90 Miles of Fun: My Kayak Trip on the Passaic River!

Steve in his kayak Well guys, I finally did it. I conquered the Passaic River in New Jersey. I floated the entire 90-mile waterway on a long and thin ocean kayak. I broke through all my considerations, ignored my lame excuses, and rejected the New Jersey attitude that claims the river is ugly, polluted and dangerous, much less to be enjoyed by boat.

And I made it happen! Yeehaw! There is so much to say, and hopefully this article will illustrate some of my experiences on this amazing river.

The Upper Passaic

On a very early Thursday morning in June 2000, with the kayak already strapped on the back of the pick-up truck of my best friend Bernie, we headed south to Basking Ridge, New Jersey, where the Passaic is deep enough and navigable by kayak.

The area near the headwaters of the Passaic is such a beautiful place. The water was clear and pristine. Even the swampy characteristics had an alluring, playful sentiment that I had never quite experienced in northern New Jersey. Lush foliage abounding from huge trees hovered over the childlike stream. The Upper Passaic is truly amazing!

On that first morning, when I finally waved good-bye to Bernie, my heart was so ecstatic. As I paddled out and began to follow the river that lazily flowed into woodland, I remember saying to myself numerous times, "I canít believe this is actually northern New Jersey." The natural surroundings and all its vast colors were enthralling. There was very little noise, and just a few homes could be seen nestled in the forest.

Wildlife abounded throughout the early stretch of the river. Deer, hearing me but used to looking for enemies coming from the land, were markedly intrigued as I floated past them. There were enormous blue herons that stirred my spirit as they leaped off tree branches and spread their gigantic wings towards the sky. I saw a few orioles, cardinals and other birds. Mother ducks and their cute little baby duckies following were rightfully paranoid of my imposition on their sanctuary, yet they were so cute when they chirped away at me. A few turtles joyfully scrambled on logs and rocks above water. And lastly, I spotted a fox that stared me down with a suspicious look as I quietly floated past him as silently and calmly as possible.

As I said, the early Passaic flows like a young child, freely squiggling and turning without a care in the world. During the first ten-mile stretch, the Passaic travels southeast before turning north towards the suburbs of the greater metropolitan area.

Lovely Passaic. :)In that first day I traveled over 25 miles. I was so giddy, paddling really fast, then stopping to a virtual stand still. I laid as horizontally as I could and consciously experienced everything with all five senses. Even floating under bridges was a novel experience, as I made goofy noises and amused myself with the echoes.

Now let us be clear here: the Passaic is not a brisk, wild-flowing river like waterways in Colorado. To the contrary, the Passaic felt more like a stagnant pond that seemed more conducive for peace seeking and meditative experiences. The total drop in elevation is only 600 feet, from the headwaters to downtown Newark. Still, near the beginning, there were a few minor rifles to travel through that provided some personal jollies in the kayak.

The Suburbs

In a perfect world, the Passaic would go on forever in environmental bliss, but conditions and water quality began to change near Chatam, a suburban town in Morris County. I passed a few wastewater treatment plants, with large concrete pipes aimed squarely at the river. Later, I learned the Passaic performs the hectic, demanding job of simultaneously serving as a sewerage dump and water supply for area residents.

The pollution was well anticipated, but more of a mystery to me was the encounters and types of people I would meet along the river.

One of my favorite books is Mississippi Solo, written by Eddy Harris, a man in his thirties who grew up near the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Harris decided to embark on his childhood dream: to canoe the Mississippi from northern Minnesota to New Orleans. In the paperback, he shares his personal struggles, fears, triumphs and lessons he learned from the countless people he met along the river.

On the Passaic, I trusted I would have similar experiences with ordinary people, but to be honest, I really did not see that many people on or near the river.

A tire 
alongside the riverLikely due to the bad reputation of the Passaic, there is very little recreational activity on the river, even though the early stages of the Passaic are aesthetically serene and quite accessible. Actual boat ramps were scarce and the few parks along the edge did not have hiking paths or much that revered the river. Furthermore, most of residentsí backyards that bordered the Passaic were not well-manicured nor designed to utilize all the river has to offer.

The Passaic River ... is the Forgotten River.

Friendliness and New Jersey People...

As I said, I did not see many people alongside the river, even though the Passaic flows through an area of over six million people. I do remember the smiles and friendly waves toward me, but they were too few in numbers. The majority I encountered near the river was generally apathetic and in no recognizable way seemed to appreciate my efforts, let alone envy me.

Some memories of people: Two maintenance people in Berkeley Heights seemed disinterested as I explained to them my river trip while using a nearby public telephone. A woman in Long Hill, who was standing by the banks, seemed uncomfortable talking to me, and gave a half-hearted "hello," as if I was a dangerous stranger to be avoided. Passing by a baseball field in Chatam, a child yelled out, "Hey, thatís sewer water youíre in." A truck driver in East Hanover was confounded when I told him my final destination in my kayak. "You mean to tell me youíre going to Newark in a boat?" he exclaimed.

It was helpful to continually remind myself that I was in New Jersey, which has increasingly become a foreign land to me. I had gotten used to the laid-back, outdoor recreational culture of Colorado and was always amused by some of reactions from people in northern New Jersey. One more example ... :)

As I pulled to the side of a bank in New Providence, a man across the river who was mowing his backyard, stared at me with a guarded look. I was still extremely giddy and smiled and waved to him in delight. Even with all my boat gear, wearing my life preserver, and husking down water from a huge jug, I guess he still thought I was some kind of burglar. I continued to wave to him and smiled, but he did not respond. And then, as I put back into the river and paddled away, he even turned his lawn mower off and look intently some more. Ah well. :)

On the second day of my trip, when I approached my hometown of Fairfield, New Jersey, I had gotten used to people not really caring about my voyage nor expected to see many people. Still, I went to a nearby gas station, with my clothing terribly muddy and wet, and asked the attendant if I could use the restroom. Knowing I had walked there, he gave me a very suspicious look as if I was a vagrant or someone looking to rob him. I told him I looked that way because I had been kayaking the Passaic River all morning. Skeptical and unwilling to believe me, he reluctantly gave me the bathroom keys.

