[ FROM NEW YORK CITY TO CAPE HENLOPEN, DELAWARE ]
PHILADELPHIA TO CAPE HENLOPEN.
DESCENT OF DELAWARE RIVER. -- MY FIRST CAMP. -- BOMBAY HOOK. -- MURDERKILL CREEK. -- A STORM IN DELAWARE BAY. -- CAPSIZING OF THE CANOE. -- A SWIM FOR LIFE. -- THE PERSIMMON GROVE. -- WILLOW GROVE INN. -- THE LIGHTS OF CAPES MAY AND HENLOPEN.
This pull was an exceedingly dreary one. The storms of winter were at hand, and even along the watercourses between Philadelphia and Norfolk, Virginia, thin ice would soon be forming in the shallow coves and creeks. It would be necessary to exert all my energies to get south of Hatteras, which is located on the North Carolina coast in a region of storms and local disturbances. The canoe, though heavily laden, behaved well. I now enjoyed the advantages resulting from the possession of the new canvas deck-cover, which, being fastened by buttons along each gunwale of the canoe, securely covered the boat, so that the occasional swash sent aboard by wicked tug-boats and large schooners did not annoy me or wet my precious cargo.
By two o'clock P. M. the rain and wind caused me to seek shelter at Mr. J. C. Beach's cottage, at Markus Hook, some twenty miles below Philadelphia, and on the same side of the river. While Mr. Beach was varnishing the little craft, crowds of people came to feel of the canoe, giving it the usual punching with their finger-nails, "to see if it were truly paper." A young Methodist minister with his pretty wife came also to satisfy their curiosity on the paper question, but the dominie offered me not a word of encouragement in my undertaking. He shook his head and whispered to his wife: "A wild, wild enterprise indeed." Markus Hook derived its name from Markee, an Indian chief, who sold it to the civilized white man for four barrels of whiskey.
The next morning, in a dense fog, I followed the shores of the river, crossing the Pennsylvania and Delaware boundary line half a mile below the "Hook;" and entered Delaware, the little state of three counties. Thirty-five miles below, the water becomes salt. Reaching New Castle, which contained half its present number of inhabitants before Philadelphia was founded, I pulled across to the New Jersey side of the river and skirted the marshy shore past the little Pea Patch Island, upon which rises in sullen dreariness Fort Delaware. West of the Island is Delaware City, where the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, fourteen miles in length, has one of its termini, the other being on a river which empties into Chesapeake Bay. Philadelphia and Baltimore steamboat lines utilize this canal in the passage of their boats from one city to the other.
After crossing Salem Cove, and passing its southern point, Elsinborough, five miles and a half below Fort Delaware, the inhospitable marshes became wide and desolate, warning me to secure a timely shelter for the night. Nearly two miles below Point Elsinborough the high reeds were divided by a little creek, into which I ran my canoe, for upon the muddy bank could be seen a deserted, doorless fish-cabin, into which I moved my blankets and provisions, after cutting with my pocket-knife an ample supply of dry reeds for a bed. Drift-wood, which a friendly tide had deposited around the shanty, furnished the material for my fire, which lighted up the dismal hovel most cheerfully. And thus I kept house in a comfortable manner till morning, being well satisfied with the progress I had made that day in traversing the shores of three states. The booming of the guns of wild-fowl shooters out upon the water roused me before dawn, and I had ample time before the sun arose to prepare breakfast from the remnant of canned ox-tail soup left over from last night's supper.
I was now in Delaware Bay, which was assuming noble proportions. From my camp I crossed to the west shore below Reedy Island, and, filling my water-bottles at a farm-house, kept upon that shore all day. The wind arose, stirring up a rough sea as I approached Bombay Hook, where the bay is eight miles wide. I tried to land upon the salt marshes, over the edges of which the long, low seas were breaking, but failed in several attempts. At last roller after roller, following in quick succession, carried the little craft on their crests to the land, and packed her in a thicket of high reeds.
