night," he said; "and if you fellows want to come on board, you can lift your boats on deck, and you're very welcome."

We thanked him; read "yes" in each other's eyes; and in five minutes the canoes were on board, and we were having a new and pleasant sensation.

The canal-boat is no greyhound: it moves solemnly and firmly at the rate of two miles an hour; but it pushes ahead day and night, and, like the tortoise of the fable, it might win a race against a heedless hare. The Susquehanna Canal Company's service employs about two thousand men and boys, and heaven knows how many mules. And splendid mules they are, big as horses almost, and comely to the eye. They impressed my companion so much that in his speech at Wilkesbarre, two days later, he made the audience gasp by opening with the emphatic assertion that the Democratic party was like a mule? "Because," said he, "it is patient, intelligent, good-humored, hard-working,--and handsome!" The Jeffersonians breathed a sigh of relief, and then enjoyed the simile. Tom Elder was the captain's name, and he had on board a man to cook and steer and clean--a silent man who answered questions, but never once looked at us; also a youth of nineteen, a carpenter from Tom's town down the river, who had run away from home, and was now returning through his townsman's kindness ; and, lastly, a little tough, red-headed fellow of fifteen, the mule-driver,--another Tom,--who had a phenomenal voice deep down in his chest, from roaring at the mules, and who swore more profoundly and unconsciously than any one I had known up to that time. In this respect, however, little Tom, we found, was distanced by competitors on the tow path.

Once on board no one spoke to us or noticed us. Their indifference was Indian-like. About an hour after boarding the boat Captain Tom came up from the cabin kitchen-bedroom of the ship's company, and, without looking at us, said:

"If you fellows want some bean soup there's plenty of it down there, and you're very welcome."

"Much obliged, captain," said Smith; "and perhaps you would'nt mind taking a little of this--for the malaria. And a cigar."

The captain came down without waiting to be shot.

We had plenty of provisions with us, and we made a memorable supper. The runaway carpenter "washed up" after us. Then we "made our beds" on the deck, between the canoes, drew our blankets over us, and looked up at the stars, which seemed, from the motion of the boat and our position, to be moving in a grand, slow procession. It was a beautiful night, and our enjoyment was great. The trees reached over the canal nearly all the way. On one side, below us some fifty yards, was the river, with a black mountain on the other side. Above us, about the same distance, was the railroad, cut out of the mountain foot; and sheer above that the " eternal hills," lifting to the stars.

There was no sound but the swish of the great boat and the distant quick hoofing of the mules. About midnight we heard a strange, hard roar, rising and falling in a certain cadence. It was only little Tom, who had just waked from his first nap on the mule's back, and was cheering them with a song. The children who drive the mules for this great corporation soon learn to sleep on the animals' backs.

In the morning, before breakfast, we saw a fair place for lowering our boats to the river; and we shook hands with Captain Tom Elder, and the serious cook, and the runaway carpenter, and little Calliope-Tom. We had, it appeared, won their hearts; and for one brief second I caught the retiring eye of the cook as we parted.

Returning to the river rejoiced us; it was like coming back to an old friend,--a renewal of fealty. And it was well for us that we had some compunction to work off, for a viler ten miles than that before us I have never seen,--not even excepting the upper end of the Charles River.

First of all, the water was like milk-and-water in color, and it was limy to the taste. There was a new sort of rock in the bottom, long ledges of slate that crossed the river like bars, upon every one of which we stuck. We never dreamt of dressing: jerseys and shoes were enough. We were wading half the time. At last we came to an island, and we parted company, Smith going to the right, and I to the left, close under the mountain. The river was more than half a mile wide; and the island turned out to be many miles long. It was a dismal experience, going alone, and each wondering how the other was getting on.

For five miles I had not an unbroken run of fifty yards. The side of the hill had evidently fallen into the river, and crumbled into pieces from the size of a foot-ball to the size of a cab. The sluice-ways between some of these were fierce and swift, but irritatingly short.

When I was about half-way down I began to fear that Smith might be worse off; so I hauled toward the island and went ashore. Nowhere could I see him, nor get an answer to a bush "coo-ce!" So I walked back to the end of the island, only to find that he had had open river all the way down, and must, therefore, be miles ahead. An hour later I found him at the end of the island, on a mossy bank, under tall beeches,--a little bit from fairyland.

As we were about to get into our canoes, after several hours' rest here, we saw a strange sight. In the reflection under the boats great numbers of little fish had gathered, and ranged themselves in a line, evidently enjoying the only scrap of shadow on the wide river. As we ran down a grand reach of deep and swift water, below the village, we saw another strange thing--a tremendous iron pipe crossing the river in a lonely place, like a huge serpent half-buried in the mud, under eight feet of clear water. It was probably the pipe of one of the great oil lines. Ten miles farther down we came to another village and as we shot a little rapid in its front a man ran down to the river waving a letter. It was addressed to me, "On the Susquehanna River in a Canoe." It was from the political committee at Wilkesbarre, which we had almost forgotten, telling us that we should have "an immense audience next evening," and asking, "On what train may we expect you?"

About a score of little boys, the oldest not more than twelve, who had been swimming, gathered round as we read the letter, and sat in the water like fowl, eying us silently. When we started off they rose in a bevy, and plunged after us, swimming splendidly, one blue-eyed little fellow following my boat with extraordinary rapidity, using the overhand stroke like an expert.

