My brother Jim and I lift the kayaks from atop his van and carry them over toward the Brandywine. To say that I lack any kayaking experience isn’t entirely true; I have watched a few Arctic kayaking expeditions on The Discovery Channel and consider myself almost an expert. We set the kayaks down on the riverbank and as I walk back to get the paddles, Jim tells me that I can leave the harpoon inside the van.
I return, we put the kayaks into the water, get in, use our paddles to push off from the bank, and we’re off!
Our starting point is at the Brandywine River Museum—an appropriate place to begin. The beauty of this area is well represented by the artwork inside. Outside, these grounds are a testament to the Brandywine Conservancy, a group of local citizens who helped permanently preserve more than 32,000 acres of the Brandywine River watershed in the late 1960s.
It is a beautiful fall day. The air is cool and crisp; the sunlight is angled and sharp. On either side of the river, lining the banks, are trees whose leaves are turning yellow, orange, red, and gold. Some of these colorful leaves have fallen and float by; I reach down with my hand and grab one—the water temperature feels much colder than I expect. In the distance, sunlight reflects off the water, sparkling like liquid diamonds.
Today, the Internet and cell phones connect us, but at one time rivers and roads did the job. Rivers came first. We lived near them, drank their water, fished, farmed, traveled, and traded. The first civilization began along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The ancient pharaohs ruled along the Nile. Rivers have always been important. They still are.
It was no accident that the first European settlement in this area was where the Brandywine and Christina Rivers converge. Of course, when the Swedes and Finns arrived and began to build log cabins northward up the Brandywine, there was someone already here. The Leni Lenape lived along the river in wigwams, farmed along the banks, and fished the river for shad.
The Lenape paddled the Brandywine in dugout or elm bark canoes. The women wore their hair in two long braids; the men wore theirs Mohawk-style, but sometimes shaved half their head and let the hair on the other side grow long. They painted their faces colorfully and sported animal tattoos.
The kayak comes from the Aleut and Inuit peoples of the Northern Hemisphere; the word means “hunter’s boat.” These kayaks were made from the bones of animals or from pieces of wood; animal skin was then stretched over the frame and treated with fat to keep the kayak waterproof. Today, the kayak has become the boat of choice for many recreational boaters. Made from lightweight, modern materials, it is very maneuverable, comfortable, and can be easily controlled by one person.
Startled, a great blue heron with a snake in its mouth lifts off and flys down the stream. Above us, a kingfisher twitters on an overhanging branch. The shad are long gone, but beneath us swim other fish, some easily over a foot long. I wouldn’t drink it, but the water looks clean. In the shallow areas, you can see the shell remnants of freshwater mussels.
Directly in front of us a small chipmunk doggy paddles across the water. I don’t know which of us looks more surprised as we nearly collide: the chipmunk, or the two humans. Ecological etiquette rules that we humans yield the right-of-way and our furry friend swims on, heading for the opposite bank.
The Nile is 4,145 miles long; the combined Mississippi-Missouri rivers are over 3,000 miles; the Brandywine only 17. It originates from the East Branch and West Branch, which arise in western Chester County and join together 10 miles south of Coatesville, to form the Brandywine. Maybe because of its small size, the Brandywine is often called a creek, but most maps designate it as the Brandywine River. The Lower Brandywine is a designated Pennsylvania Scenic River. It enters the northern portion of Delaware approximately five miles above Wilmington, and eventually empties into the Delaware River and Bay.
Paddling a kayak is easy. You alternate strokes from side to side, occasionally holding the paddle underwater like a guiding rudder and just flowing with the current. The water isn’t very deep; thrillseekers kayaking on the Brandywine will be disappointed—there are no death-defying whitewater rapids. The water flows along at a quiet, gentle pace, moving like an old dog just glad to be alive.
We float under a bridge and quietly emerge on the other side. Conversation ceases. The only sounds are an occasional bird, rustling leaves, and the rhythmic strokes of the paddles as they dip into and out of the water. On one paddle is written the word adventure, and on the other, harmony. The lyrics of a Beatles song play inside my head … turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.
As we cruise, I”m also taking photographs. Carefully. Kayaks are easy to flip and I don’t want to ruin my camera. I see a mid-size rock poking out downstream. Shouldn’t be a problem; I”m a much better kayaker than when I started out about an hour ago. I should be able to maneuver around the rock easily as I approach it. No problem at all. In fact, I feel this way the second I crash directly into it.
A direct hit! Now, I”m lodged onto the rock and stuck. I”ll just reach over with my paddle and push off. I reach over probably a little further than I should have. By the way, did I mention that kayaks flip easily?
I distinctly realize three things:
I”m soggy, wet, and miserable. My kayak is filled with water. I head towards shore, get out, and dump the water out. Two soggy granolas bars float by downstream. Wet sand and gravel are inside my shoes and even my underwear.
Our journey ends at the Smith’s covered bridge on Smith’s Bridge Road. In 1957, there were 17 covered bridges in this area, many of which crossed the Brandywine. Several have been lost to fire, accident, or disrepair, and only a few remain.
We haul our kayaks out of the water, chain them to a tree, and begin our trek back toward the van. We walk along a wooded path on the riverbank. Above us, honking Canada Geese fly in V-shaped formation. Under our feet, the crunching of autumn leaves.
Despite its small size, the Brandywine River played an important role in our nation’s war for independence. It helped start the economic engine of this new nation with its water-powered grain and paper mills, and later the black powder mills that became the DuPont Company. The natural beauty of the Brandywine River and Valley has inspired artists like Howard Pyle and three generations of Wyeths.
The Battle of the Brandywine, in the summer of 1777, was the largest land battle of the Revolutionary War. British redcoats outflanked George Washington and his Continental army and won the battle, marching onward and taking Philadelphia. Many people know this story—few know the story of what nearly happened to Washington along the Brandywine just a few days earlier.
Major Patrick Ferguson, a British army officer from Scotland and an expert sniper, peered from the bushes; in his rifle’s sights was a tall Continental officer dressed in a distinctive blue uniform. Incredibly, only one other man accompanied this Continental officer. They were surveying the landscape, preparing for the invading British army. It is believed that the man in blue was George Washington. The sniper had a clear shot; he could have dropped the man easily. However, the officer’s back was turned, the British Major was a gentleman, and he withheld his fire.