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By Sandy Long

TRR photo by Sandy Long
Entering Hialeah Picnic Grove through its alley of Norway spruce and Eastern white pine trees. (Click for larger image)
‘Exploring Delaware Water Gap History’: a mobile review

DELAWARE WATER GAP — Reviewing books is essentially a sedentary activity. One rests, reads, reckons and writes. So it was with considerable interest that I anticipated the arrival of a book that promised more than an armchair adventure. “Exploring Delaware Water Gap History: A Field Guide to the Historic Structures and Cultural Landscapes of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area,” compiled by Susan Kopczynski and edited by William Dohe, is a delightful publication crafted in the form of a self-guided auto tour.

The tour begins at Kittatinny Point Visitor Center in NJ and follows Old Mine Road north along the Delaware River, then crosses the river near Milford, PA and follows Route 209, River Road and Route 611 south, a total of about 90 miles with 84 stops. It is a comprehensive look at the historic structures chronicling the history of the Delaware River Valley.

“Exploring” provides a solid introduction to its subject without overwhelming the reader with information. One learns just enough about the geology of the Water Gap, its wetlands and wildlife, its earliest inhabitants, its evolving industries and current state of affairs. The tour itself delivers the rest, a substantial amount of detail, history and lore, allowing the learning to come to life through real experience, through adventure and discovery. And thus, this review on wheels got rolling.

The best adventures–and the best books–have this in common: one learns something from them, one’s perspective is freshened and one experiences a pleasing sense of delight. So it was with this petite publication and its charted course. Early in the book, one is advised to allow at least four hours of driving time for the complete tour, with additional time for picnicking, hiking or browsing at shops. Based upon my experience, one could easily make a weekend of it. My companion and I spent four hours visiting sites 58 through 84. We could easily have lingered longer, but with the sun setting at 5:30, we found it necessary to keep moving. Along the way, very little activity was going on, even in the towns. Although we enjoyed being free to explore at our own pace, if you prefer the energy of the tourist season, plan your trip for the summer months or early fall.

The tone of our tour was golden: withered corn stalks at the road’s edge, wind soughing through the mellow grasses, sharp sunlight slicing the bare deciduous trees. Driving from site to site, following explicit directions that even include information about parking, it is easy to forget that the Delaware River, or one of its “braided” branches, is always nearby. The book occasionally weaves in tidbits of information about the flora and fauna along the route, noting Eastern red cedars “planted” by birds that consumed the tree’s berries, and explaining why the soil has a reddish hue. I found these nuggets of knowledge to be interesting and would have liked to see more.

Each stop is illustrated with a clear photo or painting of the site described. Below the images, dates, details and historically relevant notes provide the fodder for a positive educational encounter. As we explored buildings and graveyards, limekilns and springhouses, it was easy to imagine lives passing in these places. Here, people had gathered for church picnics and quilting bees; there, an old farmstead lay in ruins, the grand house completely gone, its outbuildings crumbled in heaps of stone.

Aesthetically, “Exploring” is exceptionally appealing. Like most field guides, it is compact and can be easily held in one hand. The metal spiral binding makes the book a pleasure to use. But it is also beautiful, boasting a heavy card stock cover and textured creamy pages within. The sepia-toned ink lends the photos and paintings an enhanced sense of age. There is even ample space where one can jot notes along the journey. I would have liked to learn that the book was printed on recycled papers, but could find no evidence of this.

Beyond the book’s appearance is its promise. If one takes the tour to heart, opening mind and senses to the experience, wonderful things can happen. On the back wall of a building displaying the stonework of John L. Snyder, I discovered a burst of skunk cabbage poking from between the stones, doing its best to gradually undo human endeavor. In the old Dingman School, now the Pennsylvania District Ranger Office, I could almost hear small feet pattering across the wooden floors. And throughout the Hialeah Picnic Area, where tables and trash receptacles have replaced what used to be vacation cottages, exotic specimens of Japanese maple and yew provide living testimony to human presence.

A path leading away from the picnic grove provided a stunning view of the Delaware River at sunset. The water’s surface, reflecting the metallic sky, lay framed in the arms of the darkening trees. I stood listening to the liquid ribbon, just one more person passing through, picking up a sense of this place. Back at the car, a field of mummified sunflowers stood sentinel, swaying ever so slightly as I lifted the book from the dashboard.

Who will enjoy such a book? History buffs, poets, lovers of architecture, families looking for an enjoyable learning experience, anyone with a sense of adventure and an interest in how the past has determined the present. Copies of this publication are available for purchase from the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, National Park Service, Bushkill, PA, 18324, and at Delaware Water Gap visitor centers located at Kittatiny Point, NJ and in the village of Bushkill, PA.

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