The Tidal Treadmill: Canoeing the Mispillion River, Delaware

DSC_0345(State #15/50) To be fair, it wasn’t all Delaware’s fault. I’ll shoulder some of the blame — I had picked the river for Delaware based upon only a satellite image. The mouth of Mispillion is a lazy wide river, flowing though marsh land on the way to Delaware Bay and the ocean. It appeared remote and wild for the state. “We don’t float that one,” said a local outfitter. “It’s pretty buggy.” I remained defiant, hellbent on floating the one I picked verses normal options. I won’t go as far to say it was a successful failure, but perhaps I should have heeded the local advice.

DSC_0320I arrived at the peninsular outpost of DuPont Nature Center near the mouth of the river. The center was shut for the day and all the homes nearby were abandoned, burnt out or still shut up for the winter. Birds of a dozen species patrolled the water, sky and distant sand beach by the thousands. Tiny biting gnats wasted no time in proving the guide right. I put on my rain jacket, shemagh and bug spray before searching for a put-in.

DSC_0314Near the center I found water lapping gently against busted concrete, old wooden piers and mangled rebar. Further down I found a public access point that required a permit for all watercraft to launch. The third option was a little dirt road to the sea. It was on the fringe of a home, but there were no posted signs. I drove down to the water, around pothole puddles and thick mud. I found another fallen pier amongst more rebar and rubble, covered in barnacles and a clam colony. The muscles hissed and spit water as I surveyed the launch. With the low tide, there was a gentle bank of sediment, which I stepped onto and sunk down to my boot tops in black, stinking mud, nearly dropping the canoe teetering on my shoulders. A good start.

Not knowing if I was on private property, I milled about my car, waiting for someone to drive up and yell at me. But, no one came so I made the decision, loaded up and paddled away from the broken dock as a red sun dipped into the salt marsh horizon.

DSC_0337The gnats continued to harass as I steered Rider around the point past 30 cormorants sitting atop piers, all silhouetted against a backdrop of warm colors. Heading up the river I found patches of sand, which seemed inviting enough for a campsite, yet all had state posted warnings to stay off the beach. Further on, I found the source of a racket I had heard since arriving on the peninsula. Thousands upon thousands of shore birds swarmed a sandbank, washed out by the Mispillion. The calls and the milling thousands were dizzying. I wasn’t about to get near their beach, lest they turn their energy towards me and devour me like piranhas (clearly, there are gaps in my knowledge of seabird behavior).

DSC_0351Beyond the teeming sand banks was the meandering river, flanked, entirely, by a monoculture of salt marsh grasses and associated biting insects. With no where to camp, and the sunset colors fading to darker cool hues, I reversed course and paddled back to the car. I made an unglamorous campsite in the parking lot, near the dock and nature center. Directly above, bright stars shown, but the horizon in all directions was even-spread patches of light pollution. I saw the bright lights of giant tankers out on the bay and, beyond, the lights of New Jersey. Above, I watched a single shooting star streak the sky, the first I can recall since canoeing the Brazos with my Dad.

DSC_0395I awoke at 5 a.m. I worried about getting scolded for my campsite, so I emerged from the tent to watch the sun rise over the swaying tall grass and Delaware Bay. There is merit, sometimes, in rising with the sun I decided. I broke down the tent and boiled water for coffee and oatmeal on my malfunction stove, which was flaming up big and liable to singe off the beard I was fighting so hard to grow.


A Black Skimmer, not a skinny puffin

The tide was rolling out again and the little muddy bay where I wanted to put my boat in was rapidly becoming a mudflat. I scrambled and was on the water before 6 a.m. Paddling into the main channel, I canoed upon the tidal treadmill of the Mispillion River. I spent over an hour canoeing a mile and a half, which would have been 6 miles on flat water. I nearly turned around, but then saw a bald eagle, hundreds of yards upstream, perched on a dead tree. I continued the hard-fought paddle until he flew away to a tree line of pines behind. I turned around, pulled out a notebook and wrote. My canoe drifted seaward with the tide and I paused my writing, every few minutes, to point the bow in the right direction. But, for the most part, it was the river’s job to take me back.

