Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Paddling through the Venice of New Jersey

The Rahway River winds lazily through Cranford, inspiring the town's nickname, the Venice of New Jersey. Luckily, it's too shallow for motored navigation, leaving it the domain of rowers, intrepid and not so much. Back in the day, Cranford residents enjoyed many river festivals, with pageants of intricately-decorated rafts floating downstream. The Rahway also had a major influence on local architecture: many of the Victorian-era homes in the northern part of town show prettier faces on the river side than they do to the streets in front of them.

Boathouses for several canoe clubs once dotted the banks, but today, things are a lot quieter on the Rahway, with just one clubhouse still in operation and renting canoes and kayaks to the public. Ivan and I capitalized on one of this summer's overcast and hot Sunday mornings to venture onto the river.

The route runs through what's probably the curviest part of the river in town, which means that you float under two roads and a total of five bridges from your start on Springfield Avenue to the part of the river near Nomahegan Park where it gets too shallow to row. In between, you get the feeling of being in a much smaller, less densely populated town than you experience by driving through. More than a few of the backyards have small docks or patios directly on the river and overturned canoes on the lawn, waiting for their next adventure. I wished I'd lived there when I was a kid: I'd have probably driven my parents crazy, pleading for a boat of my own.

I'd done the paddle once before with a friend who grew up in town and knew the ins and outs of the river, but that was several years ago and there were far more people out canoeing. In fact, if memory serves, we also ran into one or two kayakers with rods and reels, trying their luck after the state stocked the river. This more recent trip was much more sedate, with only a few other rowers out there.

For intrepid rowers, this is a walk in the park -- no real discernible current, no rapids, just a gentle trip helped along by an occasional paddle. For those who aren't as skilled, there are more than a couple of hazards to make it interesting, mostly caused by rogue tree branches spanning portions of the river. While we were keeping our eyes and ears trained for birds and other wildlife, we had to keep on our toes as not to head straight into a branch. Our biggest challenge was a slalom of sorts, with a large branch hanging low across most of the width of the river at one point, followed by a shorter but still substantial branch coming across the other side just a few yards down. We navigated the course successfully on the way out, but the way back was a little more challenging, with the front end of the canoe grounding against the bank and me with my face squarely in a nice bit of greenery. What is it that they say about 'leaves of three'? Who the heck gets a poison ivy rash from canoeing?

Many naturalists wouldn't have much hope for interesting encounters on a suburban paddle, but we either saw or heard about a dozen bird species. I was a little disappointed not to see any herons or egrets, particularly my favorite, the black-crowned night heron, but we did see three turtles resting on an old log, and some fish swimming about in shallower waters. We even saw a young deer browsing the brush at the edge of somebody's backyard.

Verdict? If you've got a hankering to get out on the water and you can't make the drive out to less populated spots, the Rahway in Cranford is your ticket. You can even take public transportation to get there: the canoe club is a quick, half-mile walk from the NJ Transit station. Just be careful getting your kayak onto the train.

By the way, it wasn't poison ivy, after all, but it didn't hurt to take some precautions when I got home.

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