It was then four o'clock, and we were about twelve miles from Danville. We paddled along dejectedly, knowing that our trip had lost its charm by this political interruption. But it was too late to regret. We were delayed soon by shallows and insignificant rapids, and before we had gone four miles the sun had sunk behind the hills.

To cheer us up we floated at last into deep water, and saw before us a scene of surpassing loveliness and repose. The narrow valley on the left was a marvellous picture of rural taste and comfort. A farm-house smothered in soft foliage, with roses trained over the porch, and in the garden the largest and most beautiful weeping-willow either of us had ever seen. A mile farther down we passed a fisherman, and he told us there were two strong rapids, some miles below, which could not be safely run in the dark. So we carried our boats up to the tow-path, intending to paddle into Danville that night on the canal.

But when we had eaten our supper we resolved to stay where we were. It was a lonely and lovely place. A high wooden bridge on stone piers crossed the canal and railroad, and led up into a road that was cut into the steep hillside.

We sat on the high bridge and enjoyed the moonrise over the gloomy hill; but, though we did our best to forget it, the coming speech-making disturbed us like the distant roar of rapid water that we knew had to be considered and crossed.

"I wish Tom Elder would come along, "suggested Smith. "We could go into Danville on his canal boat."

But Tom was miles astern; and we went and raided on a wood-pile near the bridge, though no house could be seen, and flung a dozen big sticks down to the tow-path beside the boats. Just. then we heard a buggy, or light wagon, passing on the road; and Smith ran up on the bridge and hailed it, meaning to ask some questions.

"Ho! I say! I say, sir!" he shouted, as he sprang out in the moonlight. The driver of the wagon started up his horse, evidently alarmed. We heard the swish! swish! of the whip, quicker and harder as Smith ran and shouted, and soon the frightened teamster was out of danger.

We learned next day that the place at which we stopped had been the scene of numerous robberies, and that people disliked it even in the daytime. It was well for us that the scared driver had no gun with him.

We lit our fire and made our beds beside it, just withdrawn from the tow-path, and were soon sleeping soundly. Once, about midnight, we were awakened by a passing canal-boat; but we slept again, with a kindly "Good-night, fellows," from the sleepy child on the back of the hind mule.

The dawn was just creeping over the hill when another sound disturbed us,--a loud, hard, cadenced roar, which was familiar. It was little, red-headed, Calliope-Tom, singing his matins to the mules. In ten minutes we had all our goods in the boats, and we started up the tow-path to meet our friends. Little Calliope-Tom saw us afar off, and welcomed us with a long shout and a loud. Captain Tom Elder greeted us cordially; the serious cook and the runaway carpenter came up and gave a hand with our embarkation; and in a few minutes more we were sound asleep in our blankets on the friendly deck.

At Danville, in the morning, we went to the hotel, Captain Tom escorting us. We left our boats at the landing. After breakfast and a morning paper (the first for days) we resolved to go to Wilkesbarre at noon, and "think over our speeches" by the way.

No need to tell of our reception, our audience, our eloquence. We had a famous day, and a night to be remembered, at the hospitable house of a Pennsylvania gentleman of the old school, who gave us much that the palates of wandering men hanker after.

But the next day dawned, and we were far from our canoes. We breakfasted with an effort at cheerfulness. Whem the boy brought to us, at the table, the morning paper, with a report of our speeches, we brightened at once. But, ho! it was the Republican paper, the Democratic sheet having only an evening issue. And therein we read, with ghastly merriment, words of scorn for our eloquence and pity for our arguments.

"Wait till evening, till you see the Leader!" said a friendly caller. "I tell you the Leader will do you justice."

But no; we said "Good-by," and started for Danville. On our way we concluded to go no farther in the canoes, but to run on to Harrisburg, taking them up as we passed Danville. That was the end of our voyage on the river, though we followed it lovingly from the window of the train all the way to Harrisburg. We saw the marriage of the lovely Juniata with the Susquehanna, recalling the exquisite poem of my friend, John Brown:--

    "Oh! never such a sight:
He sweeping round the valley's bend,
While she, on maiden tip-toe rising,
Feasts loving glances on the friend
She has so lonesome been abiding;
He, helpless, seeks the fatal shore,
Charm-blinded by her eyes dark-flashing
Within the portals of the door
Through which her slender form is passing:
He opens wide his giant arms,
The young and lordly Susquehanna;
She nestles there her virgin charms,
The soft-voiced, lovely Juniata;
    There in the bright sunlight!"

And so, good-by for another season to the sweet waters, the dancing boat, and the biceps-building paddle. There is no sport or exercise so complete as canoeing a river, for it embraces all sports,-- the excitement of rapid water, the delicious plunge, the long swim down stream, the fishing and shooting, the free camping out at night, and the endless beauty of the panoramic scene. Canoe-clubs may meet and vote and compete and sail regatta races on the lakes. But the true canoeist knows not sail nor prize, but searches with the paddle all the bends and rapids and shadowed reaches of our peerless American rivers.

URL: 1998-07-03
© Copyright 1998, Eric Eldred. See our legal notice.
A publication of Eldritch Press -