DE - Three Forts - 2009/06/27 - 7.5 miles

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A short paddle across the Delaware River visits three forts - Fort DuPont, Fort Delaware and Fort Mott.

As this is primarily a site about the Chesapeake Bay, I want to start by giving a few cautions about our next door neighbor, Delaware Bay. Unlike the Chesapeake where the tidal range does not exceed three feet and there are very few places where the tidal current exceeds one knot, the Delaware is a different animal. With its funnel like shape and wide mouth open to the Atlantic, the Delaware sports a six to eight foot tidal range and currents that frequently exceed two and a half knots. The leaning buoy in the picture to the left is showing about a knot and a half at the beginning of the flood at the end of my trip. At the start it was leaning equally far to the south with the ebb current. I encountered some difficulty rounding the southern end of Pea Patch Island due to the three knot current forced around the end of the island. During the crossing from Delaware City over to Fort Mott and then back again I had to maintain a 30% ferry angle. So if you are going to paddle over here, be sure you are aware and competent in your ability to handle large tidal ranges and significant currents.

Also of concern in the Delaware is the presence of numerous large ship traffic. During my 5 miles of paddling across the Delaware and back this day, I had to deal with 3 tug and barge rigs and two large tanker ships. If you are unfamiliar with the speed and size of these giants never pass in front of them. They are deceptively fast and will be on you much more quickly than you might imagine. Pass in back of them unless you are very very sure that you will easily cross in front of them.

I began the trip in Delaware City just north of the Delaware end of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. On the south end of town is Fort DuPont, a Union fortress from Civil War time (1859), built to protect Wilmington and Philadelphia. On the north end of the nearly abandoned grounds is a three ramp launch facility with a very large parking lot. The ramp charges a fee for motorboats, but I think hand launches are free. The tide was nearing low as I launched the kayak on the muddy concrete ramp and paddled the short distance out of the canal to the Delaware river. Just a little less than a mile away was Pea Patch Island with Fort Delaware on the southern shore. The tide was still ebbing with a one knot current so I set a ferry angle for the northern end of the island and arrived at about the middle of the island.

Pea Patch is an important wading bird nesting area, one of the largest on the East Coast. This is immediately evident as large numbers of egrets, some ibis and many many blue herons can be found wading in the shallow sandy bottomed waters or moving up and down the shoreline. On the eastern side of the island, squawks from the trees along the shore indicate the presence of a successful rookery. I saw a couple of ibis and several different types of herons. No one is allowed onshore. Just send in your tax dollars and stay away.

A bald eagle apparently had a nest in the trees also as it kept making circles out over the water around my kayak and then back to the tree line. I moved further out from the shore to keep from alarming any others.

As I headed south down the shore several tug and barge rigs came up the river. I waited for the last to pass before heading across the rest of the river toward the green embankment of Fort Mott not much more than another mile away.

I landed on the beach south of the pier and pulled the kayak up to the high tide mark. I sat on a log and ate the cereal bar that was to be my lunch. With the warm temperatures I was glad to have a full quart of water with me. Soon after sitting, the biting flies found me and I started walking along the shore toward the ferry pier. That led to a walkway along the shore in front of the earthworks. Now I was on some signed trail through the fort.

I followed the trail to the interesting brass roofed, brass doored brick building that served as the powder magazine for the facility. At 280 pounds of powder per shot they needed a lot to fire the ten and twelve inch guns that were installed here in 1906 after the early fortifications of the 1870's were reworked. A rail system carried the heavy munitions to the individual gun emplacements. There overhead rails moved the item to a crane system that then elevated the rounds to the breech of the large guns. Other emplacements had an electric or hand driven elevator to move the powder from the internal storage rooms to the gun deck. The guns and magazines were protected by a block of concrete 23 feet thick with another thirty feet of earth works in front of that.

From the front the fort looks like a simple grass covered hill. At the back however all the machinery and construction is apparent. The guns were aimed by observation from two large steel towers at the two widely separated ends of the firing line. Manual observations of the target was relayed from the towers to a central calculation room that would take the bearing from the two known points, calculate a range and bearing, corrected for speed and direction of the target, time delay of the observations and calculations, meteorological influences and then direct the aiming of the guns from a central targeting room at the back of the facility. All communication was by local phone system.

The current facility is plagued by dampness with water seeping from the concrete ceilings and puddling on the crumbling floor. Moisture and explosive powder do not mix well. Much of the design of the construction was to combat the moisture problem right from the initial design, but as one of the very first large construction project with concrete it was not successful as the puddles on the floor clear and succinctly demonstrate. So much concrete was used here that a concrete plant was built near the fort just for its construction. There is no entrance fee for visiting this fort.

I got back in the kayak and paddled back across the river, passing in front of a very large oil tanker. I hesitated for about five minutes before crossing in front of the tanker, judging its speed. It seemed to be going quite slow but I knew that its size made its speed deceptive. I decided to go for it and paddled briskly across. Even though it was not close it was still disconcerting to see the huge ship headed directly at the kayak wondering whether the pilot could even see me and whether he could maneuver even if it did in the unmarked channel that he was following. Without channel markers I was not at all sure where the deep water was that would determine the limits of his options. The only marker was right against the shore of Pea Patch Island.

I fought the stiff current now flooding up the river as it hit the southern edge of the island and was forced around the southeast corner. That current might explain why the river was deep so close to the shore. The three knot current eddy washed along the rock protecting the shoreline. I rode it up to the stark line where the small waves generated from the north wind tumbled at the point where the speed of their energy could no longer proceed against the current. I broke through the jumbled waves into the smooth but still flowing river on the other side. I rounded the island and landed on the small beach on the downstream side of the ferry dock. I got out and stepped up onto the dock after the last load of passengers from the ferry got into the jitney that carried them to the fort. I was walking up the road toward the fort when an employee returned in a golf cart and told me I was not allowed on the island, only passengers of the ferry who had paid an entrance fee. Pay your taxes and pay a fee or go away. Good to be a citizen isn't it? Hence the only picture of this fort is from the water.

I returned back to the Fort DuPont ramp and pulled the kayak up among the jet skis and motorboats being launched from the facility. At least when you register a boat in Delaware you get ramp privileges. In Maryland you get diddly. Just pay your license fee for the boat then pay again whenever you use a ramp. I guess it won't be long before the EPA declares farting a global warming gas, like breathing out the "pollutant" CO2, and you will need a license for both of those. Cap and trade my ass.




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