15 WITHIN 15: Kayaking the Schuylkill Off Kelly drive

On a mission to do 15 recreational outings within 15 minutes of home, I headed to Kelly Drive for an hour-long kayak session on the Schuylkill.

Looking south down the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, at the approaching Strawberry Mansion Bridge. [Photo: Kyle Bagenstose]

By Kyle Bagenstose

15 minutes.

That’s the driving distance limit being championed for outdoor recreation under the novel coronavirus, by entities such as the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The idea is to stay near home and limit the spread of the disease by decreasing community-to-community infection. But it’s a tough pill to swallow. Those not blessed to be immediately adjacent to their favorite recreational spots might not have much recreational opportunity within a quarter of an hour. I know it’s put my plans on hold: a guys’ trip to the Poconos in early May was cancelled, planned visits to new state parks in northwest and southwest Pennsylvania are delayed, and a goal to visit Acadia National Park by the end of the year is up in the air.

Nevermind my usual trips from Philly to campgrounds like French Creek and trail networks like Hawk Mountain.

But, I’ve decided to give it a go. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to do 15 outdoor activities within 15 minutes (maybe a few extra depending on the red lights!) to see how it feels. I’m trying to approach this with what some call “beginner’s mind.” Looking carefully for nature and taking it slow in places I may have only sped through before. But I also plan to turn it up a notch from time to time: Can I get my vigorous exercise and strenuous accomplishment kicks within 15 minutes of home?

We’ll see.

Activity 3: Kayaking the Schuylkill River

Since purchasing my first kayak a few years back, the free boat launches along Kelly Drive in Philadelphia have been my go-to spot. I’m still very green when it comes to kayaking, putting in at perhaps only about a dozen or so bodies of water. I’ve been a few prettier places, but the Schuylkill River between Conshohocken and the Art Museum is actually a very beautiful and fun place to kayak, particularly when the weather has been dry and the river is running calm and clear.

Saturday was not one of those days, as the river where we put in north of Boat House Row was running high, fast, and muddy. This close to Philadelphia that means the water was carrying visible signs of lots of runoff through the watershed: bottles, trash, and tree branches of various sizes. It also means the water was likely carrying more worrisome, invisible stuff: the aftermath of combined sewer overflows, when sewer systems become overloaded during storms and dump raw contents into waterways.

Obviously being cautious to minimize contact with the water and drippage into the kayaks, we gave it a go anyway, pushing upstream at first to head toward the bridge crossings of East Falls. This was supposed to be a leisurely ‘yak, session, so we didn’t struggle against the current for much more than 40 minutes, then more or less let the current carry us back to our starting point 15 minutes later.

Even with the water conditions less than ideal, a lot of other things went right. Saturday was of course beautiful, with the bright sun and perfect temperatures making it feel like a summer day without the oppressive heat. There was still wildlife too, as we encountered a male wood duck zipping past on at least one occasion. Then came the highlight of the trip, as a red-trailed hawk soared back and forth above the river, treating us to a show that lasted for more than a minute.

We also passed by the Laurel Hill Cemetery, an interesting plot of land that includes intricate hillside mausoleums overlooking the river. It was fun to think about the distant past— who was inside, what their stories were, and if they had connections to the river— as well as my own past, as I first saw the cemetery when I cycled through as an undergrad at Temple.

The experience gave me gratitude for my ability to personally own kayaks and get out on the water, enabling me to see Philadelphia and some of its wildlife in a unique way. While I’m certainly itching to get further afield and expand the list of waterways I’ve explored, this easy hour on the river reminded me of both my own personal blessings and the close-to-home paddling opportunities the city provides.

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