After passing a boat early on, an elderly man and a child in a canoe, I was wondering when, if ever again, I would approach another vessel on the river. The second fellow boater was near Wayne, behind the Willowbrook Mall. In a motor boat, he sped away without waving as I began to approach him.

After the river finished a huge loop through a scenic area called Great Piece Meadows, the river becomes noticeably wider as it approaches the city of Paterson. As the Passaic approached and intersected under Interstate 80 for the fourth and final time in West Paterson, Mom, Dad and Bernie excitedly cheered me on. My folks were initially very against me doing the river, but by this third and final day, they were much more at ease with the trip after at least proving for two days that I knew at least something about kayaking.

The Lower Passaic

Past Great Falls in Paterson, the Passaic reinforces the ugly, junkyard stereotypes that people have about New Jersey. This final twenty-mile stretch is essentially a polluted, urban river.

I saw hundreds of tires and thousands of bottles, cans and other assorted forms of litter. I saw about thirty large metal barrels that contained only-God-knows-what. Some of the amusing sightings I floated past in the water: a bedpost, sofa, piles of scrap metal and folding chairs. Oh, there were also many shopping carts on the river, which I was told was a fun form of mischief of local teens.

There are so many memories: After three days of living, sleeping and just plain getting filthy from the river, I used a bathroom at a diner in Clifton and received stares from so many. I think people were really spooked by my ghastly appearance, and I wanted so bad to tell them about how I was "doing the Passaic," but no one seemed to ask, or even talk to me. I suppose from my looks I would not blame them.

Anyhow, I did not let such things bother me too much. After all, I was having the most mystical and triumphant experience with the greatest river in New Jersey. :)

Route 21 SignThe roar of Route 21, numerous concrete overpasses, and a distinct voice in my head telling me this water is really polluted kept me on edge for the final ten mile descent south towards Newark.

A few speedy motor boats passed by but always courteously slowed down so I wouldnít flip over from the boatsí waves. Fishers on a dock (yes, there were people fishing!) in Lyndhurst seemed really apathetic, almost afraid to wave, as if it would violate their cool New Jersey urban image.

Amidst all the indifference I encountered, one brief conversation with a man in Kearny put everything into perspective.

"Hey! Having fun?" he yelled.

"You bet!" I screamed back.

"Whereíd you put in?"

"Basking Ridge!"

He seemed puzzled. So I paddled closer to him and told him I started at the very beginning, three days ago, almost 90 miles away. He seemed amazed at me. "Why?" he asked.

"Just because Iíve always wanted to. I grew up in Fairfield, and always wanted to do this."

I had gotten close enough to him in the water that we did not need to scream. We talked for a few minutes about the glory the beautiful river, but I was itching to move on to the largest city in New Jersey.

Downtown Newark! I had arrived at the very end of the river by late afternoon of Day Three, on such a lovely sunny day! Refineries enclosed the banks on the Newark side, along with dilapidated project homes. Trash was everywhere, the waterway was as wide as ever, and not a boat dock was in sight.

LitterPaul Lerin, a prominent environmentalist and advocate for Passaic River clean-up activities, learned of my trip and met me on the river in a kayak of his own. He explained how "messed up" the river is in view of the millions of barrels of toxins that were dumped into the river by a company that produced Agent Orange during the Vietnam era.

He was a really friendly guy and offered to buy me a beer to celebrate the whole trip when we got out of the river. I wanted to say "yes," but my body said, "NO!" I was exhausted, my face was dreadfully sunburn, the muscles in my wrists were in severe pain and my clothing was so disgustingly sticking to my body.

One humorous note: I attempted to get out on the Harrison side but as I stepped onto the slimy muddy bank, my foot went straight through the mud. My left leg was half way down into the muddy ground, like quick sand. My knee, level with the mud, could not be moved. I was ready to abandon my sneaker that was engrossed way in the mud, but somehow I pulled my leg out of the mud and got back in the kayak. Frustrated that there were no boat ramps, I came upon a huge pile of rocks behind a gas station to get out.

Completion!

Knowing I was finished, I called Bernie and in an hour he picked me up. In the meantime, I continuously called people on a pay phone and told them I was "complete" - my breakthrough was now a reality. I had accomplished what I set out to do, and my soul had become a little stronger now.

And how did the river do? J For three long days, I had grown really close to this lovable waterway - physically, personally and spiritually. The Passaic has been long abused, neglected and forgotten. I trust that my voyage, however small and unique, gave back some of the dignity that the Passaic deserves!

Love, Steve :)

P.S. Special thanks to Bernie Doyle, who helped transport the kayak on his pick-up truck for the entire adventure, and Jim Kruse of Fort Collins, CO, who taught me how to canoe and kayak all throughout the spring.

P.P.S. Ugh! There is so much more I could have shared in this article. I didnít even mention sleeping out on the river bank, overlooking the Route 10 bridge in Livingston, or how I lost my waterproof camera in a laughable log jam in East Hanover or the memorable ride down the New Jersey shore with Bernie where I picked up the kayak. Bye for now! -Steve :)

SHORT ADDENDUM: If you want to contact me or if you have comments about the Passaic River, you are very welcome to do so on my Friendship Board.

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