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Real rapids, sore shoulders, catered coleslaw: I survived (actually loved) the Schuylkill Sojourn

So last weekend I learned the Schuylkill River has rapids.

I’ve lived in Philadelphia for a decade, and I had no idea, until I had to kayak through some of them. They’re not big, by any means — at least not the ones I rode through, near Lower Merion — but they are good for a healthy dose of adrenaline. Trying to maneuver a kayak around big rocks and across swirling eddies without ending up “in the drink” is harder than it looks. When I finally made it through (I went over one of the rocks instead of around it, but didn’t flip), I had a newfound respect for the river.

Raising awareness about the waterway and its many features is one of the driving factors behind the Schuylkill Sojourn, which wrapped up its 17th successful year last week. But there are many other reasons for the 7-day, 112-mile guided journey, which sees more than 100 paddlers make the trip down the waterway from Schuylkill Haven to Philadelphia.

Primary among them: It’s fun.

Waterlogged reunion

I joined the Sojourn only for its last leg, which ran 16 miles from West Conshohocken to Boathouse Row, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. Not that I wasn’t welcome, but most of the crew had been on the trip for the entire week, and they recognized me as an outsider. I was dizzy watching the 90-plus kayaks and several canoes hit the water after the morning safety talk — so many colors — but everyone else was used to it.

“Nice camera, new person!” shouted someone as they floated by.

Turns out it’s not just a single week that builds connections between Sojourners — many people have been going on the trip for years, and have forged deep friendships with fellow adventurers.

Reading native Mark Cholewa has been participating each year since 2000, and he describes the trip like a reunion. His son used to come along with him, but he couldn’t make it this year, because of college: “He was extremely bummed.”

Another woman (whose name I didn’t get because we chatted as we kayaked) made a hugely concerted effort to make it to the 2015 Sojourn. She’d missed the trip for the past two years because she was taking care of her sick father, and though her father had just died so the timing was inconvenient, she’d promised her kayakmates that she’d return.

Return she did, and in impressive fashion: She was riding an white water kayak — the better to surf those rapids (especially Kelly’s Rapids in Reading). Much shorter than a recreational or fishing kayak, white water boats are more maneuverable, but much less streamlined. For every one stroke I made with my paddle, she had to make two. “It’s really good for the stomach muscles!” she shouted across to me, only slightly out of breath.

Concierge kayaking

Though the Schuylkill gathering is one of the largest these days, sojourns are hosted annually on rivers all across the region. They provide the best of both worlds — an outdoor adventure during which all your meals are catered.

“This is concierge kayaking,” said Marc Wexler, a Sojourn lifer from Northeast Philly. “You should subtitle your article: ‘How I learned to love port-a-potties.’”

Unlike a DIY kayak trip, participants who register for the Sojourn ($550 for the week or $85 for a day) are treated to plenty of relative luxuries, like those port-a-potties near many of their (pre-vetted) campsites. You don’t even have to lug your own boat around that much, since contracted adventure guides truck the kayaks from one evening’s campsite to the next day’s launch point.

The Schuylkill River Heritage Area also partners with dozens of local canoe and kayak clubs to arrange for breakfast, lunch and dinner to be served each day of the trip. These are no shabby meals, but they taste even better after 10 miles on the water. When we stopped early afternoon for lunch at the Philadelphia Canoe Club — the oldest canoe club in the country — I couldn’t stop eating what I was telling my tablemates was the “best coleslaw of my life.”

Safety guides are also hired to come along on the water, where they maintain pace of the 100-plus boats and advise on how to navigate rapids. Jeremy Quant makes his living as a safety guide and estimates he’s gone on more than 75 sojourns since the late nineties. The 30-year-old Lewisburg native was the only reason I made it through the rapids without taking a swim, since he was standing waist deep at the main rock and shouting directions at us as we passed by single file. “Paddle left! Go left, now! Left! I said left!”

Tandeming tests friendship

The great majority of folks on the water were in kayaks, but there were also a few duos in canoes. Kayaking, as I discovered recently when I went on a trip with folks from Sly Fox Beer, doesn’t really take that much coordination. There’s plenty of technique you can apply if you’re serious, but just pushing off and moving down river is pretty easy, easier than riding a bike. It’s not as easy for two people to maneuver a canoe — you have to really be in sync.

“Tandeming tests friendship,” confided Gene Miller, a digital marketer who lives in Phoenixville. He went on his first Sojourn last year, and while he enjoyed the trip, it also cost him his best friend. “We did not work well together in the canoe. And afterwards, we basically stopped talking.”

This year, Miller “took a risk” and brought along another buddy, Eagleville resident Jason Dugger. From what I saw of the pair gliding across the water, they harmonized much better.

Another two-person canoe was being paddled by a pair of sisters who were likely in their late fifties. Both were decked out in stylish, large-brimmed hats and generally impressive fashion for a camping trip, but only one had any experience with water adventures. The familial connection helped, though, and the novice sister was able to keep up just fine.

A hundred people

A hundred is both a lot of people and not that many. As the group progressed down the river, it spread pretty wide, with some clustered at the front and some hanging back, taking their time to soak up sun or shoot one another with Super Soakers. But it was always easy to find a place in the middle where you felt a sense of solitude.

I felt especially alone as we came up toward East Falls, because a strong headwind pushed against our progress, and I felt fatigue creep into my shoulders. But a view of the Philadelphia skyline provides a pretty decent boost of adrenaline, and as soon as I glimpsed the Comcast Tower I made a move.

I stroked hard against the wind and pulled forward, arriving at the wide mouth in front of the Fairmount dam with the front of the pack. Before paddling over to Boathouse Row to clamber out for the day, I floated in place, taking in the awesome vista of Philadelphia from an angle I’d never seen before. It was a good day on the river.

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