I quickly disembarked, believing it useless to attempt to go further that day. About an eighth of a mile from the water, rising out of the salt grass and reeds, was a little mound, covered by trees and bushes, into which I conveyed my cargo by the back-load, and then easily drew the light canoe over the level marsh to the camp. A bed of reeds was soon cut, into which the canoe was settled to prevent her from being strained by the occupant at night, for I was determined to test the strength of the boat as sleeping-quarters. Canoes built for one person are generally too light for such occupancy when out of water. The tall fringe of reeds which encircled the boat formed an excellent substitute for chamber walls, giving me all the starry blue heavens for a ceiling, and most effectually screening me from the strong wind which was blowing. As it was early when the boat was driven ashore I had time to wander down to the brook, which was a mile distant, and replenish my scanty stock of water.
With the canvas deck-cover and rubber blanket to keep off the heavy dews, the first night passed in such contracted lodgings was endurable, if not wholly convenient and agreeable. The river mists were not dispelled the next day until nine o'clock, when I quitted my warm nest in the reeds and rowed down the bay, which seemed to grow broader as I advanced. The bay was still bordered by extensive marshes, with here and there the habitation of man located upon some slight elevation of the surface. Having rowed twenty-six miles, and being off the mouth of Murderkill Creek, a squall struck the canoe and forced it on to an oyster reef, upon the sharp shells of which she was rocked for several minutes by the shallow breakers. Fearing that the paper shell was badly cut, though it was still early in the afternoon, I ascended the creek of ominous name and associations to the landing of an inn kept by Jacob Lavey, where I expected to overhaul my injured craft. To my surprise and great relief of mind there were found only a few superficial scratches upon the horn-like shellacked surface of the paper shell. To apply shellac with a heated iron to the wounds made by the oyster-shells was the work of a few minutes, and my craft was as sound as ever. The gunner's resort, "Bower's Beach Hotel," furnished an excellent supper of oyster fritters, panfish, and fried pork-scrapple. Mine host, before a blazing wood fire, told me of the origin of the name of Murderkill Creek.
"In the early settlement of the country," began the innkeeper, "the white settlers did all they could to civilize the Indians, but the cussed savages wouldn't take to it kindly, but worried the life out of the new-comers. At last a great landed proprietor, who held a big grant of land in these parts, thought he'd settle the troubles. So he planted a brass cannon near the creek, and invited all the Indians of the neighborhood to come and hear the white man's Great Spirit talk. The crafty man got the savages before the mouth of the cannon, and said, 'Now look into the hole there, for it is the mouth of the white man's Great Spirit, which will soon speak in tones of thunder.' The fellow then touched off the gun, and knocked half the devils into splinters. The others were so skeerd at the big voice they had heard that they were afraid to move, and were soon all killed by one charge after another from the cannon: so the creek has been called Murderkill ever since."
I afterwards discovered that there were other places on the coast which had the same legend as the one told me by the innkeeper. Holders of small farms lived in the vicinity of this tavern, but the post-office was at Frederica, five miles inland. Embarking the next day, I felt sure of ending my cruise on Delaware Bay before night, as the quiet morning exhibited no signs of rising winds. The little pilot town of Lewes, near Cape Delaware, and behind the Breakwater, is a port of refuge for storm-bound vessels. From this village I expected to make a portage of six miles to Love Creek, a tributary of Rehoboth Sound. The frosty nights were now exerting a sanitary influence over the malarial districts which I had entered, and the unacclimated canoeist of northern birth could safely pursue his journey, and sleep at night in the swamps along the fresh-water streams if protected from the dews by a rubber or canvas covering. My hopes of reaching the open sea that night were to be drowned, and in cold water too; for that day, which opened so calmly and with such smiling promises, was destined to prove a season of trial, and before its evening shadows closed around me, to witness a severe struggle for life in the cold waters of Delaware Bay.
An hour after leaving Murderkill Creek the wind came from the north in strong squalls. My little boat taking the blasts on her quarter, kept herself free of the swashy seas hour after hour. I kept as close to the sandy beach of the great marshes as possible, so as to be near the land in case an accident should happen. Mispillion Creek and a light-house on the north of its mouth were passed, when the wind and seas struck my boat on the port beam, and continually crowded her ashore. The water breaking on the hard, sandy beach of the marshy coast made it too much of a risk to attempt a landing, as the canoe would be smothered in the swashy seas if her head way was checked for a moment. Amidships the canoe was only a few inches out of water, but her great sheer, full bow, and smoothness of hull, with watchful management, kept her from swamping. I had struggled along for fourteen miles since morning, and was fatigued by the strain consequent upon the continued manoeuvring of my boat through the rough waves. I reached a point on Slaughter Beach, where the bay has a width of nearly nineteen miles, when the tempest rose to such a pitch that the great raging seas threatened every moment to wash over my canoe, and to force me by their violence close into the beach. To my alarm, as the boat rose and fell upon the waves, the heads of sharp-pointed stakes appeared and disappeared in the broken waters. They were the stakes of fishermen to which they attach their nets in the season of trout-fishing. The danger of being impaled on one of these forced me off shore again.
