River story

Jet ski the Schuylkill: How to use Philly’s rivers for recreation (even in Center City)

Philadelphia is bordered by two rivers that often feel like they’re not part of the city. The once-prominent industries that lived on them now lie dormant, and riverfront popups like the Spruce Street Harbor Park and Morgan’s Pier have only been around for a couple of years. The rivers might as well be lava. 

Further north, in Bucks County and the far Northeast, that’s not the case. People use jet skis, pontoons, canoes, floats and more on a regular basis. 

The sight of someone speeding through the Schuylkill on a jet ski, next to downtown Philly, is so uncommon it seems like it would be illegal. It’s not. Witness:

Captain Ray Bednarchik, Southeast region supervisor for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said any boat allowed in by state law can traverse the waters of the Schuylkill south of its Rowing Basin (boats with motors must stick to idling speed there).

Plenty of others have taken kayaks and canoes into the Delaware and Schuylkill near downtown Philadelphia. In fact, Allen Crawford kayaked down the Delaware and up the Schuylkill as part of a 40-mile journey in 2011.

Crawford is better known as his pen name, Lord Whimsy. He lives across the Delaware in Mount Holly, and heard stories of how in Depression-era teenagers from his area of South Jersey would take canoes from there to Manayunk, sleeping on the riverbanks at night. They’d do this when industry was thriving, making the waters more dangerous than they are now. Crawford decided that he would undergo the same challenge in a kayak.

“There was a recession going on,” he said. “It was raging, and I had time on my hands. I was in my mid-40s and ripe for a mid-life crisis.”

The journey took three days. He started by leaving from Mount Holly and traveling down a tributary to the Delaware before taking the Delaware south past the Navy Yard and then up the Schuylkill.

Some parts were dangerous: Crawford had to paddle away from a barge or oil tanker every so often. A partially-submerged sycamore tree nearly capsized his boat. And the Navy Yard was kind of scary, from polluted waters to the fact that dozens of old massive boats are just lingering in the water. Of course, he still saw people fishing by the Navy Yard.

“Being down in that muck,” Crawford said, “I would not advise people to eat anything from there.”  

But he mainly enjoyed what was for the most part a serene journey. Crawford saw deer, foxes and skunks on the Philadelphia shoreline and River Ward kids playing in lagoons. In the Navy Yard, despite the difficulty of the area, he paddled next to an old aircraft carrier and touched the side of it (you can view dozens of photos from this leg of the trip and up the Schuylkill here).

Rivers Navy Yard
Allen Crawford via Flickr

These are sights few people get to see because they avoid the rivers.  

“I think the locals who are from the area see the river as much more polluted than it really is,” Crawford said. “I think the people from elsewhere see it as cleaner than it really is. It’s definitely not what it was back in 1975, but it still has a ways to go.”

Crawford ended his trip at Bartram’s Garden, calling the water there “downright idyllic.”

William Reed, owner of Standard Tap in Northern Liberties, hasn’t done anything as extreme as Crawford but often kayaks in the Schuylkill and Delaware. He says with the Schuylkill it’s as easy as walking past the train tracks and the trail and setting the kayak down in the water by Locust Street.  

On the Delaware, he likes that Paddle Penn’s Landing has brought people into the river even though it confines them to the marina. He would recommend Philadelphians check the tides, realize the commercial boating traffic is not excessive and take a boat farther out into the water — at least maybe for next summer. 

“I’d love to see more people do it,” Reed said. “It’s ridiculous they don’t. It’s the same water up there in Bucks County and people are tubing and having fun and somehow people think by the time it gets to Philly it’s polluted and ruined. It’s not the case. It’s a beautiful river.”

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