Packrafting the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia, May 2017

This was the most amazing thing I have done in Philadelphia, maybe ever! I’ll include specifics in case anyone wants to do this trip. I kind of want to go to other cities and do this- floating on a river in the middle of a bustling city on a beautiful day with my brother. My little brother, I am proud to say, is an Ohio-based journalist and outdoorsman and wrote this article about a packrafting/biking trip he took last fall. Being in the water, of course, is a new perspective on any city, even one that I think I know so well. And it is peaceful and fascinating as you float downstream looking at the urban landscape and the natural world,  invisible from the roads and buildings, tucked in along the riverbank and along the roads and bridges. Here’s a little turtle and its reflection in the center below:

What is a pack raft? The American Packrafting Association would be glad to tell you about it! Here’s another link about the history of this portable, strong, flexible form of water travel. It’s basically an inflatable kayak. Clearly I’m smitten. Here is what my brother’s packraft looked like in my dining room:

It rolls up to the size of a tent, weighs only five pounds, and inflates easily with a cleverly designed fill bag. The fill bag fills with air at one end then has a rolltop closure that traps the air and pushes it into the raft through a valve at the other end. It inflates quickly and easily this way. 

We rafted from the Art Museum to Bartram’s Gardens, both excellent places to visit in Philadelphia. We began by parking ($15 flat rate until midnight, not bad) in a surface lot in front of the Art Museum and its famous Rocky steps and we walked to the riverside park there- Schuylkill River Park. Look how portable the gear is! We were just downstream from a waterfall called Fairmount Dam- apparently there are eight such Falls on the river near downtown but we were able to raft for several hours without encountering any of them. Below the skateboard area of the riverside park, we went down to the river and found a flat spot to inflate the rafts and launch. Minutes later we were floating downstream admiring the views. 

We tried to figure out a launch site from the internet beforehand, and we read about one at Locust Street but I expected parking to be a problem there. Also, we wanted to start further upstream than Locust for the skyline views and the bridges. As we passed that area, the launch appeared to have a locked fence, so it doesn’t seem to be a public option. We merrily floated along on a cool, sunny day along interstate 76, under the 676 bridge, and past several large construction projects next to the river. 

Our route took us downstream, but the current was not strong and we felt we could have gone the opposite direction as well. The launch at Bartram’s Garden is public and I believe parking is free, so that may appeal to some as a starting point. 

We went under the Walnut street bridge (above), and had a nice perspective on the skyline and 30th Street Station (below). It was so quiet and peaceful there on the river. We saw only one motorized boat, a small city of Philadelphia boat going upstream. We also passed one kayaker near the end of our trip who was paddling upstream and gave us a wave. Overall, it was about 8 miles and 2.5 hours. Here is a link my brother found later that describes our journey. We put in near the Fairmount Dam near Philadelphia Waterworks (and the Art Museum as I mentioned) and we took the rafts out at Bartram’s Gardens Boat Launch

We paddled and floated down the river and eventually came to our take-out point. One could continue and reach the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, but I’m not sure of the conditions there. We passed this iron bridge just before reaching Bartram’s. 

We deflated the rafts, took apart the paddles, and packed everything into our backpacks. It was maybe a half-mile walk up through the fields and small parking lot of Bartram’s up to the fairly busy Lindbergh Boulevard. There we caught the #36 trolley back downtown. We got off at 19th and Market and walked about a mile back to the car. We also could have taken a cab, but it was such a beautiful day and we liked the idea of taking the streetcar and walking. I just loved the portability of the rafts; I couldn’t believe we went from river to trolley. It was also fun to notice that when the #36 went underground, we actually went under the same waterway we had just rafted down! Here we are shortly after leaving the banks of the river:

And that was the trip! So awesome! Thanks to Jonathan and to whoever was in charge of the weather that day! And to the “hidden river”, as its name translates from the Dutch, the urban Schuylkill. 


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