Five two-seater boats were rowed in the Delaware River from a temporary pontoon dock just before noon Wednesday. It was the start of a six-day exploration of the nearby Cooper River, a permanent natural wonder amidst a densely populated area near Camden Town.
Organizers said the goal was to find the source of the river, 16 miles upstream. The river meanders through 17 communities before emptying into the Delaware River.
“When you get upstream, particularly outside of (New Jersey) Turnpike and (Highway) 295, there is very little public access to it,” said Don Bow, president of the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Upstream Alliance that sponsored the trip. “The opportunity is to show what is hidden behind people’s backyards. For four days we’ll kayak, and two days we’ll hike. We’re going through places that haven’t been hiked before 300 or 400 years ago.”
The Cooper River Valley was settled in the late 17th century and named after a family who owned large tracts of land in what is now Camden Town and Camden County. The waterway, which flows through streams, streams, ponds, and a lake, includes some of the most densely populated parts of South Jersey, an area of over 500,000 people. The waterway was made up of 40% raw sewage before the clean water laws were enacted.
Despite the area’s rich colonial history, the source of the river has never been accurately determined, said Dan Keshen, a county spokesman. A Google map of the area shows that the river begins in an elevated area near Blueberry Hill in Gibbsboro, Camden County. Keshin said Baugh’s trip may help provide additional answers.
At least three other boaters and 15 explorers are expected to join the Baugh at the start of the trip Wednesday, including four local students and an Atlanta wildlife photographer who was published in National Geographic.
Jermaine Brown, 17, a student at the Urban Promise Academy in Camden, said he’s excited about adventure, even though he can’t swim.
“My mother thought I was crazy,” Brown said with a smile. “But when she came here and realized it was going to be fun. She has high hopes for me, so that’s okay. It’s really good.”
Brown said he actually works as a summer river guide who takes inner-city kids in a kayak at Copper River Park, a portion of the river that is actually a lake created by a dam that controls the water level. The park is also a favorite destination for school and college rowing competitions.
Two other students, Jacel Santos from Camden and Andrew Coleman from Haddonfield, were part of the expedition.
Anand Varma, the wildlife photographer who shot National Geographic, was also part of the group.
“The major that I focus on at National Geographic really reveals the unexpected and underappreciated diversity of our world,” Varma said. “Sometimes it takes me to the Amazon or the Arctic, but what initially inspired me was the biodiversity of my backyard in suburban Atlanta, exploring the streams behind my house and school.
“It’s kind of peeling back the layers, getting past the concrete and the trash and the mud, and if you learn to look with the right eyes, this place is as beautiful as any other.”
The group plans to travel several miles a day on the river and then camp in tents at an ecological reserve on Cherry Hill each night. The last leg of the trip is expected to be overland, cutting through the hinterland near the source of the river.
An independent film crew is also documenting the trip and hopes to make a movie for public television. The American Water Charity and the New Jersey American Water Utilities Corporation have donated $40,000 to the Upstream Alliance to support the Cooper River Cruise Search and Film campaign.
“The purpose of this expedition goes deeper than just finding the source of a river, it was meant to serve as an opportunity for healing for communities in Camden who have historically been denied access to these special waterways, recreational opportunities, and to create inclusive environmental justice,” the commissioner said. Camden County Al Dyer in a statement. “We are delighted that these local youth are able to connect with the natural beauty that this county has to offer.”
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