There was no undertow; the seas being driven over shoals were irregular and broken. At last my sea came. It rolled up without a crest, square and formidable. I could not calculate where it would break, but I pulled for life away from it towards the beach upon which the sea was breaking with deafening sound. It was only for a moment that I beheld the great brown wave, which bore with it the mud of the shoal, bearing down upon me; for the next, it broke astern, sweeping completely over the canoe from stern to stem, filling it through the opening of the canvas round my body. Then for a while the watery area was almost smooth, so completely had the great wave levelled it. The canoe being water-logged, settled below the surface, the high points of the ends occasionally emerging from the water. Other heavy seas followed the first, one of which striking me as high as my head and shoulders, turned both the canoe and canoeist upside-down.
Kicking myself free of the canvas deck, I struck out from under the shell, and quickly rose to the surface. It was then that the words of an author of a European Canoe Manual came to my mind: "When you capsize, first right the canoe and get astride it over one end, keeping your legs in the water; when you have crawled to the well or cockpit, bale out the boat with your hat." Comforting as these instructions from an experienced canoe traveller seemed when reading them in my hermitage ashore, the present application of them (so important a principle in Captain Jack Bunsby's log of life) was in this emergency an impossibility; for my hat had disappeared with the seat-cushion and one iron outrigger, while the oars were floating to leeward with the canoe.
The boat having turned keel up, her great sheer would have righted her had it not been for the cargo, which settled itself on the canvas deck-cloth, and ballasted the craft in that position. So smooth were her polished sides that it was impossible to hold on to her, for she rolled about like a slippery porpoise in a tideway. having tested and proved futile the kind suggestions of writers on marine disasters, and feeling very stiff in the icy water, I struck out in an almost exhausted condition for the shore. Now a new experience taught me an interesting lesson. The seas rolled over my head and shoulders in such rapid succession, that I found I could not get my head above water to breathe, while the sharp sand kept in suspension by the agitated water scratched my face, and filled my eyes, nostrils, and ears. While I felt this pressing down and burying tendency of the seas, as they broke upon my head and shoulders, I understood the reason why so many good swimmers are drowned in attempting to reach the shore from a wreck on a shoal, when the wind, though blowing heavily, is in the victim's favor. The land was not over an eighth of a mile away, and from it came the sullen roar of the breakers, pounding their heavy weight upon the sandy shingle. As its booming thunders or its angry, swashing sound increased, I knew I was rapidly nearing it, but, blinded by the boiling waters, I could see nothing.
At such a moment do not stop to make vows as to how you will treat your neighbor in future if once safely landed, but strike out, fight as you never fought before, swallowing as little water as possible, and never relaxing an energy or yielding a hope. The water shoaled; my feet felt the bottom, and I stood up, but a roller laid me flat on my face. Up again and down again, swimming and crawling, I emerged from the sea, bearing, I fear, a closer resemblance to Jonah (being at last pitched on shore) than to Cabnel's Venus, who was borne gracefully upon the rosy crests of the sky-reflecting waves to the soft bed of sparkling foam awaiting her.
Wearily dragging myself up the hard shingle, I stood and contemplated the little streams of water pouring from my woollen clothes. A new danger awaited me as the cold wind whistled down the barren beach and across the desolate marshes. I danced about to keep warm, and for a moment thought that my canoe voyage had come to an unfortunate termination. Then a buoyant feeling succeeded the moment's depression, and I felt that this was only the first of many trials which were necessary to prepare me for the successful completion of my undertaking. But where was the canoe, with its provisions that were to sustain me, and the charts which were to point out my way through the labyrinth of waters she was yet to traverse? She had drifted near the shore, but would not land. There was no time to consider the propriety of again entering the water. The struggle was a short though severe one, and I dragged my boat ashore.
