Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Urban Canoe/Kayak Expedition
A group of 25 colleagues and I explored the freshwater tidal marshes bordering the Christina River in Wilmington, Delaware last Saturday (October 10). The extensive marshes that naturally bordered the river were diked and drained almost as soon as the original Swedish and Dutch settlers arrived in the 18th century; they used the polders for agriculture and pasture.
Then, industry arrived and made use of the riverbanks for commercial purposes, many of which generated incredibly persistent toxins like creosote and PCBs. Now, industry is largely gone from the banks of the river, and various state and local agencies are in the process of reclaiming the marshes and removing or remediating the toxins.
After a rainy start, the day turned out to be mostly sunny and cool (mid-60s)--perfect for canoeing. Autumn was just beginning to show its true colors on the Coastal Plain. We paddled upriver, but the Christina is tidal up to the point that it flows out of the Piedmont and the tide was coming in. So, even though we were going upriver, we were going with the flow.
Our six-mile tour of some of the restored marshes began at the site where Wilmington was founded. The riverfront has been redeveloped with new shopping, eating and entertainment venues--much like nearly all urban riverbanks. This weekend, though, a new facility was added: the DuPont Environmental Education Center, a $17 million, four-story building surrounded by marshes in various stages of restoration. The brand-spanking-new building is not LEED certified--shame on them!
Despite the fact that we were paddling through the heart of the most densely developed portion of Delaware, we rarely saw or heard traffic, except when we crossed under I-95 (twice). In fact, we scared up an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) when we rounded a corner in a narrow passage through a marsh, and saw several Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), Great Egrets (Ardea alba), and Belted Kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon) along the route. My canoe partner and I--usually at the head of our slow-moving group--startled two White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginiana) getting a drink. The trees bordering the marshes and the river were heavily laden with huge flocks of skittish passerines; a better birder than I identified the groups as "80% Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) , and the rest a mixture of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscaula) and European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)."
Most of the marsh restorations were very successful so far. Battling Phragmites australis is always a problem, but Wild-rice (Zizania aquatica [don't you love that generic name?]--the harbinger of successful restoration--was evident and abundant. It was a beautiful, collegial, stress-reducing, and utterly enjoyable afternoon on the water.