These Pinelands explorers may be paddling their kayaks through your next glass of water

Genevieve Leet, left, and Maggie McCann, right. Brian Parker (unseen) holds up a glass of water taken from a spring. The Upstream Alliance environmental nonprofit led a group of 28 kayakers on a three-day, 40-mile journey from the New Jersey Pinelands to Philadelphia's Independence Seaport Museum April 20-22, 2018, to demonstrate one of the sources of the city's drinking water.

Genevieve Leet stooped over a spring at the edge of a lake deep within New Jersey’s Pinelands on Friday morning.

She pumped water up through a filter and it ran into a clear glass jug.

Leet took a sip. “It’s kind of sweet,” she noted.

That same water might be making its way through your tap right now.

Few Philadelphians might realize that the Pinelands feed clean water to the Delaware River by way of the Rancocas Creek.  So Don Baugh of the Upstream Alliance, a nonprofit that seeks to connect people to nature, organized a trip this weekend to show just that.  He led Leet and 26 others on a 40-mile, three-day kayak expedition to trace Philadelphia’s drinking water to one of its purest sources.

The trip started in Brendan Byrne State Forest near historic Whitesbog Village in Pemberton Township.  The kayakers paddled at the edge of the Pine Barrens through a series of lakes made by cranberry bog dams.

Camera icon Frank Kummer
Don Baugh of the Upstream Alliance environmental nonprofit led a group of 28 kayakers on a three-day, 40-mile journey from the New Jersey Pinelands to Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum to demonstrate one of the sources of the city’s drinking water. Baugh is seen here talking to the group on a beach on a Pinelands lake.

“One of our missions is to reconnect people to the waterways,” said Baugh, who coordinated the trip with other environmental groups. “The impetus is to celebrate the fact that the Delaware is clean enough that we can recreate on it now. But people haven’t connected to it. People have thought about it as a negative. We want to change that.”

Baugh began planning the trip six months ago after meeting with representatives of the William Penn Foundation. During the meeting, someone mentioned that the Rancocas Creek flows into the Delaware River Watershed.

“I hadn’t thought of that before,” said Baugh.  “I thought this was a great way to show how these two major ecosystems – the Pine Barrens and the Delaware – are connected.”

So he reached out to Rancocas Pathways, a 4-year-old nonprofit comprised of citizens concerned about the future of Rancocas Creek.  The Rancocas has multiple sources, including springs that bubble up from the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer.  After water flows out of the aquifer it picks up minerals and tannins from Atlantic white cedar forests, producing tea-colored water.  The ground is so high in iron that colonists extracted it to produce munitions for the Revolutionary War.

Settlements in the area vanished when better sources of iron were found in Pennsylvania.  The area became known as the Pine Barrens, a large wild area eventually preserved through the Pinelands National Reserve in 1978.

Jeff Rosalsky, executive director of the Pocono Environmental Education Center, who was on the trip, noted the journey the water from the spring would take.

“In 48 hours, this water will come out of a tap in Philadelphia,” Rosalsky said.

The Delaware River’s massive watershed provides drinking water for more than 15 million people in four states.  The river has many sources including headwaters in the Catskills and Poconos. But the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer that feeds the Rancocas Creek is a prime source.

Of course, Baugh noted that the chemistry of the water coming out of the spring will change dramatically by the time it gets sucked into a Philadelphia drinking-water treatment plant.  But, for now, he told them, it was pure as possible.

“This is clear water,” he said. “They need this for the cranberries.”

On Friday, Baugh’s group paddled past quiet pitch pine forests, rimmed by narrow, white roads used in cranberry farming.  They stepped lightly through the swampy ground under a darkened canopy of Atlantic white cedar. Some said they felt as if they were trespassing in a spiritual place.

Camera icon Frank Kummer
A kayak passes through a narrow pass under a concrete bridge.

The group camped Friday night at Iron Works Park in Mount Holly, where the tidal part of Rancocas Creek begins.

They planned to paddle Saturday up Rancocas Creek to the Delaware River and camp at Hawk Island Marina in Delanco, Burlington County.  Once on the Delaware River, they’ll pass the Philadelphia Water Department’s Baxter treatment plant in Torresdale, which supplies 60 percent of the city with drinking water.

On Sunday – Earth Day – the group will paddle down the Delaware through the heavily urbanized and industrialized waterfronts of Camden and Philadelphia, complete with active marine terminals, to Independence Seaport Museum on Columbus Boulevard at Penn’s Landing.