Everything was wet excepting what was most needed, -- a flannel suit, carefully rolled in a water-proof cloth. I knew that I must change my wet clothes for dry ones, or perish. This was no easy task to perform, with hands benumbed and limbs paralyzed with the cold. O shade of Benjamin Franklin, did not one of thy kinsmen, in his wide experience as a traveller, foresee this very disaster, and did he not, when I left the "City of Brotherly Love," force upon me an antidote, a sort of spiritual fire, which my New England temperance principles made me refuse to accept? "It is old, very old," he whispered, as he slipped the flask into my coat- pocket, "and it may save your life. Don't be foolish. I have kept it well bottled. It is a pure article, and cost sixteen dollars per gallon. I use it only for medicine." I found the flask; the water had not injured it. A small quantity was taken, when a most favorable change came over my entire system, mental as well as physical, and I was able to throw off one suit and put on another in the icy wind, that might, without the stimulant, have ended my voyage of life.
I had doctored myself homoeopathically under the old practice. Filled with feelings of gratitude to the Great Giver of good, I reflected, as I carried my wet cargo into the marsh, upon the wonderful effects of my friend's medicine when taken only as medicine. Standing upon the cold beach and gazing into the sea, now lashed by the wild frenzy of the wind, I determined never again to do so mean a thing as to say a word against good brandy.
Having relieved my conscience by this just resolve, I transported the whole of my wet but still precious cargo to a persimmon grove, on a spot of firm land that rose out of the marsh, where I made a convenient wind-break by stretching rubber blankets between trees. On this knoll I built a fire, obtaining the matches to kindle it from a water-proof safe presented to me by Mr. Epes Sargent, of Boston, some years before, when I was ascending the St. Johns River, Florida.
Before dusk, all things not spoiled by the water were dried and secreted in the tall sedge of the marshes. The elevation which had given me friendly shelter is known as "Hog Island." The few persimmon-trees that grew upon it furnished an ample lunch, for the frosts had mellowed the plum-like fruit, making it sweet and edible. The persimmon (Diospyrus Virginiana) is a small tree usually found in the middle and southern states. Coons and other animals feast upon its fruit. The deepening gloom warned me to seek comfortable quarters for the night.
Two miles up the strand was an old gunners' inn, to which I bent my steps along Slaughter Beach, praying that one more day's effort would take me out of this bleak region of ominous names. A pleasant old gentleman, Mr. Charles Todd, kept the tavern, known as Willow Grove Hotel, more for amusement than for profit. I said nothing to him about the peculiar manner in which I had landed on Slaughter Beach; but to his inquiry as to where my boat was, and what kind of a boat it was to live in such a blow, I replied that I found it too wet and cold on the bay to remain there, and too rough to proceed to Cape Henlopen, and there being no alternative, I was obliged to land much against my inclination, and in doing so was drenched to the skin, but had managed to get dry before a fire in the marshes. So the kind old man piled small logs in the great kitchen fireplace, and told me tale upon tale of his life as a schoolmaster out west; of the death of his wife there, and of his desire to return, after long years of absence, to his native Delaware, where he could be comfortable, and have all the clams, oysters, fish, and bay truck generally that a man could wish for.
"Now," he added, "I shall spend my last days here in peace." He furnished an excellent supper of weak-fish or sea trout (Otolithus regalio), fried oysters, sweet potatoes, &c.
This locality offers a place of retirement for men of small means and limited ambition. The broad bay is a good sailing and fishing ground, while the great marshes are the resort of many birds. The light, warm soil responds generously to little cultivation. After a day of hunting and fishing, the new-comer can smoke his pipe in peace, to the music of crackling flames in the wide old fireplace. Here he may be comfortable, and spend his last days quietly vegetating, with no criticisms on his deterioration, knowing that he is running to seed no faster than his neighbors.
The wind had gone to rest with the sun, and the sharp frost that followed left its congealed breath upon the shallow pools of water nearly half an inch in thickness by morning. From my bed I could see through the window the bright flashes from Cape May and Cape Henlopen lights. Had not misfortune beset me, a four-hours' pull would have landed me at Lewes. There was much to be thankful for, however. Through a merciful Providence it was my privilege to enjoy a soft bed at the Willow Grove Inn, and not a cold one on the sands of Slaughter Beach. So ended my last day on Delaware Bay.