DSC_0420Passing the sandbar again, 4 biologists had joined the 10s of thousands squawking, peeping and calling shore birds. A few sat in chairs on shore and another 2 were anchored in a Johnboat. All sat motionless, faces hidden behind large telephoto lenses. Beneath the birds, on the beach, were hundreds of spawning horseshoe crabs — nearly too much nature to handle.

DSC_0468 (1)Back at my car, the once empty parking lot now swarmed with gray-haired birders draped in baggy safari costumes. Long lensed cameras dangled from their necks. I’d say they looked ridiculous, but I had little room to comment — still dressed in long pants tucked into muddy rubber boots, a raincoat to thwart the bitting insects and a wrinkled hat above my sun-reddened face and mangy beard. I suppose, other than appearing unwashed, I fit right in with the mob.


Horseshoe Crab

I learned from a number of cheery conversations that most were here to see the Red Knot, a member of the sandpiper family that migrates over 9,000 miles from the arctic to Tierra Del Fuego — one of the longest migrations on the Earth. Both the Knots and myself just happened to reach that same spot in Delaware at the same time in the midst of our long journeys.

Was my Delaware paddle misguided and poorly planned? Absolutely. There were bugs galore, no proper put-in and no good places to camp. But, the paddle was also a stunning sunrise, a chance encounter with a migratory anomalies, live horseshoe crabs, and the coveted opportunity to mingle with birders (a.k.a retired nerds). Yes, the Mispillion was a wild and colorful float, which neither my inept planning or the state of Delaware could ruin.

River Stats and Fun Facts

  • Mispillion River, Delaware
  • Weather: Warm with scant clouds to clear and up to 90 degrees
  • Miles canoed: 4
  • Launch/Takeout Point: DuPont Nature Center (38.945529, -075.31727)
  • Furthest Point Reached: (38.95391, -075.35692)
  • Song Sung on River: True Love, Freedom, Mofro and I’ll Follow the Sun, The Beatles — I hadn’t heard that song in ages until my older Brother, Andy, had played the ‘65 vinyl. “One day, you’ll look to see I’ve gone, but tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun.” I got off the water by 10:30, already getting hot, summer hot. It reached 90 that day. How appropriate it was that I’d sing that song, because it was the last summer-like day for nearly a month. Rain was a’coming.
  • Thanks to the all friendly staff at DuPont Nature Center for info regarding the birds, crabs and river!
  • Delicious local restaurant: King’s Homemade Ice Cream Shop down in Lewes (where my sister-in-law, Gulya, worked in the first summer she came to America)
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: red knot, ruddy turnstone, black skimmers, osprey, bald eagle, cormorant, red winged blackbird, gulls, willet, sandpiper, great blue heron and many more unidentified shore/seabirds
  • Reptiles: Diamondback Terrapin (turtle)
  • Noted Species: Red Knot, Horseshoe crabs (spawning!)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Pines and saltwater grasses
  • Ecoregion: Middle Atlantic Coastal Plains, (63a) Delaware River Terraces and uplands
  • Current Threats: Rising Sea level due to climate change (saltwater intrusion)
  • Trash collected: plastic bottles, cans, a bucket
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4 Responses to The Tidal Treadmill: Canoeing the Mispillion River, Delaware

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fabulous pics and do enjoyed the story!

  2. Bruce Leathwood says:

    I have really enjoyed reading your blog since you came to visit us here in DC at American Rivers. Sounds like you are having a great trip. The photos for this entry are amazing! Thanks for all you are doing to raise money for American Rivers, how is the fundraising going?

    • Eric says:

      Thanks Bruce! I’m hoping to get caught up over the next month so my posts will be closer to real time. Fundraising has been steady, but I’m a bit behind where I’d like to be so I need to make a mid-trip fundraising push, so please email me any tips or ideas (versus just strong-arming friends and family, which, of course, I will do haha).

      • Bruce Leathwood says:

        You are a great story teller — tell the story about your visit here maybe as a way to introduce the fundraising into your blog. Or, if you find something inspiring along the way like something particularly beautiful that is representative of our great US rivers and why you think preserving them is so important. Or maybe a particularly trashy river or an unusual piece of trash that symbolizes why a gift to AR might be helpful. Really, just a few gentle reminders that one of your goals in this is to fundraise; remind people every so often and they will give. Thanks for what you are doing by the way.

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