Paddle and Pedal
By Cindy Ross
A Pennsylvania troop combines canoeing and bicycling with nature study and conservation on the historic Lehigh River.
From the darkness of the boathouse, Scouts and leaders from Troop 362, Bethlehem, Pa., launch their canoes into the brightness of the placid Lehigh Canal.
After practicing canoeing skills and teamwork in these protected "nursery waters" at Allentown's Canal Park, the nine Scouts and six adults will be ready to head down a four-mile stretch of "metro wilderness" on the Lehigh River to Bethlehem's Sand Island.
The river parallels the historic Lehigh Canal, part of the 150-mile Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor trail, from Wilkes-Barre to Bristol, Pa. Tomorrow, Troop 362 will make the return trip riding bicycles on the canal's well-cared-for towpath.
Fun and learning
The weekend program is provided by the Wildlands Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to land and river preservation and environmental stewardship through education. It features canoeing, bicycling, and educational experiences in conservation and nature study, blending activities from the organization's Bike & Boat and River Rats education-recreation river trips. All equipment (except bedding), including canoes, bikes, helmets, and personal flotation devices (PFDs), is included.
A certified river-safety guide provides water-safety training and canoeing instruction, while an environmental educator coordinates learning experiences designed for each group's specific needs.
For Troop 362's trip, Chuck Shiner fills both roles. Before launching the canoes, he reviews paddling strokes, what to do if someone falls out, what to do when encountering a "strainer" (a tree branch or other obstruction in the water), paddling signals, whistle blasts, and other canoeing skills.
On the river, Shiner demonstrates more advanced strokes, like ruddering with the paddle, easily shown when there is a current. (Most of the trip is through calm, scenic waters, although some sections offer enough gentle riffles to suggest the excitement of navigating a river.)
In the faster water downstream, Shiner shows the Scouts how to do "eddy turns," placing the canoe in a quiet swirl of water (an eddy) behind a river boulder. A good way to rest or wait or check out a rapid ahead, an eddy turn is also a powerful stroke that requires teamwork to overcome the force of the current. The Scouts beam as each boat crew successfully executes the maneuver.
Downstream by canoe
At a lazy spot in the river, the Scouts rest their paddles. Dozens of swallows dive and catch insects in midair. Geese come in for a landing, feet laid back. A great blue heron flaps its huge wings and parts the air.
When the river gets deeper, Shiner tells the Scouts they can jump in for a swim. (During their dip, they continue to wear their PFDs, even though all have passed their swimmer's test, and the location complies with the standards required by the BSA Safe Swim Defense plan.)
Then, it's time to learn a canoe rescue skill. Shiner swamps an empty canoe and demonstrates how to break the "seal" of water holding the hull in the river, empty the water out by turning the canoe over, pulling it up and over another boat, spinning it upright, and sliding it back into the water.
Each team tries the maneuver, welcoming the chance to add one more canoeing skill to its repertoire.
Later in the day, the troop stops at the warehouse where the bicycles for the next day's return ride are stored. Each participant is issued a helmet and assigned a bicycle. In the morning, the bikes will be shuttled to the canoe take-out point.
Next stop is the evening's campsite, on Freemans Island in the middle of a wide section of the river. The Scouts are familiar with the island, which is owned by the conservancy, because they help keep it clean as part of an ongoing service commitment.
"We've sort of adopted it as a troop project," says Scoutmaster Jim Roberts. "It's close to home, so we can come here on a regular basis." He describes how the Scouts, using canoes and a rowboat to haul trash and holding onto a rope stretched across the channel for stability, have ferried 30 tires, an old boat, a shopping cart, and large amounts of other debris to the mainland.
Their overnight camping gear is waiting on the island. It was ferried over separately from the mainland, to allow the Scouts to traverse the river in canoes free of personal gear.
They set up the tents and a dining tarp, then roast cubed ham, potatoes, and vegetables in aluminum foil packs in a charcoal fire. Later, around a bed of glowing coals, the Scouts share their thoughts on the day.
"The rapids were the best," Carl Worsley says. "But even the flat water was fun."
"I liked learning to do the eddy turns," Chris Fraley adds, as many of the other Scouts nod their heads in agreement.
In the morning, as their gear is ferried back to the mainland, the group gathers at the historic locktender's house and the remains of a canal lock. As they wait for the bicycle van, Shiner delivers a colorful history lesson that adds depth and richness to the weekend experience. He describes the Leni-Lenape, the American Indians who once lived in the area; life on the canal during the waterway's heyday; and the coal and steel industries that came later.
When the bicycles arrive, Shiner switches from storyteller to cycling instructor. He offers pointers on safe riding on the canalkeep in single file, pass on the left, announce your presence when you come up from behind...
Everyone is grateful the path is flat, and the seven miles seem to fly by. After working their upper body so hard on the river the previous day, the Scouts are happy that pedaling allows them to stretch their legs.
The boys arrive at their vehicles with big smiles. The canoe and bicycling weekend, with its varied experiences, has maintained their interest and enthusiasm at all timesand given them a double dose of newfound self-confidence.
Cindy Ross lives near Pennsylvania's Lehigh River. Her latest book, Scraping HeavenA Family's Journey Along the Continental Divide (McGraw-Hill), tells of her family's five-year, 3,100-mile crossing of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico, an experience she shared with Scouting's readers in the March-April 1999 issue.
September 2003 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2003 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.