NJ urban kayak trip heading for a river’s elusive source

Five, two-seat kayaks were paddled into the Delaware River from a makeshift floating dock shortly before noon Wednesday. It was the start of a six-day exploration of the nearby Cooper River, an enduring natural wonder iin the midst of a densely populated area near the city of Camden.

Organizers said the goal is to find the source of the river, some 16 miles upstream. The river meanders through 17 communities before it empties into the Delaware River.

“When you get upstream, particularly beyond the (New Jersey) Turnpike and (Interstate) 295, there is very little public access to it,” said Don Baugh, president of the nonprofit Upstream Alliance environmental advocacy group that sponsored the trip. “The opportunity is to show what’s hidden behind people’s backyards. For four days we will kayak, and two days we will hike. We’re going through places that have never been hiked before in 300 or 400 years.”

The Cooper River Valley was settled in the late 1600s and was named for a family that owned large swaths of land in what is now the city of Camden and Camden County. The waterway, which flows through streams, creeks, ponds and a lake, also includes some of the most densely-populated parts in South Jersey, an area with more than 500,000 people. The waterway was also once made up of as much as 40% raw sewage before clean water laws were enacted.

Don Baugh, Upstream Alliance

Don Baugh, president of the Upstream Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, prepares for a six-day kayak tour of the Cooper River in New Jersey on June 22, 2022.

Dan Keashen, a county spokesman, said despite the rich Colonial history of the area, the source of the river has never been accurately mapped. A Google map of the area appears to show the river starting in an elevated area near Blueberry Hill in Gibbsboro, Camden County. Keashen said Baugh’s expedition may help to provide additional answers.

At least three more kayaks and a total of 15 explorers were expected to join Baugh at the start of the trip Wednesday, including four local students and a wildlife photographer from Atlanta who has been published in National Geographic.

Jermaine Brown, 17, a student at Urban Promise Academy in Camden, said he was excited about the adventure, even though he can’t swim.

“My mother thought I was crazy,” Brown said with a smile. “But she came here and realized it was going to be fun. Ella she has high hopes for me, so that’s good. It’s really good.”

Jermaine Brown

Jermaine Brown, a student from Camden, prepares to start a six-day kayak tour of the Cooper River in New Jersey.

Brown said he already works as a summer river guide who takes inner-city kids out in kayaks at Cooper River Park, a section of the river that is actually a lake created by a dam that controls the water level. The park is also a favorite for scholastic and college rowing competitions.

Two other students, Jaycel Santos of Camden and Andrew Coleman of Haddonfield, were also part of the expedition.

Anand Varma, a wildlife photographer who shoots for National Geographic, also joined the group.

“The specialty I focus on for National Geographic is really revealing the unexpected and under appreciated diversity in our world,” Varma said. “And sometimes that takes me to the Amazon or the Arctic, but what initially inspired me was the biodiversity in my backyard in suburban Atlanta, exploring the creeks behind my house and school.

“It’s kind of peeling back the layers, getting past the concrete, garbage and the muck, and if you learn to look with the right eyes, this place is just as beautiful as any place.”

The group plans to travel several miles a day on the river and then camp in tents at an environmental preserve in Cherry Hill each night. The final leg of the trip is expected to be overland, hacking through remote areas near the source of the river.

Anand Varma, a wildlife photographer who shoots for National Geographic

Anand Varma, a wildlife photographer who shoots for National Geographic, prepares for a kayak tour of the Cooper River.

An independent film crew is also documenting the trip and hopes to produce a film for public television. The American Water Charitable Foundation and the New Jersey American Water utility company donated $40,000 to the Upstream Alliance in support of the Search for the Cooper River Expedition and film.

“The goal of this expedition is deeper than just finding the source of a river, it’s meant to serve as a healing opportunity for communities in Camden that historically, have been access to these special waterways, denied recreational opportunities and create overall environmental equity,” Camden County Commissioner Al Dyer said in a statement. “We are thrilled that these local youth will be able to connect with the natural beauty this county has to offer.”

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Bill Duhart may be reached at bduhart@njadvancemedia.com.

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