Rancocas Creek promoter envisions water trail

JRIORDAN11
John Anderson of Westampton, a fan of Rancocas Creek, paddles his kayak in the creek in Mount Holly near Mill Dam Park. “All you hear is nature,” he said. “It’s hypnotic. It’s an escape from everything around us.” (CURT HUDSON / For The Inquirer)

John Anderson hopes to help more people fall in love with the Rancocas Creek.

"You paddle into a semi-wilderness . . . and you can't see houses, you can't hear anything," says the Westampton resident, 53. "All you hear is nature. It's hypnotic. It's an escape from everything around us."

Anderson, who regularly plies his red Pyranha Mountain 300 kayak along the storied Rancocas, is championing an excellent idea: Creating a "water trail" to encourage more people to kayak, canoe, or hike along tidal portions of the creek.

While similar concepts have been floated for years, lately the notion of a water trail has been getting fresh attention - and not only on the Westampton Chalk-Board and Anderson's many other websites and blogs.

"John is very enthusiastic," says Sherry Peck, a community planner in the Northeastern office of the National Park Service, in Philadelphia. "He contacted us, and we said we would be available to look at the site. We also suggested he form a steering committee and consider applying for technical assistance."

"We're in the process of doing that," says Anderson.

His water trail concept also has attracted the interest of the New Jersey State Park Service. And the Burlington County park system is interested as well; the county has long envisioned a downstream extension of its canoe trail between Pemberton Township and Mount Holly, where the tide ends.

To be able to canoe all the way to the Delaware would be "outstanding," says parks Superintendent John H. Smith. "This trail idea just might work," adds C. Andre Daniels, a Westampton Township committeeman, who calls the Rancocas a "best-kept secret."

In February, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection awarded Mount Holly a $15,000 grant to develop a public-access plan for the creek; the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is expected to do the work.

"For all of the towns on the creek and the different [tributaries], the ability to traverse the waterway would be phenomenal," Mount Holly Mayor Richard DiFolco says.

Anderson notes that existing overlooks, landings, and historic sites in the many parks and other public lands along the creek could be promoted online and with signs, parking, and other amenities.

"There was a canoe rental place, but it closed. It would be great to have something like that back," says Randi Rothmel, chair of Mount Holly's environmental advisory committee.

"The creek is a treasure," she says. "Being on the water gives you a totally difference perspective. . . . There's so much natural beauty and wildlife."

From the 17th century until the early 20th, the creek carried commercial traffic. It also contained raw sewage, the likely source of an 1887 typhoid epidemic.

But Anderson notes that the creek hasn't received untreated sewage for decades. And the plump, apparently happy, harbor seal spotted in the creek last month near Willingboro is not the only creature finding the Rancocas more hospitable these days.

"I've seen a pair of eagles. There are beavers. There are more fish, and less trash," says Ray Storck, whose home in Hainesport's Rancocas Heights section overlooks the water. "The creek is coming back."

It certainly looks that way. Anderson, who talks fast and walks faster - despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988 - leads me through the woods and down to a couple of potential stops on the water trail.

"This is the Westampton backwater. Over there is Grubb's Run," he says, standing amid lush foliage as dark-brown water ripples merrily past our feet.

The tide is going out; the sun shimmers through the trees; the birds (and the bugs) make the only sounds.

It's wonderful.

"They used to say the Rancocas had therapeutic properties," Anderson says. "I kind of agree with that.

"People have to see it to understand how important it is," he adds. "They have to see it. They have to touch it and feel it."

And if the water trail becomes a reality, more people will get a chance to fall in love with the beautiful Rancocas.


kriordan@phillynews.com

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