Mike McCrea, Tyler McCrea, Cooper McCrea, Diane Hollingsworth, Jeff Schmidt, Barbara Schmidt, Dave Maneval, Anita Wright, Frank Rochowiak, Mary Beth Rochowiak, Zach Rochowiak, Rebecca Rochowiak, Ebet Chee, Ruth Woollett, Leo Woollett, Haley Woollett, Vic Chenowith, Theresa Alexander, Patty Hale, Laura Totis, Ursa Totis, Frank Weichold, Anna Weichold, Lena Weichold, Dave Warner, Charlie Vestal, Joel Beckwith, Jane Michalski, Tom Wilhelm, Lauren Wilhelm, Nikki Wilhelm, Bob Wilhelm, Kara Brown, Kevin Finch, David Hone, Dorothy Hone, Ann Jerse, Joe Steiner, Pam Gunter, Mark Kaufman, Jean Kaufman, Damien Kaufman, Gavin Kaufman, Leslie ______, Dan Gillespie, Ian Gillespie
Take 46 paddlers, add 25 canoes and kayaks, throw in three days of rain and you have the makings of a classic Duckhead trip.
One task on this outing was to have volunteer testers paddle a few solo/tandem canoes for review, and to test a selection of custom paddles as well. We had booked both island sites at Trap Pond State Park the requisite seven months in advance for use as Duckhead central, with other folks clustered close by at the walk-in sites, C & D loops and even a few cabin and yurt rentals.
Arriving solo Thursday noon with a van full of equipment and supplies I used a portage cart to wheel the three test canoes to the site, loading each one with copious amounts of gear before rolling away. Easy as pie, three trips and done. Tent up, parawing erected and hammock strung I paddled down the lake to check the outlet gauge for a possible run of James Branch, perhaps the best small stream in Delaware. This tiny cypress creek run needs at least 1.10 on the gauge. I found two feet on the gauge, and knew there was lots more rain in the forecast - yippee!
Arriving back at camp I am greeted by Dave & Anita, come north from Florida to swamp paddle. Coals to Newcastle, eh? Convincing Dave that a quick run of James Branch was in order we were soon portaging the Trap Pond dam and heading off into the wilds of southern Delaware. Two feet is as high as I've ever paddled James Branch, and the tight turns, incredibly narrow width and view-blocking foliage across the stream made things exciting at times; you don't really want to slam through the green curtain without knowing if a strainer lurks on the far side. We were fortunate that only three through-the-swamp portages were necessary, being able to limbo under, speed bump over or full-speed-ahead crash through the other obstructions.
There were a couple of dicey moments; I made several too tight attempts to limbo under one log only to hang up on the back of my PFD. Of course, by the time my PFD caught on the log most of the boat - and most of me - were already on the far side of the obstruction. Taking off the PFD just when a swim appears inevitable seemed counterintuitive...but it worked. Trickiest of all were the masses of sweeper branches hung over the water, obscuring the view ahead, shedding water as we forced our way through and generally beating us about the head and neck. Lots of low slung Holly trees along this little stream. Ouch.
Back at camp Dave and Anita produced the bushels of clams and oysters that had brought along (more coals to Newcastle) and we settled in to await the evening's lunar eclipse. While we waited a thickening cover of clouds moved in and the effect of the eclipse was simply that dark got darker. But still not rainy, Dave and I elected to undertake a pitch-black night paddle up into the Trap feeder stream towards Raccoon Pond. We dillied, we dallied, we dawdled, paddling slowly and silently until we reached a consensus height of navigability before turning about to dilly, dally and dawdle our way back to camp. As we neared camp Dave remarked that the eclipse must have been ending, as the sky was somewhat brighter. When we began to heard songbirds singing we realized the actual cause of the phenomenon was a daily event known as "dawn"
Friday morning we slept in. I can't imagine why. Arising at the crack of noon to a socked in rainy day we hit the Eagle Diner in nearby Seaford for coffee and breakfast (and warmth and dry too). Back at camp our compatriots were beginning to arrive and we commenced with 48 hours of almost nonstop test paddling of canoes and custom sticks. Dave Werner wins the volunteer reviewer of the year award hands down for his devotion to paddling every canoe, in every configuration, with every paddle. It was almost as though he was enjoying himself.
The test paddling logistics were such that I was reduced to standing by the island launch area, equipping and re-equipping testers with different boats and paddles and collecting their completed score sheets between runs. The favorite canoes and paddles were quickly apparent, as they were most sought after, eagerly awaited and passed from hand to hand without pause. This product review business can be darned fun. At one point I counted 18 canoes and kayaks drawn up on the island and dozens of paddles stacked against the trees, not to mention two tents, a parawing, a Kelty Sunshade and various other sundry bits of camplife creature comforts scattered about. Love those island sites at Trap.
Friday night saw us a divided Duckhead nation; some folks under the wing on the island, some hanging out at other sites and Charlie having somehow gathered all of the single women at his warm, dry cabin. He's smarter than he looks, Charlie is. Saturday was the same, only more so. Folks still arriving, test boats and paddles in constant use, rain not abating and Duckheads scattered far and wide throughout the swamp. Saturday night saw a more concentrated core of Duckhead regulars gathered around the fire, attempting to play Botticelli until the call for another stealth night paddle was given. Feeling that a more reasonable return hour was in order we dawdled less and were back at camp before dawn. 4:00am isn't dawn...it's close, but it's still plenty dark at four.
Sunday saw a bit more test paddling, and a lot of packing up wet tents, tarps and gear. The James Branch gauge, which had climbed to 2.5 feet the day before had settled back to a more comfortable 2.2, and Vic & Joel elected to tackle a quick, high water run, with Vic unable to resist taking the plunge over the Trap Pond dam runout. I should note that Joel is the only person I paddle with, the only person I know...OK, the only person in the whole damn world I would even consider sending down a tight, fast stream in an ultra lightweight kevlar foam core Malecite loaner canoe worth two grand. And that "no one else" includes me. OK, maybe especially me.
While Vic and Joel beat their way through the James Branch branches and the rest of our crew battled their way west through the Bay Bridge traffic another die hard group consisting of Patty, Theresa and I enjoyed a slow and easy daytime trip up the Trap feeder stream, navigating the flooded swamp by the simple methodology of following the greatest current upstream before returning to face the westbound traffic ourselves. And so another Duckhead trip drew to a close. Everything's better when wet.