Heavy rain in the morning, thunderstorms in the afternoon. The forecast for April 20 was not encouraging, but my kayak trip with the Sly Fox folks was still a go. “The SRT Spree is a rain or shine event!” the organizers cheerily confirmed via Facebook.
So, despite Monday morning’s gloom, I set out at 6:30 a.m. and navigated my Zipcar through the eternal traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway. An hour and a half later, I arrived at a pastoral oasis on the Schuylkill River called the Lock 60 Recreation Area. The spot is home to the only operating lock on the waterway — something I would get to experience up close later that day — and it’s also a stone’s throw from Phoenixville, home to the Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery.
Sly Fox’s other location, in Pottstown, is also on the Schuylkill River, and that double proximity was the inspiration for a new seasonal beer. Making its official debut on Earth Day, SRT Ale is a crisp, sessionable American Pale Ale. Its relatively low 4.6% ABV makes it a good beer for beach days or camping trips — appropriate, because a portion of the proceeds from sales will be donated to help improve and maintain the Schuylkill River Trail.
As we piled into a shuttle van to Riverfront Park, where the day’s 18-mile kayak trip would begin, brewmaster Brian O’Reilly explained SRT’s origin story. “We’ve been brewing a spring beer for charity for several years, but it wasn’t for a local cause. Last year we decided to dedicate our efforts to something closer to home.” A native of New Hampshire, O’Reilly is an avid outdoorsman, as is Sly Fox brand ambassador Corey Reid. Doing something to further outdoor activity and benefit the land right near their breweries seemed like a win for all involved.
And the Schuylkill River Trail can use the help.
The part familiar to Philadelphians — Kelly Drive and the Schuylkill Banks — is just a small portion of the 128-mile route. It starts in Pottsville (the Schuylkill County town that also happens to be home to Yuengling), and follows the river through Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties before snaking through Fairmount Park to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where it meets the Delaware. Once a major transportation byway with rail lines flanking the river banks, the commerce route was made obsolete by the highway, and much of the remaining infrastructure has been repurposed for recreational use.
So far, only around 60 miles of the trail have been finished to the point where they’re suitable for bicycling, but there are plans to complete the entire thing. It’s not an easy project, because the maintenance and advocacy of the different segments are overseen by up to 60 different associations. Even if general goals are similar, attempts to achieve forward momentum with that many groups can snarl as quickly as fly fisherman’s line in a plastic six-pack holder.
“We almost didn’t think the idea would work,” said Sly Fox director of sales Patrick Mullin, as he handed me a pre-trip breakfast beer. Sly Fox eventually discovered the Schuylkill River Greenway Association. The umbrella organization working to promote the entire Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area, it was the perfect funnel for the donated funds. The money would not only be used to help connect and finish the bike paths, but also for clean-ups — sorely needed, thanks to exponentially increasing recreational usage.
Sly Fox managing partner John Giannopolous thought up the beer’s name, and O’Reilly began perfecting his brew recipe. Meanwhile, Reid began planning a multi-day launch party/adventure to introduce the new beer and its mission.
He came up with the SRT Spree, a six-day journey spanning the entire length of the trail. Each day would take participants further down the trail via various methods — bike, horse, kayak, hike, run — and include a scheduled clean-up (except for one that had to be cancelled because the municipality involved mandated a special pre-paid permit), plus a tapping of SRT at an area bar.
Reid and adventure planner Doug Chapman were already seasoned veterans thanks to their previous 72 hours of activity by the time I joined the fun. I, on the other hand, hadn’t set foot in a kayak for around a decade. I was nervous. I shouldn’t have been.
Within two minutes of shoving off, I remembered that kayaking is not only easy, it’s incredibly fun. Anyone looking to try it should check out the Meetup Group for Take It Outdoors, Chapman’s adventure company. He holds a weekly evening kayak trip (free if you have your own boat, and only $25 if you don’t), and also helps organize larger events, like the Spree and the annual Schuylkill Sojourn. Coming up on its 17th year, the June 6 event will see nearly a hundred kayaks paddling down the river.
I also quickly remembered that kayaking is wet. The rain had begun to let up, but stroking a paddle back and forth tosses plenty of water in with your legs. At least it does if you’re not an expert. However you don’t need to be an expert — if you mess up while kayaking on a smooth river like the Schuylkill, the worst that happens is you play friendly bumper boats with the person in front of you.
Or, you get stuck in the shallows, like I did after I asked Chapman to show me the proper way to hold a paddle and didn’t notice the slight current was dragging me toward a center island.
At least I didn’t get stuck in the river that meanders next to the Limerick nuclear power plant. “If we touch the water here will we turn green?” someone joked as the two cooling towers loomed overhead. The answer is no (probably not, anyway). The Schuylkill is less polluted than ever before — certainly better than in 1892, when there was always a thin scum of oil across the top. It led to catastrophe one November when a young man in a rowboat lit his pipe and then carelessly tossed a match overboard, causing a huge fire.
A 1949 article in the Saturday Evening Post titled “They’re Cleaning Up Pennsylvania’s Foulest River” details the desilting of the waterway, which had become unnavigably thick with runoffs from coal plants. Over the course of five or so years, more than 40 million tons of silt and other solids were dredged by state and federal workers. “Nothing like [this] has ever been done before in this country,” wrote journalist Bill Wolf. The $55 million effort marked a shift in the national attitude toward industrialism, foreshadowing the culture of environmentalism that would announce itself prominently on April 22, 1970 — the first Earth Day.
One side effect of the desilting process was that the canals alongside the river were mostly filled in. These canals — together known as the Schuylkill Navigation — originally comprised a critical coal commerce route, but by the 1920s were used for recreational boating. Only two watered stretches of canal remain. One of these is in Manayunk, as any Main Street partier would know, and the other is Oakes Reach, the canal behind Lock 60.
Around 3:30 pm, six hours and 18 miles after our trip began, the SRT Spree approached the head of Oakes Reach, which is right next to the Black Rock Dam. Our guides herded us into a single-file line and we made our way along the treeline to avoid being pulled over the falls. (Going over could result in fatal injury — you definitely don’t want to kayak on the river without a guide unless you know your way.)
Then, we all piled into the holding area of the lock. Lock 60 was restored to working order in 2005 by the Schuylkill Canal Association, and the man in charge of running it is locktender Dan Daley. He lives in the restored locktender’s house and opens and closes the lock — but only on special occasions.
Wearing his signature kilt and sporting long grey hair that curled around his shoulders, he cracked open the gate to even the water levels between the lock’s two tiers. He shouted to the kayakers assembled below like a mass of minnows. “How much are you going to pay me to open this all the way?” Offers of free beer were made, and after no small a negotiation, he wrenched open the massive wooden doors.
Boats poured into the canal. One by one, we paddled up to the dock and did our best to roll out without falling into the water (some made it, some — like Sly Fox partner John Giannopolous — were not so lucky). Contrary to all weather reports, the thunderstorms had held off and the skies were bright blue.
Spree participants bicycled over to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the opening of a key section of the Schuylkill River Trail (it connects the 26-mile Philly to Phoenixville portion to paths further west). That milestone accomplished, they returned to Lock 60 to host a 5K run, all proceeds of which were donated to the SRT cause.
It was enough activity for one day for me, though. I jumped in my car and drove wistfully back to the city, happy to be slightly sunburned but uncharacteristically sad to be returning to the concrete jungle. But then I remembered I could easily return, that any of the imminent spring and summer weekends could present another glorious Schuylkill River Trail adventure — ideally enhanced by a few cans of SRT Ale.